Sonic Youth, Tom Verlaine, and Sean Lennon: NYC Style

Boston Phoenix, June 11th 1992

by Matt Ashare

New York City may be the metropolis that spawned the band who essentially created the buzzsaw blueprint for standard punk rock - the Ramones. But over the past two decades, most of the city's important underground rockers have left it to bands in other parts of the country (Orange County) and the world (London) to build directly on that foundation. Instead, the NYC post-punk/indie-rock scene has been ruled by an inventive, if sometimes chaotic, eclecticism of the sort practiced by the three groups who played the Palladium in Worcester last Saturday: Sonic Youth, Tom Verlaine (with Jimmy Ripp), and Sean Lennon (with a four-piece backing band).

It was Sonic Youth's night - they headlined in support of their new A Thousand Leaves (Geffen). But the Palladium was a proving ground for the opening act, 23-year-old Sean Lennon, who's touring for the first time ever as a solo artist behind his debut CD, I nto the Sun (Grand Royal). The son of John and Yoko, Sean charmed the young crowd early on by sheepishly expressing how "psyched" he was to be opening for "the Sonics -- they're fucking awesome." Then, with his girlfriend, Cibo Matto multi-instrumentalist Yuka Honda, to his right on keyboards, he led a tight band through a loose half-hour set that segued between moody psychedelic pop and grungy discord, metallic funk and Latin-tinged jazz, improvised jams and orchestrated vocal harmonies.

If Sean was there to represent the mix-and-match aesthetic of NYC's indie-rock new school, then guitarist Tom Verlaine, the former leader of Television, embodied the skewed classicism of the city's old guard. Paired with guitarist Jimmy Ripp, who supplied both atmospheric and rhythmic backdrops, Verlaine delivered an all-instrumental half-hour set that put an avant-garde twist on everything from bluegrass picking and surf riffing to a two-stepping waltz and a flamenco-tinged number. All in all it was probably more of a stretch for the audience, which offered polite applause, than for Verlaine, who's always been something of a self-taught virtuoso, and who seems happy enough leading a low-key life as a legend of the Lower East Side.

Picking up where Verlaine left off, Sonic Youth opened with a three-guitar instrumental full of fragile dissonance and explosive distortion - a kind of avant-garde arena rock. Then, with Kim Gordon switching to bass and Thurston taking over lead vocals, they tackled "Sunday," one of the poppier numbers from A Thousand Leaves. That was the tuneful exception in a 90-minute set that steered clear of familiar songs like "Schizophrenia" and "Teenage Riot" ("If we play that, then we're going to have to break out 'Jumpin' Jack Flash,' " was Moore's response to one request) in favor of challenging abstract jams like the new "Hits of Sunshine (for Allen Ginsberg)" and "Female Mechanic Now on Duty." It all ended more or less where Sonic Youth began almost two decades ago, with a free-form 10-minute assault of, well, New York-style noise.