Feminism never actually promised women they could have it all, but Kim Gordon seemed to nail it anyway. A founding member of the long-running experimental rock group Sonic Youth, she had the successful band, the devoted husband (her bandmate Thurston Moore), the golden family. On the side, she directed music videos, started a fashion label and mounted gallery shows of her artwork.
A magnetic performer yet famously guarded offstage, a tough-minded visionary who exuded a unique glamour, Gordon was no damaged chanteuse doomed to OD, no ingratiating hip swiveler: She was a beacon of feminist strength, living proof of a woman’s power of self-invention.
Maybe that’s part of why Sonic Youth fans took it so hard when Gordon and Moore announced their separation in 2011 and when Moore’s affair with a younger woman came to light. Gordon describes the split in her new memoir, “Girl in a Band,” as “the most conventional story ever,” implying that the worst thing about being betrayed by one’s husband is that it’s so boring. And maybe she’s right. If you’ve worked to stake out an identity free from old myths, it must be galling to get yanked back into an ancient tale.
With “Girl in a Band,” Gordon is back in charge, telling an unconventional story of her own creation. This book is not a garden-variety rock memoir. Sure, there are tour diaries and scenes from pre-Giuliani New York, before the city got all clean and rich. But it’s also a strange and lovely book about a woman finding and losing herself onstage and off and crafting a complicated creative life when none of the molds quite fit.
“Girl in a Band” is structured a bit like a song, with a basic frame subtly shaping digressions and noise as well as melody. After a brief intro about Sonic Youth’s final show — its “raw, weird pornography of strain and distance” — the book’s first verse narrates Gordon’s 1960s and ‘70s Los Angeles upbringing and art-school education. Young Kim is devoted to her cruel and charismatic older brother, whose paranoid schizophrenia has not yet reached its disruptive heights.
She writes of the malignancy and death that underlay L.A.'s landscaped surfaces in the Manson Family era — a mood Joan Didion conjured hauntingly in her book “The White Album” but that looks very different from a teenager’s perspective. Gordon trusts her family’s middle-class stolidness to ward off evil, but she also embraces danger, hanging out with her friends in a massive sewer pipe. “The risk of water thundering down on you and pulling you along,” she writes, “always made that long walk out to the sea worth it.”
The second verse begins when she moves out East, meets Moore and starts playing music, all in a gritty Manhattan that Taylor Swift would never recognize. From the outset, Gordon is more rooted in the art world than the rock scene: Sonic Youth’s connection with artists such as Mike Kelley and Raymond Pettibon, Richard Prince and Gerhard Richter is no secret, but it’s delightful to learn that Gordon stayed at Cindy Sherman’s and Jenny Holzer’s apartments during those early days in New York, and to read about her deep, creatively charged friendship with Dan Graham.
Between verses 2 and 3 comes a bridge, less biography than discography, where Gordon builds a thickly annotated playlist of her most memorable Sonic Youth songs. Then comes Verse 3: major-label fame, with all the fashion collaborations, film cameos and world tours that it entailed, and the ongoing work of marriage and parenthood that went on alongside.
Gordon’s writing is much like her singing, deadpan and spacious. Her skill as a lyricist translates beautifully to the page: L.A. is “a desert, an expanse of endless burlap”; her childhood neighborhood smells of “eucalyptus bathed in the haze of ambition.” When she writes that “New Jersey construction stabs up above the river, shoulder blades pressing back hard against the Palisades,” the shift from dagger blades to shoulder blades makes the ordinary scene unknowable and bizarre.
Amid all this originality, Gordon also writes, strikingly, about deliberately becoming more “girl” to suit market demands. “The need to be a woman out in front,” she writes, “never entered my mind at all until we signed with Geffen” — after which she played up her femininity to, she writes without rancor, “sell dissonant music more easily.” In contrast to Patti Smith’s “Just Kids,” in which curating a personal style appears as self-expression and homage, Gordon writes of image-crafting as a business obligation, all in a day’s work.
Backstage gossip is part of the rock-memoirist job, and Gordon dutifully delivers: Kurt Cobain was vulnerable, Neil Young was kind, Courtney Love was ambitious and unpleasant. The real revelations, though, have to do with the rupture of Gordon’s marriage. The basic contours of the breakup went public several years ago, but here Gordon shares details of intercepted text messages, attempts at repair, and, most poignantly, the retrospective raking of the ashes to figure out when things went wrong. Were we ever happy? she asks herself. Did I ever know him?
Gordon seems to have emerged from the split more powerful than ever, with a reinvigorated visual-art career, reported legions of potential suitors, a new band (Body/Head) and now this book. Still, the sense of loss is never far from these pages. Maybe true power lies not in managing to have it all, whatever that means, but in how one reacts when things come undone. If that’s so, then this newest verse in Gordon’s life — trading evasion for self-disclosure, embracing a solo spotlight at last — is her greatest, and truest, performance to date.
Marcus is the author of “Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution.”
Girl in a Band
Dey Street: 288 pp., $27.99