Sonic Youth always seemed to exude an aloof, supercilious cool, which is perhaps why some people can't stand them. In part because I too was put off by the band's air of self-importance, it took me a while to appreciate their music. What finally won me over in the late 1980s, though, was not only their glorious guitar squall, but bass player Kim Gordon's voice: half-talking, half off-key singing. Her delivery suggested a certain vulnerability behind the bravado, and an unwillingness to care that she didn't have a conventionally "good" voice. While Thurston Moore's drawling sneer could be annoying, Gordon's hoarse whisper, occasionally rising to a strangulated shout (on, for example, Sonic Youth's cover of the Stooges "I Wanna Be Your Dog" on 1983's Confusion is Sex), was compelling.
Here's a sample: "Starpower," from Sonic Youth's breakthrough album Evol (1985):
Sonic Youth was always half-great and half-... well, not. (Evol as an album title is a case in point.) This half-great, half-not problem crops up again and again in their music and self-presentation, and it's also an issue with Gordon's memoir. Girl in a Band (Dey Street, 2015) is really two books: the first is the story of how Sonic Youth came to be formed and and then managed to stay together for 30 years. The second is a breakup memoir about the end of Gordon's marriage to guitarist Moore and the resulting split-up of the band in 2011.
Clearly Gordon's impetus for writing the book was her divorce, but the most interesting part of the book (and of the story of the band) is not how it ends, but how it begins: Gordon's description of her troubled family dynamics, the confusions of growing up in LA in the 1960s and 70s, and coming to New York in 1980 to make art and music.
The title, by the way, is taken from an interview question Gordon was asked repeatedly during Sonic Youth's heyday: "What’s it like to be a girl in a band?" She was hardly a girl, of course: when she met Moore and formed the band she was 27. There had been women rock musicians before Gordon, and in the punk and postpunk era The Slits, The Raincoats, Delta 5, Au Pairs, and Kleenex/Liliput—and in New York, Mars, Ut, the Bush Tetras, and The Bloods, among others—featured women as songwriters, instrumentalists and singers. But in the 1980s as lower Manhattan was beginning to gentrify and as the punk and No Wave scenes were dissipating, Gordon assumed a particular prominence. This despite the effort it cost her to stand in front of an audience, especially at the start:
When I first began playing onstage, I was pretty self-conscious. I was just trying to hold my own with the bass guitar, hoping the strings wouldn't snap, that the audience would have a good experience. I wasn't conscious of being a woman, and over the years I can honestly say I almost never think of "girliness" unless I'm wearing high heels, and then I'm more likely to feel like a transvestite. When I'm at my most focused onstage, I feel a sense of space with edges around it, a glow of self-confident, joyful sexiness. It feels bodiless, too, all weightless grace with no effort required. (p. 125)
...the only really good performance is one where you make yourself vulnerable while pushing beyond your familiar comfort zone. I liken it to having an intense, hyper-real dream, where you step off a cliff but don't fall to your death. (p. 132)
|Steve Shelley, Kim Gordon, and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth|
When it reaches the point of Gordon's discovery of Moore's betrayal of their marriage, though, Girl in a Band cannot avoid the banality of a midlife crisis narrative. Contrary to Tolstoy, unhappy families are often alike. This is not to question how hurtful this experience must have been for Gordon: "It was like a nightmare you don't ever wake up from...—just like in the movies, only this was painfully real" (p. 252).
Moore, a middle-aged husband and father, had begun having an affair with a younger woman. When Gordon discovered incriminating texts and confronted him about the other woman, "...he denied it, then admitted it, then promised things were all over between them. It was a pattern that would happen over and over again. I wanted to believe him" (p. 252).
Gordon's sense of betrayal and hurt are clearly still raw. But what's also clear is that once her trust in Moore was destroyed, the marriage was over, even if she didn't yet recognize it: "...I had told Thurston that as someone who had been betrayed by him, I felt I had every right to look at his laptop, especially if, as he kept saying, he had nothing to hide" (p. 254). Gordon doesn't seem to be aware of how counterproductive her vigilance is. When you are reduced to searching your partner's e-mails and texts for evidence of his or her infidelity, your relationship is done whether they are lying or not.
The book is also peppered with Gordon's dismayingly superficial musings about larger historical and cultural events. Here are some samples, chosen more or less at random:
- "Female singers who push too much, and too hard, don't tend to last very long. They're jags, bolts, comets: Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday" (p. 127).
- "The crack of idealism between the performer and the audience signaled the end of the 1960s. Altamont, inner-city riots, Watts, Detroit, the Manson murders, the Isle of Wight Festival" (p. 260).
But apart from the factual slippage, is Joni Mitchell crying during her Isle of Wight Festival set due to the audience's indifference or hostility equivalent to the deaths of Meredith Hunter at Altamont, the 34 people killed during the Watts riots, the 43 people killed in the Detroit riots, or the five people slaughtered by the Manson cult?
- "The 1970s were the first era that learned how to exploit youth culture, and it was the birthplace of corporate rock" (p. 260).
Gordon's lazy and lazily-expressed ideas, together with occasional lapses into Artforum-speak ("the three of them [Raymond Pettibon, Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler] eschewed the conceptual mantle of seventies formalism and mixed high and low culture"), detract from what is most powerful in her book: the articulation of her experience as a girl—or rather, a woman, a writer, a musician, a mother, and a visual artist—in a band:
From the beginning, music for me was visceral. I loved playing music. When it was going well, it was an almost ecstatic experience. What could be better than sharing that feeling of transcendence with a man I was so close to in all other areas of my life, someone who was having the same experience? It was a feeling impossible to communicate with someone outside the two of us. I wanted deliverance, the loss of myself, the capacity to be inside that music. It was the same power and sensation you feel when a wave takes you up and pushes you someplace else. (p. 146)At its unsettling best Sonic Youth's music can feel exactly like a slowly building wave of sound, both harshly dissonant and ethereal. "On the Strip," from 1992's Dirty: