I was recently browsing the music section at Chapters when I came across Girl in a Band – A Memoir by Kim Gordon, the ex-bassist of Sonic Youth, and her more recent experimental music project with Bill Nace, Body / Head, as well as the co-creator of the clothing line, X-Girl.
Being a fan of Sonic Youth, I was like “Oh, Kim Gordon wrote a book, nice!” and I purchased it then and there. I knew she got divorced not too long ago and I figured that what I’d be getting would be a combo of the history of Sonic Youth, and her messy breakup with bandmate Thurston Moore, who a lot of fans seem to hate now because he was being a Grade A dingleberry. I was curious about what she wrote, since I am a fan, not knowing much about the band beyond their music.
A couple weeks later, I was done the book. Breezed through it. Once you read this book, which I would consider to be a page-turner if you like musician autobiographies, you will certainly know a lot more about Sonic Youth and her ultimately doomed marriage to Thurston, that’s for damn sure, as well as plenty of info on Kim’s personal background about her family, friends, her eccentric brother, and her growing up in the strange but beautiful state of California, although she was born in New York, and remains, if I’m not mistaken, mostly associated with New York’s underground “no wave music” scene from the early 1980’s. Oh, and the art world, cause she’s way into that.
This is a book that puts Sonic Youth in a much more relatable context than I’m used to thinking of them. If, like me, you own most of their albums, they don’t come across as the most personable band, which is why I personally always liked them. They were always just standing there looking at you in magazine photos and such, not looking too impressed. To me, they’re the kind of band where everyone looks different, which is something I like to see in a band, rather than a bunch of similar looking people. You also can’t really tell who the crazy one in the band is, if there is one, because they all look like they could be the crazy one, in certain photos. Haha – just kidding. As far as I know, they’re all pretty nice folks. Even Thurston, who doesn’t leave this book unscathed by Kim’s account of the events. That said, if you’re thinking Kim is just going to speak of her ex-husband in angry, bitter terms, she doesn’t. She presents things as fairly as I think any reasonable person would or could.
To me, Sonic Youth was and is about music and art in a raw sense, challenging archetypes and convention, and showing people that “regular” people could make interesting and extraordinary music. They’ve been around since I was a kid, and their music came to me at a formative stage in my development and really helped to shape who I am both as a musician and probably as a person, in some way. Why, I think I’ll just rattle off some random memories I have about the band…
I remember watching The Year Punk Broke in first year university and being blown away by everything about it, but not in a conventional rock ‘n’ roll sense – in a more revealing sense. Like Kim and Thurston treating Kurt Cobain like a younger brother, rather than the leader of some imaginary revolution. I have other good memories like buying “Screaming Fields of Sonic Love” as my first taste of the band (on compact disc!) and thinking it was great, and wondering why they covered Madonna. Or of putting on old Sonic Youth records like Sister and Confusion is Sex in my car when I was driving to visit my ex-girlfriend or to some crappy job and really getting into the songs for the first time, realizing that this was an awesome band who were really different from most other bands.
I also remember my friend Adrian showing me Shaking Hell one day and me being slightly disturbed by Kim’s “shake! shake! shake!” part, thinking “What the hell is this, a horror movie or a song?”. I remember (-stop rambling, no one cares-) listening Daydream Nation in university and it turning me on to a different sound than I was used to hearing from any band, and admiring the cover. I also remember an earlier memory of being in high school and telling someone that Sonic Youth sucked, even though I don’t think I’d ever heard them before (these memories are not in chronological order). And then there was the time I went to see them on their A Thousand Leaves tour and my girlfriend at the time ignoring me the entire time because she actually didn’t like me but didn’t tell me that for a couple months – what a sweetheart! Meanwhile, at that show in Toronto at the Warehouse, the band played a really subdued set that confounded me, because I thought we were going to be blasted by blistering walls of punk rock white and black noise. Instead, it was just a lot of rather pretty ambient slow tracks that went on forever. I remember – ah forget it, let’s move on…
So my impression of Kim up until this point prior to when I opened her book is that she was an integral member of Sonic Youth, although I didn’t really ever think about how “good” she was at playing her instrument, technically speaking. With Sonic Youth, I find I don’t often think about the different “guitar” bits, because often it comes at you in a wave and hits you altogether. It’s not like listening to “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac, where you get a kind of groovy bass solo popping out at some point, although, come to think of it, I’m sure Kim has her “bass” moments on certain songs, I just forget which ones. I never think her basslines suck, that’s for sure. The guitars do get more attention, but that’s because Lee and Thurston play rather noisy, “pay attention to me!” type of parts, even if it is pure noise half the time.
In “Girl In A Band” (the book I’m trying to stay focused on but keep failing), I’m pretty sure she mentions that she’s not really a singer by her own assessment, or a bass player hero figure type. She just does her best to add something cool to the mix, and I like that attitude a lot. To me, it makes the most sense if you’re trying to write a great song. But to me, Kim is a punk rock hero because she gets up on stage and lets loose, which is something that most people cannot do, and would probably avoid at all costs. It’s one thing to be a show-y musician and have people know that you’re a virtuoso, and another to get up there and emotionally just let it all hang out, so people can share in that release with you.
“Girl In A Band” actually focuses more on life than music, and yet they are intertwined for Kim. What you get is more like a poetic view of life, with music being a major part of it, understandably. In fact, this book may even focus more on art than music, which is interesting. Kim Gordon can really write a first person narrative, no doubt about that. She really does have curious way with describing things, which is my favourite part about the book. Being a sensitive soul, she picks up on a lot that is going on and is able to reflect on it in such a way that you really get immersed in it, and can picture it as vividly as she describes it, which can be good or bad, depending on what that is. I don’t know if she ever wrote a book before, but if she didn’t, she probably should have. Plus, it really was good to get some “I was actually there” type POV on some of my favourite albums – basically all the SY records get a page or two. You can really see what makes certain albums turn out the way they are, especially when you consider that it’s not just a band looking at the industry and trying to determine what will sell. With Sonic Youth, it was people who are living a certain type of life and who are compelled to create whatever they can at the time. And once the band ended, Kim never stopped…
All in all, this book was great. I didn’t find any part of it to be boring, and that usually happens when I’m reading an autobiography. With “Girl In A Band – A Memoir”, it was like if someone was sitting there talking to you, telling you a really cool story. I mean, you can’t beat that. If you’re a fan of the Sonic Youth, or Kim’s other musical projects, for sure get it. If you are not, or even if you specifically dislike her music, you still might like this book just because it’s that good and worth a read. People seem to complain a lot that there aren’t enough brave women doing cool things and telling it like it is. Well, to those people, here you go!