In her new memoir the erstwhile Sonic Youth bassist does dish on the band and her ex-husband’s infidelity, but it’s her questions about and observations on art and life that ultimately give the book its power.
BY DENISE SULLIVAN
Kim Gordon’s performance as a mean girl has been finely-tuned, though underneath the rock ‘n’ roll attitude, she’d like you to know there’s a person behind the mask, a woman who cries and bleeds like the rest of us, who still wonders whether she’s doing all she can and if that’s all there is to art, to life, and to love.
Every life has its cross or crosses, and Gordon, it seems has had her share, though it’s possible we would never have gotten to know a more personal side of Sonic Youth’s co-founder were it not for the very public rupture of her marriage to Thurston Moore and subsequent end to their beloved band. Were it not for the break-ups, perhaps there would be no reason to divulge the inner-workings of their relationship, nor any call to examine the childhood and formative experiences that made Gordon the artist she is; no forum to unpack her creative process, nor a new lens through which to view band life in print. It would be our loss; though instead, Gordon’s losses become the source of the proverbial gift in the delivery of Girl In A Band, A Memoir (Dey Street Books), a fine and concise history of what it’s meant to be a white female artist in the late 20th and early 21st Century, against a backdrop of success, disappointment, betrayal, and the predictable mid-life rebirth.
While Gordon had thought she’d found a suitable creative and romantic partner in Moore, someone with whom she could share a loft, a child and a life with, their time together, while hardly idle, doesn’t exactly read as idyllic. Nevertheless she persisted, even after the family took up residence outside New York City and Moore’s discontent became palpable. In her sometimes unkind descriptions of people, particularly the self-obsessed narcissists with whom she has an extreme allergy, Gordon takes the opportunity to dig into her own narrative and how she developed her sixth sense for b.s. Her insights into her reactions to others’ behavior are not unlike those of anyone over the age of 60, yet the revelations about Moore (and Courtney Love, Kurt Cobain, and other portions of the story the pre-press has seized upon) are the least interesting parts of Gordon’s own story. The most valuable and intense threads on offer here for artists, thinkers, and yes, fans are pulled from Gordon’s basic questions of nature and nurture. Do those who create choose their medium and style of expression, or does it choose them? Do early circumstances create a need to make art, and if so or if not, what would the art be like, were it not for these environments? Would it be more or less than what it is? And so on. (Below: Gordon and family, in happier times)
Written in a conversational style, the pages flash by so readily, it would be easy not to notice that Gordon is performing a hat trick: Transcending blood and guts band memoir conventions and childhood trauma tropes, she takes us on a discovery of what it was like to live her creative life. She telegraphs feelings of what it took to perform and be perceived as a serious artist on one hand, while being dismissed in other quarters, in light of California girl looks and the company she kept (men who by virtue of their privilege and charisma overshadowed her publicly, though privately encouraged her).
With a deftness and a certain humility, Gordon is able to acknowledge her own talents and privilege—she was no one’s victim—but it’s the unanswerables that keep surfacing: If she were another kind of person, would she have become a different kind of artist? While there is no doubt Gordon has her friends and foes (and is careful to list as many by name as she can muster), as a California artist in New York, it was always going to be a long way to the top. Taking it upon herself to embrace and invert the pyramid, she used the Cali stuff as grist for the creation of her own myths and ultimately got there, playing beside legends.
Of a (mostly) California childhood, with seasons in Hawaii and Hong Kong, life with the Gordons is remembered by their daughter as at once magical and fraught with challenges. As a girl caught between stylish and brilliant parents who kept a distance, a brother who was a role model and an antagonist (he would ultimately be institutionalized for his troubles), and her own yearnings to become an artist, she’s alternately inspired by her dad’s jazz records, the natural environment and the weird California scenes unfolding around her. Exposed to all varieties of West Coast experience, through the years Sonic Youth has taken heat for glamorizing the state’s darker myths. “Nothing is farther from the truth,” she writes, in particular of a common misperception of the song “Death Valley 69.” In this way and more, Girl In Band serves as an antidote to more New York-centered stories wherein the awkward child becomes a rock ‘n’ roll icon (Just Kids by Smith, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp by Richard Hell), aided by a buzzing city and a coterie of friends.
The Golden State is always with Gordon, informing just about every note she plays, every canvas she paints, and every fashion statement she makes. Recalling with fondness dinners and evenings in Malibu with family friends, “If you were spending the night in their guest room, just below the high tide mark, you could hear the waves fiercely crashing underneath the house, true white noise that sloshed you to sleep.” And while she’s casual about her contribution, Gordon is a pioneer, in a class with Smith and Yoko Ono as a multi-disciplinary artist of groundbreaking stature. I have deep admiration for her band’s impeccable Daydream Nation and Goo and the way they could stretch live, though of less interest to me are her side projects and especially her expositions on fashion here: I come by point-of-view honestly, based on a bad experience in a New York ladies room years ago. Gordon and a friend called out my apparel as “So last year,” and while it was alarming and hurtful to me as I stood by washing my hands, head sinking lower and lower into the basin as they mocked me in the mirror, their fashion dictates got me to thinking about the tyranny of fashion and helped me give it up forever.
“Back then, and even now, I wonder: Am I ’empowered’? If you have to hide your hypersensitivity, are you really a ‘strong woman’?” writes Gordon. “Sometimes another voice enters my head, shooting these thoughts aside. This one tells me that the only really good performance is one where you make yourself vulnerable while pushing beyond your familiar comfort zone.” I know what she means in passages like this and others sprinkled throughout Girl In Band. When she writes of the exhaustion of her job at mid-life, juggling it with carpools and the care of aging parents on another coast, compounded by her family’s complicated history of mental illness and abuse, she joins a very small chorus of rockers who’ve dared to touch that mess. Yet even when opening up and lifting the veil, Gordon keeps the tension burning and never lets us see her sweat. Delivered with a whole lot more soul and generosity than her recorded, performed, or painted works, Girl in Band is a tasteful, never tawdry tell-all that’s ultimately another dimension of Gordon’s art—her life, and her love.
Denise Sullivan is the author of Shaman’s Blues, the Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors