Book review: Girl in a Band: A Memoir

Girl in a Band: A MemoirGirl in a Band: A Memoir by Kim Gordon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The title of Kim Gordon’s autobiography is a neat reduction of how she’s been interpreted by media outlets and observers for years: the girl in the most apparently sausagefesty of bands, the fringe-and-pedals, truculent beast that was Sonic Youth. It is, naturally, reductive, a fiction pushed by those who’d copy to file, or those whose musical penates was the Kim and Thurston power couple.

The quote on the back of the book – pulled from its instant-in first chapter – best describes the artist’s feelings of being observed, categorised.

Onstage, people have told me, I’m opaque or mysterious or enigmatic or even cold. But more than any of those things, I’m extremely shy and sensitive, as if I can feel all the emotions swirling around a room. And believe me when I say that once you push past my persona, there aren’t any defenses there at all.

Of course, I’m guilty of this reduction. I like to defend this with the acknowledgement that Sonic Youth are a band I seem to ‘get’ more now that I’m older: I had some albums when I was growing up, but I always seemed to miss something, that there was a big secret that I couldn’t understand, an enjoyment others had that I couldn’t grasp. I couldn’t get a read on Gordon: she seemed like she took no shit, from my limited pre-internet knowledge, and that probably frightened me, as teenage-terrible as I was parsing women.

I’ve only seen Gordon in the flesh, a couple of times over the course of one weekend: Sonic Youth were headlining an ATP festival at an old Jewish holiday resort in upstate New York. I didn’t dig the band’s performance, but I remember Moore swanning about (memorably cockblocking the view of a friend much shorter than he) while Gordon appeared nervous, or jumpy. ATP festivals are known for having less of a divide between performers and punters, but it occurs to me in light of the narrative this was just before the final break, and reading the book – though it doesn’t specifically make mention of that gig – makes me realise how much more was going on than any of us would have thought. This personal link (however tenuous) makes the central thrust of the book – the desire to be heard, to tell one’s story on one’s terms – more pressing, for me.

There’s a lot of good detail in here. My knowledge of Kim Gordon’s life was pretty much nil, outside of SY, and the detail with which she describes her upbringing – particularly the pain wrought by her mentally ill brother – is subtle and engrossing. There’s a lot of knowledge of the art world here, which is unsurprising as Gordon labels herself as an artist, foremost – and her description of the NY art scene before big bucks took it over is evocative. (I also enjoy the fact that she details how everyone thought Jeff Koons was a dick, back in the day.)

The musical side of things receives a fair bit of coverage, with lots of trivia filtering through. There’s a great sense of the balancing act required to make a band containing a relationship work, and Gordon’s explanation of Sonic Youth’s motivations with different tours and recordings is enlightening. I’m only a relatively casual listener, but it kept me plenty intrigued – though I must save my largest admiration for the discovery that Gordon and Moore’s dog was called Merzbow, an almost perfect canine name. There’s plenty of rock stories, from the no wave crowd through to grunge, told without sensationalism. It’s great.

This book receives a lot of stick online for being clinical or distant. I think it’s pretty understandable: it feels as if it were written in the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of Gordon’s lengthy personal and creative partnership with Moore and Sonic Youth. So obviously, there’s some touchy subjects and a sense of self preservation. With this, as with earlier incidents, Gordon sometimes skirts detail or identity, though it doesn’t feel like a cop-out – merely an avoidance of pain.

The level of detail about the decline of the relationship is at odds with a reading of the author as closed, or constructing some kind of fortress against reader ingress. There’s some moments of snark towards Moore, sure, but there’s also a sort of pained tenderness whenever he’s mentioned throughout the work, culminating in

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. But that is a lot different from forgiveness.It doesn’t seem cold or unreasonably harsh, given the rounds of therapy and relationship counselling, the back-and-forth of dissolution that’s detailed here.

In the cases where Gordon is writing about other elements of her life, I found the tone more gnomic than fuck-off. This is a book which pushes against the preconceptions of the author, invariably framed by the box of its title. If you’re disappointed with how Gordon appears here, then that’s probably because you’ve had a fantasy portrait punctured, rather than because of what she’s saying.

What she’s saying is likely more important, however guarded. The beginning of the book refers to the German term maskenfreheit, the freedom conferred by masks. Here, Gordon lets hers slip, powerfully.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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