5.9.13

LEE IS FREE: Our 10 Favorite Lee-Sung Sonic Youth Songs







WORDS BY JEN MAY & ELIZABETH BARKER, IMAGE BY JEN MAY

Lee Ranaldo and his new band Dust have an album coming out next month, it's called Last Night on Earth and you can listen to the song "Lecce, Leaving" here. But really this post has nothing to do with Last Night on Earth and we're just writing it because WE LOVE LEE RANALDO and all the great songs he wrote in Sonic Youth. Here are our ten faves.


ERIC'S TRIP (Liz)

Last week I read a Pitchfork thing about Daydream Nation, and there's a line about how "Lee, being Lee, exists on some more mystical future/past plane, located in dreams & open fields instead of on the Bowery," which is a very lovely and true sentence. It's fun to make fun of Sonic Youth, but I never want to make fun of Lee: there's so much generosity in his voice and lyrics, and I can't think of many other singers who so consistently communicate wide-eyed-ness in their delivery. Lee is never impressed with himself, and that's a great thing to pull off as a guitar player for Sonic Youth.
       But maybe my favorite thing about Lee is he sings in exclamation points. He sounds so truly excited about everything he's singing! It's very sweet, and it makes me excited too! When Lee sings "My head's on straight! My girlfriend's beautiful! It looks pretty good to me!", I become that boy and I'm also stoked about my mental clarity and my beautiful girlfriend. Lee and his groovy optimism, I'm so eternally into it.

WISH FULFILLMENT was the first Lee song I ever heard. I was sitting on the floor at my friend Pat’s. I picked up the Dirty CD off the floor and sort of absentmindedly looked at it, unfolding the insert. I stared at the Mike Kelley sock people and stuffed animals and wasn’t sure how I felt about it. I think I imagined Sonic Youth as something different. The next day in school Pat gave me the CD to borrow. He saw me looking at it and thought I should listen to it. It’s not an exaggeration to say it changed me as a person. Or maybe it was more like as I listened to it on headphones that night I realized OH MY GOD THIS IS WHO I WANT TO BE. I was already sold listening to "100%". It was so cool. Then "Swimsuit Issue"! Kim! Kim was my everything. I would read interviews with her and seek out whatever she liked and learn about it. I feel like on my first listen "Wish Fulfillment" must have gotten lost in the mix of my unquenchable thirst for more songs by Kim/women in general. I grew to love it.
        Obviously, "Wish Fulfillment" is about a relationship. Maybe it's a romantic one. I associate the song with friendship. I'm still friends with Pat. It was his birthday last week. He lives in Louisville now, not on Long Island.
       As a teen baby I think I thought about movie stars and dream lovers when I heard this song. When I hear it now I think of friendships that don’t exist anymore and also vaguely of the Steely Dan song “Peg” (I think it’s ‘see your face in a magazine’/ ‘your name in lights etc’). I can’t remember exactly who was sitting in Pat’s room when I was looking at the CD, but I have an idea. I don’t talk to my high school BFF anymore. We drifted away from each other in college and I tried to give the relationship a refresh after hearing she was married and feeling so strange that I had no idea. It was very awkward and unfamiliar. It was over. Someone else in that room isn't alive anymore. Another I recently fell out of friendship with for reasons that aren't exactly clear to me.
       Lee's talk/yells to me are all about the heartbreak of being a social being, of loss, of change. It makes me think of missing people you don’t know anymore. (Jen)




IN THE KINGDOM #19 (Liz)

I got Evol for Christmas when I was fifteen. I remember opening my presents Christmas morning and then going back up to my room and lying in my twin bed by the window and reading Lisa Crystal Carver's amazing liner notes and listening to the CD and the light was all bright and white, reflecting the snow outside. "Expressway to Yr Skull" was the first song I loved on Evol ("We're gonna kill the California girls" is a very hot lyric when you're a shy teenager in 
Massachusetts), but I appreciated what I recognized as the "Kerouac-y-ness" of "In the Kingdom #19."
         When I was 15 I pretended to love Jack Kerouac because I thought it meant I was deep. Lots of kids probably do this, and that's fine - I mean you gotta start somewhere, in terms of finding your way out to something wilder than what you already know. Pretending something means something to you even though it doesn't mean much is still meaningful; it's part of becoming what you are. I didn't like reading On the Road but I liked listening to "In the Kingdom #19": it was fast and crazy and a little bit scary and possibly sexy, a three-and-a-half shortcut to whatever fucked-up wisdom I thought I was supposed to get from Jack Kerouac.
         "In the Kingdom #19" was Lee talking weird shit about "the road," about highways and tunnels and mirages and ghosts, about vehicularly murdering small animals with zero regret. In the liner notes Lisa Crystal Carver said that "Smoke and flames, all right" was "the ultimate hipster response to disaster," and I didn't really get the joke. The song sounded pretty dangerous to me and it still sounds a little dangerous now, even though it also sounds sort of lame. "In the Kingdom #19" is dangerous and lame and what I love most is the last minute, when the drums and guitars get all dramatic and Lee says "In panic I forget it, in despair I need it, in my mind I save it, in death I have it," which is another thing that must mean something about something. The thing about loving Sonic Youth when you're a kid is they talk all this shit you don't understand and you pretend to understand because you want to understand, and then you grow up and you still don't completely understand except now you don't care anymore, because really who gives a fuck, just live your life! And you can be mad at Sonic Youth for making you feel slightly bad about your uncoolness all those years or you can just be okay with the idea of their giving you the feeling that there are unknown worlds out there and that there's something exciting and motivating about the mystery of that. So I pick the latter.
       And then at the very end of "In the Kingdom #19" Thurston says "Never gave a damn about the meter man till I was the man who had to read the meters, man" and his voice is real low and good, creepy and deep. I wrote those words on a bathroom wall once when I was 26 and I've got no idea what they mean either. Oh and did you know the reason Lee screams at 0:55 is Thurston set off a bunch of firecrackers and threw them into the recording booth? God what an asshole JK THURSTON I LOVE YOU FOREVER YOU ARE STILL MY FAVORITE, ALWAYS

SKIP TRACER (Jen)

Lee is from Long Island and lives in New York City. Me too! My love and idealism for The City (that's what it's called if you're from Long Island) is very much entwined with Lee’s lyrics about it, and also Woody Allen movies. Of course, Lee lived in New York City when I was being born and we’ve had vastly different experiences here. Still, his experiences have shaped my Big City thoughts. I don’t listen to Washing Machine too often these days, but the lyrics of "Skip Tracer" & "Saucer-Like" are imprinted in my brain. They got mixed in there with my teenage daydreams of what life in New York would be like. They come out all the time while I’m walking around. In Manhattan on a disgusting summer day when your skin feels like it’s on fire and everything smells like hot garbage I thought of Lee singing "I’m from New York City - breathe it out, and let it in." When I smell bagels in the air on a crisp autumn morning I think of that line.
      Sometimes I realize I’m walking around thinking "soul merge ideas of songforms" or something just over and over again. "Row house Row House pass through!" "Twister, dust buster, hospital bed." His words for the city have seeped into my brain and are now my unconscious daily thoughts.
      The smell of fellow commuters coffee in the morning. The psychotic rage I can feel at the pace someone ahead of me is walking. Seeing Yoko Ono and Patti Smith in the same week. My studio flooding. Friends moving away because it’s too expensive. Friends coming back. Diners. Pizza. Film Forum’s popcorn. Seeing every movie. Cher’s accent in Moonstruck. So many people. My shitty old apartments. My current apartment that feels so right.  Walking to see Weed Hounds. $12 cocktails. $2 PBRs. $6 PBRs. Cats in windows. Stray cats. Bodega cats. Bodegas, in general. My cats. Walking up 4 flights. Chic women in shades. Drunk pervs. The heat, the snow, the fall, the spring. The pond with ducks and remote control sail boats. Trash. Beautiful brownstones. Hideous condos. Museum lunch breaks. So much coffee. Breath it out, and let it in.

KAREN REVISITED (Liz)

When I first moved to L.A. I had a job deep in the Valley and that autumn there were terrible wildfires and from my office you could see the flames out on the horizon, in the mountains to the north. I started loving "Karen Revisited" around the time of the fires, and the lyric that got me the most was "Down beneath the radar screen, she's lit up like gasoline." I had some idea that it was Lee singing for girls who like to hide, and I liked his recognizing girls with secrets. Not in some humblebraggy-annoying way, like how Thurston really goes out of his way to prove he's so down for the girl cause. I love Lee because he seems in awe of girls, instead of constantly reminding us what a rad feminist he is. Lee's songs are my favorite Sonic Youth love songs because they are so much about the object. There's a dreamy passiveness to him that I find honorable and endearing.

HOARFROST (Jen)

I used to listen to "Hoarfrost" on trains. If I was taking a train I brought A Thousand Leaves to listen to on my hot pink discman, end of story. First I’d listen to "Hoarfrost," then the rest of the album. It’s kind of an obvious train song – trees, passing trees, passing signs along the road. Whatever, it felt comforting. It works - riding the train to Long Island or Princeton or Connecticut. Trees passing Trees passing signs along the road.
      At some point in college (just kidding, art school) my friend Adam got really into "Hoarfrost." Adam is super skilled at slightly altering letters/words to make sentences/titles/lyrics more perfect. My perennial favorites are: Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dad and I can still hear you saying you will never break the chair. For a while whenever either of us listened to the song we'd text each other variations on "peas pass the peas pass the ice cream a la mode," "leaves pass the leaves pass the thyme on the go," "sieves draining sieves draining sand upon my toe" or whatever.
      It's a hauntingly beautiful song that makes me feel like I have just come inside from the cold. You’re warm, looking out a window at dark white snow, with images of the lamps from inside reflecting back at you.

WITHIN YOU WITHOUT YOU (Liz)

I love this version more than the original. I'm not entirely comfortable with those being my feelings, but I'm almost at the point of accepting them. I think it's got a lot to do with the drums, which get really intense halfway through and do something crazy and serious to me. But it's also everything to do with the way Lee sings it - you can feel him believing in the song itself, and that's easier for me to latch onto then George Harrison believing in vedantic philosophy. Believing in Lee Ranaldo believing in George Harrison is my version of spiritualism, or at least it's one dimension of it.

HEY JONI (Jen)

My mom’s name is Joni, J-O-N-I. It’s a name people weirdly have a hard time with and will often read as “Johnny”, even though, hello! Joni Mitchell! It’s not a super common name so I remember thinking it was pretty cool for my mom to have this cool song with her name it. I clearly remember playing it for her in the car as a teenager. She was driving me somewhere, probably to Pat’s or the doctor and I was like, hey mom, check it out! This song is called HEY JONI and it’s SO COOL! She wasn’t as impressed with it as I was, or at all. In retrospect maybe it is weird to have your teen daughter playing you a song sung to someone with your name with lyrics like "your life is such a mess"!

Extra Bonus: My mom’s middle name is Lee.

WHAT WE KNOW (Liz)

The first time I heard "What We Know" was the last time I'll ever see Sonic Youth. It was on the river in Brooklyn in the middle of the August and I'd gotten to the show late because New York confuses me and I never not go the wrong way whenever I'm going anywhere. Anyway, usually I don't like it when bands play songs I don't know, but I loved "What We Know" right off the bat. I like how heavy and in-your-face it is, how Lee sounds like he's singing something really important. It's not that important, though: it's just Lee's weird world. It doesn't have much bearing on anything. I relate to just existing in your weird world and being stoked on it and exuberantly making observations about all the beautiful-to-you shit all around. Lee's just a starry-eyed poet singing nothing-meaning things like "Forever means the night turns gold"; he's a seer. And "I'll drink a case of you" - is that a Joni Mitchell reference? Lee is just the best dude.

PIPLINE/KILLTIME (Jen)

I wanted to write something about Early Lee. Earlier than this, but also this. Something about being really loud and noisy while also gentle and kind. Something about poetry and language and aging. I can't articulate it. I think maybe Lee kind of says it for me at the end of this song:

Endless, revolt
The shifting of light and shadows
No one is right,nothing is solid
Nothing can be held in my hands for long

We should kill time

8 comments:

  1. Yes! Lee's always been my favorite SYouther and it's so nice to see others appreciate him. "Wish Fulfillment" may be the first SY song that didn't just like and respect but absolutely loved. It amused me that he had the closest thing to a conventionally good voice in the band and yet gravitated towards those story songs, especially since when he went the more traditional route, he was so damn good at it.

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    1. whoa i never really thought about that before, about lee's voice. cool point!

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  2. This post makes me wish I liked sonic youth which is amazing because usually I'm pretty into how I don't. Great work, you too!

    Something I like a lot about lee ranaldo is how he's got one of those faces where you can look at him and picture EXACTLY what he looked like when he was a baby.

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    1. thanks! and that's true!

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  3. One of my favourite Lee songs was always Mote. When I bought Goo, Mote was the song I listened to most.

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    1. Oh yeah, I just recently discovered this song actually. It's a cool one.

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  4. Saucer-Like!! Saucer-Like!!
    Saucer-Like!! Saucer-Like!!
    Saucer-Like!! Saucer-Like!!

    I love Saucer-Like.
    But I was just listening to Wish Fulfilment and suddenly clicked that it was a Lee song after having reviewed his acoustic album last year. Wish Fulfilment has been a huge favourite ever since I first heard the album.

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  5. Great list, I'm really glad I found it (albeit pretty late)! I'm also a big fan of Lee's music, both his contributions to SY and his solo material - I second the previous commentator's love for "Mote" and I add "Genetic", which I believe is a real hidden gem of a song :)

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