Lee Ranaldo: Hello from the American Desert

How can a book review capture a live concert experience?

I picked up this chapbook last February in Sydney for AU$15 after seeing Lee Ranaldo’s band Sonic Youth perform its 1988 album, Daydream Nation, in its entirety at the Enmore Theatre. While that concert was the most electrifying experience of my gig-going career (thanks again Joey!), it makes me sad to say that this little chapbook, for all its literary innovations, does not live up to expectations stoked by Ranaldo’s previous writings, including the stone-cold classic Road Movies.


Hello from the American Desert
Text by Lee Ranaldo
Artwork by Curt Kirkwood
Introduced by Todd Colby
Silver Wonder Press (USA, 2007)

Perhaps some context is required. Along with the book, my copy of which was signed by Lee Ranaldo, one of only one thousand ever printed, (note: now selling on eBay for US$11.45), I also bought an original Daydream Nation tour t-shirt, with the album cover (Gerhard Richter’s ‘Kerze’) printed on the front, against the background of an electric guitar, drumsticks threaded between its strings. Or at least I thought it was an original. I turned it over and saw written across the back ‘Australian Tour 89′, which was all well and good. Except the ’89’ had been crossed out, only to be replaced by a big, goofy, handwritten ‘2008’.

Ranaldo, who plays guitar and sometimes sings songs that are peppered with spoken-word phrasing interspersed with streaks of melody, is perhaps less prolific (in terms of song-writing) than other members of Sonic Youth, but he has nevertheless also built a reputation as a writer, lyricist and performer. These diverse performance interests have played out and evolved over decades.

Clearly, for Ranaldo, and for Sonic Youth, to perform songs from Daydream Nation again (earlier incarnations of which they had been reportedly paid over US$500,000) was a loaded occasion, ripe for disaster but when I saw them perform that night, I realised that while the years may have changed their movements onstage, nothing lacked in their postmodern commitment.

Ranaldo played upon this obvious time-shift in his almost note-perfect rendition of ‘Hey Joni’ with its strident cyberpunk lyrics (caps intended!):


and the closing refrain, a spoken string of years, updated for this 21st century audience:

IT’S 1963
IT’S 1964
IT’S 1962
IT’S 2007*

*Even though it was already 2008, at this crucial moment the song (and the first half of the original LP) changed direction, spiralling rather than progressing episodically.

Contrasted with Thurston Moore’s almost maniacal cry of ‘See you in the future!’ at the concert’s end, Ranaldo’s seemed a more ironic referencing of his own song, no less obvious, in a sense, than the tour shirt’s crossed out ’89’ – but in this setting, what struck me was the impact of Ranaldo’s voice when synchronised perfectly with the band’s flatbed of noise.

Just as the career of Sonic Youth — for whom Daydream Nation was their last album on an independent label — has since 1988 diversified and evolved, so too has the writing craft of its individual songwriters. Thurston Moore has released several books of poetry on his own Ecstatic Peace! label; Ranaldo’s Road Movies (recently re-released by Soft Skull Press on its 10th anniversary) combined to great effect his Beat-inspired lyrical fragments and photography.

Take this excerpt from ‘Me and Jill’ (full text online here):

We had just left shore when everything began to happen at once. The water came in and we started to go down. I looked to Jill and she looked back, thinking it would be alright to go down. Then the railings broke and the motors went. The hall emptied out, no-one left for the band. The amps all wet, speakers burst. Everything soaked. We, up three flights, tried to meet up with the galley crew but it seemed everyone had gone. We had a smoke to pass some time. Jill said ‘I’d love to, right now’. What could I say? We did while the waters rose, licking our feet. It was fun and funny so we laughed. I loved the way she could laugh. So full bodied.

The contrast between Road Movies and the collection under review could not be more vivid in terms of production qualities. Silver Wonder Press, from what I can gather on their website, and on the Sonic Youth fan forums, is a low-budget operation, completely lo-fi if you will (although only available online and using a credit card).

A later post from the Silver Wonder Press to the SY forums informed fans that they would now be selling signed copies of the book for US$25, and unsigned copies for US$15. Meanwhile, back on eBay, other Ranaldo paraphernalia goes for as much as US$40 a copy, mostly for CDs or vinyl. Clearly there’s a thriving trade in SY paraphernalia. But where does this little book (and its critical reception) sit within that trade?

As can be seen from the front and back cover images, Hello From the American Desert is a book of (deliberate?) contrasts. On the front cover we have a crayon or pencil illustration by Kurt Cirkwood, who you might be surprised to know (if you don’t already, of course) is a member of a band by the name of the Meat Puppets.

I’m really not sure what to say about the front cover except that compared to other Ranaldo covers, it doesn’t really seem to communicate with the book’s contents, more with its title. It’s a performance of a kind of ironic (or maybe not) naivety, or throwaway zine. Is this a bad thing? It’s certainly an arresting and almost expectation-clearing introduction to the book but is it effective enough, when compared with the back cover’s more self-consciously cut-and-paste zine-ness?

On the back cover we get an author bio. Beside the bio we see the author himself, looking suitably professorial, clutching a green bag, possibly waiting for a subway in some unnamed Asian city. This is the Professor as we have come to know him: bookish, but also in transit, perpetually shifting perspective. He’s the kind of American you’d love to run into in some hypercool Shinjuku bar, arranging flight and transmission schedules over a glass of sake, beer chaser (no nuts). He’s the Bill Murray of American independent music. He’s on tour.

Nowhere is this character more present in Hello from the American Desert itself than in the fantastic blast of ‘Mexico City D.F.’:

Oct 21 2004
Well not recommended every night but tonight tequila and a little good mexican weed did the trick–show off the edge/perfection/crowd wild and knew every word/blast
off. The past. The future. The here and right now ….

This is vintage Ranaldo, right on the edge of the stage, willing the moment to sound-power. I myself had experienced a kind of mind-fusion with Ranaldo the first time I saw Sonic Youth live, in the early 1990s at Selina’s in Coogee (the ‘Dirty’ Tour).

My friend R. and I were in the front row, crowded in by the swirling pit behind us and the incredibly loud band on stage in front of us, when all of a sudden Ranaldo held his guitar out into the audience, and all the crushed, deaf and drunk front row diehards reached out to hit those guitar strings, to grab hold of them, try and bend them loose.

I remember theorising in my addled state that just by touching the guitar, I was adding to the noise (and therefore the overall enjoyment) of the gig. I do not recall, however, being able to make out a single word being said during that song.

Crucially, in a live context, Sonic Youth take on these kinds of performances with ease. What then can we say about the differences between these performances and the performances referred to by a chapbook such as … American Desert?

For, in essence, this book at first plays like a performance of a kind of engagement with technology (in this case spam email messages) that’s both naive and noisy. There’s a lot of noise in this book. There’s a multi-page spread of text in large courier font that hurts even my rudimentary designer’s eyes. There’s randomly-generated and copied texts that are almost asking not to be read.

I find this interesting from an artistic perspective, as it suggests the still-nascent recordings of an individual engagement. In other words, the poems read as if they’re underdone. It’s fascinating to read Ranaldo’s comments on ‘spam poetry’, as much for how they ‘ironise’ attempts to classify poetry in these jargonistic ways:

Lee: Well you know, it’s funny because it’s only since the book came out that I had any notion that anybody else was treading in this area. I had no idea that there was a group of people working on this out there. There’s even a book called The Anthology of Spam Poetry or something. I don’t know if you’ve come across that? …

Vish: I see, so it’s not just spam, it’s your voice in these poems?

Lee: Oh, most definitely; I would say almost 100 percent. Actually this is interesting because when I finally got a hold of that spam Anthology recently, most of that stuff is pretty much taken from those emails and left alone- that Viagra and penis enlargement sort of stuff. So I didn’t feel too much kinship with that Anthology, just because with mine, it’s a jumping off point but, in the end, they are as much my poems as any other poems I’ve published and less indebted to the original emails except in the fact that, you read these subject headings- like one of my poems is called “Consumptive Detente Closeup” and it’s this whole little world of crazy images right there. So, I kind of go from there and work off the subject matter inherent in those words but, by the time they’re done, I’ve definitely put a lot of my own work in and really shaped them into poems in the traditional sense.

I’ve quoted this in full because if you’re an avid reader of the Pitchfork news RSS, you’d have the impression that all of the poems in this collection have been composed entirely of spam. Clearly, this is not the case. Take ‘Chingy’, a poem that turns out in the end not to be about the rapper of the same name, but something else entirely, a post-futurist Vegas:

monorails and garbage pails
drunk mexicans
spanish playboys
trailer homes on the edge of town
sittin in the dusty dusk
and the sound of the
stupid slots chings away

A second crafted poem follows, the wonderfully whigged-out ‘Our Music’:

our music is unintelligible
flying low under the radar
of yr average radiohead
there for the plucking
yet almost silent
undiscovered still like some
new and ancient language
keeping secrets

Does this read to you like a spam email poem? Or take ‘Manlee’:

Why do we turn the Manley off but not anything else?
Can’t we leave it on like the rest?
Does it overheat?
Did NS-10s blow a fuse?

Clearly, Ranaldo is trying to have it both ways – a good half of these forty pages are in fact experiments in spam poetry; but a significant minority of poems are approaching the standard of earlier collections.

This being said, you can probably guess the spirit and tone of poems with titles like ‘Consumptive Detente Closeup’, ‘Astronomy Cervix Mailbox’ and the grimly violent ‘Next Possible Victim’. As ever, the success of poems written using these methods (whether or not their practitioners are aware of each others’ efforts) varies, in accordance with the laws of chance.

I myself have conducted some search/spam/FLARF/CG poetry experiments over the years, and am the first to admit most of them were failures. It’s good to see Ranaldo playing with the form, although by the time we get to ‘All The Stars In The Sky’, a nine page stream of consciousness pastiche of words in that gigantic glaring Courier font, we’re barely reading.

To conclude, as a fan of Sonic Youth and Lee Ranaldo I found this chapbook engaging; however, I don’t think it will be seen in the long-term as a more than a passing contribution to a form too many others are busily engaging themselves in defining.

In the end, though, while I’m not a fan of the cover artwork per se, I’m more than grateful for Lee Ranaldo’s signature on the front page of the book, a detail that is sure to add value to its price the day I decide to auction it off online. Any bidders?

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