Kim Gordon: Girl in a Band

Girl in a Band
By Kim Gordon
Dey St. Books, 2015, 275 pages.  Hardcover: $34.99 (CDN)/ $27.99 (U.S.)

Girl in a Band is probably not the memoir most were expecting. It is riddled with contradictions, some fascinating to ponder, others frustrating. It often flies in the face of the cool rock goddess persona that Gordon established as the bassist for the groundbreaking noise band Sonic Youth from 1981 until 2011, when the band broke up after her divorce from Thurston Moore, the lead guitarist.

Based on this book, Gordon isn’t a particularly dynamic personality. She is, essentially, a woman from a financially stable, upper-middle-class family. She was somewhat rebellious as a teenager in that she wanted to be an artist. What’s interesting are her times and circumstances: it seems that she was in all the right places at all the right times, and met all the right people. She was never estranged from her family, so one can assume that her parents weren’t going to let her starve. Sure, she lived in crappy apartments and worked jobs she hated to get by, but so have a lot of us. She is not like, say, Marianne Faithfull, who came from a privileged background, found fame as a pop singer in the 60s, dated other famous people, became a junkie, lost it all, and struggled to rebuild her life and career. Nor does she have an all-encompassing poetic sensibility like Patti Smith. Gordon didn’t repeatedly try and fail at being a musician; the first band she formed became successful relatively quickly. One has to ask: would this memoir exist if she and Moore stayed together?

Either way, the book is here, and it starts at the end, with Gordon recalling her thoughts as Sonic Youth plays its final gig at a festival in Brazil shortly before her separation from Moore is announced. This intro sets the tone for much of the book, which is one of insecurity, bitterness and self-pity. Maybe Gordon should have given herself more time to sort out her feelings about the divorce and the band before writing the book.

Gordon then steps back in time to her early life in Rochester, NY and Los Angeles, the daughter of an academic father, a stay-at-home mother who felt stifled creatively, and an older brother who would eventually be diagnosed with schizophrenia. She chronicles her time in art school, and her road trip from L.A. to New York in the company of fellow artist Mike Kelley. Arriving in New York at the end of the 1970s when the city was rundown and bankrupt, Gordon fell in with people who would eventually become major figures in today’s art world such as Raymond Pettibon, Richard Prince, Dan Graham, Cindy Sherman and Larry Gagosian. In her free time, Gordon sees punk and No Wave bands at The Mudd Club and CBGBs, and eventually meets Moore. In 1981, despite having no formal musical training, she and Moore form Sonic Youth with guitarist Lee Ranaldo and a handful of rotating drummers until Steve Shelley joins in 1985. Gordon and Moore marry in 1984. Their daughter is born ten years later.

Gordon conveys all this in a somewhat dispassionate and matter-of-fact voice. The chapters are short. Early on, Gordon describes herself as “shy and uncommunicative” – not personality traits conducive to writing a riveting tell-all. No conversations with the famous people she mentions are recalled in any detail. Coming at the book with an interest in Gordon’s art-world connections as much as for stories about the band, I was hoping for some insight into her relationship with Mike Kelley, who she admires, or what her relationship with Lee Ranaldo, who also attended art school and is a practising artist, was like. If they connected over art at all, you wouldn’t know it.

Midway through, Gordon switches gears and focuses on the recording of Sonic Youth’s albums. We learn about her approach to composition, the personal connection she felt to some songs, how artworks by Kelley, Pettibon and Gerhard Richter came to be on the band’s album covers, and her inspirations. All this will interest fans even if she doesn’t delve too deeply. For example, in the chapter about “Tunic (Song for Karen)” from the album Goo (1990), Gordon tells of her interest in Karen Carpenter and the “strange relationship” Carpenter had with her brother, Richard, her partner in the 70s pop group The Carpenters. According to Gordon, Karen was under her brother’s thumb, and so desperate to please those around her that she developed anorexia (and eventually died) after being told that she looked “hip-py”. Gordon makes no direct connections between her interest in Carpenter, her fraught relationship with her own brother, and their shared position as women in the male-dominated music industry. Why? Is it because Gordon thinks it’s obvious, because she’s just not willing to go there, because she’s not that self-aware a person, or because the editing job kind of sucks? (Gordon is an accomplished writer. Her collected essays about art, Is It My Body? [Sternberg Press, 2014], are fine, and she contributed to Artforum in the 80s.)

Those who consider Gordon a feminist icon may also be troubled by her characterizations of other women. Most of them, including Danielle Dax, Isa Genzken, Courtney Love, Lana Del Rey and Lydia Lunch, come across as bitchy, manipulative, untrustworthy, shallow and/or crazy. When Gordon does say something nice about another woman, like Madonna, Debbie Harry or Kira Roessler, the bassist for the band Black Flag, it’s usually to compliment their physical appearance. As someone who knows what women in the male-centric world of rock music face, and as the writer of feminist anthems like “Swimsuit Issue”, Gordon’s lack of empathy feels surprising. It’s as if she doesn’t recognize that all the women she takes a swipe at were in the same position she was and were probably experiencing the same prejudices. Although there must have been times when she herself was unnecessarily demanding or bitchy, Gordon doesn’t take an opportunity to atone for much, though she does feel bad about the time she accidentally said “fuck” in front of some children in wheelchairs. Add to this that the majority of the men in the book, including the brother who terrorized her, and Moore, who cheated on her, are treated with varying degrees of compassion, sometimes bordering on reverence. She says she even once had a crush on Keanu Reeves.

The last third of the book is uneven. The chapters about Gordon’s foray into the fashion world are tangential. She shares too-brief stories about her relationship with Kurt Cobain (who she felt protective of) and Love (who, as mentioned above, she despises). Gordon displays a fleeting sense of humour when talking about the perils of combining rock stardom with motherhood: “…dripping breast milk during a video shoot is not very rock!”, she exclaims. The divorce is covered in less than a dozen, widely typeset pages. The tone is two-thirds hurt and one-third vitriol.

Girl in a Band doesn’t really have an ending; that was at the beginning, remember? It just kind of stops, and feels unresolved maybe because Gordon had unresolved feelings when she wrote it. But, Gordon’s place in rock history is secure and deserved. Sonic Youth would not have been the band it was without her, and many of her songs are the group’s strongest. Now, Gordon is starting a new chapter of her life. She has a new band and has returned to visual art. (Her artwork is only so-so, but rich people will buy it because of who she is.)  Unlike Karen Carpenter, Gordon has the freedom to do what she wants. As she sings in “Tunic”: Goodbye, Richard/gotta go now/I’m finally on my own…