Sonic Youth: Washing Machine
The first time I saw this t-shirt it was being worn by one of the cool guys in school. I didn’t know anything about Sonic Youth but I did really want the shirt. Unfortunately there was an unwritten rule that if someone from school wore a band shirt first, that was it – it just wasn’t done to go buy your own copy and wear it around.
But I would be sorely tempted only a couple of months later. I was on a family trip overseas when I saw the exact same t-shirt for only six dollars at a garage sale in San Francisco. After guiltily purchasing it, the first thing I decided to do was familiarise myself with Sonic Youth, as it was another unwritten rule that you couldn’t wear a band shirt unless you were a fan of the band. So I purchased a second-hand copy of Dirty two days later and listened to it on high rotation on my discman. And then a funny thing happened – I got into the music.
Actually maybe it wasn’t that funny, as I was kind of determined. Having familiarised myself with the band, I wore my new Sonic Youth shirt shortly after my return to Sydney. The first three friends I saw immediately announced the same thing: “Coby’s got that shirt”. The inference was inescapable. I feigned surprised the first two times and then finally gave up. So the shirt was forever consigned to the dustbin of history, while the Dirty CD stayed on heavy rotation. It’s a perfect example of band promotional material doing exactly what it’s supposed to. It’s also a perfect example of why I didn’t get much action in high school.
But perhaps we should focus on Washing Machine, the 1995 release from Sonic Youth.
The polaroid photo featured on the cover was taken after the April 28, 1995 Lollapaloozas show at Amherst College in Amherst, MA. The boy’s shirts had been signed by the support act, Come. The polaroid was found on the floor and then presented to the band, who instantly recognised its potential but had no idea who was featured in the picture or who took it. They enlisted the help of MTV, who ran a news bulletin asking the boys’ permission for the image to be used as the next album cover.
The boys were never identified, so the band cropped off their faces and used the photo anyway. The fact that their identity remains a mystery poses some intriguing questions. As they are wearing Sonic Youth t-shirts, one would assume that they were pretty big Sonic Youth fans. So when Washing Machine came out, why didn’t they instantly recognise themselves as the talent gracing the cover? Did they know it was them but not think it important to come forward? Or were they Amish boys on a seditious, wild night out that can never own up for fear of being expunged from their community?
It’s an enigma wrapped in a mildly interesting riddle. In today’s online age the band would have identified the duo within a day at the most. So perhaps this tale should be treated as a telling reminder of how much things have changed.
But for me, this album cover will always have a different message. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a glimpse of an alternate teenage reality, where two guys can own and wear the same t-shirt with pride.