The band found fans in
America’s emerging punk clubs, and in Europe, where they were feted as the
next big thing. By 1988’s Daydream Nation, the band were
standard-bearers of the indie underground that now included hard-core punk
groups like Black Flag alongside more melodic, even tuneful groups like REM and The Replacements. (Critic Robert Christgau, an early doubter of the group, was
forced to gulp and admit that Daydream Nation constituted a
“philosophical triumph.”) Major labels came knocking. By 1990, Sonic Youth had
signed with David Geffen, effectively charting the underground’s pathway into
the byways of more MTV-friendly rock styles. Lollapalooza followed. And a Simpsons
cameo. By 2008, the band was releasing compilations displayed exclusively at
Starbucks coffee stores. Even more than Nirvana, Sonic Youth’s arc tells the
story of American indie rock, and its move from the margins to mainstream, in
miniature. But you’d never get this sense reading Moore’s book.

Sonic Life is
basically a by-the-numbers rock star bio, about a dweeby small-town kid who
falls in love with music, raids the cheap bins at records stores, cuts his hair
to look like Iggy Pop, and, in the late 1970s, moves to lower Manhattan to make
the scene. For its first hundred or so pages, Moore rattles off the names of
bands he saw, like a birdwatcher recounting their life list: Patti Smith,
Television, Suicide, New York Dolls, Siouxsie & the Banshees, The Nuns,
Wire, PiL, Crass, Ut, DNA, 8 Eyed Spy, Bush Tetras—bored yet? He rubs shoulders
with William Burroughs, Sun Ra, and Joey Ramone, casting himself as a
Zelig-like figure in the New York underground he would, in time, come to rule.

Moore’s writing is
often possessed of a grating imperiousness. He was “living in this city for the
ineffable connection it afforded us,” he writes of New York City in the late 1970s, “the wild community of artists, poets and musicians giving voice to an environment
rife with trash, chaos, and absurdity.” He is ahead of the curve on hard-core,
on hip-hop, and on any other genre regarded charily by the snootier members of
New York
’s “seen-it-all” scenesters. “To walk
into a CBGB matinee and see Bad Brains was to share a room with one of the
greatest bands in the history of rock ’n’ roll beyond any doubt,” he writes,
with the air of some conquistador of cool who believes he’s discovering

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