Rock and roll memoirs can be tricky. Maybe you want to know about the grit and the decadence, but beyond that, the genre might not offer up much else. There’s always the temptation of secrets from venue green rooms and recording studios, little tidbits that reveal a bit about the band and their beloved music. On the rare occasion these books can be a great read, but most are a slog through formulaic confessionals. Marianne Faithful, Kristin Hersh, and even Marilyn Manson have turned in great accounts of their lives and careers, while Patti Smith set the gold standard with with Just Kids.
Kim Gordon’s terrific story, Girl in a Band, offers behind-the-scenes stories from Sonic Youth’s tour with Neil Young to her very public breakup with husband and bandmate Thurston Moore, but it’s also a little different than those other books. While Faithful lived and wrote about laying the glamourous junkie rockstar template, and Hirsch focuses more on an epic roller coaster period of her life, but Gordon lays out her story from childhood to the present, jumping from her early days in New York City to specific records and tours. In terms of a mostly musical memoir (Gordon is also an acclaimed visual artist and designer, things that she touches on in the book), it’s a smart structure, one that gives the readers a lot of what they want, and enough room for Gordon to get philosophical about moving from the big city to suburban New England, the state of contemporary New York City, to her thoughts on Lana Del Rey and feminism – a topic that has been a big focus surrounding the discussion of Girl in a Band.
At the end of the day, the controversy around Gordon’s book will die down, and Girl in a Band will go on to become a classic rock memoir (although, I must stress again that Gordon’s talents extend beyond playing music). Gordon was already iconic and hugely influential before news that she was going to release the book, but what Girl in a Band does is cements her status as the Generation X version of Joan Didion: perpetually cool and somewhat detached, raised underneath the same golden California skies as Didion, but wise enough to know there’s a lot more than meets the eye. This passage, in particular, highlights that:
In 1985, when Bad Moon came out, hardcore groups were singing songs about Ronald Reagan. I wasn’t interested in this and preferred to sing about the darkness shimmering underneath the shiny quilt of American pop culture.
The book really shines when Gordon discusses music, New York, and motherhood. Yet most of that is overshadowed by the controversies surrounding the book, including the part about Del Rey, Gordon’s thoughts on Courtney Love, and most of all, the breakdown of her marriage. The Love parts, including the Hole singer’s “secret affair” with Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan (“I thought, Ewww, at even the mention of Billy Corgan, whom nobody liked because he was such a crybaby,” Gordon says), really aren’t anything that different from what we’ve heard from numerous people before, only this time it’s Kim Gordon, and she wrote it in her memoir. The same really goes for the Del Rey part. While I personally like Del Rey as a singer, Gordon doesn’t hold back her feelings, wondering, “If she really truly believes it’s beautiful when young musicians go out on a hot flame of drugs and depression, why doesn’t she just off herself,” about the singer who put out an album called Born to Die. Does Del Rey merit a takedown by one of the most important figures in American music over the last 30 years? Maybe not. But Gordon’s career is one that has been built on being who she is and doing things that seem to always come from as pure a place as you can ask of a musician or artist.
Her marriage is another thing entirely, and before she starts on her childhood and growing up, Gordon uses the introduction to get things out of the way, setting the scene at the last Sonic Youth concert. We see her future ex-husband slapping his male bandmates on the back, a gesture Gordon sees as “phony” and “childish.” To her, the out-of-character move was Moore saying, “I’m back. I’m free. I’m solo.”
But the thing is, Gordon isn’t out to set fire to Moore or the Sonic Youth legacy. She wrote a memoir, and people want to know exactly what happened. Obviously there are two sides to every story, but Gordon’s telling of the tale ultimately makes it really hard to even care what Moore has to say. This book isn’t about twisting the knife in Moore’s belly, which is benevolent of Gordon, since Moore’s the one that stuck it in by having the affair. She even thanks her ex and her former Sonic Youth bandmates, “without whom there’d be no story.” It’s a classy move, and if anything, it shows the reader right off the bat that Gordon’s superb memoir is an exercise in restraint. It tells us the stories we want to hear, lets us know what we want about the writer, and she does it without spilling more blood than necessary.