It’s a meaningless statement, but who cares: Sonic Youth are the coolest rock band ever. Maybe the current resurgence in ‘90s music and fashion is warping my perspective a little, but it’s undeniable that the band that revitalised guitar music in the late ‘80s have left an indelible mark on the genre. I mean look at them: the woolly fringes, the Fender Jazzmasters, the torn strings, the ironic t-shirts, the gender parity. Collectively, these pretty much form the master signifier of super cool ‘90s nihilism. But while the band is clearly more than the sum of its parts, without the involvement of Kim Gordon it’s easy to imagine them descending into being just another pedestrian ‘90s dude-rock band. Bass player, vocalist, guitarist, artist, writer, producer, and now memoirist, Kim Gordon is the iconic renaissance woman of the post-punk scene.
Gordon’s Girl In A Band is a traditional rock autobiography insofar as it traces the evolution of her music, but it deviates from that formula significantly. The book opens with a remembrance of Sonic Youth’s final gig, a 2011 festival show in stormy Portugal that nobody really wanted to play. By this point in their 30-year career, tensions within the band were high, especially between Gordon and lead guitarist/vocalist Thurston Moore who were soon to announce their divorce after a highly publicised 25-year marriage. Gordon shows no inhibition in revealing the alienation she experienced that night, having to walk onstage and embody her rock persona with the muted pain of separation gathering within her.
This set piece is a kind of thematic table-setter for the rest of the book. Girl In A Band discusses Sonic Youth and Gordon’s impression of what the band meant to her, but what’s really compelling is Gordon’s investigations into her California childhood and how it may have contributed to the sense of isolation she experienced after moving to New York. While this is probably said of any work that addresses female loneliness in L.A., much of Girl In A Band recalls the work of Joan Didion. In both style and sensibility Didion’s presence is unmistakable here, from the descriptions of the sun-bleached boulevards to the unbridgeable distance between people, particularly family members. Especially in the early sections Gordon studies her formative years as Didion might through a windowpane, examining the child she once was and how she developed into the person she is today.
But Gordon’s style is really her own. Where the writing becomes uneven she makes up for it with striking anecdotes about discovering her love of performing as she struggled to make rent working menial jobs in New York. Never having had any formal training, Gordon speaks of music being a wholly visceral experience for her. “I was always confident in my ability to contribute something good to our sound at least in an unconventional or minimalist way,” she writes, “a musicality, a sense of rhythm.” Listening to the grindingly complex rhythms and tunings of the bands ‘90s material, it’s almost hard to accept this. But it’s a reminder that the collaborative elements of music can be a vehicle for organic self-discovery.
And for a figure that can often seem opaque, that self-discovery is rendered powerfully and intimately in Girl In A Band. Not every side of Kim Gordon is on display here; after finishing the book, that enigmatic aura remains, and you’re never left with the illusion that you truly know her. But you do at least know more about how she views the world, and how that world has shaped her.