Monday, May 12, 2008

1236 words about Sonic Youth's "Teenage Riot" (with Kerouac + the Cruise +Empire Records digressions.)

I wish it could always feel like this:

That video is a pretty good translation of what it's like inside my head when my mood swings up (which has happened NOW).

I feel ridiculously happy, boundlessly energetic, young, invincible, twitchy, and a bit incoherent. Like the visuals here, my mind jumps from one thing to the next. The world feels beautifully dizzying and I have trouble articulating how I feel to anyone outside my skull.

And often there's music playing. If my mood swing isn't accompanied by good music actually playing nearby, then I bring my own music. When headphones aren't available I just let music play inside my head from memory. Often during these swings, this very Sonic Youth song is the one playing in my head.

This song calls for speed. As in velocity, not meth. The tempo is fast and I find it hard to sit still when it's playing. I always thought this song would be great for the opening of a late 80s left-field teen movie:

The movie opens with our hero in bed in a messy bedroom, mattress on floor, Gibson and amp in the corner, Clash poster on the wall. He's overslept. He wakes with a start as Thurston's riff kicks, realizing he has to be at his job at the pizza joint across town in 5 MINUTES! He runs out the door while still buttoning his jeans. His mom tries to kiss him, nearly getting knocked over in the rush. "What's the hurry, honey?!" she says in surprise and mild distress.

Moments later, our hero is on his bike, pedaling furiously. He passes by characters on the sidewalk who we'll get to meet later in this unmade movie. The look in his eyes tells the movie-goer that our hero is a bit nervous, but he's glad to be alive on a sunny late morning in California (because where else could a late 80s teen movie take place? That stuff has to be GOLDEN, palmed!)

He skids into the pizza shop parking lot. A Pepsi or Coke sign is on the building's wall (for sly product placement.) The paunchy middle-aged boss is standing at the door in his apron. He looks at his watch and then at our hero, now running towards the door from his bike with a slight sheen of sweat. The boss shakes his head. This is obviously not the first time our high school hero has been late. A barely perceptible smile creeps onto the boss' face, as if to say "oh you crazy rascal. You're a good kid. I was once like you, so I'll let you go this one last time."

As Thurston closes the song with "...on the riot trail" the camera goes for a close up of our winded hero's face. He wipes his brow and exhales, relieved as he walks inside for another day at the pizza shop. But we all know that since it's a movie, this will be ANYTHING BUT just another day at the pizza shop...

Quite honestly, that doubly fictitious screenplay excerpt has played in my head a number of times as my own actions and reality have mirrored that of our pizza-tossing hero. I've run out the door and hopped on my bike many mornings running late.
I take Springfield Ave to 47th. 47th to the Gaey's Ferry Bridge. On the Bridge I dodge broken glasses and nails in the barely existent bike lane while below me there's a brief marshy stretch of post-industrial wasteland along the banks of the Schuylkill. Then I turn right at the FedEx and boom! i'm at work. Just behind FedEx is the lot for Philadelphia Trolley Works/Big Bus Company. I work as a tour guide on top of a double decker bus.

It's sort of like this, except less nasally, obviously not in NYC, and in color:

Yes, my job might seem more interesting than that of our pizza shop protagonist. But I'm 10 years older than our hero, inevitably less handsome than the Corey look-alike who'd get cast in the movie and my boss isn't a fatherly small town business owner. Instead my boss is a cheapskate millionaire who barely maintains the 30 year old fleet of diesel-spewing vehicles, views his workers as expendable, and might just be cheating on his taxes.

Should I even put that in print?

Regardless, when I get to work sweaty, out of breath, and late there's no benevolent head shake and subtle smile. There's only the threat that I'll be removed from the schedule. And on rare occasions I have been sent home.

But when I do make it to work by the skin of my teeth (and the strength of my upper legs) I feel satisfied and alive. My blood is flowing and my heart's pounding. I've gone from 0 to wired in 10 minutes. "Teenage Riot" in my head is often the propulsion.
I sing it in my head, but I NEVER have it on headphones when biking.

For the record, I think riding with headphones in traffic is stupid and dangerous. If you throw in a fixed gear and no helmet, it's even more stupid. And this is coming from someone who broke his leg in a bike accident 2 1/2 years ago. So people you know DO get seriously hurt in bike accidents....rant over...and now back to our regularly scheduled RIOT-----

Sonic Youth had an incredible missed opportunity when they played a rare DIY(ish) R5 Productions show at the Starlight Ballroom here in Philly in the summer of '06. Naturally the show was sold out. Naturally it was incredibly hot. And not surprisingly, SY was late taking the stage. The fans were packed in and restless. Everyone was ready to rock out. "Teenage Riot"--- a classic beloved by hardcore fan and casual listener alike would've been the perfect opener. But no, the show started with a song off their most recent album, "Rather Ripped." It had been released just a few days prior. It seemed like few fans in attendance had heard the album and fewer had had time to digest and appreciate it.

Soon I'd grow to love "Rather Ripped." And while I may be in the minority here, it's become my favorite SY album. I like it better than then classic Daydream Nation that includes "Teenage Riot." Blasphemy? Perhaps, but I can't argue with the fact that I play DD maybe once for every 5 times I play RR.

Still, "Teenage Riot" is a great song and one of the best in the Sonic catalog. Anticipating the band taking the stage, I had visions of the entire place singing along to "Teenage Riot", people stage diving and generally losing their shit out of pure reckless joy.

Oh well. I'm sure the band has played the song literally hundreds of times. And their newer material is probably more meaningful and satisfying for them to play these days.
So it's understandable why they'd open the show with a new one.

But back to the song's video:

It captures the excitement of the song in a non-linear way that suggests the frenzy of my hypo-manic moodswing mind and what it's like to be teenager on a sugar high** . The video doesn't try to tell a story to go along with the song. It just gives a picture of pure yet unsteady energy and creative drive. And happiness! Everyone is smiling in the video. The 8mm footage of the band rocking out cartoonishly throughout the video makes them seem like a bunch of high schoolers in a basement who can't play their instruments but still have a great time making up for that lack with excitement and attitude. And then you've got guest appearances by a cavalcade of stars. These are the heroes of Sonic Youth. And some of them were my heroes too, intensely admired in my volatile high school days.

Each time I've watched the video, I've caught more faces.

Here's a partial list (some of these may be wrong since these clips shift so quickly) Quite literally, if you blink you might miss some one:

Patti Smith (twice!), Paul Reubens, Kiss, Iggy Pop, Jack Kerouac*, Henry Rollins, the Beach Boys, Sun Ra, Neil Young, MC5 (or at least their White Panther button), the Minutemen, Ian MacKaye, Joni Mitchell, and William Burroughs.
And during the instrumental break around the 3 minute mark, the visuals switch to a few seconds of just colored stage lights, evoking the feeling of incoherent "pure yet unsteady energy."

*This brief view of Kerouac comes from my favorite clip of him. Of all the heroes shown in the video, Kerouac was probably the most important and influential on me. I was drawn to the myth of Kerouac and the freewheelin' hitch-hiking life. I was fascinated that Kerouac's own writing and life didn't quite live up to his myth's promise.
He was a flawed, anxious, angry, alcoholic, contradictory, misogynist, bigoted man. He also wrote a lot of self-indulgent crap. And he kind of wrote the same book 10 times. But when he was good, he was GREAT. And he had a wonderful speaking voice. Most of his jazz + spoken word recordings don't really mesh. But this one does. This is everything I love about Kerouac condensed into three and a half minutes.

I love the way he says the word "rags" and his accompanying facial expression at 3:10.
His lost puppy dog expression during the closing applause makes me want to reach through the years give him a hug.

I read in his Selected Letter that he vomited immediately after leaving the stage.

**Also, while I'm off on a tangent, "Teenage Riot" would've made a much better closing song than "Sugar High" for the awful Empire Records movie. If Renee Zellweger and company had mimed on the marquee to this tune instead of what they actually used then maybe (just maybe) that movie could've been salvaged.

This relates to my 80s teen movie screenplay idea, though Empire Records was actually mid 90s vintage. I saw the movie for the first time this past year. And my initial urge was to throw the VHS to the curb. Any movie set at a record store has SO MUCH POTENTIAL (and "Hi Fidelity" actually delivered on that potential more or less.) There are so many opportunities to slip in music nerdiness-- such as cult classic bands on the sound track, cult classic band posters shown fleetly in the background of scenes, cult classic bands at least mentioned by the characters.

But no! Despite being set at a independent record store, fighting fiercely to maintain its independence, the Empire Recods store is a thinly-veiled shopping mall Sam Goody's. And on top of the disappointment of the movie's denial of the existence of any non-mainstream music,the plot calls for disbelief to be suspended at least 90 percent of the time. At least I saw the film after I already knew what could and could not happen in teenage lives. I feel bad for the kids who saw this when they were 12 and thought, "gee whiz, when I get to high school, it's gonna be awesome!"

Some of my friends love this movie out of pure nostalgia, but watching it just made me angry. The movie feels like a product of 50 year old suit-and-ties sitting around a Hollywood boardroom saying "now how can we tap into today's youth market?" but then moving forward on the project without actually consulting anyone younger than forty.

On the plus side, Liv Tyler is very attractive in the movie. As a product of Catholic Schooling, her short plaid skirts equal nostalgic hotness for me, though I think I prefer her as an elf.

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