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Historical perspective helps Sonic Youth biography

Confusion is Next:

The Sonic Youth Story

By Alec Foege.

Foreword by Thurston Moore.

St. Martin's Press.

By John Jacobs
Staff Reporter

Alec Foege's Confusion is Next tells the story of the revolutionary yet consistently underappreciated band Sonic Youth. It's a story of underground hits and mainstream misses, of the struggle of the first band to clear a path from the underground out into the open, the path that Nirvana, with its acute pop sensibilities, rode in on to the top of the pop charts.

Sonic Youth, Foege argues, can only be appreciated by putting it into chronological perspective. And that's exactly what Confusion is Next does. The development of the band is traced over the musical influences of composer Glenn Branca; the No Wave (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, DNA, the Contortions) and postpunk movements (the Raincoats, Black Flag, Redd Kross); the ideological influences of non-rock artists such as Andy Warhol and John Cage; the graphic and pornographic influences of filmmakers Richard Kern and John Carpenter; and the lyrical influences of writers Phillip K. Dick and William Gibson. The band even claims to have been influenced by top-40 artists such as Madonna and Neil Young.

While the book does well to capture the aura of the '80s as a musically underground and cynical era ("Our culture is, like, death," said Moore in an April 1985 interview) overshadowed by Reaganomics and the Cold War, it does not reflect the influence, musical or other, that Sonic Youth has had on other artists. It's as if Sonic Youth was only important because they continued the tradition of Cage and Warhol in thinking that "there ought not to be a line dividing pop art and high art." They wrote "the manual" on artistic integrity in pop rock. But is that all?

True fans know that Sonic Youth embodies a practical ideology, useful even in our everyday lives, but there is no indication of that in this book. Basically, the book is technical. Thurston Moore's criticism of the book, in his introduction, says it all: "As a history, this book pretty much has all the facts and scenarios in order.... But where's the sadness and soul-searching, which, like anyone, we all experience? I can only say it's undercover, and it's in the music." There's no discussion of the band in even remotely musical terms, even in the chapter on rock critics.

The book portrays the band as an eclectic blend of pretension and frivolity (the band has written and recorded songs in one take), too pretentious to "repeat themselves" stylistically. This silly, self-important hangup arguably ruined their latest release, Experimental Jet Set Trash and No Star. They can repeat themselves without doing so, paradoxically, because they have never done so before, instead of deconstructing their cool rock styles into fragments of garbage.

All in all, the book captures the ups and downs of this extraordinary band, from their disaster-plagued recording of Confusion is Sex, to the commercial success of Dirty, Geffen's meddling of Goo, the critics' collective misunderstanding of Bad Moon Rising, and the critical acclaim of Daydream Nation.

It has cool Moore one-liners ("We're the new Beatles, but nobody knows it"), and cut-the-crap quotes and observations from rock industry insiders such as Don Fleming and Steve Albini. And the book recounts some interesting anecdotes from Sonic Youth's life in the rock culture.

While many sentences might frustrate the reader, because they have been minimalized into meaninglessness ("For Sonic Youth, too, the hardcore rumblings from less preening American ports pointed toward a self-affirming pragmatism alien to the pre-hardcore art-rock bands"), this book, thanks to its subject matter, can't help but be a good one.