Thurston Moore has had a soft spot for whistleblowers since he was growing up in a small town in Connecticut aged 12. That’s an impressively young age, even for someone steeped in the radical business of rock music.
Admittedly, the former Sonic Youth singer’s fondness for whistleblowers was fairly literal. He explains the thought process like this: “I liked the idea of a whistleblower. I still do like the idea of a whistleblower. There’s something musically relevant to it,” he says.
That musical relevance of something as political as exposing corruption was laid down in Moore’s preteen mind as the result of an extraordinary moment in television history dating 28 August 1970, a month after his 12th birthday. He’d come home from school and, as was his wont, was watching The Merv Griffin Show on CBS when the program was suddenly disrupted by a crowd of musicians, most of them black, waving placards and blowing into wooden whistles.
They were led by the saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, of Here Comes the Whistleman fame. Shouting “Equality for black artists!”, they stormed the Merv Griffin stage in protest at the dearth of black musicians on shows like his, demanding to see more jazz performers on TV.
It clearly made an impression on the young Thurston because today, almost half a century later, he still thinks of that formative TV-viewing experience whenever he reads about the latest official leaker to come a cropper at the hands of the US government. “I think of that Roland Kirk invasion and of his song Here Comes the Whistleman whenever I hear the word ‘whistleblower’ – I think of it in a musical way.”
History has now come full circle as Thurston Moore, singer-songwriter and guitarist as he was to become, has now lent the force of his music to support Chelsea Manning, the army private who dumped a vast collection of US state secrets on to the public in 2010. In a couple of weeks, Moore will release a special cassette version of his new single, Chelsea’s Kiss, with part of the proceeds going to Manning’s support network to help pay for her legal fees.
The song is built around an instrumental track laid down last autumn by Moore together with the UK-based members of his group, Deb Googe of My Bloody Valentine on bass, guitarist James Sedwards and the Brooklyn drummer Ryan Sawyer. Cut at the studio used by Sonic Youth in Hoboken, New Jersey, it features a grainy guitar line that grows in intensity as the song builds.
Moore says he was struck by the synergy between the rising mood of danger created by the lead guitar and the lyrics that had been written about Chelsea Manning by the poet Radieux Radio, with whom he has worked in the past. “I thought the lyrics really fit the lead guitar that is in a way describing a lot of the possible psychosis that is going on with the situation, so I jammed them in and they really worked.”
Moore says he’s been fascinated with the struggle faced by Chelsea Manning – the “punk princess”, as the lyrics depict her – ever since the US soldier leaked hundreds of thousands of secret war logs and embassy cables to the open-information website WikiLeaks six years ago. “I’m always in admiration to people who step up in opposition to something they see as inherently criminal.”
He was also struck by how Manning, who was arrested in 2010 at a US military base outside Baghdad where she was working as an intelligence analyst, was charged with something as antiquated as the Espionage Act of 1917. “My understanding is that espionage is betrayal of your country for the benefit of the enemy. I see the history of whistleblowers, and Chelsea Manning in that lineage, as being people who want to protect their country.
“Isn’t the US a country built on the principle that the government is employed by the people, not the other way around?”
He felt moved to release the song after he learned in July that Manning had tried to kill herself in military prison, where she is serving a 35-year sentence, and then that she was being threatened with solitary confinement for that attempted suicide because she had broken prison rules. “I was really distraught learning that she had tried to take her own life – the reality of her imprisoned life in Fort Leavenworth seemed so frightening to me.”
His musical intervention for Chelsea Manning comes at an interesting time in the rock-whistleblower nexus. Moore recently called on Barack Obama to pardon the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden while Michael Stipe, whom Moore has known since REM had its first New York concert in the early 1980s, simultaneously but coincidentally also put out a video statement in support of Manning.
Moore is quick to defend the right of artists to lend their influence to any political cause. “It’s perfectly valid when you are a musician and you have the ability to share your thoughts, whether emotional or political. There are no restrictions on what an artist can express.”
Does that mean artists have a duty to engage politically? “No. Because I don’t think all artists have an articulate political conscience. Having a duty? No. Your only duty is to share.”
He stresses that though it is important to him individually to be active, he does not see himself as a political singer. “Over the years, Sonic Youth threw down some tracks that were that way, but it’s never been the purpose of my singing. It isn’t. But I do have complete admiration for artists who are demonstrably activists: Yoko Ono, Ai Weiwei, Billy Bragg. Allen Ginsberg was a real inspiration for me.”
So does he think artists have done enough to make their views known on Donald Trump? Moore grows instantly animated. “No!” he almost screams. “No, I don’t think they are doing enough! I think musicians should set up banks of speakers outside Trump Tower and blast him with a permanent litany of sonic noise. He needs to be flattened with it!”
For someone who has lived in London for the past 10 years, the Sonic Youth singer sounds very wrapped up in the affairs of the country he left behind. “I am an American,” he says. “I have nothing but love for America.”
The only reason he is in London, he says, is “my love life and my professional life, as I have much more welcoming work in Europe than in the USA. It’s love and rock’n’roll that keeps me over here.”
But he adds that should a certain real estate billionaire from New York grab the keys to the White House on 8 November, he might have to think again. “If for some bizarro reason Donald Trump gets voted into office, I’m going to have to figure out what to do,” he says. “I could return to the US to fight in the streets, or I could stay in London, gather all the Americans I can find, and have a mass burning of US passports.”
- Chelsea’s Kiss/Sad Saturday will be released on 8 October by Blank Editions. The limited edition cassette will be available from select stores, Ecstatic Peace Library events, Thurston Moore shows and online from blankeditions.com for a limited time.
- This article was amended on 27 September 2016 to correct the spelling of Allen Ginsberg’s name.