Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Sound of the City

Shock Treatment

The morning of July 4 in Orange, California, Sonic Youth driver Bill Ryan got a nasty surprise in the Ramada Inn parking lot: the brand new Ryder truck he'd left there around 1 a.m. was gone, and so was all the band's gear--amps, tools, and their legendary collection of customized guitars. Borrowing equipment (which they restrung before retuning) from Sleater-Kinney, Superchunk, Guided by Voices, and others performing at the This Ain't No Picnic festival, they managed to bring off their headlining set. Where ordinarily they intersperse old and new material, they divided it into simpler chronological batches. Even at that, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo needed half a dozen guitars apiece.

Sonic Youth creates songs for individual guitars the way Duke Ellington composed for individual musicians. So beyond the pain of losing old friends that have been with the band forever, the cost of obtaining new stuff (which insurance will ease), and the many hours of labor that will go into removing standard knobs and pickups and building each guitar back up again, this means some recent repertoire will be transmuted or altogether lost. Still, once Ranaldo came out of shock he could see silver linings. "A line has been drawn for us in the sand. We'll have to find new instruments and look forwards instead of back." Also, the revised sets were exhilarating: "For some members of the audience it really made a lot of sense to see how we'd progressed."

It would be even more exhilarating, however, to get some gear back. The truck soon showed up empty in downtown L.A. But if anybody should run across a '60s Fender Concert amp with a hand-painted Jasper Johns-style target on it, or a '60s Fender Jazzmaster with its collectible stock pickups irreverently replaced, contact Aaron Blitzstein at 212-343-2314 or the band at No pranks, please. Really.

Village Voice, July 27, 1999