Published on March 6th, 2015 | by Dave Scaddan0
Girl in a Band – Kim Gordon
Thurston Moore’s infidelity, Sonic Youth, and ideas about gender and music populate Kim Gordon’s new book, Girl in a Band. Well worth reading, says Dave.
At one point in Kim Gordon’s memoir, Girl in a Band, she writes, “I was immersed in art, but unformed and trying anything and everything.” That word, “unformed,” goes a long way to describing what has always kept Kim intriguing. Her memoir is a little unformed, actually, but not really in a bad way. It just can’t quite settle on what it wants to be and as a result it becomes many things, like the Sonic Youth song ‘Pacific Coast Highway.’ This song, from the ‘Sister’ LP, ranges through sweet, southern soul moods all the way to smashing, squealing guitars that sound like they’re being torn apart while Kim periodically does her troubling imitation of a greasy male schmooze artist on the prowl. It’s a great song, and it gets a lot done in only a few minutes, and just like Kim’s book, Girl in a Band, it blends attitudes ranging from sweetness, warmth, and even compassion with dirty, gritty, sullen moods that well reflect an interesting life.
Kim has encountered a lot of celebrities in a lot of get-to-know-you circumstances, and her circuitry though the worlds of music, art, and fashion sometimes leave her memoir feeling like a laundry list of dropped names. But she’s got a way of reflecting on these brushes and friendships that won’t let the book descend into scandal and expose. Girl in a Band is written in a rather sparse style, and its matter-of-fact tone weaves through moments spent with Neil Young, Kurt Cobain, J Mascis, Kim Deal, Sofia Coppola and Courtney Love without any tacky sensationalism. She’s just as interesting when she’s nodding to the famous heroes she never met, like Karen Carpenter, Joni Mitchell, and Andy Warhol. As a shy woman with an appetite for the intensity of performance, Kim knows how to contemplate a feeling for a long time and then suddenly capture it in words that strike with the force of sincerity. Her times with these people are mostly painted with fond remembrance and doses of regret, and they’re all a part of telling her story, how her path took her from a sun-soaked adolescence in LA to the New York art scenes that produced her marriage, her band, her motherhood, and her divorce.
If you’re looking for some kind of Thurston Moore smear job from the laptop of the woman he wronged, you’ve probably already read enough through other media about how the ultimate 90s rock power couple parted ways. There was the press release that signaled the end of Sonic Youth, the news of Thurston’s infidelity, and then the various projects that both halves of the split couple got into on their own. What Girl in a Band adds to this sad story is the domestic drudgery of finding revealing texts and photos on a spouse’s phone or computer and the subtle shaming of a man who sabotaged his own family in the midst of his daughter’s senior year of high school. Kim is scorned, and doesn’t bother to pretend she isn’t, but she doesn’t lose her classy, take-it-as-it-comes attitude either. She refuses to mention the name of the coffee table book collaborator her ex-husband chose over his band of thirty years, calling her just, “her.” Generally, she portrays her ex as a caring father and teammate, and the truth of his betrayal is no more scathing here than it is in any other form. No matter where one reads this story, whether it’s written by an ex or a detached music journalist, Thurston gets the “how could you?” from anyone who ever loved this band. His once-wife sounds more disappointed in him than angry at him, really, probably because that’s how it actually is.
It’s easy to take Kim Gordon’s word as the foremost authority on how gender operates within the canon of rock, because that’s basically what she is. Her circumstances, her powers of observation, and her fascination with the mark that gender politics have left on music make her a fount of interesting anecdotes and sly critiques. Consider this: in our minds, was it significant to us when we listened to Sonic Youth that we were listening to a band that had a woman as one of its four members? Was it significant when we saw them together as a band? The implications of these kinds of questions — and their answers — are fun to play with after getting Kim’s perspective in writing. Her confrontation of the ways gender gets patterned in popular music appears many times throughout the book, and let’s face it, who honestly knows more and cares more about these things than Kim Gordon? We should probably listen to what she’s saying.
For a while, in the middle of the book, Kim dedicates a chapter each to nine Sonic Youth tracks she sang on from ‘Confusion is Sex’ to ‘Dirty’; it’s one of many gear-changes that keeps the book from having a strong narrative flow, but still allows it its unformed, punk charm. These blow-by-blows have some cool reveals, and it’s here that Kim does some of her most artful, poetic writing. Taking apart her own songs and explaining where various ideas were pulled from, she uses a more wandering style in her prose. After hearing a song like ‘The Sprawl’ or ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ so many times, it’s easy to take for granted what a beautifully captured chunk of human essence it is. Kim’s reflections and connections from this music put a new glow on listening to it, like all the best musician’s memoirs do sometimes. If the “how were the albums made?” angle interests you more, the Matthew Stearns book Daydream Nation is probably worth reading, even though it doesn’t have Kim’s artist-on-the-inside vibe.
For a book that’s likely to be read almost entirely by fans of Sonic Youth, this ought to satisfy. For all the notoriety she’s earned, Kim Gordon is a woman her many fans may know very little about apart from her stage persona, and a glimpse into her family life, her unique take on womanhood and her band could well add a new layer of understanding to a very rich back-catalogue of music. She writes better than most rockers can too, and has access to plenty of cool photos that she shares throughout. Kim Gordon is a class act that never seems tame, and even in moments of reflection, she’s giving us the story of a strangely satisfied searcher, fitting her legacy just fine.