book review: Girl in a Band

girl in a band

Girl in a Band By Kim Gordon.
Dey Street Books| February 24, 2015.|276 pages |$27.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-229589-7

Rating: 3.5/5*

“It is because knowing what I know now, it’s hard to write a love story with a broken heart.”

Kim Gordon. A California girl who grew to be synonymous with the New York scene despite moving to Northampton, Mass. years ago for quieter place for her daughter with then-husband Thurston Moore. Kim and Thurston met [Gordon says: “Our relationship felt more like an intersection of two separate lines.”] and formed legendary alternative band Sonic Youth in the 80s. Thurston Moore became the face and spokesperson for the band. Seemingly unapproachable and aloof, Gordon opens up with her memoir Girl in a Band. Explaining her demeanor, Gordon writes: “Onstage, people have told me I’m opaque or mysterious or even cold. But more than any of those things, I’m extremely shy and sensitive, as if I can feel all the emotions swirling around a room. And believe me when I say that once you push past my persona, there aren’t any defenses there at all.”

In Girl in a Band, Gordon writes about many things ranging from her band and its music to her marriage to her childhood. She writes about Sonic Youth which she formed in 1981 with guitarist Thurston Moore and guitarist Lee Renaldo and recalls seminal albums and videos and songs. She writes about her long-term relationship with husband Thurston Moore, the music business and feminism. She delves into growing up in California with her progressive parents, the difficult relationship with her older schizophrenic brother, becoming part of the New York art scene in the 80s and 90s and about being a mother.

On one’s twenties, Gordon has opposing views. In one chapter she writes: “Questioning things fit in with “becoming” which in turn brought me closer to living in the present and farther away from the idea that you’re done, ready, formed, or cooked at some present age like your early twenties.” She says that she understands why Lena Dunham’s show Girls resonates with many. Then two chapters later she writes: “I find it strange when people don’t know what they want to do in life.” Really? That seems diametrically opposed to your earlier remark. I think that one’s twenties should be when one explores both professional and personal goals. Not everyone knows her career path at 21.

Sonic Youth signed with major label Geffen Records in the late 80s after releasing five albums on independent labels. The major label wanted the focus to be on Gordon. The sole “girl” in the band. This never appealed to Gordon. She didn’t want to be the focal point, the sex symbol or any symbol for that matter. Gordon wanted the music to be the focal point. She states: “In general, women aren’t really allowed to be kick-ass. It’s like the famous distinction between art and craft: Art, and wildness, and pushing against the edges, is a male thing. Craft, and control, and polish, is for women. Culturally we don’t allow women to be as free as they would like, because that is frightening.”

After three decades together, Gordon discovered– in the usual predictable ways—texts and emails–that her partner Thurston Moore cheated on her with another woman. She felt naturally overwhelmed and deceived. She notes: “I wonder whether you can truly love, or be loved back by someone who hides who they are. It’s made me question my whole life and all my other relationships.” One can only imagination the devastation. So much time. So many years together and perhaps one’s partner wasn’t completely invested. Wasn’t really there? She adds: “Thurston would do his thing, including assorted side project, and I had side projects of my own. No marriage can maintain the thrilling-ness of the early days, and over time, in spite of what my friend said, and as creative as our relationship was, our marriage got progressively lonely, too.” Some of Gordon’s side-projects included a fashion line and some acting roles including one in Gus Van Sant’s fantastic film about Kurt Cobain, Last Days.

Although she never wanted to be the face and the leader of Sonic Youth, Gordon recognized the dynamics and wrote a magazine piece entitled “Trash Drugs and Male Bonding” that catapulted her throughout the indie community. A woman writing about men and their interpersonal relationships related to music seemed subversive. She explains: “By writing about men locking into one another onstage, I indirectly pushed myself inside the triangle, and whatever doubts I had about pursuing a career in art commingled to create a forward wave of momentum, noise, and motion.”

She became close with Kurt Cobain but never really liked Courtney Love despite producing Hole’s first album. She says Love manipulated her into it. Gordon recalls: “At first I said no. I could tell she was either a borderline personality or had some other kind of crazy, contagious energy, and I try to avoid that kind of drama in my life.” As the sister of a mentally ill-brother, this surprised me. This almost anti-reaction to someone with mental illness disappoints me. People don’t develop mental illness because they choose it. She shares a few recollections about Cobain and writes: “I think about Kurt quite often. As with many people who die violently, and too young, there is never any resolution or closure. Kurt still moves along inside me, and outside too, with his music.”

Gordon writes rather quite a free-form drifting from subject to subject and playing around with chronology. A reader can easily skip around and not be confused. The sections with vivid descriptions of New York in the 1980s and 1980s stand-out for authenticity and color. There’s plenty of awesomeness in this memoir. Insecurity combined with risk taking. Deconstructing one’s experiences.Throughout this memoir, the feminist, artist and musician provides readers coolness, the detachment and strong opinions. Gordon removes herself from personal situations and provides a detached observer’s perspective. At other times she’s a bit warmer. While rambling and occasionally disjointed, it works.

Some other revelations from Girl in a Band:

Recently I read that after selling her home in Northampton she might move to Brooklyn. However, Gordon writes: “Now that I no longer live in New York, I don’t know if I could ever move back. All that young-girl idealism is someone else’s now. That city I know doesn’t exist anymore, and it’s more alive in my head than it is when I’m there.”

On being an artist: “Maybe that’s why for me the page, the gallery, and the stage become the only places my emotions could be expressed and acted out comfortably. There were the venues where I could exhibit sexuality, anger, a lack of concern for what people thought.”

On high school: “High school was a dark period for me—I never felt that I fit in, and the other kids seemed alien to me, because, in fact, they were—but I got through.” She did date composer Danny Elfman and they remain friendly.

Gordon and her family lived in Hawaii one year and Hong Kong another while her father taught sociology.

On Courtney Love: “Later on, Courtney Love would take up the role that the press was always fishing for—a punk princess, thrilling and dark, refusing to play by the rules. No one ever questions the disorder behind her tarantula L.A. glamour—sociopathy, narcissism—because it’s rock and roll, good entertainment.”

She’s a fan of Madonna, 1960s groups The Shangri-Las and 1970s brother-sister duo The Carpenters. “Karen Carpenter had interested me for a long time. The Carpenters were such a sun-drenched American dream, such a feel-good family success story like the Beach Boys, but with the same roiling darkness going on underneath.” On Goo is the song “Tunic (Song for Karen)” and later Sonic Youth awesomely and hauntingly covered “Superstar” for the The Carpenters tribute album If I Were a Carpenter in 1994.

Daisy Cafritz and Kim Gordon launched a clothing line called X-Girl girl in 1993. They sold it to a Japanese company years later for a nice profit.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Dey Street Books.

Book Tour:

Unfortunately no Boston dates.

02-24 New York, NY – The Strand (with Elissa Schappell)
02-25 Chapel Hill, NC – Flyleaf/Cat’s Cradle (with Jon Wurster)
02-26 Chicago, IL – Chicago Humanities Festival (with Alison Cuddy)
02-27 Austin, TX – BookPeople (with Terry Lickona)
03-01 Albuquerque, NM – Bookworks/University of New Mexico (with Samantha Anne Carrillo)
03-02 Seattle, WA – Elliott Bay Books/The Neptune (with Bruce Pavitt)
03-03 Portland, OR – Powell’s Books (with Jon Raymond)
03-04 San Francisco, CA – JCC San Francisco (with Carrie Brownstein)
03-05 Santa Monica, CA – Live Talks LA (with Aimee Mann)
03-07 Los Angeles, CA – MOCAtv (Bennett Simpson)

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