To a whole generation of musicians and fans, Sonic Youth are the pioneers of post-punk noise, with its bassist Kim Gordon standing as the radical heroine of the genre, with her marriage to frontman Thurston Moore acting as the power couple of the alternative scene. When the pair split up after over 30 years together, Salon writer Elissa Schappel penned a piece lamenting the breakup and wondering how us mere mortals can succeed if Moore and Gordon could not. Of course, the pair were never perfect, and Gordon, in her memoir, is keenly aware of this cool couple fantasy. Indeed, she opens herself up to a sharp and unforgiving amount of introspection in Girl In A Band, which makes for an often painful but nonetheless thrilling read.
While the memoir covers more of her life than the time she spent in Sonic Youth, the opening, describing the band’s final gigs after she and Moore had split up, sets the reflective yet never rose-tinted tone immediately. The book is not a screed against her ex-husband, and she affords him much credit when it comes to their creative output and his fatherhood skills, but nor does she hold back from the pain his infidelity caused. Her depiction is unflattering, but accusations of bias are avoided as Gordon is brutally honest about everyone. As she shares dismissals of “crybaby” Billy Corgan, shameless sell-out Jeff Koons and the male-driven commercialist “girl power” of the Spice Girls, this is a woman who does not mince her words, not even when describing herself. It’s not gossip; it’s just the way things were. Gordon’s writing is emotional yet swiftly avoids sentimentality; striking yet never indulgent. Even the typical celebrity memoir name-dropping stays away from smugness.
Covering her life from her childhood torment at the hands of her brother (who would later be diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia) and living abroad with her family to her stints in art school (dating Danny Elfman!) and carving out a life for herself in New York, Gordon offers a patchwork vision of her early life and the experiences and people that crafted her before she became a musician with Sonic Youth. Passages dedicated to the New York art scene in the late 70s are particularly evocative, while memories of her parents and brother are revealing and completely free of mawkishness.
Certainly, many fans will turn to this book for dirt on the breakup, and Gordon seems aware of this. When sharing memories of her early days with Moore, she admits that it’s difficult to do so with a broken heart, and how she can’t help but look back on those times with doubts. Their split may have broken the illusion for many fans, and this is the façade she seems eager to shatter, not so much for her fans but for herself. After spending many years finding herself and becoming the artist she wanted to be, now is the time to take the image back. Perhaps this is what makes the passages dedicated to discovering Moore’s infidelity so heart-breaking to read.
Girl In A Band will be devoured by Sonic Youth fans, and for good reason, but there is much to relish here even for those bemused by the band’s sound. Gordon’s stridently feminist and sharply articulated self-examination offers insights into everything from the post-punk art scene to life as the girl in the band (and the irritation of constantly being asked about it) and, while choppily compiled and possibly a touch aloof for some, never fails to enthral the reader. Prepare to see it shelved by Patti Smith’s Just Kids in bookshops when it’s released next month.