On a personal note…with Gene Wagendorf III

On A Personal Note… The Diamond Sea

Gene Wagendorf III

This isn’t necessarily an essay about my favorite song. It’s not necessarily not that either.

I spent a couple weeks debating what song I wanted to tackle for On A Personal Note…, but in hindsight the choice seems obvious. The guidelines for this piece were sparse: “do a bit on a song that [you] feel a deep personal connection with” and in terms of length, “a paragraph on ‘Landslide,’ a 5-page diatribe on ‘Mambo No. 5,’ you’re the one writing it, so it is whatever you want.” After a little time revisiting with old favorites and new ear-worms, I settled on a song I’ve known for roughly twenty years in a variety of ways.

I’d like to introduce, or welcome you back to, Sonic Youth’s “The Diamond Sea.”

The song begins with a gorgeous, rippling Lee Ranaldo melody, its notes peacefully drifting over Steve Shelly’s gentle patter. Kim Gordon, a bassist who isn’t the first to come to mind when I think nuance, offers a ripe, warm bass line that bubbles beneath Thurston Moore’s dreamy vocals. This kind of serenity could not have been farther from what I experienced listening to Sonic Youth’s previous record, Experimental Jet Set Trash And No Star, which I received in 6th grade as a present from my uncle’s then-girlfriend Wendy.

Experimental Jet Set

Aiming to get me something different from the Smashing Pumpkins and Offspring records I constantly played, she gave me the gift at my grandparents house after dinner. I remember spending the rest of the night sprawled across a couch in their living room, staring at the CD’s four interchangeable covers and imagining what it would sound like when I got home. The album proved to be difficult for Young Me, especially given how desperately I wanted to like it. Other than “Bull in the Heather” and “Tokyo Eye,” which I did enjoy, the bulk of the record was so far from the 90s alternative rock radio I usually enjoyed that I was overwhelmed. Feeling pressure not to disappoint Wendy or my Uncle Rich, I of course told them I loved it.

You can probably guess what happened that Christmas. Rich bought me Sonic Youth’s latest record, Washing Machine.

The song drifts along for the better part of three minutes before the lead guitar lays on a dose of frothing, hot lava. The tension starts to build, Kim’s bass picking up pace, almost an alarm, before a shriek of bright, needling guitar pushes the song into a bristling noise-jam. The rhythm section keeps the madness moving forward, keeps throwing up a regular signal beneath the white-hot, whose-fuzz-is-scratchier-than-whose competition that Ranaldo and Moore are engaged in. Then, just as you’ve settled into that groove, the bottom drops out. Especially when you’ve taken LSD.

My first time listening to “Diamond Sea” while doing some psychedelic exploring actually involved mushrooms, which in my experience have been the perfect drug for music. Sprawled out on the floor of my partner Mac’s apartment while tripping to Mingus, I was closest to the turntable when the record finished. I thumbed through her LPs until I found Destroyed Room, a 2006 b-sides and rarities album whose fourth side is a twenty-five minute, extended version that appeared on the “Diamond Sea” single.

diamond single

The beauty of the opening sequence was perfectly amplified by the psilocybin- each tone warmer, each echo of sound lingering longer, the timbre brighter, the feeling of the instruments playing just over my shoulders, of being able to sense a physical weight in the room created by the swirling sound, my whole body electric and tingling and warm. When the cacophony hit I just rode the wave, and when it all was boiled down to a daunting electric throb I just slid through to the light on the other side.

But another time, laying around in Mac’s bed after eating some acid, we’d put on the vinyl copy of Washing Machine I’d hunted down for her birthday. When that same moment hit I didn’t slide through anything seamlessly. I heard a haunted locomotive barreling through a plague of locusts before it eventually eased back into the main melody near the 7:13 mark. Didn’t ruin the trip, but it didn’t leave me anxious to return.

We get some more of Lee’s spacey guitar, and another achingly tender refrain from Thurston, before the song drifts off again, this time into a soft focus collage of blinking and humming guitars and fairy-dust cymbal splashes. When the mood does inevitably shift it’s less ominous; a meditative drone that seems both intimate and limitless. The way Sonic Youth seems to indulge in each of these movements is a reflection of their attitude across the whole record, which was recorded at Easley Studios in Memphis. It was the band’s first time recording outside of New York City, and Moore told CMJ in 1995 that Memphis “lent itself to avoiding the reality of the record-buying public. In the past we were always very aware of who was out there checking us out. This was the first record where we’ve gotten this certain level of notoriety and we were just, like, ‘fuck it.'”

At roughly the 15:00 mark, Moore says “fuck it” and unleashes a barrage of wildness; bent and tangled sounds forcing everything else to the background until he too fizzles out and the song fades away.

CD Insert

When I brought my copy of Washing Machine home on Christmas, I benefited from a) having a better idea of what to expect, and b) the fact that it’s a far better record than Jet Set. It has more hooks, more deceptively accessible moments from which to ease into the weirdness. “Diamond Sea” is the embodiment of that for me, on Washing Machine and in my life. The song was the catalyst for my discovery of noise and no-wave, my interest in Sonic Youth, and then the old New York scene and those bands, and then the current groups who’d come up listening to them. A lot of what I consider my favorite music today is stuff I was exposed to because of the path I chose to explore thanks to “Diamond Sea.” If that’s not a “deep personal connection,” than I don’t know what is.

While this isn’t necessarily my favorite tune for all occasions, or the first jam I put on at parties, it might be the song I’m most connected to, and how can you not call that a favorite? It’s a complicated feeling about a complicated song. Part of what makes the below live performance in Germany from 1996 so incredible is how the level of sprezzatura Sonic Youth approaches their own “serious music” music. Making full use of the freedom afforded by the song’s structure, the band does even further experimenting. Ending a series of lysergic jams with a lengthy freakout, Kim, Lee and Steve walk off stage one by one. As the final warbles warble and the last weird recordings of laughter fade, Thurston ends Sonic Youth’s performance by simply, enthusiastically shouting “Goodbye!”

You can find Gene’s writings on today’s music on Midwest Action