For most fans, Sonic Youth holds a very special and specific place in their hearts and brains. For many, they were an introduction to underground music and a shining example of how to fuse experimentation with pop tunes while staying true to yourself. An undeniable part of the band’s appeal was the twin fronts of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore. The visual and sonic contrasts were intriguing enough, but the fact that they were a married couple gave the dynamic an extra something. They represented an ideal of artistic and personal success and became sort of indie rock role models. So when they announced their divorce—and presumably the breakup of Sonic Youth—in 2011, it felt personal, as if your parents were breaking up. The initial press release was purposely vague, but over the subsequent years Gordon finally addressed the reasons for the divorce. While she was plain spoken and straightforward about the reasons (Moore’s infidelity being foremost), there was a feeling that there was more to be said. Perhaps she felt so too, as we now see the release of her autobiography, Girl in a Band: A Memoir (Dey Street Books).
As a band, Sonic Youth seemed content to let its music do the most of the talking. Sure, Gordon and Moore (and Lee Renaldo and Steve Shelley) always seemed up for holding court on a variety of subjects, but it’s hard to recall them talking about themselves in terms of anything but the music. It’s difficult to imagine the band as the subject of a reality show, but the reticence to talk about themselves seemed to go double for Gordon, always the most reserved member of the band and a sharp contrast to the, at times, barely constrained nature of the music. So for Gordon to actually divulge her thoughts in print feels monumental.
To her credit, Gordon immediately addresses the elephant in the room. The story starts at “The End” with Gordon talking about the last Sonic Youth show in Sao Paulo. She also describes the circumstances that made it the last show and what it was like to live out a very private moment in a very public way. It turns out that she was always well aware of what her marriage meant to the fans of Sonic Youth and how strange that ultimately was. But Gordon was more than just her marriage and more than just a member of Sonic Youth, and Girl in a Band shows Gordon’s journey from a California youth to a New York alt-rock icon. Starting with Danny Elfman, an early boyfriend, there is a staggering number of people from the music and art scene in between that were either a direct or indirect part of Gordon’s life. To a cynic, it may come off as name-dropping, but its really just a testament to the rich concentration of people in the orbit during that period of art and music. Gordon conveys a nostalgia for that time, which seems like it could never happen again.
Girl in a Band also talks about her family and how life with her troubled brother, who was eventually diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, resulted in a reserved nature as a self-preservation mechanism. In reading about her life pre–New York and pre–Sonic Youth, you see how and why she ended up where she did. She also describes how she found her way into the visual arts and how that has been an equally large part of her focus.
The strength of the memoir is that Gordon is a plainspoken writer who knows exactly when and how to use a clever turn of phrase. There’s a conversational tone to the book that makes for fast reading. Seemingly by design, the book’s chapters are like blog entries that can stand alone as much as they contribute to the narrative whole. The time in Sonic Youth is addressed in a novel way, with Gordon choosing one song or moment per record to frame the discussion of that time period. But she also doesn’t shy away from analyzing her relationship with Moore and the complications of having your professional and personal life so intertwined. In doing so, Gordon never paints Moore as a cartoonish villain, even as she’s clearly annoyed and angry. It’s a far less lurid tale than it perhaps could have been, probably to the relief of some and the dismay of others.
Throughout Girl in a Band, Gordon is fairly clear-eyed and self-aware about how the past has affected her, and she brings the same focus to her recent trevails. But considering how fresh some events were when she was writing the book, you get the sense of real-time processing that doesn’t sit as definitively as other moments. It’s to be expected, but it is a fairly big contrast. Nonetheless, there’s never a sense that Gordon is wavering or unsure about her thoughts, just that they may settle in a different manner. Girl in a Band is the answer to the cliched question Gordon has no doubt been asked countless times over the years, “What’s it like to be a girl in a band?” As the book shows, it’s the same as being a person in the world: complicated.