Beautiful Mental Jukebox: Sonic Youth’s ‘Hey Joni’ (from the album Daydream Nation, 1988)

  June 7th, 2008

Sonic Youth Nurse

Sonic Youth – ‘Hey Joni’ (zipped)

“Hey Joni” is one of my favorite tracks from Sonic Youth’s “Daydream Nation”. It’s a record of bone-sculpted terror, and this song is among those sawed sharpest.

It’s not just the cut’s sound — lacerating sheets of guitars — that gives it such depth and impact, it’s also the lyrics. The weight & power of the text is typical of Ranaldo: violence, startling imagery, criscrossing emotions, overlapping themes (think “Skip Tracer”, “Pipeline/ Kill Time”). The song’s words settle and expand, layers of color & flavor revealing themselves over the song’s duration, shades of emotion ripening, popping out, furtive then brash then hiding again.

To begin with, there’s that urgent, liberating refrain: “Hey Joni, Put it all behind you.” There’s the current of nostalgia throughout, weaving the song together with silver cord: “I remember our youth, our high ideals / I remember you were so uptight”. Then there’s the contradictory plea to ignore the past and simply focus on the Now: “tune out the past, and just say yes” ; “Now it’s all behind you.” There’s the narrator’s desperate search for meaning: “tell me Joni, am I the one to see you through? / In this broken town can you still jack in and know what to do?” There’s the murky promise of mysterious violence: “that time in the trees, we broke that vice”, “shots ring out from the center of an empty field / Joni’s in the tall grass”. Finally, there’s that troubled rural backdrop of an “empty field”, of “tall grass”, of Joni “jumping off that truck,” blighted and creepy like something out of Dorothy Allison. So much packed in each line, Ranaldo’s poetry dense & blossoming with each noise-saturated measure of music.

And then there’s Joni — who is she? What does she want? She emerges from the
song as some kind of blithe dreamchild, unconcerned with time or memory while the speaker pushes, pries, tries to figure her out:

“She’s not thinking about the future
She’s not spinning her wheels
she doesn’t think at all about the past
she thinking long and hard
about that high wild sound
and wondering will it last?”

Joni is just Joni, she’s just life & blood and bone, living in the wild violent now, dancing in empty fields while gunshots shatter stillness, careless of past or future, dervishing with blank & unreadable expression. The speaker takes his confusion to her, throwing her his urgent “Hey Joni, when will all these dreams come true?”, his questioning at times feeling hungry and justified, almost indignant, at other times nonsensical & pathetic when compared to Joni’s carefree immediacy, her pure pulsing being.

Joni is sound and breath and blood, all impact and abrasion, all beautiful undoing, a “snap of electric whipcrack”, a “sailboat explosion,” embodying the rasp of sound the song wraps the words in.

And what about that sound? Well it’s much easier to talk about words than music. Sound, like wine or food, has a way of making even the most earnest attempts to corral it in words sound like pure, vulgar charlatanry.

So I’ll just focus on a moment instead: Ranaldo’s “kick it” at 2:56, rousing and raw, the guitar taloning and scraping up great seas of stone, Ranaldo having to shout above it, Steve Shelley’s drums attacking right after, battering every beat in 2/2 time all through 3:22, manic and scraping, & sweet Joni’s spirit shooting through it all like a comet.
Sonic Youth – “Daydream Nation”
(Click to buy from

C. Way/ © 2008

[posted by C Way at 7:01 PM]


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