Thurston Moore is starstruck.
“I don’t even know what I’d say,” he admits with a shrug. Moore’s girlfriend, Eva Prinz, encourages him to introduce himself to Diane di Prima anyway, but another audience member steps in front of him just as he turns around. Moore recoils. “I got usurped.”
The 80-year-old woman we’ve come to see is a beat poet, known for her striking poetic voice and her personal recollections of her friends and their relationships during the 1960s in San Francisco.
We’re in the lower level auditorium of the San Francisco Public Library — a bright, illustrious cultural hub in one of the city’s most blighted neighborhoods — where di Prima has been commissioned by City Lights bookstore to recite some of her recent work.
We listen to her read through some of her poems for an hour. Even in her old age, she’s irreverent and witty, like Moore.
“Live close to the edge and love it,” di Prima recites. She looks right at him when she says it. Moore shifts in his seat.
After the show, Moore is still nervous about approaching her. “Thurston, here’s your chance,” Prinz whispers. He hesitates for a second. Before he scuttles away, Moore wants to be sure Prinz autographs his copy of her recent collection, The Poetry Deal. di Prima is something of a legend in poetry circles. The San Francisco Poet Laureate has made a career of speaking candidly about personal love, loss, and coping with the changing world. She is an artist who enunciates principles of verity, faith, introspection, and artfulness.
Despite Moore’s apprehension in speaking to di Prima, he has undoubtedly gotten used to his own fame by now, or at least the attention, instead searching for solace between stanzas of poetry.
“My interest in literature was always concurrent with my interest in music from a very young age anyway, so it wasn’t a radical jump,” Moore tells me after the reading. “I think when I got more interested in the history of it — and people like Diane di Prima — I started collecting poetry books like I collected records.”
But his interest in poetry is far from casual. Moore not only teaches a poetry workshop at the Allen Ginsberg-founded Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado; it is his modus vivendi for inspiration across all his creative endeavors. “[Poetry] is either academic, or it’s really personal. I like the balance of the two. Sonic Youth was kind of like that — we had these academic ideas about playing music, but we also had these kind of unorthodox personal things. That had no real precedence before us, so it was kind of exciting in that way.”
That openness to setting the precedent has followed him everywhere for decades: through dozens of records and side projects, during a lifetime of live shows, in and out of marriage, and after it ended, facing backlash from the press.
Following last year’s announcement of his separation from longtime wife Kim Gordon and the subsequent dissolution of Sonic Youth, Moore faced media hellfire. He all but confessed to seeing Eva Prinz for years before he and Gordon called it quits, and his actions did not go unnoticed. Following Gordon’s infamous claim that Moore was “carrying on this whole double life with her … like a lost soul,” his personal life drew endless side-glances from the likes of Elle, Brooklyn Magazine, Flavorwire, and Jezebel, who penned the aggressive “Thurston Moore Confirms He’s a Dick”. To Moore, the world might have looked mighty dark, indeed, were it not for Prinz.
Earlier this year, Moore spoke out on his relationship with Gordon through the now defunct UK magazine The Fly. “I’m involved in a really sweet relationship and it really does make me happy, it truly does,” he said. “But I’ll always have that experience of sadness that a separation brings, especially one that was as important, not just to me but everybody around us.”
The fallout with Gordon was not without casualties or distress. “It’s humiliating. It affects people close to me in certain ways – my family, the woman I’m in love with,” he told The Guardian this week. “It can be really degrading, and I try to be philosophical about it.”
And he is very philosophical. At the poetry reading tonight in San Francisco, Prinz is young and chic, dressed in all black and gray. She is genuine and polite as you might expect an art book editor to be. She is friendly and accommodating, as you might expect a man like Thurston Moore’s girlfriend to be. She is also a fan of di Prima’s and took note of the unlikely relationship between the poet and her ex-husband, fellow beat poet Alan Marlowe. “They were so independent,” she says. “It’s hard to picture them together.”
Ironically, you can draw many parallels between the relationships of di Prima and Marlowe and of Kim Gordon and Moore. Both helped breed the other for success, and in the case of Gordon and Moore, they cemented their respective places in rock history by perpetually outdoing each other in and out of Sonic Youth.
Nevertheless, it was time to move on, and one way Moore did so was by using a life outlook and poetic direction like di Prima’s as a model for his writing on The Best Day.
“It has a certain sense of liveliness or humor to it, and there’s certainly a craft involved,” he says. “It’s trying to extol ideas of virtue — acceptance of existences and things like that. In a way, she’s sort of exemplary for me in the lyric writing that I do right now for a record like The Best Day.”
And The Best Day is very lively. The record’s aesthetic, inspired by a photo Moore found of his mother on a serene trip to a nearby lake (which now serves as the album’s cover art), is a bit unlike his previous solo efforts, though it actually didn’t start out that way.
“In a way, [the photo] was sort of the catalyst for what I wanted the focus of the record to be. It was personal, it was intimate, it was familial, and it denoted this quality of being in a place of safety and serenity with a sense of calm to it.”
Initially, the album was to be called Detonation, based on one of the record’s tracks about political unrest in London in the 1970s brought on by radical poets and writers. “In those days, there was a lot of energy around retaliation, but it wasn’t about hurting people but rather about hurting things like buildings and systems.” Moore tapped transgender poet Radiux Radio, an unpublished, underground London poet (and neighbor of Moore) to author a few songs, including “Detonation”. However, when the album began to wrap up, he opted for a softer album feel.
“I wanted the record to be this potpourri — this wild kind of grab bag of everything. I was going to call it Detonation because I wanted it to have this energy that was kind of explosive, but I wasn’t really that sold on that idea.”
Recording with Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley, Deb Googe of My Bloody Valentine, and James Sedwards, an English guitarist, guided the album towards a more serene energy. “Hearing what it sounded like then, I was so excited by it. I just thought, ‘That’s what I want this record to be.’”
Moore even took the opportunity to revisit the punk uppercut “Germs Burn”, formerly a B-side to January’s 7” “Detonation”, which was originally meant to be more of a meeting of rough and euphonic elements. “It’s a weird song because it’s these things rubbing against each other. There’s a lot of friction in that song. There are these melodious lines and also that punk rock energy, just trying to meet in a weird way.”
Other elements emerge on the record as well. The album contemplates a primal energy in lyrics for tracks like “Speak to the Wild” and “Forevermore”, though it wasn’t necessarily a deliberate theme. “I noticed that there were some animal references going on in the record, and why that is I don’t know,” Moore says. “I think I got into the idea of animals being representational of a life force … I find them replete with poetry.”
It’s a theme that rears its head periodically during the album. In “Forevermore”, there are “animals that will adore you”; Speak to the Wild” is something of a warning against barbaric forces; and the Jazzmaster’s intro to “Vocabularies” even sounds a bit like bird sounds.
“Usually when I write, I just start writing, and I let it come to life for me. Whatever internalized state or emotional ideas I have is coming through in the language. I’ll refine it as soon as I see what’s happening.”
For The Best Day, it seems that some of those emotional ideas stemmed a bit from the urge to draw that serenity from chaos. “A lot of the times, I’ll see there’s a lot of these kinds of really personal truths that happen, and I think that’s the magic in writing. In music, you can be more anarchistic, more messy with it and then reign it back in because it just evaporates — because it’s sound. It just disappears. It’s ephemeral.”
Moore has come a long way (in many aspects of the phrase) from his time with Sonic Youth, but particularly with his writing. At the Naropa Institute, he can devote considerable work towards thinking about the impetuses for his writing. “In a way, it has become more interesting to me now, where I feel like I can sit down and look at the work I did with Sonic Youth, which was very collaborative, as well as my own process within that collaboration as a democracy,” he says. “I feel like I can write about [all of it] as an experience and talk about it now.”
These days, finding serenity seems to be the most important thing to Moore, and The Best Day appears to be his avenue to peace.
Later that night, Moore addresses the crowd at the Great American Music Hall, recounting the reading we watched at the Library. “Diane di Prima is a very important poet in my life, and she had a lot to do with the thoughts for the positive, forward, and bright sounds that went into this record. I’m dedicating the next song, ‘The Best Day’, to her.”
But despite the reigned-in nature of The Best Day and of the prologue before his dedication, Moore can’t help but fall into a dissonant wormhole during his live show. Chaos is in his nature. He might long for serenity, but that’s not really what suits him best.
“Live close to the edge and love it,” as di Prima says. Peace and euphony, in both life and in music, doesn’t come easily after all.