Singer, songwriter, guitarist, avant-garde alt rock hero, Thurston Moore needs little introduction. In this edited excerpt from his recent RBMA Radio interview, we take a look back to Thurston’s beginnings as a teenager in Connecticut, when he started making his first trips to New York in the mid-’70s to get closer to the action. New York Dolls and The Dictators were the must-see bands, as well as young, upcoming no wave groups like Teenage Jesus And The Jerks, James Chance and The Contortions, Mars and DNA. After meeting Lee Ranaldo playing in Glenn Branca’s guitar orchestra, the both formed Sonic Youth in 1980 with bassist and Moore’s later wife Kim Gordon. Various drummers came and went until main man Steve Shelley took over in the mid-’80s.
Early musical education
I was 10 years old in 1968 and that’s when I started becoming more aware of rock & roll, and hearing about things like the Beatles and the Stones, and seeing television shows like The Ed Sullivan Show where rock & roll bands would play once in a while. I don’t recall seeing The Beatles so much. In ’68, seeing bands on television fascinated me; Credence Clearwater Revival, of all things, always sticks with me, or The Mamas & the Papas or Sonny & Cher. There were shows happening on the weekends that had all these AM radio rock & roll bands, like Paul Revere & the Raiders, The Dave Clark Five and Nancy Sinatra.
I was very excited by rock & roll from an early stage. I used to play it on my tennis racket. I had an older brother who eventually got an electric guitar. I would steal it from him when he was away and play it and break a string and put it back in the case. He was always wondering why the string was broken on his guitar. I think the first rock & roll record that came through our house was one he got like in ’66 or ’67, “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen. I thought that was the greatest thing I had ever heard and I just wanted to hear more. I wanted him to bring more records into the house, which he slowly did. Having an older brother – he’s five years older – was very significant.
In 1968, we moved from Miami, Florida to Connecticut, where my father got a teaching job. That brought us closer to New York City, which was only an hour and a half away. The information from New York City started coming to me more readily. By the early ’70s, I was very aware of David Bowie and T. Rex and music coming out England. Then these bands in New York that were even rowdier than that, such as The New York Dolls and The Dictators, Wayne County. I started finding out more about them through listening to late night college radio, hearing The Velvet Underground & Nico and The Stooges.
Rock & roll magazines were really important to me, like Rock Scene and CREEM. CREEM came out of Detroit so you would see a lot of images of the MC5 and The Stooges. I couldn’t hear what it sounded like, but it looked great. So I would go to record stores and ask them to order these albums because they didn’t have them. They would get one copy and I would go buy it, like The Stooges’ Fun House.
They were just monstrous records, especially in comparison to what was in our house at that point, which was The Beatles’ Abbey Road or Jefferson Airplane. I was bringing in Alice Cooper and The Stooges and MC5, really going towards the margins. The more subversive, the more interesting for me. I’m not quite sure why that is but I thought that was where the most exciting ideas were. I gravitated towards Roxy Music and Sparks. These were the records I wanted.
All those bands I noted were really early influences for me. I started hearing about music happening in New York City, and reading about Patti Smith. Patti Smith wrote as well. Rock writers like her and Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer were really important. I started finding issues of Sounds and Melody Maker. When I would take a class trip to New York City, I would get them. As soon as I got my drivers license at 16, I knew that I could actually get to New York.
In early ’76, I went to see anything. I wasn’t picking a band, I was just picking New York City. I drove in with a friend of mine who was the only person in my school at the time that had any interest in this kind of stuff. Most everybody was into Yes and Allman Brothers Band; I didn’t really hate that but I was more interested in this other weirdo stuff. They would make fun of me in school like, “Why are you reading these gay magazines?” which were these rock & roll magazines that had pictures of Todd Rundgren in them with colored hair, which I hung on my wall. So they immediately thought I was possibly gay even though they knew I wasn’t. My friend was very swashbuckling. We became best buddies and started driving into New York City seeing anything and everything.
The first thing we went to see was Suicide, who were playing at Max’s Kansas City. They were like electronic music terrorists on stage. It was an assault on the audience physically and aurally. It was incredible. The Cramps were the first ones on the bill. They had just come in from Cleveland. It was one of their very first gigs and they had no singles or anything. It was a wonderful night. We kept going back and seeing everything: Blondie opening for The Mumps, a lot of Patti Smith shows, and Television, Richard Hell and Talking Heads.
There was a plethora of bands that came and went that didn’t have any notoriety. There was still the spillover from early ’70s – long hair and bellbottoms and bad rock & roll. People talk about these glory days of punk rock but there were these really lame bands that you had to sit through to get to the Talking Heads. It would be such an anomaly when they’d come out.
Soon enough, things started changing where there were more and more bands that adhered to this new idea of just completely obliterating the past, like The Dead Boys. There were people my age who were already living in New York City who started making bands that were even more scabrous and completely in defiance of any sort of traditional rock & roll playing. The Patti Smith band played traditional rock & roll. Television had long guitar solos and were very technical players. Talking Heads had a very weird and artful grace. They could all play. The Ramones were the best because they just played bar chords. I could really relate to them because that’s all I could play. I was like, “Wow, they could make a whole thing out of playing bar chords. Just a b, a b.” It was so powerful and remarkable they became my favorite band. I figured, “I can do that.”
It wasn’t until I started seeing these bands who were my age playing that I knew the world was mine, bands like Teenage Jesus and The Jerks and The Contortions and Mars and DNA. They were called No Wave bands because they had nothing to do with anything. They weren’t New Wave, they were No Wave. They had this built-in obstinance and this hilarious nihilism. It was wonderful because they were learning from the ground up and they were learning from their own selves.
Everybody was music lovers. James Chance and Lydia Lunch knew a lot about rock & roll. Lydia Lunch was in the KISS fan club, for God’s sakes. James Chance had every Albert Ayler record ever recorded. These guys knew about music but they were coming from a place where they just wanted to incinerate everything and start from the ashes. That’s what New York was. It was a zone of just incineration. It had been burnt to the ground and there was nothing there. It was a very poor, neglected city in the American landscape. It was rampant with loose criminal behavior. There were no laws there. It was a wonderful sort of fairy tale place to live in. It was dirty and cheap. It was the last era of New York City, where an artist could live there and not have any anxiety about money.
I had other bands before Sonic Youth. I was in a band called The Coachmen that started around 1977 in New York City and lasted until ’79 or so. We had no great success, except we had a good time starving in the streets of New York City and playing a few gigs here and there at places like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City and a few art lofts around town. We had a posthumous LP released of some music that we recorded on New Alliance Records, a subsidiary of SST Records, which was owned by Black Flag, the LA hardcore band of the early ’80s. New Alliance was run by The Minutemen, an SST band who had this more outsider label to the already-outsider SST.
In the interim between The Coachmen and Sonic Youth, I played with different musicians and different outfits. I played in different ensembles in downtown New York with some rock guitar composers like Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham, which was really sort of a significant happening thing in New York at the time. I played in a short-lived group in the early ‘80s called In Limbo. Lydia Lunch started the band with me and Richard Edson, who was Sonic Youth’s first drummer; Jim Sclavunos was playing saxophone and Pat Place from The Contortions was playing guitar. There were different people that I would play with as one-offs here and there. Sonic Youth was the main focus and the more that became active, the more other things became of less import.
The drummers would just look at us in confusion like, “What are we supposed to be doing back here? You guys are throwing your guitars in the audience, lighting them on fire.”
Steve joined the band after Bob Burt, the original drummer, left. We started with no drummer. We would have one drum on stage that either Lee or I would pound on for certain songs. Then we had Richard Edson play. He was a presence in the East Village scene. He played in KONK and we used to rehearse in KONK’s studio. I always remember that studio because Jean-Michel Basquiat used to sleep on a mattress down there. Richard was kind of great but he left because he thought KONK was going to take over the world and this Sonic Youth group was too weird and noisy and nobody was going to really pay attention to it.
We made a flyer that said, “Sonic Youth needs drummer.” Bob Burt answered it. He lived in Hoboken, New Jersey. He was a very primal player. One of the first tours we did was with him and Swans up and down the Eastern seaboard. I liked Bob but I thought the band really needed a drummer who could really motor the band a little more. Bob was very raw and primal and I felt like I needed something more. So we let Bob go, which was really sad. We went through a succession of different drummers and each one just kept bailing because I think we were a little nuts on stage. Lee and I would just be going way off the grid. They would just look at us in confusion like, “What are we supposed to be doing back here? You guys are throwing your guitars in the audience, lighting them on fire.” Amps were falling into the audience.
I was really interested in what was happening at the advent of these hardcore bands in America, young people like Minor Threat and S.O.A, which was Henry Rollins’ first band, and Government Issue. These were all bands out of DC. New York City had hardcore bands like Heart Attack and The Mob and Even Worse. I started playing with Even Worse. I started really becoming part of this world of hardcore even though I was a bit older at that point. Even though I was only in my early 20s, I was an old man as far as hardcore was concerned.
There was one band I was really interested from Michigan called The Crucifucks. The name alone was so incendiary. They were a very left-wing political group with songs like “Democracy Spawns Bad Taste,” “Hinkley Had a Vision,” “Cops for Fertilizer.” Great songs. I saw them play at CBGB’s hardcore matinee, which happened every weekend. It was fantastic – you’d get to see all these hardcore bands from all over America when they would come through town.
I had been writing back and forth with Steve Shelley because I would order Crucifucks cassettes from him. Lee [Ranaldo] and I went to see him play with The Crucifucks and they were really cool. As soon as that tour ended, he wrote to me and said, “I don’t think I’m going to play with the band anymore. I think we’re going to take a break and I’m going to move to San Francisco because that’s where The Dicks live.” The Dicks were this radical Texas political band like the Big Boys and MDC. I said, “No, no, you should move to New York.” I don’t know why I was being really selfish like, “Move to New York!” but I did say that. I said, “You could stay at Kim and mine’s apartment because we’re going on tour.” He said, “That’s a good idea.” I said, “You could look around. All you have to do is walk our dog.” He took the bait and he stayed at our apartment. We went on tour and that was the tour that Bob Burt decided that he didn’t want to play anymore. He had enough of no sleep and sleeping in basements with mattresses full of cat piss.
So Bob was out. We came back. Kim and I walked into our apartment and Steve Shelley was there. I said, “Do you want to play drums with Sonic Youth?” He said, “Yes, okay.” As soon as he played in the first rehearsal, that’s right when I first started writing songs like “Expressway to Yr Skull,” which came out on EVOL. It was immediately apparent that he was a really, really good drummer and we started doing gigs.
I remember playing some special show in Los Angeles that was Sonic Youth, Swans and Saccharine Trust in this warehouse. We were really good. I remember John Lydon was there because he had just moved to LA. It was just this whole scene Mike Gira from Swans actually said, “The band has really gone up quite a level and you know why? It’s because you actually have a really great drummer playing with you right now.” It was true. Steve really amped the band up in a way. It was then that people started recognizing us and appreciating what was going on with us in a more serious musical way.