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Book review: Girl in a Band

Experimental-rock icon Kim Gordon reflects on life before and after Sonic Youth

kim gordon, girl in a band

Time Out Rating: 4/5

By Kim Gordon. Dey Street Books, $28.

In the opening pages of her memoir, Kim Gordon finds herself in the midst of two breakups: It’s November 2011, and Sonic Youth is playing what will wind up being its final concert at a festival in São Paulo. She’s also just separated from bandmate Thurston Moore, her husband of 27 years. From the stage, Gordon can see all the cracks and underlying phoniness in the band she’s called home for three decades. That pivotal, heartbreaking snapshot sums up the sense of alienation that propels her life-assessing trip through Girl in a Band.

As bassist-vocalist-guitarist for the pioneering noise-rock act, Gordon made rock & roll that was arty and aggressive, filled with clangorous noise, punk energy and a desire to tear down convention. In short, music that wasn’t always immediately pleasing to the ear. Her book takes the same unflinching approach to her personal history, artistic career and wrenching divorce.

She paints her middle-class West Coast childhood in idyllic terms—her relationship with her schizophrenic older brother aside—all rolling hills and sunny beaches. Early on, Gordon immerses herself in the visual-art scenes in Los Angeles and later New York, where she settles in 1980. Surprisingly, her chronicle revolves more around art-world luminaries than punk ones: conceptual artist Dan Graham and gallerist Larry Gagosian, for whom she worked various jobs. Once in Sonic Youth, Gordon maintains her ability to connect with the era’s greatest creators: She writes fondly of her interactions with Kurt Cobain (hinting that mental illness might be behind Courtney Love’s brash persona), as well as her collaborations with director Spike Jonze, artist Mike Kelley and others.

Gordon deals efficiently with the history of her band (as she writes, “a lot has been written about Sonic Youth”) in succinct bursts that outline the circumstances around her favorite tracks. But her breakup with Moore, a cataclysm for fans who idolized the couple, hangs over the entire tale. Gordon writes about the split in exacting detail that can be tough to read. But she also portrays it as the impetus for her creative and personal reinvention: performing with noise duo Body/Head, diving back into visual art and repositioning herself as a single person.

The title references a lyric from the Sonic Youth song “Sacred Trickster,” a feminist fuck-you to lazy journalists who would ask Gordon, “What’s it like to be a girl in a band?” Here she takes on the question full bore, answering it on her own terms.

THE BOTTOM LINE: A prolific art maker chronicles her tangled personal and creative lives.

Catch Kim Gordon live at BAM on Feb 23 for the release of Girl in a Band and at her reading event at Strand on Feb 24

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