Nostalgia and Heartbreak in Kim Gordon’s ‘Girl In A Band’ ­ – A Review

I began and finished Kim Gordon’s memoir in the NYC subway, catching glimpses of her life and self ­reflection between hectic transfers, rushing to make my next engagement. I missed a couple of stops, too focused to be bothered. G​irl In A Band ​was engrossing. A photo in the book of Kim riding the subway some decades ago turned reading into an experience. I had her scrawl a star on it as an autograph when I caught her book tour stop in Albuquerque. Her scathing take on the gentrified, current ­day NYC as compared to a more opportune past reshaped the urban landscape I was navigating. Memories that were not mine sparked introspection as an artist in my mid­-20s. I compared and contrasted experiences, resources, eras, histories, perspectives, as I often do when learning the details of an hero/ine’s burgeoning sense of self. It asserts a time and place, a context for my own growth in a digital age where culture’s past, present, and future are simultaneously ingested. Kim paints a transgressive Southern Californian landscape, a seedy New York City, and small town quaintness through her and her contemporaries’ output. Charles Manson, psychedelics, low ­income living, shifting art world climates, and some good fortune serve as an undercurrent through her bi­coastal track.

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As she’s mentioned along her book tour, a principle of her unconventional memoir was “no sex, drugs or rock’n’roll,” which is not completely true and perhaps tongue ­in ­cheek to diffuse certain expectations. Drugs, sexuality, and fast living all play a large role for the Sonic Youth frontwoman but its presentation is perhaps more mature than what nefarious tell­ all rockstar memoirs typically bring. G​irl In A Band​ is a vulnerable and intimate view of Kim’s life, offsetting her otherwise distant and mysterious air. Childhood conflicts and triumphs intrinsic to an artist’s process are catalogued, her immediate family life and the origins of co­dependent tendencies examined. Performance artist Linda Montano stresses the influences of childhood throughout her career, conducting interviews and performances that asked others “what was your relationship with…” or “how did you feel about … as a child?” Sex, food, death, anything would be up for discussion, all being equally relevant. In the early chapters Kim opens up about her schizophrenic brother in a both loving and biting light as his electric charisma was set off by sadistic tendencies and general instability. “I worshipped my brother […] But he was vicious to me throughout our childhood…” Kim recalls. Each tidbit that informed her now informs her listeners exploring her repertoire. Teenage and 20­something romances with various emerging stars are a fun highlight of the book. So is her retelling of the early days with Thurston. Of course, this will lead to heartbreak and we are granted a private window into Kim’s speculation on how or why their 27-­year marriage recently came to an end. She asks many questions, trailing off on open­-ended speculation familiar to a grieving lover. “Why did I trust him, or assume I knew anything at all about him?”

I was in NYC to attend the Hacking Feminism symposium at The New School and to take a look at the controversial Bjork exhibit at MoMA. Bjork’s V​ulnicura​record documents a
post­breakup emotional arc filled with questions similar to those asked by Kim. The cultural space for women is slim, leading to a history of unfair and unwarranted comparison between disparate artists. However, it was hard to ignore this odd synchronicity I was experiencing between the unfiltered aching from Bjork’s voice and Kim’s words on the page. Ultimately, their brave laments draw us into humanizing self ­portraits. “People pay money to see others believe in themselves,” Greil Marcus stated, a quote Kim uses to frame her own introduction into performance and fearlessness. Kim carries a sense of pride that allows her to recount her faults, tragedies, and insecurities so that she triumphs. Along with this comes a self respect that steers her critique on the countless seminal alt figures she’s crossed paths with. For instance, Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain. Kurt is a recurring figure in the book, a timely ode although she’s done so in the past by doing things like appearing in Gus Van Sant’s L​ast Days.​ Press driven by scandal honed in on the harsh words given to Courtney but mostly overlooked its context and Kim’s conditional praise given to the difficult musician she once collaborated with. She pays her cautious respects to Lydia Lunch, repeatedly. The only portion that felt more like bad­ mouthing than deserved judgement was her notorious statement on Lana Del Rey, as deciding the level of which another woman understands feminism takes a good deal of assumption.

Still, if anyone’s an authority on feminism in music culture, Kim is high on the list. The riot grrrl corporate theft that happened with 90s pop divas and the adopted “Girl Power” slogan is recounted along with the struggles of being in the spotlight. “I didn’t want to […] act out the role of an imaginary female, someone who had more to do with them than with me.” The politics of entertainment, female agency, visibility, and exploitation are suggestedly more complex that what audiences may receive. Kim’s rise as a fashion icon surprised her, as her unusual take on assemblage didn’t fit with any of the trends through the 80s or 90s until she set them herself through a co-­owned label, X­Girl. The athletic fits and ringer t’s they brought to the table appeared to define an era of indie rock precision with a touch of nonchalance. The male gaze directing choices on Sonic Youth’s image or even how they took positions on stage is discussed, the scrutiny was intense and expectations were high. Her own look comes through, leading to even more of a focus as a female amidst a group of men. “There was a popular look at the time, ­­the vintage dress, the makeup ­­that just wasn’t me, nor was that the way people dressed in the art world.”

Personally, I find the term “queer” includes a broad sense of outsider status, a spectrum of non­heteronormative thinkers who are allies regardless of their sexual orientation. Kim and her surrounding universe have been there for queers in the philosophical and sexual sense. NYC based performance artist Penny Arcade stated in an interview, “The queer world was built generation by generation on a tradition fueled by a sense of responsibility to pass on history and information.” There is a looming doom about the commodified art/music world that creeps through. Danger can be lacking in today’s venues, though not totally erased. NYC like the rest of alternative culture was bought out, something Kim and Penny and many others have noted. As a young artist looking for a place as romantic as my hero/ine’s pasts, I was initially frustrated with the lack of solutions offered. But, haven’t they offered enough? Kim and company have provided spiritual solutions throughout their careers and at some point the new generation must forge their own path. Despite the cultural landscape being different, there’s much to be gained from hearing the previous generation’s voices. A frightful ignorance emerges with tuning out the past, as Penny Arcade also said “…the mono­generationalism that has supplanted the inter­generationalism of former decades is appalling.” For example, a Sonic Youth tour with Neil Young accounts for a valuable portion of the book, clearly a pivotal moment for both their careers.

Read between the lines and G​irl In A Band ​will take you past the even-­tempered delivery. Kim states her interest in “disguising subversion under a benign exterior” several times, whether it be discussing a Sonic Youth album cover, another band like The Raincoats, or even just a fashion sense. Radicalism can exist and thrive in this state and infiltrate with greater efficiency. She describes the cover of D​aydream Nation​ as a trojan horse and it seems she’s operated much of her life this way. We are all probably as tired of hearing the “what’s it like to be a girl in a band” type question as much as she is, and while this makes Girl In A Band​ a fitting title, her interest in male bonding is also a huge factor. “Male Bonding” was even a potential name for Sonic Youth. Her V​illage Voice ​diary column “Boys Are Smelly” was an observational account of touring with Sonic Youth in the center of male creative exchange. “In retrospect, that’s why I joined a band, so I could be inside that male dynamic, not staring in through a closed window but looking out,” she claims, and her style of writing holds that perspective as the Sonic Youth years slide by and lead us back into her ailing marriage. She is as compassionate as frank when it comes to her and Thurston’s divorce. The memoir feels spurred by this jolting event, and although gratified by the behind-­the­scenes details I can’t help but wonder how differently her story might have been told. Would it have been told at all? Her admiration for Coco, her daughter, is endearing and are the most heartfelt pages of the book. At one point she secretly watches her teenage daughter performing in a band and we catch glimmers of hope for a bright future.

–Kim Gordon’s Girl In A Band, review by JC Gonzo

Sensitive Skin 12 available here in PDF format here for just $4.95, or get the full-color print version via Amazon and select bookstores.


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