Confusion Is Sex

Greil Marcus Speaks

Reprinted from Addicted to Noise (8/97) for your viewing convinience. The original is available at the ATN site.

ATN: Sonic Youth is another band that I really started paying attention to after I read an Artforum column you wrote about them. How did they come to your attention and can you talk a little bit about that?

Marcus: I don't remember exactly. I know when they put their first album out it wasn't an album, it was an EP [Sonic Youth, released in 1982]. I played it and I liked it but I didn't think much of it. And when they put out their first real album, Confusion is Sex [in 1983], that got to me. It was a mess. That album was just a mess. It had terrible singing by whoever was singing. It was just a mess. And there was stuff on it that was so strong. I never heard anybody pull her guts out and throw them at the audience the way Kim Gordon did with "I Wanna Be Your Dog" on that record. I mean, Iggy Pop must have been either ashamed or thrilled to hear what someone did. Everybody did that song, "I Wanna Be Your Dog." It's like "Louie Louie." It is "Louie Louie." It's the simplest thing in the world. And it was scary. It was scary. I never quite knew what it meant for one lover to tell another, "I want to be your dog" until I heard that song. Then I understood.

"Shaking Hell" was the other song on that record that got me. And I thought, these are people who are really pushing. These are people who are reaching and nobody else is reaching the way they are right now in whenever it was, '81, '82, something like that. And I had read something in Artforum. This is how I came upon Sonic Youth. I read something Kim Gordon had written in Artforum ["I'm Really Scared When I Kill In My Dreams," January 1983] before I'd ever listened to them. And she wrote an article about Glenn Branca, the guy who Thurston Moore played with before he formed Sonic Youth, the guy who's always doing his symphonies. His 40-guitar orchestras.

She started off by alluding to her own experiences as someone in a band. And she said in rock 'n' roll people pay to see other people, how did she put it? I want to get this right: People pay to see other people be free. And I thought that was just an astonishingly powerful thing to say. I don't even know if it's true. But like Kim's performance of "I Wanna Be Your Dog," it was a scary thought. And I thought, this woman knows stuff that I don't know. I'll read the next thing she writes whatever it is. And the next thing she wrote happened to be a song, not an article.

And after that, I just thought, this is a band that's taking big chances. This is a band that wants it all. And I would go see them. And I don't know how many times I saw Sonic Youth. I never saw them very good. You know, I never saw a great Sonic Youth show just like I never saw a great Clash show. I just never hit the right nights. But their records for a long time seemed to be out there, seemed to be on the other side. Like Skip James once said, my favorite musical story of all time maybe... A kid walks into Skip James' dressing room. Skip James is in his 60s. He was once perhaps the greatest of all Mississippi blues singers. Now he's an old man. And he can't play as well. He can't sing as well. Sometimes he's sick and he doesn't play or sing well at all. But he still has dignity. He still knows he's a genius. He still does not bother to condescend to his fellow man. He is still noble. The kid comes in--Peter Guralnick tells this story--into Skip James' dressing room and he picks up Skip James' guitar and he plays a Skip James' run on his guitar. But can you imagine the rudeness, the audacity of doing this? But he picks up Skip James' guitar and then he says -- well, let's give him the benefit of the doubt -- he says, "Mr. James, do you think I'll ever be able to play the guitar the way you do?" And Skip James turns to him and he says, "Son, Skip has been and gone from places you will never get to." And that's how I felt about Sonic Youth when I was listening to them in the early-to-mid '80s.

And I became friendly with Kim and with Thurston. They're lovely people. What Kim wrote is true: she becomes free or she had moments where she became free on stage in front of other people and lived a life she couldn't live on the streets or in her apartment. And you could hear that in music. You can really hear that. There's an ease with life in Rod Stewart's music. That's a lot of what I like about it. That I don't have any trouble imagining an ease that he lives out in his everyday life. But I think I'm drawn to extremes where that isn't so, where what's going on in performances is not going on in that person's everyday life. I don't know what Corin Tucker's like in her ordinary life. I mean, if she's like the way she is on stage, I don't know, I can't imagine anybody could stand to be around her. They couldn't keep up. They'd get burned.

back to the Confusion page