by Keidra Chaney
Sonic Youth has always been one of those bands I respected more than I actually liked but I have long admired Kim Gordon, who seemed to embody cool. While she didn’t directly inspire me to pick up a bass, I won’t deny that seeing her be so badass in the “Bull In The Heather” video didn’t make an impact on me in some way later on. More than anything though, I looked at Gordon’s marriage to Thurston Moore as like the rock and roll feminist ideal, as many of us did. A true artistic and romantic partnership with a dude who seemed to be totally cool with her individuality and creativity. Much like my delusions about Queensryche (I’ll get into that at some point in a later post) I thought that Gordon and Moore were two Grownups Who Have Their Shit Together In This Crazy Rock And Roll World. So, of course, the news of their divorce in 2011 was a huge and unexpected blow for a lot of people who thought they were too cool to root for a celebrity couple (not me though, I will shamelessly root for celebrity couples). And when news was announced that Kim Gordon was writing a memoir, a lot of people too cool to be interested in celebrity memoirs couldn’t wait to read Kim dish the dirt and maybe toss in a few barbs to alleged cheating jerk Thurston Moore.
Of course, Kim Gordon’s life and art encompass much more than just her marriage to Moore, and especially more than their eventual breakup. Her life and work encompass much more than even Sonic Youth, and reading Girl In A Band the wide expanse of her life and work become clear. It’s less of a dishy memoir and more of a look back at a how a creative life was shaped a very specific, fleeting moment in time for artists and musicians (Southern California and New York City in the early to mid 80’s).
Gordon’s a great writer, she’s candid and emotional but it doesn’t read in a way that makes it sound like she’s oversharing or pimping out her own feelings. She rips the band-aid off early, starting the book’s first chapter with Sonic Youth’s last show and detailing the announcement of the band’s breakup and the dissolution of her marriage. She doesn’t mince words either, she’s honest and raw about the hurt that she’s feeling playing that show but also intersperses this with an interesting tidbit about how the band placed themselves on stage, based on some funky gender dynamics and the music industry. She says.
“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.”
And it’s little things like that, Gordon’s ability to weave in broader commentary and criticism into her own personal narrative, that make Girl In A Band more than just the usual rock memoir.
In the early chapters, Gordon details her life in California with her college professor father, homemaker mother, and troubled older brother, is a languid, evocative read. Her childhood wasn’t a rough one (she grew up solidly upper middle class and highly educated) but it wasn’t an easy one either (her brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and she endured some level of emotional abuse, or at least turmoil by him growing up.) She manages to avoid sugarcoating her experiences while also showing how her creative, intellectually rich environment she grew up in impacted her life.
When Gordon writes about being a part of the New York City art and music scenes in the early 80’s, she achieves this odd balance of being both wistful and dispassionate, like talking about a loved one long gone. I’m not entirely sure whether her distance is due to the changed face of New York City itself or the fact that the city is what led her to her marriage. I guess it’s both, as she even admits when writing about New York, “it’s hard to write about a love story with a broken heart” and it’s never clear what love story she’s referring to her. But I love ambivalence and shades of gray in writing, when they’re done right, and I think Gordon knows how to strike that tone just right.
The last few chapters of the book, the ones detailing her eventual spilt with Moore, actually read as the most distant of all. What’s interesting is that Moore almost feels like a minor player in the book as a whole. He doesn’t really come in until about chapter 16 and when writing about her discovery of his affair it almost reads as rote, like she’s just going through outline notes. She’s probably too raw from the experience to write about it just yet, which makes sense, but it actually such a change in tone from the earlier part of the book it distracted me.
I’ll admit to a certain bias here, I think bass players tend to be fantastic writers, because they tend to choose their words carefully, and give out just as much as they need to get the point across. Gordon definitely achieves this tone in her writing. What really struck me about the book is how much of it reads like an extended artist’s statement, in it, you’ll get a much clearer view of Gordon’s influence, philosophy and process as an artist and musician. She write a bit about gender and the music industry, how that perspective informs her songwriting (like Karen Carpenter and the Sonic Youth song “Tunic.”) It was illuminating for me, because it is woven in and out of her own personal story in a way that you don’t really read in rock memoirs, especially by women.
She, of course mentions relationships, romance, and some of the more titillating details of her life (Who knew she once dated Danny Elfman?) But it’s all couched in a broader story, the story of her life as a creative, which keeps it from reading like a tell-all. When she mentions her not-so-friendly working relationship with Courtney Love, it doesn’t seem like she’s dishing the dirt, just being honest about how she really feels (shorter: Kim doesn’t like Courtney). The only thing that felt superfluous, and truly mean was her off-hand comments about Lana Del Rey, which were highly publicized but taken out of the publication copy of the book.
I’m glad the comment was taken out, not just because it felt a bit sour, but because so much of the media coverage of the book before it was released focused on the comment and painted the book in a particular light, as some kind of chatty, catty memoir, ala “I’m With The Band.” And of course, a memoir by a woman musician is going to be overanalyzed for relationship dish and backstabbing other women. It does a disservice to Gordon’s writing and her personal story.
Summary: If you’re a fan of Sonic Youth and 90’s alternative rock of course GIAB is a must read, but I think it’s also a worthy read for any fan of rock/music memoirs in general.