Girl in a Band (review)

I don’t know anyone whose favorite band is Sonic Youth. They’re not that kind of outfit. I’m a huge fan. I know a lot of people who are huge fans. The one show I saw of theirs is and will probably always be my favorite of all the shows by any band I’ve seen. But whatever it is they’re about, fanatical devotion just doesn’t seem to fit. A polite nod of acknowledgement across a conversation circle at someone else who "gets it," that’s more the right tune.

One of the things that was so great about that show was how thoroughly un-showy they were. "This song is called Washing Machine. It’s about the future." That’s all I remember Kim Gordon saying. Thurston Moore closed the set with "Thank you ladies and gentlemen," and might have said nothing else either. Ultra-hip squareness: no one ever did it better.

They had a way of being present without commanding attention, and that was the whole point. It was stardom without the ego. What started off as a normal show – a thicket of people moshing in the front as they rocked out to "Teenage Riot" – ended up without only a quarter of us left. We who stayed were completely mesmerized. Those who left got their punk entertainment. Something for everyone.

If that’s the Sonic Youth you remember, then Kim Gordon’s autobiography is probably exactly what you expect: it touches on everything and tells you nothing.

It’s bookeended by the breakup with Thurston Moore. We open onstage at that final concert as she tries to walk the line between playing it cool and not looking supportive. Thurston seems to her to be flaunting his new freedom, and it makes her angry, but she can’t say anything. And so their last shows are phony, but we’ll have to wait for the rest of the story. For now, we’re just told the whole thing is a depressing cliche.

The couple everyone believed was golden and normal and eternally intact, who gave younger musicians hope they could outlast a crazy rock’n’roll world, was now just another cliche of middle-aged relationship failure – a male midlife crisis, another woman, a double life.

Gordon thinks her issues with men go back to her brother Keller whom she idolized and who bullied her. What turned this normal bit of sibling rivalry into the engine of creative neurosis was the cherry on top: he developed full-blown schizophrenia in college. It isn’t actually clear from the text if the "Schizophrenia" track from Sister was inspired by Keller. To the extent there’s an answer, it seems to be "not really." The only real example of Keller bullying Gordon mentioned is him telling her the disembodied hands from a horror movie they saw were going to get her that night, and her surrounding herself with stuffed animals to ward them off. Nothing that hasn’t happened to everyone with an older brother. By the time Keller has his first psychotic breakdown, Gordon has already left for New York, and the brother is as good as never mentioned again.

The whole book is like that. One character after another who plausibly influenced Gordon takes the stage only to take the stage, have his name read out, and shuffle off. She dated Danny Elfman in high school, an experience which seems to have resulted in her having dated Danny Elfman. There is an artist and longtime friend named Mike Kelley who kills himself, which results in his death. Courtney Love is a manipulative narcissist with borderline personality disorder – which results in people not liking her. All of these things are simply noted, and as a result large sections of the book unfortunately come off like so much name-dropping.

Gordon insists that beneath the cool persona, she’s actually extremely sensitive – but for the evidence we’re given in the book, all that seems to mean is that she cares what people she cares about think about her – well within the bandwidth of normality. The one other person she credits with being as sensitive as her is Kurt Cobain. His onstage fury and intensity was just an outlet, and this made them kindred spirits in a way. But wasn’t it Thurston who had the flailing guitar style and did the instrument smashing? On stage, Gordon mostly just stands there.

And so it goes: she touches on everything and tells you nothing. By the time we get back to the split with Thurston Moore, we know what to expect. This, like everything else in her life, is just something that happened to her and completely out of the blue. Thurston just started cheating on her with a woman tangentially in their circle. When she confronted him, he promised to stop but didn’t. Her friends mostly didn’t know, but one or two of them suspected. She was devastated because she didn’t see it coming. And that was pretty much that.

The overall impression is one of a life attended but not much examined. Gordon’s friend is shot to death in a robbery and this turns her against LA. Nevertheless, she is nostalgic for the New York City of the late 70s, the one where Thurston had to run home if it was after dark because his neighborhood was that bad. Children playing outside in the street in New York these days surprises her, is noted as as much a sign of the times as all the chain stores that replaced the mom-n-pop outfits. And yet she can’t think of anything good about New York as it is now, and she never seems to recognize that the dead friend is a much a casualty of the dingy high-crime 80s as the artistic scene she misses was a product. She describes her relationship with Thurston as distant and professional but can’t think of any reason why he might have been cheating on her outside of "midlife crisis." At the begining of the book he’s the most confident person she’s ever met, but by the end he’s a coward. It isn’t so much that this puzzle is missing pieces as that someone assembled the border and called it quits.

But that is nothing if not Sonic Youth. It was the band that attended its own shows as much as it performed in them. The band whose lyrics were observational but not revealing. The surprising thing about Kim Gordon you learn from this book is that she’s exactly who she seems to be, and that’s not surprising.

My future is static, it's already had it
I could tuck you in and we can talk about it
I had a dream and it split the scene
But I got a hunch, it's coming back to me
            -- from Schizophrenia (Sister)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>