February 23, 2015
Reposted from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/19/books/kim-gordon-of-sonic-youth-writes-about-her-band-and-breakups.html
Kim Gordon, pictured in Los Angeles, said her new memoir is "the most conventional thing I’ve done." Credit Sam Comen for The New York Times
by Joe Coscarelli
Kim Gordon knows her reputation well. “Detached, impassive or remote,” she ticks off in her new memoir, “opaque or mysterious or enigmatic or even cold.”
But rather than dispel the persona she built up over 30 years as the antifrontwoman for Sonic Youth, Ms. Gordon hoped to make it three-dimensional in her book, “Girl in a Band,” to be published on Tuesday by the HarperCollins imprint Dey Street Books.
“People just project stuff onto you, mostly — they don’t really know me,” she said recently at breakfast in Brooklyn. “I just felt like I was saving it. I was being very withholding for the right time.”
Not that the book is a typical tell-all. “I thought of putting a disclaimer in the beginning: No sex, drugs or rock ’n’ roll,” she continued, her sentences trailing off or becoming barely audible, even when her ideas were confidently held and complete. “I’m a read-between-the-lines kind of person.”
“Girl in a Band” does begin and end with a breakup, two, actually: the simultaneous 2011 demise of Sonic Youth and her 27-year marriage to Thurston Moore, who founded the band with her in 1981. But that may be the extent of the fresh dirt. The rest of the memoir, in line with Ms. Gordon’s indecipherable feline stare and flat affect, can be minimal and bare, even stilted, revealing in its brief moments of reverie but careful to stop short of saying too much. It is never embarrassing.
Once the epitome of ’90s cool, Ms. Gordon could be accused of name-dropping in her writing if the connections cited weren’t so natural: Danny Elfman, the composer, was a high school boyfriend; Kurt Cobain was a fan and close friend; and she describes plainly the time her daughter met William S. Burroughs while on tour as a baby with Sonic Youth.
Ms. Gordon’s relationships have also transcended music: After Sonic Youth signed with a major label — joined soon after by Nirvana — she helped start the careers of Chloë Sevigny, who made her debut in the music video for “Sugar Kane” (along with Marc Jacobs’s infamous “grunge” collection) and Sofia Coppola, who staged a show for Ms. Gordon’s fashion line, X-Girl. Just last year, Ms. Gordon played a rehab patient on HBO’s “Girls.”
The decision to write it all down, however, was more practical than artistic. Single at 61, with a daughter in college and a generation of fans presumably ready to follow her into the next phase of life, Ms. Gordon said the book was a way “to open up other opportunities for finding ways to support myself, to be quite honest.” After decades of exploring discordant indie-rock and experimental visual art, she added, “Girl in a Band” is “the most conventional thing I’ve done.”
It was also an attempt at defining her legacy outside of Sonic Youth. Dave Kendall, the former host of MTV’s “120 Minutes,” which championed the band, said Ms. Gordon “didn’t need to project any strong persona or marketing message” and “could just be herself.” As a rock star with acceptance in the art world, she showed women that “there’s no need to sell yourself as a sex object,” he said, or “to hide in the background.”
But with Ms. Gordon’s defining work linked so closely with Mr. Moore, Carrie Thornton, the executive editor at Dey Street Books, said she pitched her on the project this way: “Better to tell the story yourself than to let someone else tell it for you and tell it poorly.”
One possible model was “Just Kids” by Patti Smith, which became a best seller and won a National Book Award for nonfiction. Rock memoirs by women, Ms. Thornton said, “tend to be more relational — certainly in the case of Kim and Patti, there’s a sense of relationship to place and time.”
But for Ms. Gordon, “Just Kids” — a love letter to boho New York and the artist Robert Mapplethorpe — was a much different story from her own. In any case, she said, “I didn’t read it.” And of her own memoir, she said, “I didn’t want it to be romantic.”
That applied to both place and person. “Writing about New York is hard,” begins the chapter in which she meets Mr. Moore. “It is because knowing what I know now, it’s hard to write about a love story with a broken heart.”
Yet the book would not exist without Ms. Gordon’s divorce, which she said was caused by Mr. Moore’s affair with a younger woman, a story both sides have aired out in the news media. “When something like that happens, you start going back and examining your whole life,” she said. “How did I get here?”
The answer starts in Los Angeles, where Ms. Gordon was raised and wrote much of the book. She lovingly describes her beatnik-adjacent parents and childhood, but her relationship with her brother, Keller, who has schizophrenia, is the specter that looms over the memoir.
Her shyness, for instance, “comes from years of being teased” by Keller “ for every feeling I ever expressed,” Ms. Gordon writes. The broken brother-sister relationship caused her to seek out “big personalities” in male mentors, she said, and eventually in Mr. Moore.
Neither of the most imposing men in her life has read the book. “For obvious reasons, I didn’t share it with Thurston,” Ms. Gordon said. “I’m now officially divorced — only recently. So it doesn’t matter.”
She added: “Maybe he’ll write his own book. I’m not really interested.” (Through his representatives, Mr. Moore declined to comment for this article.)
And Keller, who is in an assisted-living home for the mentally ill, is more concerned with “conventional” things, Ms. Gordon said. “I think he likes my teeth,” she said through tears. “He told me I have a great smile.”
In the memoir, Sonic Youth seems almost like an afterthought. An essential band for a generation in which the avant-garde rubbed sometimes uncomfortably with the mainstream, the group “did inform my life and who I am, so it was silly not to write about it,” Ms. Gordon said.
But the book’s middle section, in which she decodes her lyrics and life as a touring musician, feels almost perfunctory. “I could have done more of that, but I kind of got bored,” she said. “I didn’t want it to become a Sonic Youth book.”
Now, in addition to writing and playing with a new band, the guttural Body/Head, Ms. Gordon has renewed focus on her visual art: A forthcoming show at 303 Gallery in Manhattan will explore the way New York has, she said, “become so beautified for foreign investors to buy condominiums.”
Beyond work, there is personal rebuilding. Ms. Gordon can be fanatical about television — she watches “The Good Wife,” “Scandal” and “The Affair,” although she said that all the cheating was a coincidence — and she is dating again. “I think it’s easier to meet single guys in L.A.,” she said.
She also plans to sell the home in Northampton, Mass., where she, Mr. Moore and their daughter, Coco, lived starting in 1999. She may split her time between the West Coast and New York — possibly in a Brooklyn studio apartment with her two dogs.
“For a while, I was concerned about being alone,” Ms. Gordon said. “Now I’m really enjoying my freedom.”
A version of this article appears in print on February 19, 2015, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Making Another Kind of Noise.