All whirlwind, heat & flash

Posted on December 13, 2008


By Darran Anderson

“I stole my sister’s boyfriend. It was all whirlwind, heat, and flash. Within a week we killed my parents and hit the road.”

Brainchild of literary dynamo Peter Wild, The Empty Page is an intriguing, even beguiling proposition. Whilst the earlier The Fall-inspired book in the series made immediate sense (the fragmented offbeat stories matched superbly the fragmented offbeat ramblings of Mark E Smith), a Sonic Youth literary tribute is a more slippery beast to get a handle on. Sonic Youth are cool to the point of distraction. Everything about them was and remains terminally hip. The avant garde pretensions (Raymond Pettibon, Gerhard Richter and Richard Avedon record sleeves, the Fluxus and Outsider Art allusions as well as the whole feedback as sound art) rankle and inspire in equal measure but frankly if you produce intermittently stunning albums like Sister, Goo, Daydream Nation and Dirty you’ve earned the right to do whatever the fuck you like. How their hipster allure would translate into writing may not be immediately evident but it’s clear from the off that, like The Fall book Perverted by Language, the influence is a cyclical one: Sister being partially based on Philip K Dick’s ghost twin to say nothing of Lee Ranaldo’s prodigious literary output.

So what does The Empty Page offer? Well the ways of approaching the theme are manifold; there’s the straight-up literal path, directly incorporating the lyrics and the mythology of the band or there’s the stories that strike off into uncharted territory using the music as a departure point. One enlightening suggestion comes from contributor J. Robert Lennon, who attributes the importance of Sonic Youth to their attitude of ripping it apart and putting it back together again. It’s this mix of styles and deconstructionist ethic that makes The Empty Page so successful, a treasure trove to be explored and poured over as any vinyl collection.

Any such project succeeds or fails on the quality of it’s contributors and the assembled cast ably rise to the challenge. The aforementioned Lennon’s ‘Death to Our Friends’ is a touching, eerie elegiac piece, counterpoint to the cacophonous equally eerie original composition. The evasive mysterious nature of Sonic Youth is expanded upon by Matt Thorne who describes their importance as being due to their lyrics always pointing to something secret. His tale of modern living and the dysfunction of the city dweller, ‘Disappearer’ changes into something entirely different and entirely remarkable. Equally alluring are Scott Mebus’ curveball take on ‘Bull in the Heather’, Rebecca Godfrey’s confessional ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ and Mary Gaitskill’s near fairy-tale reminiscence ‘Wish Fulfillment’ sparked by a song which “caught me when I was falling, years ago, falling through the trapdoor in my living room floor many years ago.”

As befits the band, the book is full of contradictions. Sonic Youth have faultless punk/no wave credentials and yet go off on as many tangents and tunings as any prog act, their songs are profound and seemingly nihilist, they are outsiders but exalted to the point of alt-royalty. And The Empty Page too is a hall of mirrors. Hence the hard-hitting socially conscious ‘On the Strip’ by Rachel Trezise lines up with Catherine Flynn’s claustrophobic strangely moving tale of abduction Snare Girl and the bizarro headtrip of Shelley Jackson‘s ‘My Friend Goo’ features with the hilarious biblical satire ‘]Brother James’ by Emily Maguire and the brilliant thought-provoking ‘Kool Thing; Or Why I Want to Fuck Patty Hearst’ by the ever-masterful Tom McCarthy.

This dark, uplifting, violent, poetic and macabre collection may make as little sense as one of Sonic Youth’s albums but sense be damned for it’s just as stirring and memorable as their finest work. With the ghost of the music ever-present and the lyrics bleeding into the stories as they have into the lives of the writers, the stories satisfy and tantalise in equal measure, each freshly-discovered severed human hand, ghost, sex shop, revolutionary heiress and molotov cocktail, each remarkable story and unique spin on a song, like every great record is a beginning and not an end in itself.

Buy this book>>

The Empty Page edited by Peter Wild
Serpent’s Tail
256 Pages


Darran Anderson is an Irish writer. His hobbies include whiskey, rum, vodka and regret.

Posted in: Reading