“Smash the control images. Smash the control machine.” When William S. Burroughs penned those words in his 1961-published The Soft Machine, they defined more than their immediate context; smashing control was the purpose for the cut-up/fold-in format of The Soft Machine and the trilogy it belonged to, but it was also the general focus of Burroughs’s life’s work. Working from that premise, we can begin to understand what (former?) Sonic Youth guitarist/vocalist Thurston Moore meant when he presented his new band, Chelsea Light Moving, to the world and toted it as “Burroughs rock.”
To be sure, passing off your music as something that can be directly aligned with a highly esteemed thinker’s raison d’être involves no modest claim making, especially when the legend in question now resides beyond the grave and has no further say in the matter. But any question regarding Thurston Moore’s tact can probably be put to bed in this case; Chelsea Light Moving’s eponymous LP comes over 20 years after its songwriter earned Burroughs’s personal blessing when Sonic Youth’s music was featured on Burroughs’s own readings vs. music album Dead City Radio, and following the author’s death in 1997, Sonic Youth’s association with Burroughs was given further cultural approval when it was featured predominately throughout the 2010 documentary William S. Burroughs: A Man Within.
Sonic Youth never explicitly identified itself as “Burroughs rock,” though it was regarded that way anyway. But is Chelsea Light Moving a rightful heir to that throne solely for the virtue of Moore’s back catalogue?
The answer is an unmistakable No. And Burroughs wouldn’t approve of Moore doing something that was markedly faithful to the Sonic Youth formula, anyway. After all, he did say, “to become an individual again, [an individual must] decontrol himself, train himself as to what is going on and win back as much independent ground for himself as possible.” He associated true individuality with engaging in a Nietzschean sort of constant becoming.
In accordance with Burroughs’s penchant for personal overcoming, Chelsea Light Moving is no vanity project. Moore has done solo work before, but Chelsea Light Moving marks his first time at the helm of an actual band. That’s in stark contrast to how, with Sonic Youth, Moore shared creative responsibilities mostly with fellow guitarist Lee Ranaldo and bassist Kim Gordon (Moore’s wife until their divorce in 2011).
Style and content-wise, the album also offers a history that Burroughs himself could have provided, and they do it in a way that’s never been done before; Chelsea Light offers an unambiguous homage to its genre-sake with “Burroughs” (and Beat poetry more generally on “Mohawk,” which – with a late reference to Darby Crash – also serves as a premature segue for the group’s cover of the 1979 Germs track “Communist Eyes”); “Frank O’Hara Hit,” a track Moore described on the Matador blog as “a meditation on [Julys] through history,” is about the month that included the 1966 death of New York City poet Frank O’Hara; and along with its Germs cover, “Lip” serves as a tribute to hardcore punk from the ’80s, while the chugging “Alighted” digs into sludge elements born in the same decade.
Burroughs wanted to smash all notions of control, and with Chelsea Light Moving, Moore makes good business of the same pursuit. But with this being said, there’s an important way in which Sonic Youth excelled at a Burroughsian enterprise that Chelsea Light Moving ignores.
Some might find it unfair to hold Moore’s new band up against an older act that had time to grow and strengthen as an organism, but Moore and fellow Chelsea Light Moving members Samara Lubelski, John Moloney, and Keith Wood have been at the music game long enough, and the overlapping contexts and intentions of the two groups make comparison here relevant.
One of the greatest appeals of Sonic Youth was the group’s tendency to share the responsibility of songwriting/directing among its members and bounce off of each other’s ideas in a democratic fashion – best discernable in the noise rock meltdowns that made their way into so many Sonic Youth recordings. With Moore providing the sole vocals and his guitar weighing heavy in the mix, Chelsea Light Moving seems to rely on an authority that was less discernable in Sonic Youth’s more recognizably democratic output, and as a result – at least in a structural sense – seems at least marginally less concerned with smashing control than his former band.
But that shouldn’t count too heavily against Moore’s new group. Chelsea Light Moving is not without the collective tantrums of disparate noise that Burroughs must have loved about Sonic Youth, and when they provide those fits, they’re at their best.
Maybe through holding back on the anarchic noise meditations, Moore intended for his audiences to get hungry. If so, it worked.
(originally published by The Ontarion on March 20, 2013)