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“Calibrating the Impact of Lee Ronaldo on Rock”

There’s a great quote on Sonic Youth in Everett True’s Nirvana: the Biography — something uttered by Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt, if I’m not mistaken. The line was something along the lines of if Sonic Youth had just issued Sister (1987) and Daydream Nation (1988), they’d be considered one of the best rock bands of all time, but seeing as they’ve put out a great album every two years since then (this was around 2004 or so), they’ve pretty much left every other band in their dust. I’ve also met people who don’t like Sonic Youth. He**, I’ve met people who don’t like Yo La Tengo. Everybody’s different. 

One thing Sonic Youth were in their hey day, denizens of Rudy Juliani’s dystopic “New York Eighties,” were leaders in “noise rock.” I used to listen to their debut album Confusion is Sex, from time to time, and to be honest that memory of my life is pretty much just painful. The entire thing was essentially a nonstop onslaught to your eardrums, materialized with endless, deafening guitar feedback and vocal screeches. 

Now, what this means in terms of their artistic output, I’m not trying to parse here. It’s a tough thing to call — actually impossible, since by the time the band’s vision escapes in the form of that music, their mind state has been altered, and the sovereign element is the product, not the process. This goes for all music, I think. 

Anyway, Lee Ronaldo was a founding member of the band [1], the primary guitarist [2] and occasional singer and songwriter. Part of the point of this post, then, is to celebrate the unique style he brought in his songs, which was a kind of unflaggingly ominous, almost expressionist sense of indie rock. The fact that he imbued this quality without obtaining an inordinately high volume, or yelling too much, or becoming too faux-urgent, then, should serve to further his commendable stature as an artist. 

A visual artist in his spare time, Ronaldo had a keen attention to detail and understanding of what comprised creative merit. This astute generative tactic surfaces vividly in his lyricism, which is creative almost to what seems like an unwieldy extent, sometimes. The important career bookend to note, then, in this discussion, would be “Pipeline/Kill Time,” a song which appears on what’s really Sonic Youth’s artistic breakthrough — album number four, Sister. Spooky, trippy and surreal, and laden with bulbous, unruly guitar feedback, “Pipeline/Kill Time” is the only Lee Ronaldo tune on Sister, but makes a stark, irascible impression on the listener. It opens with Ronaldo briskly crooning “Stretch me to the point where I stop” in an almost frighteningly apathetic tone, as if viewing the destruction or mutilation of his own body as an afterthought or minor hiccup on an autonomous path. Then comes the disturbing pairing “I think you know the place we should meet / Don’t worry if it’s dark and I’m late”. Now, a couple of other notable themes come to the surface with this particular pairing, which would be, respectively, Ronaldo’s dark and dry sense of humor, and, as well, the overarching element of urban danger which would be prevalent copiously on all of their 1980s work. 

The following album, Daydream Nation, typically held as their best album and certainly not without reason, contains three Ronaldo tunes — “Eric’s Trip”; “Hey Joni” and “Rain King”; of course giving the impression of some seriously laudatory words gathering around his Sister input. In general, as regards the composite band infrastructure of songwriting attributes, these tunes can be characterized by a sort of austerity, like the tendency to mention everything apathetically, as if it’s a mere modicum of a larger process going on. Part and parcel with this, then, is the proclivity of the lyrical topics to embody third parties, or matters unrelated, apparently, to Ronaldo’s own personal life (standing of course in stark contrast to Moore’s vivid and self-handling monologues in “Teenage Riot” et. al. and KIm Gordon’s incessant mantra of “I WANNA KNOW!!!!” in the expansive and ruthless “’Cross the Breeze”). In general, at least in the case of “Eric’s Trip” and “Hey Joni,” the work has the tendency to resemble a work of fiction or literature, with extreme sensitivity and care taken to the “Joni” character, through second-person rhetoric, functional in one case, and the assumption of an ulterior perspective (the strange declaration of “I’m fu**ing the future” apparently meant to correspond with the notification of “This is Eric’s trip”) in full force in the other. 

Throughout the ’90s, really, despite unleashing such a prolific monsoon of creative and artistically vital rock music, known typically as “indie rock” [3] [4], Sonic Youth remained very much “underground.” Well, they were your favorite band’s favorite band, in most cases, and their music is undeniably that — composed of deliberate, full-bodied statements that tend to be ruthlessly original, employing nobody’s song-construction playbook other than their own, and overseeing a frequent swell of song length to past the seven-minute mark. They didn’t always strike you as trying to score a hit single or being predicated on financial success, in other words. Ronaldo was a member of the band in their original lineup and would remain active therein right on through Rather Ripped, to which he’d contribute the dark, humble dirge or “Rats,” and which, in my opinion, was Sonic Youth’s last great album. Right up through “Rats,” anyway, you get the sense that this guy just wasn’t having any fun. But maybe it’s just that his artistic output tends to focus less on things we typically think of as “fun,” “successful” or “enjoyable,” and more on what might be manifest as points of tension in society or in our world that he feels the need to assuage. Actually, I think undeniably that this is the more noble mission in music, and should be the objective of more artists and creatives in all media out there, rather than stagnating on the same tired old themes of the “American dream” and cheap, dimestore modules of “happiness,” as it were. What’s more, Ronaldo’s calm, stately delivery is refreshing amidst all the idiot savant “storytellers” in rock who’d be more inclined to yell in our ears and make everything dramatic. Ronaldo took the commonplace and made it dramatic with systematic, professional articulation, and with the objective of pointing out the noxious friction sure to develop in life, even within situations that are supposed to be tame and innocuous. All of this, to be honest, seems like antiquated, stuff, or a “lost art,” if you will. Still, Sonic Youth was prominent within the indie boom, or “revival,” if you prefer, of the 2000s, when America was reading the music journal Pitchfork in bulbous numbers and, yes, unfortunately, whoever invented horn-rimmed glasses was getting pretty rich. On the original best of the ’80s list on Pitchfork, before they were purchased by Conde Nast and subjugated into the great, corporate Purple Rain orgy, Daydream Nation is ranked at the top of the list. Rob Mitchum’s blurb is fantastically unbridled and up-front, too, with eruptions like “it’s just the greatest fu**ing album” and, along the lines of my post, the quip to “Thank the highest Lee ratio ever to be found on a (Sonic Youth) project,” meaning the greatest percentage of songs written and sung by your own Lee Ronaldo. 

And, of course, Mitchum’s blurb isn’t ABOUT Ronaldo. It’s about the album and the tidbit on the tertiary contributor is buried about three-quarters through. So maybe it’s true that Ronaldo’s impact on rock in general stands as way smaller than that of Sonic Youth as a whole, which I think is obviously the case. But earlier this morning I wasn’t so sure, when I was thinking about these big-picture things like the afterlife and my crazy idea that there can be no God because nothing can exist as itself forever. Right away, in my mind, I recalled Ronaldo’s amusingly foreboding missive in “Pipeline/Kill Time” of “Nothing can be held in my hands for long”. And this kind of acknowledged limitation which would seem to obviate humility does indeed seem like a common current running through all of Ronaldo’s famous work, which, again, is earmarked by a relatively calm, measured delivery, one that’s easy to digest and not too ostentatious or distracting. Maybe somewhere out there, then, there’s an army of guitarists singing two songs on every album and defiantly clinging to a low profile as if it were a political ethos in and of itself. And you know what, I bet those are the dudes you’d rather play pool and shoot the sh** with after the show, too. Or they’d be the only ones not on coke, more likely. 

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[1] According to Wikipedia, Sonic Youth has broken up and is now defunct as a band.

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[2] The band Women had this song, which I think was “Drag open,” which the guitarist referred to as “The Lee Ronaldo song,” so when I say “primary guitarist” I mean the one arguably most instrumental in forging the band’s sound on a physical level, whereas Thurston Moore, the other guitar player in the band, took on more vocal parts.

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[3] And for at very least a strong implication that they were a vital band in indie, the label that released Daydream Nation in the United States, Enigma, was bought by EMI all of one year later.

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[4] Actually, the demarcation is pretty clear — all their work in the ’80s was indie, after which the underground could no longer hold the flood of their popularity and they fled the coop to DGC, who, appropriately, was also the bigwig that would eventually sign Nirvana.

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