In the fall of 1996, I traded the Smith’s self-titled LP to my friend Bill for Sonic Youth’s Sister and Confusion Is Sex. I owned Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, but didn’t know about Sonic Youth’s previous incarnations as a noise band and an SST post-punk band. I was a sophomore at The Alabama School of Fine Arts, a residential high school in Birmingham, and I was just starting to learn that music existed outside of MTV. I was also struggling to position myself within that world. Was I punk? Hardcore? Straight Edge? Riot grrrl? Industrial?
That Christmas, my family visited my grandmother in New Jersey. We took a daytrip to Manhattan and I felt, as usual, overwhelmed and insecure. Life seemed so much realer in New York. I purchased Evol and listened to it on my Discman at my grandmother’s house, confused about my place in a world with so many exciting—and also limiting—possibilities. Punks weren’t exactly artists, artists weren’t musicians, musicians weren’t writers. What was I?
Reading Girl In A Band in my mid-thirties, I understand why I gravitated toward Sonic Youth and, in particular, Kim Gordon. Few people have so deftly inhabited so many contradictory worlds. Gordon is a writer, an artist, a musician; an anti-establishment fashion icon; a punk singer with roles on Gilmore Girls and Gossip Girl; a symbol of both California breeziness and New York edge. Throughout her career, Gordon has bravely allowed herself to pursue all her interests and has refused to be limited by the petty in-fighting of small subsets. Yes, she’s noise. Yes, she’s at a Marc Jacobs show. Get over it.
Describing Sonic Youth’s transition to DGC Records, Kim Gordon writes that “for high-end music labels, the music matters, but a lot comes down to how the girl looks. The girl anchors the stage, sucks in the male gaze, and, depending on who she is, throws her own gaze back out into the audience.” Gordon has always commanded attention, but she’d be wrong to limit it thus. Generations of fans saw something different in Gordon, a possibility of something more fluid, more feminine, more open to the various means of self-expression—through fashion, for instance, and the subversive power of glamour. Gordon made room for all her interests on that stage and, in doing so, for the fans in the audience who didn’t fit into a strict Punk mold with its assumed gender hierarchies. That is why she remains more relevant and more cherished today than most of her contemporaries.
Girl In A Band, her new memoir, explores these interests and pursuits. It’s refreshing to read a rock memoir that lauds figures like Dan Graham, Mike Kelley, Kira Roessler, Kim Deal and Julie Cafritz, rather than rehashing the typical stories of drug addiction, award shows and celebrity romances. That was never Kim Gordon’s world. And while she evolved over the years, she remained loyal to her influences, most of whom were also her close friends. It is perhaps this artistic self-assuredness along with an almost (as we come to discover in the book) crippling insecurity that have made her one of the most captivating performers of our generation.
“I listened to Joni Mitchell a lot as a teenager,” Gordon writes, “and always thought of her… She would be melancholy, looking out the window. I was in my room a few miles away, painting, smoking pot, and getting sad listening to her.” The surprising part of Girl In A Band is the emotional candor of Gordon’s prose, which contrasts sharply with her onstage persona and her previous critical writings for publications like ArtForum. There, Gordon comes across as cool and calculating. But in the memoir she is confessional and introspective, even florid at points. Her onstage stance, she tells us several times, was a cover for her insecurities. “I felt confused about how I ‘should’ look,” she writes, “and I felt frumpy and nerdy a lot of the time. I also had no confidence.” She was equally self-conscious of her middle-class upbringing: “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.” This gives us a first glance at a young Kim Gordon, self-conscious and shy, with a Middle-Class guilt complex.
But reading more, we discover a darker edge to Gordon’s silent stage persona. Discussing the composition of “Shaking Hell” from Confusion Is Sex, she writes that the song:
mirrors my struggle with my own identity and the anger I felt at who I was. Every woman knows what I’m talking about when I say girls grow up with a desire to please, to cede their power to other people. At the same time everyone knows about the sometimes aggressive and manipulative ways men often exert power in the world, and how by using the word empowered to describe women, men are simply maintaining their own power and control. Years after I’d left L.A., I could still hear my crazy brother’s voice in my ear, whispering, I’m going to tell all your friends that you cried. Back then, and even now, I wonder: Am I “empowered”? If you have to hide your hypersensitivity, are you really a “strong woman”?
Girl In A Band is an artistic turning point in Gordon’s career. With this book, she sheds a silence that is neither cool nor coy, but is, in fact, the result of a profound fear of weakness, of the social disharmony that emotions incite, of feelings and so-called traditional femininity. Longtime fans learn that there is much Joni Mitchell at the core of Kim Gordon, and memoir is the first genre that allows her to express it.
And then there’s Thurston. Sonic Youth occupies about half of this book (Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley revealingly elicit less than three pages), but her divorce from Thurston is the plot device that carries us from prologue to ending. Gossip heads will be happy. We learn many of the inside details: “the girl,” as she is called, also dated band mate Jim O’Rourke. Gordon discovered sext messages on Thurston’s phone as she was leaving their house in the morning to go to yoga. They went to counseling. Then Gordon discovered a brief sex tape on Thurston’s laptop that he made of himself to send to Eva Prinz (the girlfriend’s actual name). This short video ended the most storied relationship in indie rock.
The divorce isn’t very interesting, partly because this is the section with Gordon’s weakest writing: “The drug that was her had turned him into a serial liar.” “She was a current that dragged you underwater and you were miles from home before you even realized it.” As Gordon writes in the beginning, her divorce is depressingly typical. “The couple everyone believed was golden and normal and eternally intact…was now just another cliché of middle-aged relationship failure—a male midlife crisis, another woman, a double life.” Even if it’s the world’s favorite couple, it’s still a basic divorce story and Gordon doesn’t seem able to muster the energy to tell it well.
More interesting is how Gordon chooses to portray Thurston post-divorce. There are some cutting observations. Thurston, she writes, “was good at concealing what he didn’t know and pretended sometimes, for example, to be more knowledgeable about the downtown New York art scene than he actually was.” Thurston could have a temper and talked to her disrespectfully during production of Sonic Youth albums. He was lost in a teenage rock fantasy and not always the most attendant father. However, as the memoir progresses, the praises increase. She writes that Thurston was a good father, a supportive creative partner and a visionary musician. He went out of his way to ensure she had time for Free Kitten and X-Girl. It’s this vacillation, more than the prose, that conveys just how heartbroken Gordon is by the divorce. In perhaps one of the most touching scenes, Gordon describes how close she felt to Thurston in the studio listening to the final cut of Evol. “It was thrilling… I felt that together, he and I had created something special, music that would go out into the world and take on its own life.” Ultimately, Thurston receives a fair portrayal in Girl In A Band. He comes off as selfish, conflicted, complex and decent. Considering their recent split, this is no small feat of authorial fairness.
But Gordon isn’t shy to express disapproval, and a number of unexpected targets receive harsh words: Johnny Thunders, Jeff Koons, Danielle Dax (?!), Lydia Lunch, Mike Gira of the Swans, Billy Corgan, Lana Del Ray (?!) and, most pointedly, Courtney Love. Make it known: Kim Gordon is no friend of Courtney’s. Love is described as a sociopath, a “car crash,” manipulative, toxic, self-absorbed and a bad mother. The only other woman to receive such pointed attacks is Thurston’s girlfriend, and it does make one wonder if Gordon harbors, as Courtney has always accused, deep feelings for Kurt Cobain. He is described at length throughout the book and is the only person, other than Thurston, to inspire long physical descriptions. We hear about Thurston’s “Mick Jagger lips, and the lanky arms and legs he didn’t seem to know what to do with.” Kurt “had big, watery eyes, slightly hunted looking.” She feels “an immediate kinship with him, one of those mutual I-can-tell-you-are-a-super-sensitive-and-emotional-person-too sorts of connections.” Romantic feelings are never expressed, but Gordon reserves a dreamy tone for those two not employed elsewhere, not even while discussing her “huge crush” on Keanu Reeves, or her ex-boyfriends like Mike Kelley and Danny Elfman (?!), her high school love of two years.
We also learn quite a bit about Sonic Youth. Lyrics from the first EP were drawn from a hat and then, to the great amusement of the band, admired by critics. Gerhard Richter wasn’t much of a Sonic Youth fan and probably wouldn’t have allowed them to use his candle painting for Daydream Nation if it hadn’t been for his wife Isa Genzken. Sonic Youth performed at a charity event for Neil Young’s children and Gordon accidentally yelled “Fuck” in front of an audience of kids. Sister is inspired by Philip K. Dick and Evol is their “faux-goth record.” Little Trouble Girl is a tribute to the Shangri-Las. Gordon also talks quite openly about inner-band politics. Sonic Youth shared publishing rights and “Thurston grew to resent that.” She and Ranaldo regularly butted heads, and Steve Shelley is barely mentioned at all. “A band almost defines the word dysfunction,” she writes. But while Sonic Youth seems to have had its share of problems, the band comes across as remarkably sane and functional.
Critical insights on a variety of topics are as much a part of Girl In A Band as Gordon’s personal narrative. She writes beautifully about California, fashion, jazz vocals, feminism and motherhood. The book is also a thorough answer to that despised question: “What’s it like being a girl in a band?” Sonic Youth may be over, but Gordon’s career is evolving. Girl In A Band is many books at once—memoir, rock tell-all, cultural criticism and personal tribute to the artists and musicians that inspired her over the years. It’s also a final laugh at how silly that question is—a question that Gordon will never be asked again.