Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and “Frank O’Hara Hit”

Thurston Moore_1000Move over Mad Men, it’s indie rock’s turn to namecheck Frank O’Hara.  In another (very welcome) sign of O’Hara’s continuing afterlife in some surprising corners of pop culture, a few months back Thurston Moore — one of the founding members of the seminal band Sonic Youth, who is also a poet and avid reader and fan of avant-garde poetry — released the song “Frank O’Hara Hit” with his new post-Sonic Youth band, Chelsea Light Moving.

The song refers to O’Hara’s tragic death on July 24, 1966, along with a series of other epochal July events: “Day before/July 24, / Frank O’Hara hit/a dunebuggy devil/July, July/on Fire Island.”  The song also ends with what seems to be O’Hara’s voice saying “yes, no, yes, no, yes, yes, yes.”   

It’s fun to imagine this song inspiring young hipsters to seek out O’Hara’s work, just as “A Step Away From Them” once made poets hungry to know more about Pierre Reverdy.

In some comments about the song, Moore writes:

Today is July 25 and it’s my birthday. I’m 54. This song is called Frank O’Hara Hit. And it’s by this band I started called Chelsea Light Moving. Right now we’re whipping around Europe playing some summer love-cry gigs. I wanted to release this song by the end of July because it’s a meditation on that month through history in events that define a lot of what mytho-romanticizes my heart, both broken and blessed at the moment. On July 25, 1965 Bob Dylan with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band delivered to rock n’ roll the dissident soul of folk music and poetry. For many it was already a viable meeting but Dylan set it on fire for the world to see. And he was famously cursed and booed by the gatekeepers of old ways wariness.  The song he sang was Phantom Engineer (later titled It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry). On July 24, 1966 the NYC poet Frank O’Hara was struck by a dune buggy while hanging out on Fire Island, and died the next day. O’Hara knew poetry in all it’s formalist glory and like John Cage’s ear to music liberated it for writers for an unending time. In his essay Personism: A Manifesto (published in Leroi Jones’ Yugen magazine in 1961) he writes, “I don’t … like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, ‘Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep’…As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it.” On July 26, 1943 Mick Jagger was born in Dartford, Kent, England and would become the 20th century’s erotic pinup for the unsafety of teeny bop girls everywhere preaching the gospel soaked blues of African-American music that their parents were most likely frightened to death of. His skill in getting it and keeping it together and continuing to honor the magic that rocks the fuck out when Howlin’ Wolf hit the mic is what inspires every tantalizing facet of real rock n’ roll. On July 29, 1966 our hero Bobby Dylan crashed his motorbike while taking it for a spin in Woodstock He had just recorded three lightning rod LPs (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde), a book of writing (Tarantula) and was taking a breather between a just finished nine month world tour (where he was facing audiences half pissed at his “Judas!” betrayal of folk purity) and readying for sixty-four American gigs booked by money hog Albert Grossman. He was amphetamine skinny and breathing high-octane annunciation. He returned to us a man in control of his image and he provocatively crushed celebrity underfoot like a shitty Marlboro. Let us kiss our lovers gently in July as the lathered sunrays of August take us into contemplation and a sweet trust to a future we will always fight for. In rock n roll, soul, tenderness and piety.

Moore’s use of O’Hara in this song serves as a good example of a phenomenon that hasn’t really been discussed much, but that I’ve been thinking and writing about lately: the New York School’s influence on a particular lineage of New York-based experimental rock and punk music — on Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, Television, Sonic Youth, and beyond.

If this connection interests you too, be sure to check out recent essays by Daniel Kane (including his pieces on Richard Hell, Patti Smith, and “From Poetry to Punk in the East Village“).

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This entry was posted in Frank O'Hara, Music, NY School Influence, Thurston Moore, Velvet Underground. Bookmark the permalink.

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