REVIEW: Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon

If the name “Kim Gordon” means nothing to you, and the title of her memoir, Girl in a Band, doesn’t spark interest, then maybe it will be the cover that draws you in: a New York City subway car, Gordon’s slightly upturned chin, messy blonde hair, Taurus band shirt. She looks faintly down her nose at the camera and maybe you think, as her fans always have, that this woman is afraid of nothing.

“The music matters,” Gordon writes in the opening pages of her memoir, “but a lot comes down to how the girl looks. The girl anchors the stage, sucks in the male gaze, and, depending on who she is, throws her own gaze back out into the audience.”

Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore founded the no wave/noise rock band Sonic Youth in 1981, going on to produce a number of seminal records including Daydream Nation, EVOL, and Sister. When Moore and Gordon married in 1984, the couple cemented themselves in indie rocker lore as being the ones who made it. “I guess it was love at first sight,” Gordon is quoted as saying in Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life. But in October 2011, Sonic Youth’s label, Matador, issued a devastating statement saying the couple was separating.

For New York, Nitsuh Abebe wrote, “Picture hundreds of thousands of indie-rock fans learning that their parents were getting divorced.” Elissa Schappell said in Salon, “What’s scarier than a couple deciding — after 30 years of being in a band they created, 27 years of marriage, 17 years spent raising a child — that now they’re done with it?” And on a street in Greenwich Village, my boyfriend turned to me and only half-joking asked, “If Kim and Thurston can’t make it, how can we?”

Girl in a Band begins at the end: the final Sonic Youth concert in Sao Paulo. “Marriage is a long conversation, someone once said, and maybe so is a rock band’s life. A few minutes later, both were over.” Gordon rewinds to her childhood, recalling a youth spent in Rochester, on the Klamath River in Oregon, and also in L.A., Hawaii, and Hong Kong. Gordon notes that her ancestors were pioneers; whether this is to draw a connection to her own travel, or her music, either stands. She also introduces her brother and childhood tormentor, Keller: “No matter how hard I tried, I could never not react to Keller, but neither could I depend on my parents to protect me or take my side…Maybe that’s why for me the page, the gallery, and the stage became the only places my emotions could be expressed and acted out comfortably.” But later, Gordon sourly recalls Keller as being the beginning of her problems with Thurston: “The codependent woman, the narcissistic man…It’s a dynamic I have with men that began, probably, with Keller.”

As if not knowing where to go from there, Gordon changes course to reflect on the songs, albums, and ”times I have the most to say about or remember best.” The transition is clumsy and begs the question why Gordon didn’t compose the entire memoir in such a fashion to begin with; instead, the opening 130 pages are reduced to a sort of extended introduction that doesn’t quite work. Later, Gordon returns to what is increasingly the drive of her memoir: her problems with Thurston. She finds out about his affair through a text message: counseling, promises, and lies follow. “Someone told me later she would have been happy seducing anyone in the band,” Gordon writes of the ‘other woman,’ who she never calls out by name (but is known to be the art book editor Eva Prinz). “In fact, I was the first one she pursued.” Gordon goes on, painting an increasingly ugly portrait of Thurston’s lover: “Everyone who met her or encountered her had the same toxic, dark reaction, the same feeling of ‘What was that?’ as if someone, or something, was trying to take them over.”

At one point, when talking about New York City, Gordon observes that, “It’s hard to write about a love story with a broken heart.” It’s unclear how conscious she is that this is exactly what she’s doing. In fact, to someone unfamiliar with Gordon’s career, Girl in a Band might feel like petty tattling: look what a horrible man my ex-husband is. Although she ventures into talking about the music and art scene of New York, it is often with the same nasty renunciation: “These days, when I’m in New York, I wonder, What’s this place all about, really? The answer is consumption and moneymaking…New York City today is a city on steroids.” Gordon goes on to rant that, “Today we have someone like Lana Del Rey, who doesn’t even know what feminism is, who believes it means women can do whatever they want, which, in her world, tilts toward self-destruction, whether it’s sleeping with gross older men or getting gang-raped by bikers. Equal pay and equal rights would be nice. Naturally, it’s just a persona. If she really truly believes it’s beautiful when young musicians go out on a hot flame of drugs and depression, why doesn’t she just off herself?”

Even the title of the memoir, Girl in a Band, is tinged with Gordon’s bitterness, a nod to her least favorite question: “What’s it like being a girl in a band?” Yet Gordon is so much more than the ex-wife of Thurston Moore, or just “a girl in a band”: she is also a visual artist, the producer on Hole’s first album and friend of Kurt Cobain, creator of the fashion line X-Girl, and has acted in films by Gus van Zant, Todd Haynes, and Oliver Assayas as well as episodes of Gossip Girl and Girls, not to mention numerous musical acts. But despite a long and inspiring artistic life, Girl in a Band always seems to return to the affair. Even as Gordon recognizes that she is writing with a broken heart, she alienates the readers who are–despite her skepticism–more interested in Gordon herself than in any gossip or accusations.

“You’ll never know what I feel inside,” Gordon vows in Sonic Youth’s “Little Trouble Girl.” But now that we do, the spite and hurt might make us wish we’d never asked.

Girl in a Band: A Memoir

by Kim Gordon

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