I’ve just finished reading Kim Gordon’s memoirs, “Girl In A Band”. Kim is primarily known as a member of Sonic Youth, probably one of the most influential American bands of the last 25 years. She is also a writer, an artist and a clothes designer.
Having read Viv Albertine’s fantastic autobiography “Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys”, this feels very much like a companion piece. Viv’s book was Rough Trade’s book of the year for 2014.
Both women were at the vanguard of a new wave or even New Wave of music. Both cared very much about their personal style – and both had key relationships that have ended in circumstances that they would not have chosen.
They are both fantastic networkers – their little black books of art, fashion and music contacts is enviable. Both appear to be liked by their peers. Kim Gordon in particular appears as a confidante to Kurt Cobain and she describes Kurt as the “most intense performer I’d ever seen.” That’s something coming from Kim as an Iggy Pop fan. She is invited by Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl to sing with Nirvana at their Hall of Fame inauguration, along with Joan Jett, Lorde and St Vincent. (P.S. the book does nothing to harm Dave Grohl’s reputation as the “nicest man in rock”).
But primarily they are both about a woman finding their place in a changing world with doors opening due to their own talents, especially after they have children. A constant question posed at Kim is “what’s its like to be a girl in a band?“. The equivalent question is never asked of either the remaining members of Sonic Youth or any other male rock star.
“For many purposes, being obsessed with boys playing guitars, being as ordinary as possible, being a girl bass player is ideal, because the swirl of Sonic Youth music makes me forget about being a girl. I like being in a weak position and making it strong.“
As a bloke with a wonderfully supportive other half in N, I totally get how many women run homes effectively as small businesses. As a father of a daughter growing up in a fluid, challenging and scary world, I’m also aware of how a young woman’s role in ten years time will be different to that today and ten years earlier.
Kim was married to Thurston Moore, who was one of the other members of the band and when they had their daughter, it was Kim who looked after the day to day mundanities of family life, whilst Thurston was free to pursue his muse. She does emphasise that Thurston was a good dad in fairness.
Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, when Kim and Thurston’s marriage collapsed so did Sonic Youth.
Here’s a taster of Kim reading about Sonic Youth’s final gig in 2011, performed in Rio.
The book also manages to alter my perception of Kim, admittedly which is primarily based on my knowledge of Sonic Youth’s music, art and video’s. In the “100%” video, Kim is cool as, with her shades and her Rolling Stone “Eat Me” t-shirt. She is a surprisingly vulnerable person, affected hugely by her relationship with her elder brother Keller, who is paranoid schizophrenic.
The book ends penultimately with her relationship with Thurston and finally her continuing success in the world of art and music – it is clear that Kim will be fine. She acknowledges that she is doing what she wants in life and is happy because of that.
Kim finds a wonderful way to sum up her feelings for Thurston:
“I did feel some compassion for Thurston, and I still do. I was sorry for the way he had lost his marriage, his daughter, his family, our life together – and himself. But that is a lot different from forgiveness.“
I went to see Lee Ranaldo’s band last year in London. Lee was the other guitarist in Sonic Youth and he had Steve Shelley, their drummer, in his band. Thurston joined them for the encore, which was a great thrash through the Velvet Underground’s “Rock And Roll”. At the time I thought it was wonderful that the guys can all still perform together but having read Kim’s book and understood a little more about her side of the story, I feel a little differently. One of the continuing dilemmas in the book was where the boundaries of their marriage ended and their relationship as band mates began. Now that Kim is out of the picture, it does seem that a problem has gone away, which is a horrible consequence of the end of a marriage.
Both Kim and Viv’s books are very readable. Admittedly I’m a big Sonic Youth fan which added a dimension. N read and really enjoyed Viv’s book and laughed out loud regularly. She had no prior knowledge of Viv or her music but got a huge amount of pleasure from the book. Kim’s book is joining her “to be read” pile. I’ve discovered that the Japanese have a word for an unfinished pile of books – tsundoku. Isn’t it great to be able to put a name to your problems? It stops you having to deal with them.
A few clips of classic Kim though to finish.
Firstly “Kool Thing”:
“Kool Thing” is from “Goo” which is one of the most accessible of Sonic Youth’s many albums, some of which are pretty impenetrable (I’m looking at you “NYC Ghosts and Flowers”). “Kool Thing” features Chuck D of Public Enemy who I wrote about earlier. Kim says of the video:
“I suppose African-Americans could watch “Kool Thing” and say, “This is the way white people see us as objects.” But we were careful to make sure that everyone looked good and was photographed well. It disturbed me that many critics didn’t understand that I was not talking to Chuck D – who was playing himself – but instead to an unseen third party. If the song made people uneasy, or it caused them to question things, well, good, even if they got it wrong. I wanted there to be some ambiguity about who exactly in the was saying “I don’t want it.” Was it the woman? Or was it the guy saying “I don’t want anything to do with you, white bitch!”“
Next is a cover of the Carpenter’s “Superstar”. Kim looks as great in this video as in the “Kool Thing” video, her strong sense of the visual continuing:
Kim identified with Karen Carpenter and indeed “Tunic (Song For Karen)” was another standout song on Goo. She writes in the book about how huge the Carpenters were and how American society’s expectations of Karen ultimately contributed to her death. She includes an open letter that she wrote to Karen in a magazine. It includes the following:
“What’s it like being a girl in music? What were yr dreams? Did you have any female friends or was it just you and Richard, mom and dad, A&M? Did you ever go running along the sand, feeling the ocean rush up between yr legs? Who is Karen Carpenter, really, besides the sad girl with the extraordinary beautiful, soulful voice.“
It’s a beautiful version of a classic song that featured in the great movie “Juno” from a few years ago.
And finally here’s that version of “Aneurysm” with Nirvana.
Get the book here – you won’t be disappointed!