Today’s song is the lead-off song on that fabled tape from my friend Tim that I keep referencing, winter 1989. In fact, I might say that this song set the tone of the tape and even after I acquired the rest of Sonic Youth’s landmark album Daydream Nation, “Teenage Riot” was the song that made me want to listen. The other song that never fails to give me a kick is “Total Trash.”
“Teenage Riot” was the single, and it “set the tone” because the guitars are so bright, with a definite sense of how to be melodic as well as noisy. And, while I tend to zone out on its vocals, there are lines that hit me with the force of the right thing at the right time, as, right enough for today “Everybody’s talking ‘bout the stormy weather,” but, in a more generally existential way: “Time to get it / Before you let it / Get to you.” Yeah, sure.
There’s a causalness to Thurston Moore’s vocals that appeals. It sounds like the song of someone who has it sussed. There’s this stated relation to the kids, the notion that a “teenage riot” is something that could matter. That’s rock’n’roll for ya. So much hope put upon the young, and so much effort to stir their energies. “Lookin’ for a ride to your secret location / Where the kids are settin’ up a free-speed nation for you.” Yeah! Free speed. We would all benefit.
And that, I guess, is why the adrenalin fairly cranks in this song. Speeded up, going to a go-go, sorta thing. A rave at some secret location where we will all just . . . ride feedback into the stratosphere. “Teenage riot in a public station / Gonna fight and tear it up in a hypernation for you.” That’s the downside, if you like. I mean, for some, fight and tear it up is the way to go. Because you’re pissed and hyper and why not riot about it. So, OK, sure. That’s there too.
I’m for riding on the somewhat laconically hopeful “I hope it works out my way.” And I take that as the song’s main perspective: “’Cause it’s getting kinda quiet in my city’s head / Takes a teenage riot to get me out of bed right now.” That’s the view of someone a bit older (the “youth” in Sonic Youth already a bit questionable), who is looking on and realizing he’s getting a bit too removed from the sources of his anxious art. This is the most expensive album SY made to that point and we might say they could almost be said to be becoming . . . comfortable. A teenage riot reaffirms things, kicks you in the ass, gets you out of bed. A rally! Take to the streets.
We’re off the streets now / And back on the road / On the riot trail Get back to where you once belonged. It’s all about those “Marshall stacks” anyway. I didn’t see SY live till much later—the Sonic Nurse tour I think—and I’ll always remember Moore climbing up on top of his amps to wrestle inspiring feedback out of his guitar. That’s what I call sticking to your guns.
I think this is the song for today for something like that reason. Just trying to stick to one’s guns is sometimes enough, “looking for a man with a focus and a temper” and hoping maybe to find him in the mirror. And it’s a song that, to me, feels right for this kind of season, as fall asserts its gloomier side and the air is electric with wind and the stirring sound of blown leaves. There’s a cold beauty in the sound SY create here, the sonic equivalent of a bracing breeze in the face, maybe laced with a bit of rain, as autumn turns the screws and beckons to winter.
Spirit desire / We will fall