When Sonic Youth toured England, journalists took to asking me a single question over and over: “What’s it like to be a girl in a band?” I’d never really thought about that, to be honest. The mostly male English music press was cowardly and nonconfrontational in person. They would then go home and write cruel, ageist, sexist things. I’d always assumed it was because they were terrified of women; the whole country had a queen complex, after all. I might have been projecting my own discomfort at acting out a prewritten role onto these writers, but I refused to play the game. I didn’t want to dress like Siouxsie or Lydia Lunch, or to act out the role of an imaginary female, someone who had more to do with them than with me. That just wasn’t who I was.
If you’ve read anything about Kim Gordon’s memoir Girl in a Band, it will probably have addressed the title of the book and the quotation above. But the book is more than just Gordon’s time in Sonic Youth and the aftermath of the break-up of her marriage, it’s also about Kim Gordon, sister, daughter, mother, friend and artist too.
She begins by addressing the end of Sonic Youth and the dates they were contractually obliged to play after her and Thurston Moore split up. However, she swiftly moves on, back to her childhood and her brother, Keller.
Keller: one of the most singular people I’ve ever known, the person who more than anyone else in the world shaped who I was, and who I turned out to be. He was, and still is, brilliant, manipulative, sadistic, arrogant, almost unbearably articulate. He’s also mentally ill, a paranoid schizophrenic. And maybe because he was so incessantly verbal from the start, I turned into his opposite, his shadow – shy, sensitive, closed to the point where to overcome my own hypersensitivity, I had no choice but to turn fearless.
When Gordon’s five, her father’s offered a professorship at UCLA and the family moves to Los Angeles. Her mother’s a seamstress working from home and the family’s close friends, the Bentzens, are documentary filmmakers. She describes her family as an ‘academic’ one and it’s clear she’s influenced by her father’s love of jazz music and her mother’s ‘creative-but-unconventional fashion sense’. She also returns to her brother throughout the book and the impact he’s had on her. He’s one of three main threads that run throughout the memoir.
The second is art. She describes art and making art as her space, the only place she was able to express herself freely without being teased. It’s art that takes her from LA to Toronto then, eventually, to New York City. She says ‘Writing about New York is hard…It’s hard to write about a love story with a broken heart.’ It’s ambiguous as to whether Gordon’s referring to NYC, Moore or both here. She certainly writes beautifully about NYC as it was in the 1980s, lamenting the shift to ‘consumption and moneymaking’. But art is something she produces there as a young woman and something she’s returned to seriously of late.
The third strand is how she’s been shaped as a woman, often in opposition to men. She says she devalued what women did, they lacked the significance placed on ‘Men and Their Work’ (the title of a book in her father’s study). She talks about advice given to her by her mother about how she dresses and what men look for in a woman. She talks about other women she admires and some she doesn’t: early days Madonna is praised, Lana del Ray and Courtney Love are not. She writes brilliantly about being a mother and a guitarist in a band; moving to the suburbs so her daughter isn’t growing up in NYC but how this turned out to be the beginning of the end of her marriage too. There’s a lot here that many women can identify with.
However, this is also where the book becomes problematic. Gordon talks about feminism – ‘Equal pay and equal rights would be nice’ – but is scathing about Courtney Love and the woman who Moore has an affair with. In terms of Love, it seems that Gordon falls into the well-worn narrative about her terrible she is. The comment that really bothered me though was about Hole’s breakthrough album Live Through This being released the week after Kurt Cobain’s suicide. As Hole was signed to David Geffen’s label and distributed through a major, it seems unlikely that Love would have had much say in whether the release went ahead or not. All of this is supported by Gordon’s friendship with Cobain which she refers to several times before saying she ‘…wanted to protect him, which is why I feel weird writing what I have in this book’. It all seems contradictory, at least, to me.
As for the woman Moore had an affair with, I can understand Gordon’s anger, but it seems disproportionately aimed at the woman and not so much at Moore, who surely is capable of making his own decisions regarding his love life. It’s implied that the woman’s already ruined the life of one close friend of theirs and Moore should have known better but was dragged into her orbit. It brings me back to Gordon’s own words, ‘It’s hard to write about a love story with a broken heart’; I can’t help thinking if she’d allowed her heart time to heal first, she’d have written a more objective – and in some cases, kinder – book.
Girl in a Band is a memoir of two halves. The first half in which Gordon discusses her childhood and her time in New York City, including the formation of Sonic Youth, is an interesting glimpse into her formative years and the art and music scene in 1980s NYC. The second half, where her marriage disintegrates, is raw, contradictory and probably comes too soon on the back of the break-up. It’s a shame as Gordon clearly has interesting things to say about motherhood, work and relationships. Hopefully she’ll return to these topics at a later date.
Thanks to Faber and Faber for the review copy.