Flashbulb Flashback: Let The Artists Laugh / Sonic Youth @ Waterloo // 7.31.02

It was truly the stuff of legends. As the word came down from the man, Waterloo’s owner John Kunz, that Sonic Youth would indeed be performing a rare in-store. Employees got silly and the buzz grew. All we knew was they had requested tennis balls, duct tape and two cases of moon pies. What more could you need, one of the greatest bands of all time mysteriously requesting apparent props but disclosing nothing. When the day came more rumor ran rampant, such as the only reason they were doing the in-store was because they had gotten the record company to support a shopping spree and they were out to spend as much of the label’s money as possible (each member rented their own car to drive to the performance). And a performance we got, as I walked in I realized there was no predicting what would happen, the stage was covered with amps and guitars, but most interestingly there was a guitar duct-taped to the back wall of the store (to one of the office windows) and all the way across the store from that was a tennis racket and several containers of balls.

The store was well over capacity, full of all levels of indie kids and some just curious. Finally we heard an old school bike horn squawking and Steve Shelley beating a drum like a vaudeville act was entering. The room went wild as the band single-filed onto the small stage.

Thurston bent down to the mike, “Thank you we’re the Flaming Lips!!” I recalled his coming the night before with Shelley and O’Rourke talking about how they felt the new Lips album went across but not out further. “We are going to perform five new compositions that we came up with on the drive over here.” He spoke throughout as though he were out of breath and maybe more excited than you would expect Thurston Moore to be about anything. “And Lee is going to work on his serve over there, sort of surreptitiously.” He motioned to the set up with the tennis balls.

I. The first piece was a “duet” with Kim and Thurston both strapping guitars on, amps cranked, starting across the stage from one another they slowly walked towards each other until the instruments were touching and sparking feedback intensely. On one level, (CLAAANNG!!!), Lee connects with a serve and his amp rings out) it was a beautiful statement on the energies that emanate from people; on another, as Kim was giggling throughout, it was great artists having fun flirting with the line between absurdity and profundity.

II. Next, we find out just what the Moon Pies were for. Steve climbed up on Thurston’s shoulders with a guitar. The rest of the band got off the stage in the throng, (CLAAANGG!!! Lee goes up 30-Love) they lobbed the Moon Pies up at the guitar which Steve used to knock them away giving a resounding “CLAANNG!!” to retort to Lee’s “CLAANNG!!!” Occasionally, Thurston would take a Moon Pie in the face but he struggled on in the name of art.

III. Lee came away from his practice serves and got on stage with Jim and Thurston, setting up a small boom box Moore and Renaldo grabbed guitars. Once turned on, we heard the Rush song “Fly By Night” and O’Rourke lip-synched, as the song hit the chorus the other two, guitars plugged in, starting madly noising in accordance with the prog-rockers. This went on for the song’s entirety.

IV. Thurston explained that for the next piece each member would get a minute, exactly one minute, to make a song using only the end of the guitar chord. He started by placing the tip of the chord on his nipple (CLAANGG!!!, Lee couldn’t resist.) Steve put headphones on which were plugged into the boom box playing another classic rock anthem which only he could hear and played the tip of the chord along with the rhythm. Lee returned from practice to play a simple tune with his thumb off and on the tip. Which gave way to Jim O’Rourke’s selection of a kid from the audience (who in my books must be the coolest kid in his 3rd grade class) who played a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors and upon each delivery of the challenge Jim would press down on the chord placed behind his back. Finally Kim came up, and as she is women and wise, saying, “I think I’ll just plug it into a guitar.” So she did and played a noisy little ditty.

V. The final piece was a composition they had prepared for the night before while they were selecting records at the store. The records were taped in pairs together making little vinyl mitts, which Lee, Thurston, and Jim strapped to their hands after putting guitars on. Steve and Kim were instructed to play a song that the others would scratch and slap the records over the top of, it was noisy and chaotic but mostly a bunch of fun. The records would break apart and assistants would place new ones on the empty hands keeping things going, as the ideals of Resonance and Disintegration were played out in a most jovial fashion.

For the entirety of the performance people were calling out for them to play songs, people who thought this was just going to be another in-store, people who weren’t going to the show in two days. But the fact was there was a show in two days, and most of us had seen Sonic Youth play songs before but none of us had ever seen them be a little silly and make an open display, which seemed to comment on the nature of Art-Rock and art in general. But Thurston, in the end, acquiesced and performed solo renditions of the first two songs from Murray Street (The Empty Page, Disconnection Notice) with calm reserve. I was a little disappointed that he ended with songs but they did sound perfect and reminded us just how good these people are at what they do, going from absolute silliness to adroit playing.

The show two days later at Stubbs built on those ideals with the newly assembled quintet showing off more texture to play with. And as they went back to old favorites from Daydream Nation (Kissability, Eric’s Trip), everything was new with a new context and many times the songs disintegrated into the noise experimentation of the SYR records where they first started performing with O’Rourke. It was the most balanced Youth show I have ever seen, it was fertile with a newness found in the huge interplay between O’Rourke and Renaldo. Finally they physically coincided, slamming their guitars into each other as things fell apart and Thurston knelt on stage screaming, offering a lecture on the nature of technology and finally dropping the microphone to the stage with a punctuating “THUD!” There was noise, there was song, and it was all new; they left the crowd dizzy and numb forgetting where they had left the cars.

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