Sonic Youth's connection to Mike Kelley stems from his long-time association with Kim Gordon. The pair met in the 1970s, when Gordon was studying at Otis College of Art and Design, in Los Angeles (after briefly attending York University in Toronto, where she started her first noise band as a class project). When she chose to relocate to New York City, they drove cross-country together, cementing their friendship.
"I met Kim Gordon in the late '70s when she was still a California girl, still an artist, and still a 'librarian type". Now Kim's the hot and steamy female member of Sonic Youth," said Kelly in the early nineties.
In her 1985 Artforum article “American Prayers,” Gordon praised what she described as the “juvenile energy” of Kelley’s work, as well as his use of “structuralist devices to make fun of the myth of rational thought which led to the myth of progress.” In 1991 Kelley interviewed Gordon for both Fama & Fortuna Bulletin 8 and Warhol’s Interview magazine. He spoke with the entire band for another Interview magazine interview, in 2004. In ‘93, Gordon contributed an essay titled “Is It My Body?” to the book published on the occasion of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s mid-career survey exhibition Mike Kelley.
Sonic Youth provided incidental music for a Mike Kelley performance piece staged like a rock concert titled Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile, performed at Artists Space in New York in 1986. Kelley recited an hour-and-a-half poem he wrote and dramatized with the help of actress Molly Cleator, with Sonic Youth providing sound effects and instrumental backing. Extracts from this performance appeared two years later on the Tellus audiocassette compilation #18, which can be heard here.
In 1994 Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label released a three-CD box set of the “anti-rock” noise band Destroy All Monsters. Formed in 1973, Destroy All Monsters consisted of University of Michigan art students Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Niagara (Lynn Rovner) and filmmaker Cary Loren. The band was influenced by the Velvet Underground, Sun Ra and monster movies (their name comes from a Godzilla film). When Sonic Youth curated the inaugural All Tomorrow’s Parties event at UCLA in 2002, they invited Destroy All Monsters to play, alongside more conventional acts such as Wilco, Cat Power and Stereolab. Their encore/finale consisted entirely of sounds made from squeak toys.
The best-known collaboration between Kelley and Sonic Youth is the cover design for their 1992 LP Dirty. Gordon suggested Kelley’s work from the previous year, titled Ah…Youth, which consisted of eight cibachrome photographs, produced in an edition of ten. The photographs depict seven home-made and well-worn stuffed animals, and a young portrait of the artist. The cover reproduced one of these photographs, and a fold out insert featured the remaining, including the picture of Kelley. Hidden underneath the grey CD tray (of the initial run of 50 000 copies of the disk) was an image of performance artist Bob Flanagan and his wife Sheri Rose committing foul acts upon other stuffed animals.
A number of versions of the record exist, some including posters reproducing the Kelley image. Toronto collector and writer Bill Clarke owns this rare promotional mobile, which he liberated from a record store he worked at in the nineties.
Kelley’s original Ah…Youth was auctioned at Christies in 2006, and sold for $688,000, more than double the high estimate. Manipulating Mass-produced Idealized Objects, the 1990 photograph that the inner tray image was based on, sold two years ago at Christies, for $86,500", more than four-times the high estimate.
Late last year Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore announced their break up and the band is on extended hiatus. Mike Kelley was found dead in his apartment two days ago, of an apparent suicide.
Update: Lee Ranaldo has posted a tribute on his site, here.