Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: Girl in a Band

Girl in a Band Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I am a Sonic Youth fan only rarely. I have a couple CDs of the band, and I cycle back to checking out their music every year or two, but most of the time I can rarely get past the dissonance. It will sound like noise to me, and I’ll just get bewildered or frustrated. But then, every so often, their whole sound will come together for me. I’ll be listening, and it will suddenly just make sense. I’ll hear it all come together, and I’ll think “This band rocks.” (For what it’s worth, I also have that experience, more intensely, with P.J. Harvey.)

I also had a good experience reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids a few months ago, and I figured Kim Gordon’s memoir might be strong in the same vein. After all, they are both women rockers, who have gone through impressive careers without compromising. Their male counterparts are guys like Lou Reed or Alex Chilton and, like guitar-slinging Ginger Rogers, they’ve done the same things only “backwards in high heels” and managed to raise children at the same time. Both also began as visual artists before they moved into music, and they’ve earned their respect the hard way.

It probably isn’t fair to compare this to Just Kids, but I can’t help it. And the comparison doesn’t do any favors to Girl in a Band. The opening chapter is full of promise. Gordon goes through Sonic Youth’s final performance (in Sao Paolo at a huge outdoor concert) giving sometimes a gesture for gesture recap as she fills us in on the painful backdrop of her breakup with Thurston Moore. In the ways that the best of this kind of work can do, her description made me hungry to see the concert (it’s on Youtube – which she tells us) and I did just that, appreciating it more after her story than I could have before.

But after that, the chapters get pointed and short. The first half of the book recounts Gordon’s childhood and adolescence. Parts of it are striking – she gives thoughtful descriptions of an L.A. that’s now buried, and she writes tersely and effectively about the pain of growing up with a brother developing profound mental health disorders.

Most of the second half talks about her early days in the New York scene. While this ought to be the heart of the book, it’s too often full of references that feel unexplained. It means something to me, for instance, when she talks of meeting Mike Watt from the Minutemen, but there are dozens more casual meetings that seem to have significance that she doesn’t explore. At its worst – which isn’t that often – it can feel like a laundry list of cool people who’ve known her and want to know her. At its best, (too briefly) it talks about how she and Moore came together to become a family in the midst of the band.

And then a final chunk of the book circles back to the breakup framed at the start. These 3-4 short chapters feel as if a publisher demanded them. They’re tawdry and unpleasant; I imagine them as written for Moore, as her working to sound neutral and yet hoping he’ll see the truth in the account and feel all the worse for it. Fortunately, the best part of the book comes next, a short, thoughtful meditation on what the end of the Sonic Youth/noise scene meant and how it’s related to the rise of an internet culture of expectations. Without overplaying her band’s contributions, she rises to some compelling social criticism. But she gets there very late and stays there only briefly.

The ultimate trouble here is that Just Kids had a core story to its memoir: the relationship between Smith and the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Everything else in Smith’s experience fell into the background. Girl in a Band never settles on a set agenda. It isn’t quite an autobiography, nor should it be. It isn’t quite a memoir of life in the 1980s/1990s cutting edge music scene, though it’s implicitly relevant because of Gordon’s time there. And it isn’t quite an anatomy of painful and public breakup because, in the end, Gordon’s persona is to stay hidden, to be the “girl in the band” who wears a kind of impervious mask. Maybe her publishers wanted that book and maybe she tried to give it to them, but her heart is clearly elsewhere.

So, I’d sum up by saying that, like the music of Sonic Youth, this book is largely dissonant. Every so often, some thread of it emerges and becomes deeply compelling, the insights of someone who’s been through a lifetime of artistic self-reflection and come out wiser. Too often, though, its separate threads blur together, and it’s hard to find the tune underneath the noise.

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