“Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies – for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal. Woman must put herself into the text – as into the world and into history – by her own movement.” – Hélène Cixous
“I think the sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world.” – Chris Kraus
We were sixteen. He used to catch a train to Meadowbank Station, and then a bus to my house where we’d meet and head into the city, only to catch another train to Newtown. He could’ve caught one straight there from his house. We would spend our weekends in Camperdown Memorial Rest Park, making out against trees and rolling around in the grass, or strolling through record shops and hardly buying anything, just revealing ourselves to each other. When we were thumbing through records at HUM I found Daydream Nation for $10, and I bought it.
Since I first heard the opening notes of that record, I’ve always thought there’s something so cool about Kim Gordon, from her look, to the gravelly tone of her voice, to the types of projects she’s taken on. She’s been at the forefront of a kind of experimental movement for more than thirty years: in “just noise” in disbanded noise-rock legends Sonic Youth and Gordon’s current band Body/Head, in avant-garde art exhibitions, in her early (continuing) project Design Office, in fashion design, film and her art school-style essays, collected in Is It My Body?
The verboseness that marked her essay collection has been ironed out by time for her new memoir Girl In A Band. In her memoir, the prose is pulled back and precise. The chapters – linear overall but shifting between temporal periods within that structure – are driven by thoughts on music and the music industry, about femaleness, and relationships, and motherhood, and fame. These thoughts come through in throwaway lines or paragraphs amongst detailed accounts of time spent in the recording studio or on the road.
Gordon occasionally references artists and art theory, but these are peripheral to the action Instead, she writes about the experience of being a “girl in a band”, taking a space centre of stage, and pulling in the male gaze. She writes about a woman’s desire to please at all costs, about how she didn’t really think Sonic Youth were a big deal until her daughter said, “You don’t know what it’s like to be your daughter.”
THE ETERNAL: “SACRED TRICKSTER”
Some Sonic Youth fans will be able to tell you where they were when they heard that the 27-year marriage of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon was over. It was October 2011, and I was in class. I didn’t know how to react. On the surface it seemed like the relationship was perfect. As many said, if this were over, what hope was there for anybody’s ‘creative’ relationship? The fans, and me, wearing a Sonic Youth T-shirt and hoping it would make me university friends, didn’t know what was actually going on though: “a male mid-life crisis, another woman, a double life”.
“It’s always been hard for me to make space for myself emotionally around other people,” Gordon writes. In Girl In A Band, Gordon shies away from overt self-expression, instead using the memoir to process the end of her marriage, anchoring her writing on self to her relationship with a man. It’s not that Gordon neglects her own story – some of the strongest chapters focus on her family, upbringing, and her teens – but that Moore has become such a prominent figure in her story that he takes the spotlight, in the memoir as in life. After all, Moore came into her story when she was 27. Gordon is now 61: that’s 34 years of Moore as the “narcissistic man” and Gordon, “the codependent woman”.
The memoir presents Moore as the active subject.
The memoir presents Moore as the active subject, making decisions throughout their career and their relationship — it is Moore who wants to get married, not Gordon; Moore who is the frontman of Sonic Youth; Moore who sulks when he doesn’t get his way. Gordon is passive, until Moore’s unwillingness to face up to his choices means that it’s Gordon who finally decides to leave.
DAYDREAM NATION: “TEENAGE RIOT”
I was small and I wanted to paint at my bedroom desk; I did, and I knocked the paint onto the beige carpet. It stained this muddy brown colour, a combination of greens and reds and blues. When I was older, and my parents were away, I asked him to come over. I remember standing on that spot with him, while “Teenage Riot” played on the stereo, him pulling my shirt over my head: “Sweet desire, we will fall.”
In Girl In A Band, Moore provides a through line from the end of Sonic Youth back through Gordon’s childhood, her mentors, her time spent in New York City, and then their meeting, the band, the band, the band, the break-up, and now. This displacement of Gordon in favour of the six-foot-six, imposing figure of Moore occurs despite her fierce resistance. “I’d been careful not to come across as the female half of a ‘power couple’.”
Moore orders and permeates Gordon’s last thirty years. And in turn, this text.
Gordon’s descriptions of the early days of her and Moore’s relationship are spare: “He had a glow about him I liked, and he also seemed extremely sure about what he wanted and how to get it, though it was more a quiet self-confidence than anything brash.” The memoir is less a deconstruction of the end – there are not that many gory details – than a collection of essays that knit together to make a tapestry of a life, or more pertinently, a relationship. A boy. The memoir opens with the last Sonic Youth show and a vivid description of the anxiety and tension therein. She describes their last set: “Marriage is a long conversation, someone once said, and maybe so is a rock band’s life. A few minutes later, both were done.” The chapter that introduces her parents opens with an anecdote about Moore, Michael Stipe and Kim Gordon visiting William Burroughs. On one page, she’ll be speaking about her childhood in California and the house where they used to holiday in Klamath, the next will shift to the time Moore was there. The chapter about her mentor, artist Dan Graham, opens with Moore and Gordon on stage at a tribute gig for him, and then moves back to before she knew Moore even existed. These flickers of Moore are jarring, disrupting a sense of chronology, but also offering an insight into how Moore orders and permeates Gordon’s last thirty years. And in turn, this text.
GOO: “KOOL THING”
I bought a Goo T-shirt, white and a men’s size small. It hung from my frame, obscuring my growing breasts and backne. The shirt crops up in most pictures from the end of high school. They show us on the play equipment at Drummonye Oval, holding bottles of orange juice mixed with vodka. I didn’t know how to apply makeup so I didn’t, and the boy in the photographs loved me anyway. He wore men’s blazers he picked up at thrift shops, all broad shouldered, even though he was skinny, his curls reached his chin, and his jeans became tighter as we got older. He would call my home phone on weeknights to tell me about the CD he’d just bought, or band practice, maths class, hockey. He wrote letters, and drew pictures in the corner in a jagged scrawl, barely legible. He wrote about not knowing what to say.
Gordon writes about women not really being allowed to “be kick-ass”.
Perhaps switching from the object to the subject is difficult when you’ve been socialised to not be the actor but to be acted upon. As de Beauvoir pointed out, women are defined in relation to men, they’re the Other, “not an autonomous being”. “The woman’s body seems devoid of meaning without reference to the male,” de Beauvoir quotes Benda. And so too may be women’s writing without a masculine actor. Gordon writes about women not really being allowed to take up the spotlight, to be “be kick-ass”, even as she does that very thing as the bassist for Sonic Youth: “Art, and wildness, and pushing against the edges, is a male thing. Craft, and control, and polish, is for women. Culturally we don’t allow women to be as free as they would like, because that is frightening.”
And yet, despite Gordon’s words, the memoir remains anchored to Moore, a chronicle of an end, the life that came before, and the life that will come after. “Maybe I was a person – like a stapler – who just didn’t work for him anymore.”
DIRTY: “DRUNKEN BUTTERFLY”
I felt so dirty and dissonant like the music itself.
When we broke up, I played Dirty over and over again, cycling through the album, reading the songs as about female sexuality and a kind of blooming of confidence like “Drunken Butterfly” and “Shoot” (“I’m not your little girl, and you sure are not my dad/You don’t even know what you almost had”) and feeling empowered by Gordon’s gritty way of singing. Then I’d listen to “Wish Fulfillment” and feel alone. Lee Ranaldo’s voice felt too clean to really speak to me when I felt so dirty, dissonant like the music itself. “I love you, I love you, what’s your name?”
I ended up writing about his curls. The story – true in places but also fictional – was published. And there was something powerful about that; it put me in control, it was a way of interpreting and framing the world.
As Gordon describes the last Sonic Youth tour, in South America, it’s clear that her idea of a strong, confident woman is changing. That throughout her marriage, and the life of Sonic Youth, she played a kind of mother figure, keeping the peace, eschewing the spotlight, but now, she doesn’t have to do that anymore.
After separating from Moore, she becomes a different person altogether: “The memories I have, and the house I still own, are both filled with stuff adorning a life I no longer live, feelings that I no longer have.” It’s these relationships, rather than some ever-present ‘true self’ that make up a person, and that as these relationships change or end, so too does that person. “I know, it sounds like I’m someone else entirely now, and I guess I am.” And then in creating art from that place, from that new person, we are in fact acting, shaking off the “desire to please”. The very act of Gordon speaking for herself upends the mythos around Moore, and it’s powerful.