Kim Gordon – Girl In A Band

Thurston gets a kicking, but it's the Sonic Youth icon's vivid documentation of US subcultures that impresses

“What’s it like to be a girl in a band?” That question, repeatedly put to Kim Gordon by male journalists during her time in Sonic Youth, inspired the title of this memoir. But it dwells far less on music than that you might expect.

It isn’t until halfway through the book – which spans all seven decades of the 61-year-old’s life – that Gordon discusses her forays into music. Even then, her first performance comes at an art installation. Instead, she documents America’s shifting subcultures via gritty personal insight. Gordon grew up in hippy-era California, before moving to New York and encountering first punk and later new wave and grunge.

Family life in picture-perfect 1960s Los Angeles was comfortable, and the teenage Gordon developed strong hippy aspirations. But as America was shocked by the Charles Manson murders and the disaster at The Rolling Stones’ Altamont show, scandal rocked Gordon’s family. In the late ‘60s, her older brother’s ex-girlfriend was murdered, allegedly by the Manson family. Gordon also writes emotively about the same sibling’s battle with schizophrenia.

Her middle-class background enabled youthful dreams of becoming an artist to flourish. In fact, positing her as a visual artist first and foremost, Girl In A Band reveals that music is merely an extension of a deep love of art.

The book is peppered with cameos from art-world figures. In Hollywood, Gordon hangs out with primal-scream-therapy inventor Arthur Janov, works as a framer for art dealer Larry Gagosian and starts a formative romantic relationship with composer Danny Elfman. Later, she stays with influential photographer Cindy Sherman in Manhattan, meets Raymond Pettibon – who later designed the iconic cover of Sonic Youth’s 1990 album ‘Goo’ – at a Black Flag house show in Hermosa Beach, spots Andy Warhol on the street, sublets a room from conceptual artist Jenny Holzer and forms a close friendship with the late Mike Kelley, whose knitted animal artwork adorned 1992’s ‘Dirty’.

Gordon moved to New York in 1980, and her depiction of it’s grubby allure is as evocative as Patti Smith’s in her 2010 book Just Kids. Here, Manhattan is a “post apocalyptic hell” where artists scrape together not just a living, but a boundary-pushing aesthetic on rat-infested streets. It’s there that both music and Thurston Moore creep in.

The couple – who separated in 2011 after 27 years of marriage – evidently shared an intense connection, though Gordon airs doubts about the relationship from the start. She pulls apart Moore’s eventual betrayal – he revealed a four-year affair in 2013 – with feminist theory and a fair amount of understandable resentment.

Marital strife aside, the Sonic Youth-related half of the book is invaluable for fans, detailing the cultural references in particular songs and the books that inspired them. Tours with Swans in the 1980s and Neil Young and Nirvana in the 1990s are illuminatingly recalled, with depictions of the musicians Gordon knew, rather than any flashy rock star façades. Elsewhere, time spent producing Hole’s 1991 debut ‘Pretty On The Inside’, and issues with Courtney Love – who’s branded a narcissist and a sociopath – make for engrossingly juicy material.

Gossip about the breakdown of both her marriage and Sonic Youth will draw many to Gordon’s book. But she overrides it wonderfully, handling both with resigned simplicity and finding catharsis through the art she cherishes and a performance with an all-female line-up at Nirvana’s 2014 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So much more than a rock biog, Girl In A Band is a unique record of the past 50 years of alternative culture.

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