Girl in a Band: Reviewed

by: Douglas Grant

Kim Gordon’s memoir is a hard hitting, honest look into the Sonic Youth guitarist’s life and times…

Sometimes we think we know who an artist really is simply by admiring the body of work he or she has produced. I’ve been a fan of Sonic Youth since their 1992 album Dirty, and along the way – up until the band’s very end – I felt that I gained a good sense of who Kim Gordon is. Upon reading her recently published memoir, Girl in a Band, it gave me satisfaction to learn that I hadn’t missed the mark, but something else happened, something unexpected: I realized that I was also wrong about her. There’s something paradoxical about the multi-talented Gordon’s nature that is enlightening in a very positive way, even if we can sometimes feel her pain. The candor in her narrative is refreshing as it is, at times, difficult to read. She always struck me as a very strong woman, but I never suspected the level of vulnerability that she expresses. I knew that she had strong opinions, but I didn’t consider that she would often suffer from self-doubt. She’s aware of her own success as an artist, musician, actress, and fashion designer, and in no way disputes that she’s earned it, but often in the book she’d almost have us believe that what she’s achieved in her lifetime was all a result of chance encounters. But this dualism is what makes Girl in a Band such an intriguing read, and Gordon often acknowledges this by calling attention to many of the misconceptions – and sometimes the affirmations – about her character.

“The image a lot of people have of me as detached, impassive, or remote is a persona that comes from years of being teased for every feeling I ever expressed.”

The book’s prologue is called “The End,” and as the title suggests, it covers the brief time period in 2011 that leads up to Sonic Youth’s final show at the SWU Music and Arts Festival in São Paulo, Brazil, after thirty years of music making. Anyone who’s a fan of the band knew that Gordon and her founding band mate/husband, Thurston Moore, were going through a very painful separation. Indeed, the fans themselves were feeling the weight of it as they had each, in turn, digested the shocking news. After three tremendous decades, Sonic Youth played their final show ever, only to have this wistful circumstance cast a dark cloud over what should have been a joyous, if bittersweet, occasion. In what should have been a career defining moment with her longtime musical collaborators, Gordon bares herself to her readers when she says, “I don’t think I had ever felt so alone in my whole life.”

There was a moment when I worried that the split from Moore was going be the focal point of the autobiography, but my concerns were premature, as the first chapter went back in time to cover Gordon’s early childhood. In fact, Moore doesn’t even show up until almost halfway through the book.

“There was a sense of apocalyptic expanse, of sidewalks and houses centipeding over mountains and going on forever, combined with a shrugging kind of anchorlessness. Growing up I was always aware of L.A.’s diffuseness, its lack of an attachment to anything other than its own good reflection in the mirror.”

The first section of Girl in a Band covers Gordon’s early childhood and continues on throughout her teenage years. Her father was a professor of sociology in education, and because his expertise was in demand her family moved around a lot, and there are brief accountings of her time in both Hawaii and Hong Kong, but for the most part her recollections are from her time spent in Los Angeles. A central figure in her life at this time was her brother Keller, whom she practically worships, but whose treatment of her was often hurtful. Keller’s lifelong deterioration into a state of mental illness is discussed in detail, and it’s apparent that his condition is a source of pain for her.

From an early age Gordon knew that all she ever wanted to be was an artist, and it’s an interesting list of people that she came into contact with before she was famous. These individuals who would one day shape the world of arts and entertainment with their work were influential in Gordon’s young life, including legendary music composer Danny Elfman and art dealer Larry Gagosian.

“Sometimes I think we know on some level the person we’re going to be in our life, that if we pay attention, we can piece out that information. I find it strange when people don’t know what they want to do in life . . . I knew I wanted to be an artist.”

She takes us through her life in the 1960s and 70s in Southern California, and with poise relates how she was exposed to all walks of life – especially within artistic circles – while never really subscribing to a single school of thought. Drug use was involved, and as Eastern philosophies were becoming more and more prevalent during this time period, Gordon claims that she set off in a new direction of thinking, and that from “that point on, [she] would never feel sure, or comfortable, about making conclusions or bold, definite statements about anything.” Here’s where we see that paradox again: a girl who seems so sure of herself and set in her ways unable to hold to absolutes.

Gordon spent her early years studying the world around her with a very keen eye, and though at times it seems that she is all too aware of the possibility of being overly identified – of being categorized – the human contact she had during those awkward years, as well as the nature of the time period itself – facilitated a strengthening of her ability to know who she really was.

“These days, when I’m in New York, I wonder, What’s this place all about, really? The answer is consumption and moneymaking. Wall Street drives the whole country, with the fashion industry as the icing. Everything people call fabulous or amazing lasts for about ten minutes before the culture moves on to the next thing. Creative ideas and personal ambition are no longer mutually exclusive. A friend recently described the work of an artist we both know as ‘corporate,’ and it wasn’t a compliment . . . But New York has never been ideal, and people have always complained sourly about the changing face of the city, the loss of authenticity.”

Gordon arrived in New York City after graduating from art school in her twenties, and although it was a defining turning point in her life, she highlights it with less fanfare than we might have expected. As she struggled financially and forged ahead in an attempt to break into the New York art scene, she occasionally insinuates that even when she did finally immerse herself, she always felt like a bit of an outsider. This was a time in the 1980s when No Wave (a punk subculture that was in opposition to New Wave’s commercialism) was coming to an end, and just before the art scene associated with Soho exploded. It was an ever-changing landscape that she was forced to navigate, but she did so with a youthful enthusiasm.

“Art had always given me direction, a way forward, even when I sometimes felt I was floating. But when I saw and heard No Wave bands, some equation in my head and body pieced together instantly.”

Something worth mentioning is that up until this point – besides briefly participating in a band while in college in Toronto – Gordon had expressed neither an interest in becoming a musician nor any indication of latent musical talent. We know that this is where she was headed, but it’s surprising to learn that her early life was shaped by the world of art without music rising up as her apparent calling in life. It was a succession of life changing events that led to Sonic Youth, starting with a piece she wrote for Real Life Magazine entitled “Trash Drugs and Male Bonding,” in which she endeavored to shed light on how men bond by writing and making music together. She explains that after this experience – even before meeting Thurston Moore – the “next, clear-cut step was to actually begin playing music.” She never once alludes to any formal instruction in singing or playing instruments, and yet that is exactly what she dove into headfirst, which is as bold as it is commendable. Soon thereafter, following a brief gig in an all-girl band called Introjection, bandmate Miranda Stanton introduced Gordon to Thurston Moore, who was then playing in a band called Coachmen. The next few years were a whirlwind of creativity.

“There were so many moments of formation for Sonic Youth; it’s hard to pinpoint just one.”

She never really explains where and when she picked up the bass, or that she felt comfortable enough to sing in front of large crowds. That’s one aspect of the book that left me thinking that I had missed something. It reads like she just up and decided to start a band, but is that a rational explanation for Sonic Youth’s originally dissonant sound? Or why that sound was able to reach so many people? As Gordon offers a chronological accounting of the band’s succession of albums over the years, each record gets its just due without her lingering for too long on any one that they released. She definitely had her favorite songs among that long list of releases (“Expressway to Yr Skull,” “Teenage Riot,” “Jams Run Free,” and “Little Trouble Girl,” just to name a few). The stories behind the production of these albums are captivating, and I learned the true meanings of many of the songs that I’ve been listening to for years. It became a necessity for me to keep pulling up old videos on YouTube to re-familiarize myself with their content. I challenge anyone to try reading the book without doing just that. Gordon makes it clear throughout Girl in a Band that Sonic Youth had no interest in going the traditionally commercial route, aiming to get their sound out through college radio stations and touring.

’The days we spent go on and on.’ Those lyrics somehow became a foreshadowing of all the events, all the music, to come.”

Although the story of Sonic Youth is essential to telling the story of Kim Gordon, her creative output was not limited to the music created in those momentous years. One passion project she still has immense pride in is X-Girl, a fashion line she collaborated on with fellow stylist Daisy von Furth, and which was eventually sold to a Japanese company in 1998. She’d established such a demure yet commanding presence in New York by this time that her talents naturally transcended art, fashion, and music.

“In retrospect, it’s ridiculous that anyone saw me as a fashion icon, since all I was trying to do was to dumb down my middle-class look by messing with my hair.”

Gordon’s interpersonal relationships play a pivotal part in her expression of how she perceives the world around her. She’s extremely upfront about the influential people in her life, individuals she recalls with great fondness, including Karen Carpenter, Neil Young, Henry Rollins, J Mascis, Adam Yauch, Spike Jonze, Sophia Coppola, Chloë Sevigny, and especially Kurt Cobain. She relates that in the years Sonic Youth played alongside Nirvana she felt a tenderness toward Cobain stemming from a sense that the two of them understood one another. The grief over his death was difficult for her to deal with, and as the book progresses we realize that the lives of many of the people she felt close to were extinguished far too soon. As sad as this is, it shows us just how long she’s been around and just how many lives she’s touched.

“My whole life I’ve accommodated other people’s feelings – ironic, given how often the press likes to remark on my strong-seeming persona.”

It’s enlightening to see the autobiographer provide insight into the music business pre-internet, particularly the 80s and early 90s. For an underground band to sign with Geffen Records was a big deal, and she was definitely conscious of the possibility that the news would not be well received by longtime fans who feared that they sold out to a corporate entity. Her firsthand experience in that world allowed her to identify the definitive line between critical relevance and commercial success. This is interesting, because as we read the book all these years later, we realize that the band did achieve tremendous success and global recognition, but they did it all on their terms, no easy feat for a rock group trying to avoid the pitfalls of an MTV generation.

“It was a debate as old as time, who was ‘punk rock’ and who was ‘alternative.’”

Gordon takes the good with the bad with regards to touring. Uninhibited might sound like a grossly over-generalized term to describe what she felt when she was performing, but anyone who’s ever seen her up there on the stage, spinning around and bellowing into the microphone, knows this to be true. When she explains how the song “Jams Run Free” from Rather Ripped became her favorite song to perform live, she describes “the lights and the sounds colliding and smashing together. That’s a point where you lose all sense of your body and feel carried completely by the music, a moment that makes all the drudgery, exhaustion, and boredom of touring worthwhile.” The poignancy of that statement is enlivening, because it illustrates how her commitment to touring – in an independent business where bands “live and die by the road” – was worth all of the time-consuming tedium.

“For as far back as I could remember I’d been careful not to come across as the female half of a ‘power couple.’”

Not long after the birth of Gordon and Moore’s daughter, Coco, the family’s imagined logical next step was to move to the suburbs, and in this case they were drawn to Northampton, Massachusetts. She goes on to explain that although Northampton was cookie-cutter, it was populated by like-minded individuals who the couple could relate to and socialize with. Not to say that the town was aesthetically picturesque; at times for her it seemed the contrary. This chapter in their lives marked the beginning of the end of their marriage, yet despite all the pain, Gordon puts pen to paper here with dignity and grace. She doesn’t shy away from calling out Moore’s infidelity, but neither does she carry on about it with resentment. As stated earlier, her story couldn’t be told without this bitter separation being deconstructed, and the split had a sad trickle down effect from the couple to their friends and family, and on down to their fan base. It’s still hard to swallow sometimes: the fact that the story of these two individuals – who were so in love at one time and made such beautiful music together – doesn’t have a happy ending. But’s that’s life, and this is the story of Kim Gordon’s.

“It’s hard to write a love story with a broken heart.”

For the most part the very public divorce coincided with the end of Sonic Youth, but the memoir doesn’t end there. Gordon spends time with her daughter, re-acclimates herself into art gallery society, and starts a new improvisational band with Bill Nace called Body/Head. As she returns to Southern California to temporarily reside in Echo Park alongside her contemporaries, we get a sense that the healing process is already underway, and there is a feeling of optimism in her diction that suggests a new beginning for her. At the end of the book she is invited to attend Nirvana’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and to sing some of Nirvana’s songs alongside Joan Jett, St. Vincent, and Lorde. It’s appropriate that in honoring her dear friend who’s passed, she appears to be expressing a satisfaction in the culmination of her life’s work. Her career as an artist and musician has had a long and impressionable run, and she accedes to her earned stature with a modesty that is humbling.

“What is a star? Is stardom a kind of suspended adulthood? Is it a place beyond good and evil? Is a star a person you need to believe in – a daredevil, a risk-taker, a person who goes close to the edge without falling?”

Girl in a Band was a lot of things to me. Chiefly, it was a history lesson I was hungry for. The detailed accounting of the formation of a band I’ve loved for so long made me nostalgic for time that I never really knew or participated in to begin with. It was like finding the source of an echo that I picked up on in 1992.

Girl in a Band is a healthy back and forth between external events and insight born out of wisdom. The way Gordon strings words together in an effort to tell her story makes it easy to see why she’s seen success through numerous artistic outlets.

The title of the book is in response to a question that Gordon has been asked since she first became a musician: “What’s it like being a girl in a band?” It’s a silly question that she’s disinclined to dignify with a response. But the question itself—and her attitude toward it—helps me to understand her contribution to contemporary music. Gordon’s become a reluctant symbol of feminism in her refusal to conform to some idea of what a female’s place in the lexicon of Rock and Roll should be. Artistic decisions she made were unorthodox, whimsical expressions that refused to adhere to the conventions laid out by the self-appointed gatekeepers of modern art and music.

From a cultural standpoint, her presence as an artist remains relevant to this day, but she has been shaping our concept of Americana through her unique perspective since the 1960s, even before she attained fame. When I read her recollections I can actually hear that silky voice of hers articulating the journey. Sometimes I can hear the sadness, and other times it’s the cynicism. But it’s really the diligence, fulfillment, and strength of character I hear in her voice that makes Girl in a Band a worthy read.

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