Girl in a Band

Girl in a Band
Kim Gordon
[Dey Street/HarperCollins]

I approached Girl in a Band with a fair share of discomfort. Kim Gordon has long seemed best positioned to provide an interesting take on the Sonic Youth story; unfortunately that narrative is now tainted by the demise of America’s Indie Rock Couple. I can’t deny my own curiosity about the inside story; does that make me nothing more than a hipper-than-thou version of the supermarket tabloid gawkers I disdain? The sensationalist nature of pre-publication excerpts (including shots at Lana Del Rey that were toned down for the final printing) didn’t help matters, although they certainly achieved HarperCollins’ goal of whipping up interest.

The good news is that Gordon addresses the breakup in an unvarnished yet dignified fashion, appropriately relegating the tale to a relatively brief gut punch toward the back of the book. The downside is that the wounds from Gordon’s divorce from Thurston Moore remain raw enough to cause her to shortchange coverage of her breakthrough band. The result is a frustrating read that delivers just enough insight to warrant your time.

Girl in a Band is a deceptively brief 273 pages, in part because Gordon blasts through most of her band’s history in bite-sized 3-to-4 page packets. The book is broken into 53 chapters, the ones covering Gordon’s youth and recent years constructed in relatively conventional lengths. Gordon’s jacket bio describes her as an artist first, a musician second – a telling nuance. She portrays her true passion as visual art, with the implication she back-burnered it for the sake of the band.

Gordon devotes nearly a third of the memoir to her self-described middle class Los Angeles upbringing, with detours to Hawaii and Hong Kong courtesy of her UCLA professor father. The most compelling aspect of this section is the relationship with older brother Keller, a charismatic genius who descends into paranoid schizophrenia and winds up a ward of the state. She sees her familial role – the “good girl” desperate to inject a dose of normalcy to the dynamic – as an example of engrained female oppression and a harbinger of patterns that proved themselves to repeat.

Sonic Youth doesn’t enter the narrative until page 120, and even then Gordon absolves herself of duty to deeply ruminate, opting instead for a series of jump-cut impressions sorted by album. She reasons that plenty of ink has already been spilled about Sonic Youth – although certainly not by someone with such an all-access vantage point. She rehashes well-traveled tales of Lollapalooza and touring with Neil Young, mixed with some inspiring revelations – her and Thurston’s discovery of Black Flag’s Hermosa Beach house party scene, Gordon’s impassioned and persuasive case for Karen Carpenter as a tragic figure and victim of the faux California ideal and ’60s sexism. On the latter front Gordon succeeds in dispelling my perception that their Carpenters reverence amounted to ironic slumming.

On the other hand, after reading of brother Keller’s struggles I anxiously awaited Gordon’s perspective on her vocals to “Schizophrenia” from SY’s landmark Sister LP (still their high point for my money, although critical and commercial consensus came one and two albums later). Other than revealing the lyrics were actually penned by Moore, she takes the topic no further. Similarly, Gordon lands a couple of glancing blows at their longtime major label benefactor (“The need to be a woman out in front (on stage) never crossed my mind until we signed with Geffen.”) but in a memoir so heavily informed by notions of female subjugation, not further documenting her misgivings – or her long-term acquiescence – is another missed opportunity.

Gordon’s exhibits the most pride in the success of her mid-90s X-Girl clothing line (apparently still going strong in Japan), perhaps because it’s a venture in which she exerted true control. She counters the accepted image of Sonic Youth as an uncommon band democracy (remember Experimental, Jet Set, Trash and No Star?), concluding in hindsight that she reprised the “keep the peace” role of her childhood family, effectively handing Thurston her proxy and in doing so ceding him majority control on band matters.

The section on the unraveling of Gordon’s and Moore’s relationship opens with an unadorned reprint of the lyrics from “Kotton Krown,” SY’s one overt love song, and the impact is devastating. In hindsight, Gordon reasons that their gradual estrangement began with the birth of daughter Coco – she does credit Moore with being an attentive parent, however. The circumstances of Moore’s affair are striking mostly for their textbook bourgeois banality. Gordon labels the other woman – who she never mentions by name – a groupie and predator but truth be told, the vitriol is no harsher than that directed at Courtney Love earlier in the memoir.

Gordon freely acknowledges she’s “still heartbroken,” which may help explain the negativity that permeates much of this book – the artifice of LA, the sanitization of New York, the commercialization of the art world. It also suffers from some surprisingly shoddy editing for a major imprint – a few names and entities appear without necessary context, and a couple of vignettes are repeated with no apparent awareness they’ve already been covered. The colleagues that come across most favorably are the artist Dan Graham – who Gordon first encountered as a CalArts lecturer and who she clearly reveres as a visionary and mentor, and the Cafritz sisters: Julie (late of Pussy Galore and her Free Kitten bandmate) and Daisy (her X-Girl partner).

This may simply have been too loaded a time for Gordon to have written a memoir. Or perhaps Girl in a Band is the book Gordon wanted to write, rather than the one the market desired – which would be in step with Sonic Youth’s ethos.