Sunday, March 1, 2015

Book Review: Girl In a Band by Kim Gordon (2015)

(You can't borrow my copy; trust me, it's well-guarded.)

"Men's memoirs are about answers; women's memoirs are about questions."--ISABEL ALLENDE

What's it like to want to be a girl in a band?

Kim Gordon.  Not a special name.  Doesn't take up much space.  No uncommon letters were harmed in the making of. 

Names are for tombstones, baby.  Take that superficial way of thinking outside and give it a goose egg.

Kim Gordon has been my hero since 1990.  Since I saw the video for "Kool Thing," the song that was surely the beginning of the end for Sonic Youth, once kings and queens of the American underground.  To have that look, to be a component in that sound.  To know those people, to be that person.  Slim, toned, gorgeous.  Sharp, witty, genius.

I totally wanna.  I know so.

Ever since the first rumblings of a Kim Gordon memoir, it's been at the top of my "must-read" list.  And good lawd, did I; one sitting, five hours.  I devoured Girl In a Band

So you got the name-dropping, the mental illness, the infidelity, but really, the most scandalous thing about Girl In a Band is that one of the most singular American artists of the past forty years even deigned to grace us with a significant account of her life and times.  Gordon is an insightful writer, free of stylistic quirks.  She is more concerned with breadth than depth, more adept at offering revelatory flashes than holding the light on one spot for long periods of time. 

Kim's memories of her family are touching and non-exploitative.  Her love for her resourceful mother and academic father is clear.  Her older brother, however, is the one that will be impossible to forget.

Dedicated SY fans know Keller Gordon as the co-star of a classic image inserted into the booklet of the band's first album, and the inspiration for "Cinderella's Big Score," one of the standout tracks from 1990's Goo.  After reading GIAB, everyone will know him as the most profound influence on young Kim Gordon, the person arguably most responsible in shaping the woman beloved by thousands (shit, dare I say millions?) worldwide for her bravery and savvy.  Unable to compete with her big bro's outsized personality, she retreated, spinning an opaque cocoon around herself. 

In all my trips to the West (most of them revolving around SY) I've never felt the pull of California's suffusive air.  Well, that's not entirely true; I am asthmatic, after all.  But I've always preferred the density of New York City.  Something about California has always struck me as laughably insecure.  Kim has a more intimate knowledge of the so-called Golden State, though, and it was impossible for me to avoid being sucked into her straightforward descriptions of the places she knew as home.  Equally impossible?  Avoiding sadness when reading about her disinterest in the city that Sonic Youth arguably encompassed with more intensity and intelligence than any other band.  Kim is hardly the first to have expressed disenchantment with the Disney-fied New York, to bemoan the Giuliani-led replacement of unprofitable fetidity with profitable fetidity, but damn, she makes it sound like there's absolutely nothing there for her anymore.  It's amazing for me to consider that, juxtaposed with my own excitement whenever I visit, how I lose myself so readily in the areas outside the touristy disaster known as Times Square, how I emerge out the other side with sharpened edges, ready to set and go…then again, I never knew the New York that the music of Sonic Youth knew.

Reading her thoughts on select Sonic Youth songs turned me into the person who went three days without any solid food, was treated to a decadent night out at a Michelin-starred restaurant, then bitched afterward about how the creme brulee was "'loose."  Not just because she didn't speak on any of her miniature masterpieces from A Thousand Leaves, 'cause I really didn't expect that.(I guarantee I hold that album in higher regard than everyone actually involved in its creation.) But the insights we are treated to, from Confusion Is Sex to Washing Machine, only confirm my suspicions that if Kim had wanted to write primarily about Sonic Youth, she would have turned out one of the greatest music books ever.   Christ's sake, reading her thoughts about "Shaking Hell" made me want to listen to nothing but that song for an hour.  (Made it 45 minutes, which is almost an hour!)

If nothing else, maybe "Massage the History" will get its proper due now?  Eh?!

Kim was born to be an artist--visual, auditory--but the eagerness to express is frequently wed with the fear of sticking out.  'Cause when you get noticed, you can be judged.  If you can be touched, you can be hit.  The lessons learned growing up with a seriously-ill sibling served Kim well as Sonic Youth's profile grew.  Was she cool, or cold?  Imperious or impassive?  Detached or determined?  All the questions bandied about by fans and media meant she maintained a degree of control.  How admirable.  Or?

"If you have to hide your hypersensitivity, are you really a 'strong woman'?" she asks in the one sentence that froze my eyes inside my head.  Of course!  You can't lay it all out there, not if you want to survive.  Picking and choosing what you show is the power.  How it's interpreted is beyond you, and cannot be allowed to diminish the strength.  Of course it's not!  You're letting others--men, specifically, the expectations laid upon women by a world run by men--dictate your image.  You're not a positive role model, you're playing it safe!

And on.

Prior to publication, click-bait articles Internet-wide suckered in the simples with Kim's passages concerning Courtney Love (she called her mentally ill!  And since this society doesn't understand or respect mental illness whatsoever, this is a horrible burn!), Billy Corgan (self-important rock star, nailed that one) and Lana Del Rey (whose cult attacked Kim over social media re: a potentially-insensitive half of a sentence that ended up not even making the finished book).  Thankfully, Girl In a Band is not packed with these "sexy" reflections. 

There's nothing, and I mean absolutely not a single standing-alone-like-the-cheese thing, sexy about the dissolution of the marriage between Kim and Thurston Moore, the super-tall, lanky Connecticut-bred dude with the hair falling over his eyes that she met and fell for in arty-as-fuck New York.  Before they were the golden couple of the indie-rock scene, before David Geffen, before diapers, before the big house in Mass, there was just Kim 'n' Thurston.  She was young, he was younger.  She thought maybe they could start a band and maybe write some songs and maybe a record and maybe maybe, he knew they could.  From that union of skepticism and faith came Sonic Youth.

The band I adore above all others, whose racket convinced me to keep writing, whose sole female member compelled me to believe that what I was writing was worthy of the world…of course one day they would end.  That didn't upset me.  What gnaws at me to this day, and likely will for most of the rest of my days, is that they called it quits due to something so…banal. 

Kim reserves a measure of compassion for her manchild ex-husband (she makes repeated references to his aptitude for fatherhood, which scores some serious points with this woman, anyway) but Kim is understandably merciless when it comes to "the other woman," this mysterious figure who materializes onto the scene like some super-ambitious Dementor, attempting to ingratiate herself into Kim's life before moving on to not one, but two other members of SY.  Kim graciously resisted the urge to boldface announce "I'M DROPKICKING THAT BITCH BACK INTO THE TWILIGHT ZONE NEXT TIME I SEE HER, YO" but make no mistake, the hatred is high. 

These are the "juicy" chapters, and goddamn is much of it hard to stomach.  I never thought of Thurston Moore as anything other than one of the great re-imaginers of his much-abused instrument, but taking in the many examples of his gross duplicity, the "darkness" that took over and separated him from his wife, his child, his band…you know, I could have gone my entire life without reading about what caused the Moore marriage to "combust."  But I doubt that Kim Gordon could have gone her entire life without writing about it, and that is what matters.  The amelioration of suffering. 

(Mind you, there were moments my heart went out to Thurston.  It must be horrifying to realize you just wrote and recorded an album as devastatingly trash as Demolished Thoughts.)

I think it's worthwhile to ask:  if called upon to write at length about my life, could I write as bluntly and boldly as Kim Gordon?  She shows no interest in romanticizing or de-romanticizing anything, least of all herself.  I honestly don't know.  She makes me want to, though.  Frequently--too frequently--as of late I have found myself ready to put pen to paper, prepared to bleed cold red everywhere, when a sudden paralytic attack hits.  Forces invisible and incomprehensible render me useless.  Soon enough, I am convinced of my utter and complete futility--as a writer, as a friend, a daughter, a lover.  The attack passes, and my mind is mine again.  This can take as long as two hours, as little as twenty minutes.  What isn't variable is my fear.  Past be damned; I just know, this time of all the times is the one, this isn't just mud, this is quicksand, and there's no hope now. 

Forget therapy; forget medication and meditation.  The homilies and bromides that worked for others simply will not work for me.  The next time those demons, those enemies of the expressive soul come for my throat, I'll go for theirs.  Cold red all over the page, everywhere.

A gaze at the "Autobiography" section of any bookstore can induce depression pretty quickly.  Whether it's some "reality personality" who was paid more than the worth of the average life to put their name and face to a book that someone else wrote, or a blustering cultural/political maven who exists solely to remind me that a full 50% of America's citizenry is 100% unfit to procreate, it's hard to imagine the memoir as a work of art.  But Girl In a Band qualifies.  It is called-for.  It is brilliant.  It assures the questions will keep being asked.