Cool Girls Do It Better: On Kim Gordon’s Juicy, Modest Memoir, ‘Girl in a Band’


In the final paragraph of her memoir, Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon details a makeout session with a man who is most certainly not Thurston Moore. Emergency brake pulled, the two sat in front of a house on a hill that Gordon had rented in LA for several weeks last year while getting back to her visual art roots in a post-Sonic Youth, post-Thurston world. The anecdote starts kind of bumpy because it is apropos of nothing, but it ends somewhere fitting — hopeful, even. “I know: it sounds like I’m someone else entirely now,” she writes after pulling away from this man’s “full-on grope” for reasons of practicality, “and I guess I am.”

This shift happens subtly throughout Girl in a Band, released this week by Dey Street/HarperCollins. One of Gordon’s strong suits as a memoirist is her ability to explain what was happening in her professional and personal lives, which have been linked since she dated Danny Elfman and other young LA creative types as a teen, at any given moment without belaboring the amount of work that went into getting from one point to another. Gordon has lived a fascinatingly seamless creative life, moving from an early dive into visual art alongside now-famed art dealer Larry Gagosian, to Sonic Youth’s ceaseless 30 years, to her too-cool ‘90s fashion line X-Girl, and now, to writing (which Gordon had done over the years, for the likes of Artforum and SPIN).

Gordon is, for the most part, modest about her accomplishments. She doesn’t require a great amount of reflection on every little moment, instead detailing the specifics of how things got done. There’s a certain comfort in seeing how multifaceted artists like Gordon work, particularly because it often involves happenstance. When you spend decades playing in one of the most critically lauded rock bands ever, residing in the epicenter of coolness (SoHo before the chain stores replaced the galleries), and you have your shit together like Gordon and Moore did, interesting people are bound to float through your life.

Marc Jacobs, just coming off his famed grunge collection for Perry Ellis, just happens to lend his showroom for a fashion project she’s doing on a lark. Sofia Coppola and Beastie Boy Adam Yauch help her throw a fashion show in Tokyo. Kurt Cobain asks her for advice about how to deal with Courtney Love’s raging insecurities. Courtney begs her to produce the first Hole album while she’s at it, which doesn’t stop Gordon from openly chiding Love the entire time (when it comes to shit-talking, Girl In a Band’s biggest target outside of Moore is Love, not Lana Del Rey). Chuck D, Kathleen Hanna, and Kim Deal end up in videos and songs. Mike Kelley, one of the most influential American artists of the latter half of the 20th century, is an old pal and frequent collaborator. Neil Young invites Sonic Youth on tour, and Kim cooks chicken for him on his tour bus. She takes her baby daughter Coco to William Burroughs’ house with Michael Stipe. She helps discover Chloe Sevigny and Spike Jonze.

The way Gordon tells it, these star-studded projects were mostly the result of knowing the right people and being into the right things. Because it’s certainly not about timing. No Wave was over by the time Sonic Youth came together in 1981. The ’60s had just crammed the Summer of Love bit back into the VW bus by the time Gordon came of age in Southern California. There’s such a strong sense of community within Girl in a Band, but it becomes clear that Gordon was slightly out of synch throughout her artistic life, which ultimately forced her to forge her own path. If you hadn’t realized it years ago, you begin to see what a singular vision Gordon has. The chapters where she describes, in her simple and elegant prose, the intellectual and feminist intentions behind her Sonic Youth lyrics are enough to convince you of this, and probably inspire you in the process.

By maintaining the laid-back coolness that made her an icon, Gordon is able to give herself a bit of credit without sounding like an egomaniac, which more than half of all rock stars who write memoirs inevitably do. She’s also able to explain what she was up against: a cheating husband, rock’s casual sexism, the pressure to “have it all,” and a schizophrenic brother whose childhood cruelty turned her into a shy, sensitive person. That said, Gordon also gives the people what they want: Thurston dirt.

Girl in a Band opens with one of its most vivid scenes: Sonic Youth’s final show in 2011. It was pure contract fulfillment following her separation from Moore, spurred by his ongoing affair with Eva Prinz, a woman he’d worked with on various art-book projects. If you’re the kind of person who felt a little devastated knowing that Thurston would cheat on someone as smart and sexy as Kim, that first chapter is an incredibly satisfying read. She takes him to task for his faux masculine camaraderie with their bandmates. Everything she once loved about him annoys her immensely, everything that once felt natural makes her feel like garbage, up becomes down, etc. — the whole bit. It’s one of the few times in the book when Gordon allows her emotions, instead of her actions, to define a scene. Given how compelling it is, it’s a shame Gordon didn’t rely on her inner dialogue more, but perhaps it’s stereotypical to assume a woman should narrate her own life by leading with her emotions. And stereotypical is not really Gordon’s bag.

As the memoir moves forward in loose chronology, Thurston’s cheating years come into focus. Kim explains how and why it happened, and at what point she knew. As opposed to, say, Amy Poehler’s recent memoir (Yes Please), where she makes note of her feelings about her equally surprising divorce from Will Arnett rather than the specific circumstances that led to it, Gordon comes across looking awfully transparent. But that doesn’t stop her from paying Moore a compliment. She speaks highly of his parenting on multiple occasions, as well as his artistic contributions and supportive nature of her career. In other words, Gordon is complicated — betrayed by her person but, at this point, over 60 and by no means regretful of the weird, beautiful existence they’d meticulously engineered.

Most artists never attain Gordon’s longevity. There’s some bit of magic in getting close to it, even if Gordon is less sentimental than her Cool Girl sycophants would prefer. With Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon says her peace and quietly demands your respect, but doesn’t give it all away. You won’t cry, but you will hear Sonic Youth records in a different way — which is likely what Gordon would prefer.