Hot on the heels of Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band, Thurston Moore has released a book of his own, and he’ll be at Rough Trade in Williamsburg tonight to talk about it. Stereo Sanctity isn’t a memoir, but it’s a personal publication nonetheless, gathering the Sonic Youth frontman’s lyrics and poems from 1981 to present. His own Ecstastic Peace Library has released the 303-page, handbound tome in a limited edition of 700.
If you were among the few who saw Thurston Moore interview Anne Waldman last year, you heard him admire the “incredible rock ‘n’ roll energy” of William S. Burroughs. It’s clear Thurston, a onetime fixture at The Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church who has published Waldman and others of that scene in his own Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal, believes there’s a crossover between lyrics and literature. As he puts it in the intro to Stereo Sanctity, rock ‘n’ roll is “poetry on fire.”
In the intro, Thurston lists those who penned “the first song lyrics to seduce my consciousness.” Among them are Iggy Pop (“soul, blood, confusion, glitter, trash and guts”), Nico and Lou Reed (their music “walked the line of savagery and love, decadence and purposeful cornballism”), Tom Verlaine (“stunning evocation where the valleys of the city are under the spell of gas hallucinogens”), Richard Hell (“the mania and wild word pinball meter that Verlaine’s lyrics had stripped”), The Ramones (“masterful examples of true Minimalism”), Patti Smith (she, Richard Meltzer, and Lester Bangs “fused poet tongue with Jazz improvisation and raunch ‘n’ roll energy” in the pages of Creem) and Johnny Rotten (“a voice from a broken mirror”). Later, he says, female artists like “The Slits, The Raincoats, Lydia Lunch, Siouxsie Sioux, Exene Cervenka, Bikini Kill and Kim’s lyrics with Sonic Youth reconfigured the imbalance of gender in rock ‘n’ roll expression.”
In 1977, at age 18, Thurston moved to a $108-a-month apartment on 13th Street, between Avenues A and B. He refers to it in the poem “’78”: “i could never sleep / sweltering hell of 13th street / i may be the only white kid on the block / can hardly pay $108 a month.” The lament is a stripped-down version of Allen Ginsberg’s poem about his 12th Street apartment, “The Charnel Ground.”
Thurston was aware that he was living down the street from legends like Lydia Lunch (“i never see her / well once in front of the laundromat / ring in her nose frightening and beautiful”) and Ginsberg. “Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky lived around the corner on 12th Street and I’d watch them strolling hand in hand,” he writes in the intro. Then this, in a poem titled “o shitty guitar”: “o shitty guitar / we walk down the bowery / down the street / flashing time / ginsberg orlovsky sitting stoops / holding hands (on the subway) how dare they / beautiful in the heat.”
Thurston first read about the Beats in articles about the Velvet Underground. After reading about Burroughs in the pages of Creem, he drove hours to a bookstore to secure a copy of Naked Lunch. But it wasn’t until a decade and a half later that he’d really delve into New York School poets like Ted Berrigan, the mysterious man who held court at Gem Spa and seemed to be a “holdover from the post-Nam era of hippie cult leaders.”
Eventually, he’d end up meeting Ginsberg. The poem “this is ginsberg” recounts the time, in 1995, when Thurston and Kim’s three-year-old daughter, Coco, tried to stick her finger in Ginsberg’s mouth and he obliged: “he sucks her thumb / into his mouth / out / and in / a grownup / who’s into it / unreal.”
From the Beats and the New York School, Thurston went on to discover lesser known ’60s and ’70s experimentalists. The way he tells it, that all started when Byron Coley, jazz editor of Forced Exposure, passed him a book by “Cleveland-based radical marijuana buddah bard d.a. levy.” Coley also hipped him to all manner of jazz, sending him to record stores like the soon-to-be-gone Sounds on St. Marks.
Clearly, Thurston isn’t shy about his influences – he even name-checks them in his poetry (“new york poets love / cocks,” he writes in a poem that mentions Ginsberg and Bowery bard John Giorno). And like Ginsberg, Thurston’s poetry is often geographically rooted in the city. One poem finds him hanging out with East Village rocker-poet Richard Hell and “tucking into a plate of kasha varnishkes at Veselka.” In “dead diary entry #0,” Thurston gets kicked out of a gallery by an artist; just like 13th Street before it, Canal Street is “sweltering” as Lydia Lunch “pisses wild streem in bowery flop stairwell / wants me there for look out.” The poem ends: “this is how the 80s begin.”
Such geographical references pop up in Thurston’s lyrics, as well. In “Orchard Street,” off his solo album Demolished Thoughts, “Orchard Street is anchored in divinity’s shadow.” In “Stereo Sanctity,” he sings of “Satellites flashing down Orchard and Delancey / I can’t get laid because everyone is dead.”
I have to admit, as many times as I’ve listened to “Stereo Sanctity,” I’ve never been able to make out the words “Orchard and Delancey.” Which is a fun thing about this book – you finally get to see that, in “100%,” Thurston isn’t saying, “I’ve been waiting for you just to say / Piss off the chick is mine” (or as multiple internet lyric sites have it, “He’s off to check his mind.”) He’s actually saying, “The zoftig chick is mine.” So make that 24 fun facts about Dirty.
This isn’t a complete compilation of Thurston’s lyrics – some were “irretrievable in the archives” and in the case of songs that were co-written, only Thurston’s writing appears. For instance, the opening lines of “Teenage Riot,” spoken by Kim, are omitted.
Which brings us to the love poems. Since the poems aren’t dated, it’s impossible to tell which were written for Kim and which were penned for his new flame, Eva Prinz, co-founder of Ecstatic Peace Library and editor of the book. We don’t know who, exactly, he’s talking about when he writes “why don’t you come over to my house babe / and help me alphabetize my noise tapes.” Rest assured, it gets steamier than that, but if you’re hoping for the “he said” to Girl in a Band’s “she said,” you’re out of luck here. (That said, it’s hard not to wince at a poem about his daughter that ends: “It’s ok to cry, now in unknown late late night / strange distant hotel bedroom.”)
Of course, some of the poems could well have been inspired by Thurston’s artistic crushes. In one, he mentions “(patti who won’t hang with me anymore) / (for reasons that are a drag).” Patti Smith would seem to be the prototype of the rock-star poet, but just a couple of stanzas down comes this lament: “Rockstars can’t be poets / which sucks.”
Thurston Moore will be in conversation at Rough Trade, Tuesday, Sept. 22 at 7 p.m., followed by a signing; the talk is free, but the signing requires purchase of book ($59.99) at Rough Trade.