Girl in a Band: A memoir by Kim Gordon, book review: Notes from the bass line

Gordon doesn’t mince her words as she recalls working with Courtney Love and compares the singer’s narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies to those of her own brother, Keller, a paranoid schizophrenic

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The Independent Culture

It remains a source of exasperation to Kim Gordon that, throughout her 30 years as bass player in Sonic Youth, she was forever being asked by interviewers: “What’s it like being the girl in the band?”

Nevertheless, it’s a question that she answers at length in her frank and bittersweet memoir. Along with chronicling her early life in the California suburbs, her art school days and her parallel careers as a visual artist, Gordon addresses head-on the demands foisted upon female musicians working in a largely male domain.

These demands came as much from Gordon herself as from others. What did people see when they saw her on stage? Should she be feminine or androgynous? Should she move centre-stage or lurk in the shadows? These were things that both irritated and intrigued her, and it’s this alertness that gives Girl in a Band its power.

It’s also, at times, stingingly funny. She doesn’t mince her words as she recalls working with Courtney Love and compares the singer’s narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies to those of her own brother, Keller, a paranoid schizophrenic who taunted Gordon as a child. She is properly hilarious about Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan whom she writes off as “a crybaby”.

Elsewhere, there’s a flavour of Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids in Gordon’s early years as a struggling visual artist in late Seventies New York. For a while she slept on Cindy Sherman’s floor and later sub-let a loft from Jenny Holzer. Like Smith, she took jobs in bookstores and diners to survive. Later came a receptionist’s job at an art gallery, which led to her moving in the same social circles as Julian Schnabel and Jeff Koons. Unlike many of her musical contemporaries, Gordon believed that art could encapsulate anything, whether dance, clothes, painting, or music. It’s this open-mindedness that yielded the colourful life recounted here.

It’s also a life recounted through the lens of her most significant relationship – that with her bandmate Thurston Moore. The disintegration of their 30-year marriage in 2011 also signalled the end of Sonic Youth, so it’s no wonder that anger and heartbreak spill from the pages. “I did feel some compassion for Thurston,” she notes in a devastating final chapter on his infidelity. “I was sorry for the way he had lost his marriage, his band, his daughter, his family, our life together – and himself. But that is a lot different from forgiveness.”

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