Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Girl in a Band: a Memoir

Assuming that the band Sonic Youth doesn't have 100% name recognition amongst our readers, I should start this off by providing a little bit of background - Kim Gordon is one of the founding members of Sonic Youth, a rock band formed by Gordon, Thurston Moore, and Lee Ranaldo in New York City in 1981. Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore married in 1984. Their daughter, Coco, was born in 1994. Their marriage, and subsequently the band, broke up in 2011.

Sonic Youth were very influencial in the alternative music scene, with a large repertoire of experimental music using alternative instrument tuning, noise, and feedback. Their songs could range from generally melodic right through to screeching walls of sound (and everything in between).
Gordon describes their song-writing process:
The way the band composed songs was pretty much always the same. Thurston or Lee would usually sing the poppy, more melodic things from riffs one of them wrote; I sang the weirder, more abstract things that came out of all of us playing together and rearranging until everything jelled. My voice has always had a fairly limited range, and when you're writing a melody, you tend to write it for your own voice. Lee, on the other hand, usually brought in songs that were complete and ready to go, then we layered dissonance over. (p. 145)
In case you were curious about what they sound like, see their music video for Kool Thing - one of their bigger hits (1990). Lyrics and vocals are by Kim Gordon at the height of her powers, and is apparently inspired by an interview she did with rapper LL Cool J, where they had a bit of a clash.

While their music may not be to everyone's taste, Kim Gordon's memoir is a very interesting look into being a woman with a family immersed in the world of popular music. We get a sense of her creative process, as she contends with issues of identity, feminism, politics, and society. Although her songs are often abstract in nature, they are always hard-hitting and thought-provoking. It also becomes clear that Gordon identifies primarily as a visual artist in the New York art scene, with her music career as an incidental second. Her music takes her artistic sensibilities and translates them to word and sound.

The book starts with a little bit of Gordon's biography leading up to meeting Thurston Moore and the early years of the band. The second half of the book is a series of anecdotes (rather than a continuous history) detailing significant incidents in her life and career.

Through this collage, Gordon presents the different strands of her life - art, music, marriage and family, and how they interconnect. At times "it was hard, working on art projects, running the house, raising a daughter, and having a full-time music career. I've never had any domestic talents or hobbies." (p. 233)

Central to the book is her relationship with Thurston Moore, across 27 years of marriage and working together in the band - their life together, parenting, working, touring, and so on. It also documents Moore's pulling away from their marriage and their eventual separation.

Coco was seven months old when we did our first two-week tour in England [for one of Gordon's side projects]. Again, thanks to the jet lag and the breast feeding, it wasn't easy, but Thurston came along to take care of Coco. He wouldn't have missed it anyway. He was always a big supporter of whatever I did in and out of the band, and I loved that about him - his generosity. Creatively I never felt any sense of competition with him. (p.206)
I did feel some compassion for Thurston,and I still do. I was sorry for the way he had lost his marriage, his band, his daughter, his family, our life together - and himself. But that is a lot different from forgiveness. (p. 258)

Book Club Discussion Questions:
  1. Does this book hold any interest for readers not familiar with the music of Sonic Youth?
  2. Kim Gordon asks herself this question: "Am I 'empowered'? If you have to hide your hypersensitivity, are you really a 'strong woman'?" How empowered would you say she is throughout the experiences documented in this book?
  3. Gordon quotes some of her lyrics throughout the book. How would you describe her music?
  4. The music world in which she traveled seems rather male-dominated. How does Kim Gordon fit into this world?
  5. What are some of the challenges Kim Gordon faced?
  6. How is Thurston Moore portrayed in this book?
  7. Coco was quoted as saying, "You don't know what it's like to be your daughter." What was Coco's life like growing up, having celebrity parents?
  8. Kim Gordon shows us what her life, and other musicians' lives were like behind the scenes. How does the life of famous musicians look with the glamour stripped away?
  9. The linear biographical structure quickly breaks down into anecdotes. How does this format help convey a sense of her life and inner thoughts?
  10. Discuss Kim Gordon as a potential role model.
Find this book in the Mississauga Library System's online catalogue.

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