GIRL IN A BAND
DEY ST. (An imprint of William/Morrow)
I always liked the idea of Sonic Youth more than their output. They said all the right things about punk rock; used their status to tout bands that they felt needed more attention; and took regular detours into free-form projects that didn't remotely fit the hyper-commercial youth culture that put the ‘90s into a coma, once they became an unlikely major label signing.
Sadly, except a handful of songs ("Death Valley 69," "I Love Her All The Time," "Sister," "Star Power," "Tom Violence"), I never "got" Sonic Youth. I didn't hate them, but saw no reason to particularly embrace them, either. The Noo Yawk art intelligentsia thought they were awesome; I couldn't have cared less.
Funnily enough, I can share an anecdote about Sonic Youth, as drummer Steve Shelley made his mark with Lansing's wayward punk legends, the Crucifucks, whom I interviewed. I think I saw them with Steve once or twice - before he moved to New York, "where he'd hooked up with some people," as singer Doc Dart informed me in the summer of '85. Those people, of course, were Sonic Youth, who apparently hired him without an audition. Who got the better of that deal, I asked myself?
Now comes Kim Gordon's memoir, GIRL IN A BAND, which helps remind me why I felt immune to Sonic Youth's charms, such as they were. On the plus side, Gordon does an excellent job of detailing her Southern California childhood - which I don't recall seeing mentioned in accounts of the band - and her older brother's struggles with mental illness ("the only connection I have left to my family of origin, and a place and a time").
And, of course, she vividly details the crash and burn of her marriage to guitarist Thurston Moore. GIRL IN A BAND opens with one last piece of unfinished business - a South American tour that had been booked before their relationship blew up ("We had exchanged maybe fifteen words all week"). But that's the nightmarish flipside of show biz, one that often means relying on someone that you can't stand anymore for rent money.
Gordon's account of her marriage's combustion offers some of the rawest writing here ("Don't you think it's weird that Thurston wants to keep his smoking secret from you?"), followed by her recollections of the band's 9/11 experiences, and blasts at her adopted city's gentrification ("art buying became an investment, linked to fashion, money and the good life").
Otherwise, Sonic Youth diehards are bound to feel some disappointment. Aside from detailing Shelley's entry into the ranks, she says little about him, or guitarist Lee Ranaldo -- a curious state of affairs, considering how much time she spent with them. As for Sonic Youth's creative process, she covers it in a paragraph. Apparently, Lee and Thurston wrote the melodic, poppier songs, while our humble narrator came up with the darker, more abstract stuff. Now it can be told, eh?
How did the band settle disputes, or weather the initial flak that it received for signing with Geffen? We don't know, because Gordon doesn't see fit to tell us. She does take the time to bash other female artists, such as Courtney Love (yawn: man bites dog again -- or woman, in this case).
Gordon also name-checks a platoon of people, including art dealers she's worked with, fellow musical cohorts like Julie Cafritz, of Pussy Galore, and the partners in her X-Girl clothing line -- among many, many others. Though shout-outs are par for the course in any rock memoir, abusing the privilege is deadly for the reader, and Gordon definitely pushes it.
To put it mildly, a little editing would have worked wonders (especially when one chapter is nothing but the lyrics to "Cotton Crown"). As I return this book to the library, I don't know a lot more about the woman behind the "opaque art princess" persona than I did before. I admire the band's idealistic gestures, but still don't feel motivated to delve into their output. I guess we'll have to call it even.
12/21/21: This is the place for books, CDs, DVDs or LPs by other artists that fall within this site's mission, and subject matter. (Anything that pertains to me will be posted in the "Press" section.) Hit the "Archive" button to see the full listing of reviews.