Saturday, February 8, 2014

Track of the Week: Sonic Youth, "Teenage Riot"

Recently I have been having some rather powerful memories of my life three years ago, a time that may very well have been the nadir of my existence as a human being on this earth.  I had just crapped out on the academic job market, not getting a single interview despite adding a book contract to my CV.  My father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, my family's cat of 20 years died, and my wife was living 1,500 miles away from me and dealing with immensely stressful situations and I couldn't be there for her.  We lived apart for the sake of my tenure-track job.  Taking that job was supposed to be a fulfillment of years of toil and struggle, it ended up being the biggest mistake of my life.  I was living in a rural Texas town where my type wasn't welcome, working in a toxic department at a dysfunctional university.  Many mornings were spent in despair, wondering what I had done to my life.

During my day to day life in Texas, three things kept me sane: phone conversations with my wife, hanging out with a truly wonderful cast of friends, and teaching high school students.  My department had a partnership with the local high school where a prof would teach one section of the American history survey there each semester.  I volunteered to do so after having some high school students in my summer courses who really blew me away with their enthusiasm and smarts.  Going to the high school to teach at 8AM three times a week quickly became something to look forward to.  Since I wasn't used to teaching at that hour, I needed some musical inspiration.  Right around that time I finally purchased Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation, and realized that "Teenage Riot" was the perfect song to get me revved up to educate a bunch of teenagers.

The drive to school wasn't long, so short, in fact, that I often didn't make it to the end of the song.  No matter, since it got my blood pumping and my head in the right place.  It starts softly, when a beautifully discordant, snaking guitar line and Kim Gordon's breathy chanting, then kicks into gear with a killer riff that sounds like the Ventures by way of Schoenberg, and we're off to the races.  It's also the shortest seven-minute song ever made, in that its propulsion and energy are so massive that you barely notice the time pass.  American indie rock in the 1980s lived, in the words of Paul Westerberg and the Replacements, "left of the dial."  So much amazing music was made in that world, but it could not find listeners in the Reaganite, MTV-dominated, homogenized musical landscape of the 1980s.  When I hear "Teenage Riot" I hear an attempt by Sonic Youth to get beyond their underground audience while staying true to their roots, to evangelize the gospel of indie rock in an irresistable musical sermon.  Hardly anyone heard it at the time, but just about everyone I know who did never forgot it.

When I was in my car early in the morning driving to school with the sun just coming up, so many of the cares, worries, and pains I had just seemed to melt away.  Those seven minutes of bliss helped make the hours of wretchedness ahead of me bearable.  There aren't many songs that can do that.

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