Writing the end: Kim Gordon's autobiography is a thoughtful story from inside an epic band

Girl in a Band reaps the rewards of its introspective author with a pan-American story that will engross fans and non-fans alike.

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Girl in a Band
Kim Gordon
Faber & Faber, 273pp, £14.99
 

Every time Kim Gordon did an interview with Sonic Youth, she was asked the same question: “What’s it like being a girl in a band?” When she and her then husband and bandmate, Thurston Moore, had a child together, the question became: “What’s it like being a mom in a band?” In either case she wasn’t sure what to say.

For Gordon, a conceptual artist and disciple of the Velvet Underground, the journalists’ dumb line had a philosophical significance. Before she’d set foot in a real band she’d published an essay in a New York ’zine on the subject of men’s relationship with music. The article, “Trash Drugs and Male Bonding”, “unlocked the next thirty years of my life”, she explains. (Its follow-up was called “Boys Are Smelly”.)

I wanted to push up close to whatever it was men felt when they were together on stage. One on one, men often had little to say to one another. They found some closeness by focusing in on a third thing: music, video games, golf, women. Male friendships were triangular in shape, and that allowed two men some version of intimacy. 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.

Every rock star has their family motivation. Roger Waters says his whole life’s work has been influenced by the father he never met. John Lennon became John Lennon because there was no parent breathing down his neck. Pete Townshend had a particularly tyrannical granny. As for Kim Gordon and her “triangle”, there were two men she’d grown up trying to break inside of: her adored father, a west coast academic who studied the social hierarchy of the American high-school system – jocks, geeks et al –and her elder brother, Keller, a fiercely charismatic child who spoke in Shakespearean verse and set his sister up in fights against neighbourhood kids.

Aged 15, Keller climbed into her bed naked. In early adulthood he became schizophrenic and lived in a trailer, dressed all in white, with a Manson-like beard. He would taunt his younger sister mercilessly whenever she showed any emotion, so she stopped; and – this is one of the great benefits of an author who has had tonnes of therapy – we arrive at an explanation for the Kim Gordon we saw on stage, head down, closed off and expressionless. Male mentor after male mentor populates her book but the man she married was someone she felt protective towards, with his holey T-shirts and his cat called Sweetface. Her close friend Kurt Cobain gets an equally tender description: “I’ll always remember the frail appearance, like an old man, with those big, illuminated, innocent, childish, saucer-sized eyes like ringed planets.”

Gordon’s book has an extraordinary light­ness of touch; you can feel her mood ebbing and flowing in the course of a couple of paragraphs. Though she starts her account with Thurston Moore at the last ever Sonic Youth gig – a moment of onstage tension to rival Linda and Richard Thompson’s darkest days – every time she comes up against him in the story she moves away again, as though she can’t quite face writing the end.

She is most impressionistic about her upbringing, which included stints in Hawaii and Hong Kong. Her childhood is spent scrambling up the disused sewage tubes on the LA coast with the thrill of knowing the sea could rush in at any moment. At high school she choreographs a “human toilet” cavorting to a soundtrack of Frank Zappa’s “Dog Breath” – “I wanted to see what I could get away with and still call it ‘dance’”.

California is stifling but the suffocation is romantic. The same suburban sterility that drew Moore from Connecticut to New York draws her there, too; to a filmic land of loft apartments and CBGBs, and a touching section in which she describes the couple’s guerrilla poster campaigns in the band’s early days, the paste freezing on their fingers in the winter – if you worked fast enough “you could land yourself an actual gig”. Her commitment even today to the ethos of the underground scene is touchingly purist: Brian Eno “destroyed” No Wave music, apparently, when he made a compilation of it. There are recurrent rants about consumerism, the gentrification of the city, and its awful hipsters, probably the same hipsters who love Sonic Youth.

The light but epic, pan-American scope of the book – and its cast of characters ranging from the art dealer Larry Gagosian to Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, “whom nobody liked because he was such a crybaby” – make it an engrossing experience for someone like me, who doesn’t own a single record by the band. “A lot has been written about Sonic Youth,” Gordon writes, 130 pages in to her memoir. “Here is what stands out for me.” Show me the male frontman who’d be willing to admit that his story might not be the definitive one.

Moore and Gordon wrote Sonic Youth’s music together and were a couple for nearly 30 years. In 2010 she discovered that he was having an affair with a younger woman (“the woman”, as she is referred to here). He now lives in Stoke Newington in London;  Gordon winds up her book in an Airbnb in Los Angeles. One fan wrote online that the couple’s split “destroyed Generation X’s last shred of belief in the power of love”. Like Neil Young and Pegi last year, it did come as a shock. Rock’n’roll is the last place you expect love to last, and because of that you find yourself rooting for the ones who are in it for the long haul. 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's features editor. 

This article appears in the 27 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Russia vs the west