Soul-crushing words nobody ever expected or wanted to hear: the future of Sonic Youth appears to be in doubt. Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore announced their separation on Friday night, after 27 years of marriage. The band has a few upcoming November gigs in South America; it's officially "uncertain" if the band will continue after that. But they should. Oh, how they should.
The first time I heard Sonic Youth play "Eric's Trip" was October 1988, in Boston. They were previewing material from their forthcoming Daydream Nation, which meant we were all hearing these wondrous songs – "Teenage Riot," "Hey Joni," "'Cross the Breeze" – for the first time. At the end, during "Silver Rocket," Moore got furious with his equipment and threw his guitar down. (It didn't break; it bounced off the stage and back up at his face, which made the moment startling. Never saw a guy fail to smash his guitar before.)
The last time I heard them play "Eric's Trip" was just 2 months ago, at Brooklyn's Williamsburg Waterfront, their only U.S. show of 2011. Any punk angst was long gone from the song – angst is for kiddies – replaced by intense curiosity, always a tougher emotion to translate into music, but always the emotion Sonic Youth has expressed better than anyone. Lee Ranaldo raved with a mix of bafflement and wonder: "The sky is blue…the sky is the deepest purest blue I've ever seen…and points on the globe are just…points on the globe!"
The whole band was in that effusively beatific mood, under the full moon. They played a set full of love songs: "Sugar Kane," "Flower," "Cotton Crown," "Drunken Butterfly," "I Love Her All The Time." They also did "Psychic Hearts," the girl-worship title song from Moore's 1995 solo album. (According to my man Matthew Perpetua, it was the first time they ever tried "Psychic Hearts.") Moore's closing words of the night to the crowd: "With the power of love, anything is possible."
Sonic Youth is one of the only bands I've seen in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. (The other is Yo La Tengo, another guitar band featuring a married couple.) As anyone but a retro-sentimentalist will agree, Sonic Youth were even better live in the 2010s than they were in the 1980s. Their last great album, The Eternal, was just two years ago, and it was their fourth great album in a row. They wrote stronger songs in their third decade than in their first or second. Live or in the studio, they are as great as they've ever been, which is as great as any band could ever be.
For all but a tiny minority of Sonic Youth fans, part of loving them is vicariously over-identifying with the Kim-and-Thurston bond, as these two psychic hearts explored screaming fields of sonic love. So we all spent the weekend suffering "don't you remember you told me you loved me baby AAARRRGH NOOO" spasms. Most fans probably felt a little guilty for how personally we took the sad news, but that's just because we owe them a lot. Gordon and Moore have had a huge influence on how so many of us envision monogamy and adulthood. Like everything else about Sonic Youth, their relationship challenged our ideas about what was possible. And we should all be so lucky as to spend the best day of our lives doing anything as great as what they did every day for the past three decades.
Curiosity and repetition, what a combination – doing the same thing, with the same people, getting it right, getting it righter, doing it over, and yet growing less complacent, less jaded, more curious, more enthusiastic, the longer you keep at it. Curiosity and repetition – a tough combination to pull off for any band, or any couple. Sonic Youth didn't make it seem easy, but they made it seem worth the work. All of us who heard them will always be grateful to them for that, whatever the next chapter in their story might be.