Guardian blog, Tuesday 7 April 2009
by Simon Reynolds
In the early 1980s NME featured a column called Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer. Every week a musician listed their favourite records, books, films and TV, maybe an artist or two, sometimes clothes or food. Typically, there'd be a mixture of eternal talismans and fleeting fancies. Now magazines are littered with charticles, lists and celeb-related space-filler of every kind, but back then it was a striking and original move: Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer revealed the star as a fan, the creator as a punter.
At its most interesting, the result was a splayed-out map to a singer or group's aesthetic. So when the Birthday Party's Nick Cave and Rowland S Howard did one, their checklist – which included Wise Blood, Johnny Cash, Night of the Hunter, Lee Hazelwood, Morticia Adams – was a perfect cross-section of southern gothic and trash Americana that helped explain the group's transition from their early style (Rimbaud/Baudelaire meets Ubu/Beefheart) to the pulpy guignol of Junkyard and the Bad Seed and Mutiny! EPs.
Certainly there had been a few artists in rock prior to this who'd gone further than idle interview chat about influences, performers whose music came attached with a sort of invisible reading and movie-watching list: Bowie, obviously, with songs about Andy Warhol and extremist performance artist Chris Burden; Roxy Music, to a slightly less overt degree. This became more of a fixture during the intensely bookish post-punk era (which makes sense, given that so many of them were fans of Bowie, Bryan and Brian). Recently, some of our more erudite bloggers have deployed the notion of the "portal" to describe the way a certain type of band (The Smiths, Manic Street Preachers) directed their fans to rich sources of brain-food, a whole universe of inspiration and ideas beyond music. Post-punk was rife with figures like Howard Devoto or Mark E Smith whose lyrics or interviews might turn you on to Dostoevsky or Wyndham Lewis. Being a Throbbing Gristle fan was like enrolling in a university course of cultural extremism. In a different corner of the post-punk world, Paul Weller placed clues for Jam fans with All Mod Cons' inner-sleeve tableau of mod fetishes; he'd return to this idea of mod as hyper-discerning consumerism with the cover of the Style Council's Our Favourite Shop.
Perhaps any really interesting band has a map of taste buried within their music for the obsessive fan to dig out. But what started to happen in the early 80s – exactly around the time NME was doing Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer – was that the taste map became a lot more explicit and exposed. The aesthetic co-ordinates not only rose to the surface of the group's output, but in some sense functioned as an integral part of the music itself.
With the Smiths this came through not just in the myriad allusions in the lyrics (many sampled verbatim from films, plays, novels) but also the systematic iconography of the record-sleeve images chosen by Morrissey. After leaving the Birthday Party, Nick Cave began signposting those deep south Americana influences in earnest across his early solo work, covering Elvis Presley's "In the Ghetto" and wrapping The Firstborn is Dead in Folkways-style ethnographic sleevenotes. Then he literalised the artist as consumer notion with Kicking Against the Pricks, his 1986 covers album, which laid out a smorgasbord of all the things from which he and the Bad Seeds drew artistic nourishment: blues, country, and the epic balladry of Gene Pitney and Glenn Campbell, a style he described as "entertainment music, although some might call it corn". Cave was announcing his evolution from shaman to showman, from Dionysian exhibitionist to storyteller and character actor. The impact of this trajectory on his impressionable fan-flock is one thing that comes through in the series of documentaries made by artist duo Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard to accompany each of Mute Records's deluxe Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds reissues, which launch on 27 April with the four-album stretch from From Her to Eternity to Your Funeral … My Trial.
But what actually reminded me of the Portrait of the Artist as a Consumer column was the new album by another veteran of the same 80s noise/sickness scene that Nick Cave passed through: Sonic Youth. The Eternal is their first release for Matador after leaving Geffen and the major-label sector. According to the press release, virtually every song contains a nod towards an artist admired by Sonic Youth. So Sacred Trickster doubles as a salute to artist Yves Klein and the band Noise Nomads. Anti-Orgasm was inspired by Uschi Obermeier, a German counterculture icon who first lived in Amon Düül's Munich commune, then joined Berlin's supremely nonconformist Kommune 1. Leaky Lifeboat (for Gregory Corso) is based on the Beat poet's metaphor for life on Earth, while Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn is named after an alter ego used by Darby Crash, suicidal frontman of Los Angeles punk legends the Germs. (Now I know what my favourite Ariel Pink tune, The Ballad of Bobby Pyn refers to). Other songs contain sonic echoes of or riff-citations from the Dead C, Neu!, Kevin Ayers, Sonic's Rendezvous Band and the Wipers. Even the artwork is homage: it's a painting by the late John Fahey.
So The Eternal is literally a self-portrait of the artists as consumers. With a few exceptions, each song is a byproduct of Sonic Youth's culture-vulture virtuosity at locating choice morsels of carrion left behind by vintage vanguards and bygone extremists. This has always been an aspect of Sonic Youth, from Death Valley '69 (inspired by the Manson Family and the moment the 60s trip turned heavy) through the Ciccone Youth side project with its conceptual-karaoke takes on Madonna and Robert Palmer songs offset by the hipster esotericism of Two Cool Rock Chicks Listening to Neu! (this was back when knowing about Neu! wasn't virtually middlebrow like it is today, as the records were still out of print). I know people for whom Sonic Youth functioned absolutely as a portal band, an entry point for them into an underground wonderworld of dissident noisemaking and neo-beat bohemia stretching across several decades.
There are plenty of other bands who do this kind of heavily referential work (Stereolab and Saint Etienne spring to mind) but listening to The Eternal, I suddenly started thinking about how it was an odd place from which to write songs. At least, looking at it from the standpoint of seeing songs as the expression of personal experience. It's not the only standpoint, it's quite an old-fashioned one, but it does happen to be the approach and mindset of just about all the artistic, literary and musical icons Sonic Youth are honoring on The Eternal. You can't really imagine Gregory Corso or Darby Crash operating like that. Their art would be a lot more expressionistic and cathartic and torn from the soul. No doubt Sonic Youth have arrayed these touchstones before their audience because they find them imperishably inspirational (perhaps that's why it's called The Eternal?). And, for sure, it's perfectly possible to be profoundly moved by works of art in other mediums than the one you work on. But moved to write a song about it? (One tune on The Eternal, Calming the Snake, is apparently Kim Gordon "musing on visions of Death in painting".) It all seems oddly meta, to have more in common with the kind of thing that goes on in the art world. Like the re-enactments done by people such as … well, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard (whose works include the restaging of a legendary fan-bootlegged 1978 Cramps concert at a mental asylum). Or like the artist Phil Collins with the Smiths songs/karaoke video installation the World Won't Listen, which is just about to get its UK debut at The Tramway in Glasgow.
Then again, Sonic Youth emerged from a New York scene where the music underground and the avant-garde art world were intimately entwined: Kim Gordon did some writing for Artforum, and they've often featured work by cutting-edge artists on their sleeves. Various members of Sonic Youth would be among the first to have the phrase "curated by" placed in front of their names when they did things like release a series of limited-edition singles or select the lineup for a music festival. In this light, writing a song about Uschi Obermeier is no different from Gerhard Richter doing his paintings of the Baader-Meinhof gang. (Indeed, Richter's famous Candles paintings were used on Daydream Nation's cover). Listening to Anti-Orgasm, though, I did wonder what the story of a late 60s Berlin kommune that didn't believe in the nuclear family could possibly mean to a happily married, middle-aged couple whose daughter Coco is a couple of years from considering which universities to apply to. (Sonic Youth itself, whose core lineup has been stable for 24 years, is like a successful marriage.) It does seem like a curious act of radical retro-chic.
The album? It sounds like a Sonic Youth record. There'll always be fluctuations within their trademark style – softer to harder, songs-y to noise-y – but their course is essentially settled. (I don't see them doing a John Cale and putting out an R&B/G-funk influenced album). For this Daydream Nation lover, slipping back into this sound – the halo of haze churned up by the riff-pummel of Antenna – is cosy, like putting on a worn pair of slippers. But I can't say I felt anything, exactly, from the songs.
Mark Fisher's K-punk post following up on this piece and upping the anti-SY ante
My Blissblog post picking up from Mark's post
Another fiery salvo from the Man like Kpunk
And another post from me with links to further contributions to the curator-as-creator debate, including Aaron at Airport Through the Trees's own caustic anti-SY critique