Sonic Youth: Chapel Hill
or all I know, Jesse H. may have been some popular North Carolina scenester, maybe an intern at Merge Records. But I don’t think it stretches the boundaries of interpretive credibility to conclude that when Thurston Moore sings, “Jesse H., come into our pit” near the end of “Chapel Hill,” he’s referring to Republican Senator Jesse Helms. The way I read the song, Thurston has already outlined a cryptic nightmare theory of American history, and he’s determined to save the country the only way he knows how: by rounding up a bunch of hardcore kids from Durham and getting them to stomp the notorious reactionary to smithereens in a mosh pit. It may not be as diplomatic as Bono’s recent evening of dining out with the still-existent Helms, but it gets the point across.
It’s not such an outlandish take on the song. Sonic Youth spent the 1980s as darlings of the New York City avant-garde, studying under composer Glenn Branca and writing songs about things like Madonna and Sean, Philip K. Dick’s schizophrenic fantasies, teenage riots, and their buddy J. Mascis. But after the band served as midwife to some of the crucial music of the “alternative rock” era (Dinosaur Jr., Mudhoney, Nirvana, etc.), it modified its trajectory, evolving (devolving, some would say) from extended noise jams to concise, albeit fractured, pop songs. Alongside this came a newfound political sensibility. The band had never lacked a political element, to be sure (Kim Gordon songs like “Brave Men Run” and “Flower” brought welcomed feminist perspectives to the often overly-phallic 1980s indie rock scene), but it’s hard to imagine Gordon asking Chuck D.’s Kool Thing to “liberate us girls from male, white, corporate oppression” before 1991’s Goo.
The next year Dirty extended the agitprop militancy; by the time “Chapel Hill” arrived late in the album, Gordon had already fended off sexist industry men, while Moore had called then-President George Bush a “war-pig fuck,” cracked some skinhead skulls, and consigned sexual-harassment-prone Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to the fires of hell (“I believe Anita Hill,” he proudly proclaimed—a bold comment for the time, given the mass media’s reluctance to endorse her accusations; also a prescient one, given rightwing smearmeister David Brock’s later confessions that he deliberately assassinated Hill’s reputation in an effort to assure the unqualified Thomas’ ascension to the bench). It’s no surprise that Helms would be next on the Sonic Youth hit list; the senator spent a career opposing abortion rights, supporting murderous dictators in Central and South America, fighting against a national holiday in recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr., and policing the National Endowment for the Arts in an effort to keep America safe from things like homosexuality.
“Chapel Hill” opens with a buzzing, melodic guitar line that could easily pass for grade-A Dinosaur Jr. or the titular city’s own Superchunk. But instead of describing agoraphobia, the pain of being rejected by girls, throwing things from trees or working crap jobs, it launches into a conspiratorial narrative of a “bookstore man” meeting the CIA. Does the bookstore man work in a book depository, perhaps? The chorus suggests so; it could well be the voice of John F. Kennedy looking through “the hair in the hole in my head” at a once-hopeful future foreclosed by a quagmire in Vietnam and nearly four decades of Republican (or, in the cases of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, closet Republican) warfare on social progress. That Kennedy was hardly the Great American Hero public memory would contend matters not; he’s simply a symbol, and the first verse also mentions “get[ting] the Cradle rocking,” a nice play on words that suggests the famous Cat’s Cradle near Chapel Hill in Carrboro but also recalls the leftwing 1937 musical play The Cradle Will Rock, which called bullshit on corporate greed and faced Helms-like government censorship (see Tim Robbins’ film of the same name for an underrated historical primer on the play).
The non-linear history lesson continues with the “terrorized face” of someone undergoing a political awakening after a “wasted life, Ameri-k-k-kan.” Is this the New Left of the 1960s, which often spelled the nation “Amerika”? Maybe it’s even Patty Hearst waking up as the gun-toting freedom fighter Tania. The stutter is no coincidence, of course: those triple K’s remind us of an organization Jesse Helms refused to condemn, except to equate it with civil rights groups as equally “extremist.” Sonic Youth responds by burning a flag; like the SLA (but less stupidly violent), they know they’re trapped with no chance of escape, but complacency is rejected as an option. In a sardonic twist on a theme song of ol’ Dixie, Thurston declares, “We’ll rise again.”
And indeed the forces of social justice will, but not before a breakdown. Sonic Youth needs no words to speed us through the intervening decades: Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley tell the tale in sound. Ranaldo’s guitar solo begins with a reiteration of the song’s original melody but moves up the fretboard with escalating paranoia, as clear individual notes recede into a fuzzed-out mania. Is this the optimism of the 1960s giving way to dissolution? Campuses were occupied, but the revolution never happened, and Ranaldo hits the bleak tone of mid-70s films like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View; this is the sound of a guitar that rightly suspects its own amp is out to get it. Shelley speeds it up as it goes, reflecting the late 70s – hell, Jimmy Carter’s own chief of staff and press secretary allegedly snorted some lines at Studio 54 – and ushering us into the 1980s. He hits the drums as hard as Reaganite social-welfare cuts hit the poor, and just as mercilessly.
Right as this noise-of-history peaks in intensity it breaks open into a few bars of feedback over Gordon’s bass plucking out a single note. The sound of the American people waking up to overthrow the forces of greed and reaction? Perhaps: Ranaldo gives us a few soaring notes that segue back into another verse with a hopeful crescendo. Our hero Thurston unmasks a “radical man” as a CIA stooge and says no, they’re not going to ruin our movement with plants the way they did the Black Panthers. And then comes the climax: rounding up “the Durham h.c. kids” and getting Helms into that pit. “All ages show,” he adds—no PMRC to put a parental advisory sticker on this revolution.
It’s all so inspiring it practically makes you think, “whew, good thing Thurston put America back on track in 1992.” Until the slow, final chorus reminds us, “it’s back in time again.” We didn’t get Thurston for President. For that matter, we didn’t get Jerry Brown or Bill Bradley, or even Al Gore. Instead, we got pseudo-liberal Clinton, who slashed welfare, signed NAFTA and the Defense of Marriage Act, and dropped bombs on developing nations to redirect attention from his personal scandals. And “back in time” doesn’t begin to describe Bush II, who has taken us into a Twilight Zone version of the 1920s where the Scopes Monkey folks weren’t the laughingstock of the nation but instead set social policy. Sonic Nurse was a great album a few years ago, but it’s time Thurston rounded up those hardcore kids again and finished the task.
By: Whitney Strub
Published on: 2006-02-01
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