Sister was always my favourite Sonic Youth album, probably because it was the first I heard. Nevertheless, you can make a good case for Daydream Nation and I saw them, supported by Mudhoney, while touring that album on March 20, 1989 at what was then called ‘Manchester University’. Nowadays, I have to be reading my e-mail at just the right time to see an announcement from Café Oto that the Thurston Moore band that night and to connect to the site just in time to buy the second to last ticket.
Lack of imagination meant I had to arrive 40 minutes before the doors opened, and I took to one of only two dry chairs beneath the awning, to carry on reading my Turgenev, behind the gaggle already queuing excitedly. The band finished their soundcheck meanwhile, and I tried to combine listening curiously with not listening, lest the artificial situation spoiled the music somehow. A fervent pair of men behind were eagerly sharing their musical ardour:
I ended up with three copies of Live at Battery Park.
My boss was explaining some complicated data query he wanted me to run, while I was in the middle of bidding for something.
They extolled the minutiae of the Death Valley ’69 single.
Putting away Fathers and Sons, to adopt proper English Queueing, I’m (as always) entertained by those people who keep walking up to the front, thinking that they have special knowledge and access and can just breeze in. I realised that I’m beginning to recognise some of the recurring characters of the London circuit, including a lady I’ve seen several times distributing flyers outside the Union Chapel.
The band quietly trooped off into Dalston at 8pm and we were greeted by one of the bar staff, who thanked us for waiting and let us know that there would only be limited seats. The proximity had overcome diffidence and people had started chatting.
The group that had been queueing ahead of me naturally took seats right in the middle, at the front. They reserved a seat and I sat down next to that one. When he did arrive, he didn’t (in my opinion) reach full social integration with the other two, often the fate of the late arrival.
We had a while to wait before it began, and it was too dark to resume reading my book, so I looked at the three sets of guitar pedals on the floor. I thought I saw a strange illumination on one of the related cables, until I realised it was an insect quickly crawling along. It’s hard to tell whether the insect survived the night.
My keen neighbours pumped the sound man for information, while he re-arranged microphones and leads. A lady in improbable heels walked around distributing tapes to a few people in the crowd. Important People, maybe.
The band appeared, first James, then Deb and finally Thurston, all re-plugging their pedals. They waited around for Steve Shelley, who did not hurry, and who, I’m glad to say, has the same insouciant bowl haircut I remember from the late eighties. Moore had a lectern for the fresh lyrics (“we’re a new band”). The first song, Forever Love (I could just about read Deb Googe’s set list), was driven by Thurston’s rhythmic drone, created by a sort of arrogantly casual picking style that ranged across the length of the guitar. Another was called Detonation, in honour we were told of the Stoke Newington Angry Brigade, and Anna Mendelssohn, a poet who was “inspirational during the writing of the album”. She used the name Grace Lake, and that was printed on James’ strap, while The Best Day (another song title) was printed on Deb’s. The swift retunings between each song were perhaps justified by the unusual eagerness of guitar abuse. I couldn’t help smiling at the gleeful gurning of Steve Shelley, who seemed to regard his kit as manic co-conspirators, and I liked the vigorous flourish with which Thurston stomped on his pedals.
They finished and suggested we take a break outside in the rain, with a drink. Before they returned, one of the staff told us that they’d essentially be playing the same songs again, because this was a warm-up for their European tour, so people should feel free to go outside. A few people did actually leave, and of course their seats were quickly taken. The nearest I’d had to this was a tale from a friend of seeing The Shamen in Edinburgh in 1991 or so, when they played their set and, when asked for more from the audience, said they could only play the same songs again because that’s all they had loaded in their sequencer…
I wasn’t sure what to think about this, but then I was delighted when they started again. It was a bit like when you rehearse afterwards in your mind the songs you’ve enjoyed, except they were doing it for you. Thurston mentioned October 21st as the release date of the album, and asked if that was anyone’s birthday. There was someone who could make that claim, and the song The Best Day was dedicated to him.
“Nice hanging out with you. Be Good,”
were his finishing words. I was cross to have missed out on the two day residency the previous week, but this was a tremendous recompense.