Girl in a Band
(Dey Street Books, 2015)
Kim Gordon is an artistic polymath, steeped in visual art, film, the written word. Her primary focus is music: for three decades, the world knew her as Sonic Youth’s inscrutable bassist. Girl in a Band is Gordon’s literate memoir of following “the forward wave of momentum, noise, and motion” that led to New York City, to husband and bandmate Thurston Moore, and to the long-running Sonic Youth.
Sonic Youth, of course, is no more. The band and the marriage dissolved in the face of marital infidelity (Moore’s). Girl in a Band, though, is not an exercise in gossip, nor is it a tale of downtown rock debauchery; the prurient would be advised to go elsewhere. The book reflects the sober-minded Gordon’s primary motivations: her daughter Coco, and her craft.
Kim Gordon, daughter of an academic, grew up in the rarefied cultured circles of 1960s Los Angeles, beautifully rendered in these pages. “The aroma of old indigenous L.A. houses, even inland ones, comes from the ocean twenty miles away,” Gordon writes, summoning evocative images of “sunshine streaming in from the windows, and, somewhere, eucalyptus bathed in the haze of ambition.” The milieu was heady and unconventional, suffused with French New Wave cinema, acid, and ’60s expansiveness, but also with the long-running tragedy of Gordon’s gifted and schizophrenic brother—both cherished sibling and unstable, constant tormentor. And there was the other side of southern California as well—James Ellroy’s “big nowhere,” a “desolation, a disquiet ... a sense of apocalyptic expanse.” Charles Manson hovered in the background, and not just metaphorically: “Charlie Manson was starting to make appearances around the beaches and canyons of Malibu,” Gordon writes. “In fact, I was constantly meeting people who had picked Manson up and given him a ride or dropped him off by the side of the road.” In the midst of this, art-making, not surprisingly, became her refuge and way of making sense of things: “The page, the gallery, and the stage became the only places my emotions could be expressed and acted out comfortably.”
She trekked east to New York City, putting down roots in the hardscrabble downtown ferment of the 1980s, discovering—amid a myriad of discoveries—the joy of cheap, fortifying Chock Full O’ Nuts corn muffins, an unknown commodity in Los Angeles. “New York was a jumble, all colors, shapes, angles, attitudes.” She worked in a bookstore, as a bus girl, at an all-night restaurant in the “dead zone, empty and desolate,” of Chelsea. An earlier job less close to home had her “walking the fifty blocks uptown and back to eat, since I didn’t want to spend what little money I had on subway tokens.” Such scenes are akin to the description of another planet.
Not surprisingly, Sonic Youth takes up the bulk of Girl in a Band’s narration. The band’s punk bravado notwithstanding, there is a wealth of nuanced, introspective beauty that runs through much of their output. In and of itself, this probably isn’t all that significant (Miles Davis, for one, has a musical legacy of artistic sensitivity but was certainly nobody’s idea of a gentle soul). Yet Gordon’s memoir is suffused with insightful, gleaming prose that just can’t be unrelated to her artistic ethos. Her creative inspirations range far and wide, taking diverse forms, including fashion and art criticism; she is refreshingly unafraid to detour into the unexpected, like her interest in Karen Carpenter.
A portion of Girl in a Band is devoted to the classic dilemma for entrenched city dwellers—musicians and non-musicians both—who find themselves in the role of parents, struggling to determine an appropriate course of action and seeing their perspectives undergo a radical re-evaluation. “I didn’t want to raise Coco on Lafayette Street. Not on the fringes of SoHo,” Gordon writes, citing concerns with “schools and tests and applications and micromanaging your child in a city where no kid can walk around unaccompanied.” Gordon and Moore—like so many—exited the city for a homey refuge of yards, space, and good schools, settling in the “spiky blur of coffee shops, tattoo parlors, vegetarian restaurants, yoga studios, and therapists’ offices” of Northampton, Massachusetts.
The Kim Gordon in the pages of Girl in a Band seems utterly without affect, equally intent on describing her association with Kurt Cobain as ruminating on the intricacies of befriending fellow parents. Girl in a Band is a summing up, not a farewell tour. Post-marriage, post-Sonic Youth, Gordon seems eons away from resting on her laurels. The world “just goes on,” she writes. “Ice melts, and streetlights switch colors when no cars are around, and grass pushes through trestles and sidewalk cracks, and things are born and things go away.” And that is about as hopeful a coda as one could imagine.
RICHARD KLIN is the author of Something to Say (Leapfrog Press, 2011).