My favorite moment from Sonic Youth’s bazillion-year history comes just after the four-minute mark of “Sugar Kane,” the third single from Dirty. The band has just launched into one of its trademark guitar-squall freakouts, one that starts off relatively linear and soon descends into near chaos before sputtering out entirely. We hear a few seconds of buzzing nothingness, punctuated by a few chords that sound just like church bells. And then a new guitar line comes in, this one heart-stoppingly beautiful, hovering like a butterfly, bringing the song immediately into focus. It always reminded me a bit of my favorite moment from Led Zeppelin’s history: “Whole Lotta Love,” after the smacked-out dub-noise middle section, when the drums and then the total-war riff come roaring back in. But it’s also the complete opposite of that Zeppelin moment. It doesn’t bring violence. It brings beauty.
I can vividly remember the first time I heard that moment — 12 years old, watching this PBS show-for-teenagers thing that sometimes played music videos (really my only way of seeing music videos at home, since I didn’t have cable). That video, set at a Marc Jacobs fashion show and featuring the first-ever on-camera appearance of Chloë Sevigny (walking around short-haired and naked and already looking like a star), was pretty much the coolest thing I’d ever seen. Dirty was my first Sonic Youth album, the first album that the band released when I had any idea who they were. I got it from the BMG Music Club, one of my eight free CDs that I got before somehow worming out of my contract, on the strength of that video and hearing “100%” on the radio a couple of times. The perception of Dirty and Goo, then as now, is that they were the band’s pop moment, their big attempt to make good on their major-label contract. But other than the trashcan-punk tantrum “Nic Fit,” a cover of a semi-obscure early DC hardcore song, I didn’t have the musical vocabulary to make the tiniest bit of sense out of anything on Dirty. It was just weird as fuck, and it sounded so impossibly cool and grimy and glamorous that I spent long hours with it, trying to imagine the world it came from.
Of course, there’s a very good reason why Dirty ended up being my first Sonic Youth album. It’s the band’s big entry into the alterna-rock boom period, an era they helped usher in when they convinced Nirvana that it would be OK to sign with DGC. And the label had big expectations for the album. They recruited Butch Vig, fresh off of Nevermind, to record the thing, and they ended up making four different videos for songs from the album. In retrospect, all that hope was ridiculous; “Teenage Riot,” from three years before, is way more accessible than anything on Dirty.
Dirty never ended up as the crossover smash that the label was hoping for, but the very notion that they had a platinum hit on their hands here just illustrates how chaotic that moment was, how nobody had any idea where things would go after Nevermind. Because there was never any chance in hell that Dirty would be a Nevermind-level success, and that becomes abundantly clear just from skimming the album. First single and opener “100%” interrupts itself a couple of times so it can trip all over some squalid noise. “Youth Against Fascism” wishes hell upon Clarence Thomas and ropes in Ian MacKaye to play guitar; I’m pretty sure it’s the only time the symbolic DC punk hero ever had anything to do with a major-label release. There’s barely a chorus to be heard on the entire thing. Nevermind, for all its challenges to conventional rock wisdom, had big and clean and obvious hooks. Dirty just has weirdo magnetism.
But that weirdo magnetism was enough to convert a 12-year-old me, to the point where I got seriously pissed at my best friend three years later for daring to talk shit about the band’s Lollapalooza headlining set. (He thought it was boring and indulgent, and for most 15-year-old punks, it probably was. I thought he was being a total philistine.) After Dirty, I went back and filled in all the blanks, listening to all the band’s indie-era stuff and picking favorites. But nothing they did before resonated on the gut-level that Dirty did. Nothing spoke to me like Kim Gordon, all diffuse Brigitte Bardot cool, intoning blank condescending non-sequitur fury all over “Drunken Butterfly.” If I’d heard Sister or Bad Moon Rising for the first time at 12, maybe they would’ve hit me the same way. But thanks to the utterly strange context of that moment, Dirty ended up being my first brush with this particular version of the uncanny, and I’ll always love it.
Comments section! First brush with Sonic Youth? Favorite album from the band’s history? And how weird is it that this band ever ended up headlining a Lollapalooza tour over Hole and Beck and Cypress Hill and Elastica? Also, let’s watch some videos, and let’s all marvel at the Spike Jonze footage of an incredibly young pre-Mallrats pro skater Jason Lee in “100%.”