Little Trouble Girl: reflecting on Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band

Published  April 2015

antigravity_vol12_issue6_Page_31_Image_0001can you sell me
esterdays girl?
z every day
eel more like her

My girlfriend in college used to wake up every morning to “Becuz,” the lead-off track on Sonic Youth’s 1995 masterpiece Washing Machines. I hated it. First thing in the morning, to hear that plodding, detuned riff and Kim Gordon’s strained vocals was like bitter coffee, bringing me faster into the day than I wanted.

But there it was, every morning. Be- cause of you… Kim would croak over a tangled nest of guitar tracks. But suffering through that song morning after morning, I found that it eventually broke into this beautiful groove. It was like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, or more immediately, it was the music already inside my head, a haunting and dreamy soundtrack permeating everything. It didn’t take long to become a devotee of Sonic Youth.

Through the decades, Sonic Youth has been a polarizing band. Some of us love and adore them, others find the extended noise jams and feedback pretty intolerable. But it’s undeniable that they were the backbone of the entire ‘90s alternative music movement, our collective older siblings who paved the way for a generation of freaks, even if we didn’t necessarily sport liberty spikes, tattoos, or other insignia of American punk and hardcore. Sonic Youth was capable of signing to Geffen, a major label, and still able to call up hardliners like Kathleen Hanna and Ian MacKaye to collaborate. Kim Gordon and partner Thurston Moore were the ultimate couple of indie rock and two people who seemed to have it all: a gratifying, artistic, and prosperous life together, and with the addition of daughter Coco in 1994, a family.

So when news broke that Kim and Thurston were splitting up and consequently ending Sonic Youth’s three decade run, it was a rude and utterly depressing end to an era. A story that started in the romantic haze of early ‘80s New York—Warhol, CBGB’s, garbage strikes and Chock full o’ Nuts—ended as tabloid fodder. It was slowly revealed that Thurston had disrupted their marriage with an ongoing affair and Kim was not going to endure it. For what seemed like an eternity, the details surrounding this sudden news were sparse. Now with Kim’s memoir, Girl in a Band, she is telling her side of the story. It’s not pretty.

In a nod to the troublemaker in her artistic spirit, Kim begins Girl in a Band at the end, where the marriage is already over and the band is about to pull the plug for good after a festival gig in São Paolo. She then takes us back, to her earliest memories growing up in Rochester, New York, before her father moves the Gordon family to Los Angeles. We are introduced to her older brother, Keller, whose teasing and torments begin to cultivate Kim’s shy, reserved, and composed persona. As she describes it, “Knowing I’d get mocked or teased, I would do anything not to cry, or laugh, or show any emotion at all.” This constant pressure is also what forces her into the arts, where she can act out emotions in the safe space of the stage and canvas, eventually leading her to New York City in the dawn of the Reagan era.

Then the saga of Sonic Youth unfolds, from its infancy in the exploding NYC art scene, the glory years of Nirvana and Lollapalooza, even through 9/11 (their studio on Murray Street was inside ground zero’s cloud of destruction). True to form, Kim sketches out the band’s history in wisps and fragments, such as anecdotes from the ill-fated Neil Young “Ragged Glory” tour—“a frozen ocean of endless arena locker rooms,” Kim reports—and chapters dedicated to specific songs and albums. Through it all, Kim is upfront about her status as an accidental rock star. She seems more taken with the atmosphere of a studio—posters on the wall, the dynamics between band members— than any of the gear or recording process. It’s a telling sign that reading Girl in a Band, you wouldn’t even know what kind of bass or guitar she played, except of course “The Drifter,” which was the guitar that “sealed the deal” between Kim and Thurston. In that regard, this is perhaps a book for the already converted and those familiar with the Sonic Youth story. (For a more formal account of the band, I suggest David Browne’s Goodbye 20th Century.)

antigravity_vol12_issue6_Page_31_Image_0002It becomes pretty clear that Sonic Youth, though the keystone to Kim Gordon’s career, is merely but one planet in a galaxy of interests, from the art world to fashion, caring for Keller (whose schizophrenia eventually turns Kim from victim to caretaker), and finally, motherhood and the great crusade to provide structure and shelter for her family. It’s here, on the seemingly calm expanse of prosperity and comfort that the marriage starts to break apart. Only towards the very end does Kim Gordon truly unpack the guts of Thurston’s transgressions, a toxic mix of male midlife crisis and a predatory home wrecker—a woman Kim can’t even call by name—seizing her prey. Multiple attempts at therapy and reconciliation fail, and Kim describes Thurston as “an addict who was unraveling, who couldn’t stop himself… texting away madly on his iPhone, as if searching for something.”

As a fan and also a man, reading this account makes me want to punch Thurston Moore in the fucking face. Stepping back from that, I’d like to think I’m beyond summary judgments of famous people I don’t really know. Kim herself admits that no one outside of a marriage can ever truly comprehend what’s going on. Maybe she was insufferable. Her recent interviews around the book, with the likes of Terry Gross, Marc Maron, and Carrie Brownstein, reveal a woman difficult to communicate with. Still, after 27 years of marriage, Thurston’s collapse, the jeopardizing of his family, and the spoiling of a lifetime’s worth of achievements can only be described as dishonorable.

Kim Gordon has always been a torch-bearer for the elusive cool, due in large part to her sense of control. She, Thurston, and Sonic Youth as a whole always seemed in control of their destiny, their product, their message, their lives. Girl in a Band is ultimately about a long uphill battle to gain that control, only to lose it at the highest peak. As definitively as the memoir begins, so it ends trailing off into the present, with Kim finding herself back in Los Angeles in an empty vacation rental and a head full of heartbreak to write out. But as tragic as the whole story goes, there’s still a glimmer of hope we can find, a blueprint for the next act, buried in the tour diary she wrote for the Village Voice in 1988, where she states simply and defiantly: “I like being in a weak position and making it strong.” The only closure to Girl in a Band is no closure and the idea that none of us—not even the mighty Kim Gordon herself—are promised anything.

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