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The Fountain of Sonic Youth

Indie rock's nostalgia boom is going strong with a new reissue of Daydream Nation.

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Sonic Youth | DAYDREAM NATION (DELUXE EDITION) (GEFFEN)

Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation is my favorite album, and has been since the first time I heard it. Or, actually, the second. The first time I didn't realize the batteries in my Walkman were dying, and after a few minutes of slurred behemoth clang, I passed the tape back to Andrew Semans, complaining that it was too weird and slow. It was 1989 or '90 and I was in ninth grade, and Andrew had introduced me to punk rock just the week before with a mix tape that included the likes of Chrome and the Butthole Surfers, so it seemed perfectly reasonable to me that a band might sound like a lawn mower underwater.

After a little enlightenment and a battery change, I tried again. Andrew had told me to listen for the 59-second noise break in "Silver Rocket." I timed it by the sweep hand on the clock in the guidance counselor's office. I'd come to Sonic Youth pretty much straight from Tracy Chapman and Deee-Lite, and the idea of "noise" as music was mindbreaking. That was it--I was sold.

Earlier this week, for the third time in 19 years, Daydream Nation was reissued, and the new version is a "deluxe" double-disc set with a whole disc of bonus tracks. Sonic Youth are admittedly an archivist band and the album is undeniably a classic, but what's going to sell this reissue isn't the remastering job or even the stuff from the vaults. The real drivers here are the nostalgia of aging punks and indie rockers and the borrowed memories of kids born too late and hungry for a connection to that bygone era. It's not hard to turn those feelings into money, but to trigger them you need a fresh product.

Accordingly, the past nine months alone have seen the release of a documentary about the glory days of American hardcore and deluxe reissues and reunion shows from Sebadoh, Chavez, and Young Marble Giants. Dinosaur Jr is on the road behind a new record, the reunited Slint is touring again--this time re-creating the 1991 album Spiderland--and the Meat Puppets, Afghan Whigs, and Slits have gotten back together in one form or another.

This cultural recycling keeps us stuck in the past, where we're forever 21, favorite bands are kept like secrets, and scenes are protected from co-optation by their sheer inaccessibility. Though technological advances--in particular the Internet--have all but obliterated the potential for a band or a scene to be private or personal, they also fuel our yearning for the time when we last felt that special connection. The same technology that's steamrolling what feels important and particular to us also makes it easier to escape into nostalgia. It provides new and improved reproductions of our memories and makes them easy to share in perpetuity throughout the universe.

This gets extra weird when it comes to punk rock. Punk is nihilistic music made by angry kids, and its nature is to die, to be extinguished, to destroy itself. But once the angry kids grow up, the rules change. When you grow up, you learn that the losers don't write history, so old punks engage in historical revisionism, recasting themselves as brave visionaries in order to be remembered by the mainstream.

Sonic Youth might be America's oldest living punk band, approaching their 30th year, so you could argue that they really are winners, with the prerogative to tell their own story. Having outlasted New York no wave, SST punk, pigfuck noise, and Nirvana-era alternative rock, they now stand alone, totemic and anomalous. Perhaps for lack of a real-world career model in the indie world (the Minutemen approach stopped being viable circa 1995), they're taking cues from classic rockers. Beginning with the 2003 reissue of Dirty, they've been upgrading and boxing up their classics, buffing their wares to a showroom shine. The band may see this as a way to make rarities available to fans who aren't eBay sickos, but it reminds me of the way a piano salesman softens up a retiree by playing golden oldies. Once you tap into those feelings, you can sell people all kinds of things they don't need.

Most of the time it's not even a tough sell. There are apparently hordes of folks anxious to fan the flames of nostalgia with their federal notes. On their current tour Sonic Youth are playing Daydream Nation in its entirety, and the day they headline the Pitchfork festival, July 13, is the only one that's already totally sold out. (On the same bill are Slint, playing Spiderland, and the GZA, performing 1995's Liquid Swords.) The crowd at the Dinosaur Jr show I saw a couple weeks ago, also sold out, was thick with middle-aged men, some wearing ragged relic T-shirts, others dressed more in keeping with their maturity and affluence--tucked-in collared shirts, pleated slacks, active sandals.

It's easier to take comfort in the things that were meaningful to you in the past than to risk feeling alienated by the new, but you can sink into absurdity doing it. One of the two sets of liner notes to this edition of Daydream Nation is another dull procedural courtesy of the band's friend Byron Coley (can't they find some other chores for him to do?), and both his and the band's remarks exude a wistfulness that's alarmingly intense given that "back in the day" is only 1988. Sonic Youth waxing elegiac about a New York City littered with crackheads and burning mattresses, in the golden era before gentrification drove sandwich prices above five bucks, is just shy of offensive.

Given that Sonic Youth have never really fallen out of favor with critics or the public and are still actively evolving on their new albums, it seems incredibly self-serving for them to be so eagerly pimping their past triumphs. Is it only because they've never stopped oozing good taste and credibility that we don't dare point out that they're working the underground the way a washed-up one-hit wonder works the state-fair circuit? And to what end? They're already so thoroughly canonized that they're guaranteed an audience long after they stop playing.

What's to be gained by the remastering of this masterpiece? We loved Daydream Nation all along, even in its savage predigital state, and it's hard to hear much of a difference on the disc that contains the fiercely perfect studio album. The second disc is mostly unreleased live versions of the songs, plus a few covers recorded around the same time. With Thurston and Lee launching peacock plumes of detuned guitar, Kim groaning tough and flipping patriarchal paradigms, and Steve Shelley pounding as if to remind us that his hardcore days are only just behind him, it's a great addition to the band's catalog. It doesn't, however, give a listener any new insight, doesn't add any meaning to the original artifact. Daydream Nation was--and is--a brilliant record and a cultural touchstone. But buying the whole new Daydream Nation nostalgia package, and the late-80s/early-90s nostalgia fest in general, feels pathetic--like sandbagging against encroaching obsolescence with our wallets.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Amanda Decadenet.

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