Sonic Youth legend. Lauded artist. Once half of indie’s most beloved couple. But Kim Gordon has remained an enigma – until her new memoir finally lifted the lid. Charlotte Richardson Andrews hears about life with Thurston and Kurt at the pop-culture vanguard…
When Kim Gordon began work on her highly anticipated memoir Girl In A Band, the 2011 collapse of her 27-year marriage to Thurston Moore – and the band she formed with him in 1981, Sonic Youth – was fresh in her mind. The book begins there, capturing the group’s final tour and Gordon’s unspooling relationship with raw clarity. But Girl In A Band is not, the 61-year-old says from her home in Los Angeles, a Sonic Youth book, and already, just four years later, she feels a healthy detachment from the band. “I’m really proud of all the work that we did,” she explains. “In a way, I am where I am today because of Sonic Youth. So I don’t wanna go back and say I regret it. But at the same time, I feel pretty removed from it.”
The title of the book is a swipe at the music press, which she believes never ceases to be amazed that women – gasp – make rock music. And, of course, Gordon has always been far more than a ‘girl in a band’. The biography, which is surprisingly vivid for someone who has never kept journals, chronicles her childhood in California and a career nurtured in the fertile art and music scenes of Manhattan in the early 1980s. She met Moore there, co-founded Sonic Youth during the last gasps of No Wave and became a significant collaborator with, and supporter of, other artists – in New York and beyond. In 1991, she co-produced Hole’s debut album, ‘Pretty On The Inside’; two years later, she co-directed the video for The Breeders’ ‘Cannonball’ with Spike Jonze, giving the young filmmaker a significant break. In the same year, she created an iconic fashion line, X-Girl, with stylist Daisy von Furth.
There’s a deeper meaning to the phrase ‘girl in a band’, too. Reticent in interviews and never one for onstage banter, Gordon has long been perceived as enigmatic, even cold. She’s friendly but concise when we talk – a beguiling mix of confidence and awkward, shy laughter – and this quietness, she reveals in the biography, started as a protection mechanism, adopted in childhood after “years of being teased for every feeling I ever expressed” by her brother, Keller. Long before she moved to New York, Gordon was an art student in the tripped-out atmosphere of late-’60s southern California. The tune-in-drop-out mentality of the times meant weird became the norm; and, she writes, it took Gordon’s parents some time to recognise their son’s schizophrenia. Keller was abusive, brilliant and endlessly cruel – someone she describes herself as idolising and fearing in equal measure.
“Maybe the fact that I didn’t have such a great relationship with him set me off in search of good brotherly relationships,” Gordon says. “Maybe that’s why I ended up playing rock music with a bunch of guys.” Was it important for you to address that sense of feeling misunderstood? “Sure. I think you have to make yourself a little vulnerable to achieve something.”
Thurston Moore – rock’s gangly, evergreen man-boy – does not come off well in the memoir. Gordon calls him a “calculated” musician with “a rock’n’roll strategy”; a man who squandered 30 years of romantic and creative partnership on a clichéd midlife crisis. “Another woman, a double life,” Gordon says. “It was difficult to know how to write about it, and how to talk about it. But I guess the book was also a way to clear the air. I wanted a way to make something positive and constructive out of the experience.”
Being onstage helped Gordon get through the divorce. “Extreme noise can be an incredibly cleansing thing,” she says. “I still find making music really thrilling, whether it’s recording or performing. I know that sounds so emo, but I went through a period a while back where I felt like I didn’t wanna tour any more, I’m too old.”
And yet touring is exactly what Gordon did after the news that rock’s cool mum and dad had split, playing shows with Ikue Mori, drummer in late-’70s No Wave band DNA, and marshalling her current band, droning improv act Body/Head. It was a fitting response from Gordon, a paragon of tomboy elegance who’d preceded riot grrrl’s brash, rowdy wave in the ’90s and brought a feminist cool to Sonic Youth, drafting in Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna to star in the video for 1994 single ‘Bull In The Heather’.
On the subject of complex, modern-day feminist icons, she throws rocks at Courtney Love in the book (“manipulative, egomaniacal”, “mentally ill”) and has some caustic words for Lana Del Rey – a paragraph she says her editor has since softened.
“I mean, is that a persona?” she says today, referencing comments Del Rey made last year about wishing to be dead. “Is that really her, or is she just waving self-destruction like a flag; as a way of marketing herself?” The idea of young musicians romanticising death is predictably offensive to Gordon given the loss of her friend and Sonic Youth tourmate Kurt Cobain. She describes their friendship as a kinship of highly sensitive souls in Girl In A Band, but clams up when pressed on this, saying only: “We definitely had a connection.”
Towards the end of the book, there’s a sense that, in her sixties, Gordon keeps finding new ways to express her seemingly endless creativity. Despite the trials of recent years, she is still rocking, exhibiting paintings, acting, writing and – potentially, in the near future – scoring a couple of independent films.
What drives her? “Well, in part, my daughter Coco [born in 1994] is why I do what I do. When you have kids, you have to be a role model for them. Also, the whole [break-up] thing made me realise I was stuck in that life in a certain way, so a lot of good things have come out of it. I feel a loss of identity when I’m not making things. You can’t stay in one place; you have to keep evolving and moving forward.”