Musicians stand in the middle of the room, eliciting long, scraping noises from a violin and a guitar. Later, a saxophone splutters along to a shakuhachi (a kind of Japanese flute), both instruments serving more of a percussive function than a melodic one. It’s the first night of Thurston Moore and Mats Gustafsson’s weekend residency at Café Oto in Dalston, east London (22 September). All around me, bearded men in tennis shoes twitch in their seats in excitement.
Accompanied by Kiku Day on shakuhachi and Phil Wachsmann on violin, the Sonic Youth founder Moore and Gustafsson, a Swedish improv saxophonist, take juvenile delight in loudness. At one point, Moore jams a drumstick between the strings and body of his guitar and rubs another drumstick against it – Spinal Tap-esque silliness that manages to extort exhilarating new textures from that most standard of rock instruments.
Son of a music and philosophy professor, Moore – a tall fiftysomething in a T-shirt and jeans – still physically resembles the institutionalised grad students who have long been a big portion of his fan base. As he sits brutalising his guitar, his face can seem serious or sulky but his manner suggests a class clown: he has a slightly awkward, “What, me?” demeanour that the singer and poet Lydia Lunch once said reminded her of Ron Howard, the actor who played Richie Cunningham in Happy Days.
Moore moved to New York City in early 1977, hoping to “fuck Patti Smith” (according to a rambling account he wrote in 1994). Though he’d been drawn to Manhattan by its punk reputation, that scene was already in decline by the time he arrived – so much so that Lunch was dismissing Television as “a bunch of old men playing wanky guitar solos” in the local press.
The art circuit, however, was booming, with Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, among others, refashioning crime-ridden downtown New York as a cultural frontier where miracles happened just a precarious walk away from Wall Street.
Gimme indie rock
Moore soon hit his stride as a member of Sonic Youth, a band that perfectly embodied the city’s polygamy of art, business and music. With albums such as Daydream Nation, they redefined punk as an intellectually rigorous art form and opened the way for 1990s indie rock by championing new talent (including a then little-known Seattle group called Nirvana).
Sonic Youth’s status as prime movers for a generation extended beyond music. When Moore and his then wife, the singer/bassist Kim Gordon, announced their divorce last October, Elissa Schappell at Salon mourned the end of the 27-year marriage. “How could New York’s ‘underground power couple’ call it quits?" she wrote. "As if they were mere mortals?”
Schappell wasn’t alone. At Café Oto, I hear people still trying to come to terms with the private dramas of musicians they probably don’t even know personally. Both Gordon and Moore have new projects and Sonic Youth seem as good as finished. But on the strength of Moore’s Dalston show, it seems the teenage riot isn’t over yet.