FEBRUARY 24, 2015
What’s it like to be a girl in a band?
I don’t quite understand
That’s so quaint to hear
I feel so faint, my dear
— Sonic Youth, “Sacred Trickster,” The Eternal (2009)
IN HER LYRICS to the opening track of what was to become Sonic Youth’s last album, Kim Gordon dismisses as “quaint” the question, “What’s it like to be a girl in a band?” Nevertheless, that question gives her new memoir both its title and a recurring motif. The question is a strange sort of stand-in for the one that most readers (or readers of reviews and online excerpts) really want her book to answer, which is: what really ended Gordon’s marriage to Thurston Moore and broke up Sonic Youth?
These questions, in effect, are the same. We know the answer to both before we ask. Being a woman, Girl in a Band makes clear, still means being treated as a second-class person, by men (by the press, by sound guys, by your self-declared feminist husband) as well as by other women (be she Courtney Love or your husband’s lover). Just asking the question, as Gordon’s lyrics point out, inevitably reinforces that second-class status, making her feel quaint, faint. Her memoir articulates the burden these questions put on her, even as she’s compelled to respond to them.
Gordon obviously wants her memoir to assert that she is not just a girl in a band: she uses her book to define herself as a visual artist and not a musician, a Californian and not just a New Yorker; a full person rather than just Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. Yet the memoir serves another function, too: even as Gordon resists and resents being asked what it was like being the girl in Sonic Youth, and what ended both her marriage and her band, the reader is uncomfortably aware that these are questions Gordon is asking, and seeking to answer, for herself. This tension — stretched tauter because of Gordon’s own ambivalence — is what structures Girl in a Band mostly productively, but also frustratingly, in some of the memoir’s most important moments.
Being a girl in a band — and, more specifically, the bass player — is also what got me invited to write this review. The editorial team wanted the reviewer to be a woman musician, for what I guess were good reasons; even though neither Gordon nor I want our musicianship to be defined by our gender, the two are hard to pry apart. I was reluctant initially to take the assignment, not only because it competed with writing deadlines for my full-time job as a literature professor, but also because of my longstanding ambivalence toward Kim Gordon. I started playing bass in college during the mid-’90s, when Sonic Youth signed with a major label and put out some of their most popular records, and during Riot Grrrl and a generally glorious time for punk and indie rock. (Cue Springsteen’s “Glory Days” on me if you want, but it’s true.) I started out playing in dank basements with men in bands who had come from playing shows in other dank basements and wanted to keep playing. I’d been classically trained as a violinist and cellist and shifted my skills to bass guitar; that meant I never spent the countless hours playing bass along with records alone in my bedroom as an early teen that every male musician I know did, developing their chops. So I was and still am not as good a bassist as I’d like to be. And I still play with men.
Back then (and, even now) a lot of people would ask me if Kim Gordon was a role model, or even the reason why I’d taken up bass. She wasn’t, and I resented being compared to her; why did no one ever ask if it was Paul McCartney, Vern Rumsey, or even Kim Deal? I never thought Gordon was a very good bassist, or a very good feminist, despite the feminist lyrics of many songs she wrote and sang with Sonic Youth. Why didn’t she become a better bassist, work harder against the lasting stereotype that women can’t shred? Plus, I thought, she and the rest of the band were sellouts, signing with a major label. I know! But it was the ’90s and I was pretty far over on the decade’s judgy, self-righteous side.
Despite having aged out of much of this disapproval, and Sonic Youth having become one of my all-time favorite bands, before reading Girl in a Band, I still had complicated feelings about Kim Gordon. When men (Thurston, Jim O’Rourke, Mark Ibold) took over the bass parts for Sonic Youth, they were a lot better and I felt bad about that. And I don’t really like the music she makes with her post–Sonic Youth project Body/Head, even though I want to. I did empathize with her, emotionally, as someone who’d also been betrayed by a partner who somehow thought of himself as the victim. More than anything, I realized I never really felt like I understood Kim Gordon, and for a lot of complicated reasons, I felt like I should (even though that’s totally stupid).
After reading Girl in a Band, I think it’s fair to say that Kim Gordon at least understands herself better than she used to. Like any memoirist, Gordon’s trying to come to terms with who she has been, if not who she is now, and this effort dominates the stories she tells. During her time in Sonic Youth, she wrote not just lyrics, but several pieces for magazines, including a tour diary for the Village Voice, an Artforum essay on rock clubs (both in the ’80s), and, as the memoir describes, an open letter to Karen Carpenter for a magazine that Gordon can’t recall. Girl in a Band is her most substantial written work thus far, and her voice in it is a compelling and sometimes confounding mix of frank confidence, renewed pride, wistfulness, mournfulness, tentativeness, self-contradiction, exhaustion, recovery, and anticipation.
Patti Smith’s Just Kids would be the most intuitive comparison to draw with Girl in a Band, for thematic reasons of gender, generation, and geography, as well as for their shared multidisciplinarity as artists, complicated relationships with men, and uncanny luck about being in the right place at the right time. But I kept thinking of Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking as I was reading Gordon’s memoir. Both books are the product of wonder at — and the struggle to reconcile with — how the life-changing loss of one’s partner could be so profoundly ordinary. Both Didion and Gordon were married to men who did what they did and do — a writer and a musician, respectively. (Moore is also a writer, for what it’s worth.) And both are Californians — Didion a native, Gordon a transplant at age five who grew up and lived in Los Angeles (except for a stint at Toronto’s York University) through art school.
Some of the most writerly passages of Girl in a Band come when Gordon is writing about California, and they chime with Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979). When her family arrives in LA, for example, Gordon notices that
everywhere were sprinkler systems, little metallic gadgets here and there twisting and chugging away at all hours. Nothing was indigenous — not the grass, not the sprinkler water, not any of the people I met. Until I saw Chinatown, I didn’t realize L.A. was, underneath everything, a desert, an expanse of endless burlap.
In a passage that is at once Didionian, Proustian, and Westian (Nathanael, that is), she recalls how the
aroma of old indigenous L.A. homes, even inland ones, comes from the ocean twenty miles away, a hint of mildew, but dry too, and closed up, perfectly still, like a statue. I can still smell the barest trace of gas from the old 1950s stove, an invisible odor mixed with sunshine streaming in from the windows, and somewhere, eucalyptus bathed in the haze of ambition.
In other moments that draw out the darkness behind all of that sunshine, her writing recalls not just Didion’s essay on Charles Manson — especially when she is also writing about her near brushes with Manson and the Summer of ’69 — but also Mike Davis’s City of Quartz (1990) and Ecology of Fear (1998). For example:
L.A. in the late sixties had a desolation about it, a disquiet. More than anything, that had to do with a feeling, one that you still find in parts of the San Fernando Valley. There was a sense of apocalyptic expanse, of sidewalks and houses centipeding over mountains and going on forever, combined with a shrugging kind of anchorlessness. Growing up I was always aware of L.A.’s diffuseness, its lack of an attachment to anything other than its own good reflection.
As someone who went to high school in the Los Angeles exurbs and has lived east ever since, California dreamin’ all the while, and who has always admired how Didion captures California in words as well as film captures its trademark golden light, these passages stood out to me more than they might to other readers, not just for their subject matter but for the artfulness and craft that they display. (It’s interesting to compare Gordon’s prose to her own analysis of gender in music. For instance, in discussing female singers from Janis Joplin and Billie Holiday to Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill to her daughter Coco Gordon Moore, Gordon meditates on what she calls the “famous distinction” that defines art “and wildness, and pushing against the edges” as a “male thing,” while craft “and control, and polish, is for women.” I see the California passages as both pushing and polished.) The elegance of her prose is just one of the ways that Gordon makes it clear how important California has become in her post-Thurston, post-Sonic Youth, and post-East Coast life — one loss that she has recovered, and a place that is central to figuring out her identity now and beyond. Its significance in these respects evokes her most deliberate and poetic writing.
Gordon also writes provocatively of her experience of becoming a singer, recognizing the limitations of her vocal range and settling into a combination of talking and strained singing that stops just short of shouting. In contrast to the satisfaction found in these moments, I was disappointed by how little attention Gordon gives to learning to play the bass. I see why she’s interested in defining herself beyond or even against that part of her experience, but limiting her discussion of the instrument by which she’s been so defined feels like limiting what she can say about herself as well.
Rock memoirs rarely deliver the goods in this respect, though; musicians typically are reluctant to detail how much they practiced at first, what the first song they learned was, or details about technique developed over time. Rock’s masculinism dictates that the musicianship of classic rock musicians was always already there; the contempt for musicianship of much punk was even more masculinist. Gordon’s reluctance is feminine — a blend of self-consciousness and uninterestedness. She twice says that she has never thought of herself either as a musician, explaining that she wasn’t formally trained as one, or as having a good voice. Right after she admits she eventually came to enjoy playing bass after having started out “just trying to hold [her] own” with it, she declares how glad she was to be free of it in Sonic Youth’s late recordings and performances.
What Gordon understands herself as most is a performer. Reflecting on this also evokes some of her most thoughtful and compelling writing:
I love the visceral movement and thrill of being onstage. And even as a visual and conceptual artist, there’s always been a performance aspect to whatever I do.
For me performing has a lot to do with being fearless. I wrote an article for Artforum in the mideighties that had a line in it that the rock critic Greil Marcus quoted a lot: “People pay money to see others believe in themselves.” Meaning, the higher the chance you can fall down in public, the more value the culture places on what you do. Unlike, say, a writer or painter, when you’re onstage you can’t hide from other people, or hide from yourself either.
Yet in one of the most notable self-contradictions of Girl in a Band, Gordon describes the specific dynamics and experience of performing with Sonic Youth in relation to the female experience of gender that culminates in finding a place to hide:
In the middle of the stage, where I stand as a bass player of Sonic Youth, the music comes at me from all directions. The most heightened state of being female is watching people watch you. Manipulating the stage, without breaking the spell of performing, is what makes someone like Madonna all the more brilliant. Simple pop structures sustain her image, allowing her real self to remain a mystery — is she really that sexy? Loud dissonance and blurred melody create their own ambiguity — are we really that violent? — a context that allows me to be anonymous. For many purposes, being obsessed with boys playing guitars, being as ordinary as possible, being a girl bass player is ideal, because the swirl of Sonic Youth makes me forget about being a girl. I like being in a weak position and making it strong.
That Gordon felt at her weakest when betrayed by her husband and her whole life dissolved, and that Girl in a Band is the product of her admirable effort to inhabit that weak position and make it strong, is undeniable in the so-called “tell-all” parts of the memoir. The facts of her divorce are unflinchingly present in this text, along with an achingly generous offer of compassion to Thurston Moore (“I did feel some compassion for Thurston, and I still do. I was sorry for the way he had lost his marriage, his band, his daughter, his family, our life together — and himself”), even as she withholds forgiveness. (“But that is a lot different from forgiveness.”) To me, that moment is braver even than her willingness to render their decline and fall in painful detail.
In the section of the book devoted to the making of Sonic Youth’s second studio album, Bad Moon Rising, Gordon explains that she took the title of the song “Brave Men Run In My Family” from an Ed Ruscha painting that “seemed to make ironic reference to the early heroics of American settlers.”
But she explains that her lyrics attempted to replace the double meaning and the men of Ruscha’s title with unambiguous bravery and women: “From the few stories I’d heard, the women in my family were incomprehensibly strong. […] Stoic, enduring, no questions, no complaints. When I sang ‘Brave Men Run in My Family,” I was singing about those women.”
Gordon, her female forebears, and much of in Girl in a Band demonstrate, certainly, an impressive bravery. Reading her book, I felt again how much I want to champion her without reservation: Lady’s been through The Shit in so many ways. That’s a huge burden for any person to have to carry, and she mostly did so willingly and thoughtfully. But Gordon and her memoir ultimately embody the ambivalence of Ruscha’s original title rather than the confidence Gordon hoped would replace it, and she finally leaves me ambivalent as well. She closes by describing a post-divorce make-out session with an attractive, charming man while parked in front of her rented house in Echo Park. Like a twenty-something bragging to her girls within earshot of an ex at full rub-it-in volume, she ultimately broadcasts her own insecurity: “He was a player, I knew that full well, and our good-night kiss turned into a full-on grope. I had to pull away, since I was catching a flight in two hours. He looked shocked, as if to ask, Gee — you don’t want to fuck me right here in the car?” Her closing sentence: “I know: it sounds like I’m someone else entirely now, and I guess I am.” Not really, Kim; if you’re no longer a girl in a band, you’re still defining yourself in relation to a man. And it’s both brave and humiliating of you to admit that out loud.