Sunday, March 15, 2015

Girl in a Band - Kim Gordon (2015)

At my 30th birthday party, now nearly two years ago, a friend gave me a gift card to Barnes & Noble for $20.  I visited the store a few different times recently, but there was nothing I really wanted.  Of course there were books I wanted to read, but I could usually stand to wait for them to be held on reserve for me at the library.  I don't like buying books at sticker price, especially hardcovers.  But when I tried to reserve Kim Gordon's new memoir, and realized I would need to wait a couple months, I found my occasion to redeem the gift.

It didn't work at first.  I went to the location on Jackson Blvd. in the Loop on the day it was released - February 24, 2015 - and looked in the music section.  Nothing.  I went to the information desk and asked if they could look up a book on their system.  The girl at the desk asked which book, prepared to type, and I said it was Kim Gor----"We've been getting a lot of calls for that - it's all sold out, but we can order you a copy."  I gave them my number, and one week later, on March 1st, I got my copy.  It was just over $30, so I had to pay $10 extra.  I put down The Corrections (which I fully expect to review in the next two weeks), and started.  I finished it on Saturday, March 7th.  Now, I must delve into reviewing it, which I feel more equipped to handle than nearly any other post in the history of Flying Houses.

For those that don't know me personally, it is worth explaining that Sonic Youth is one of my favorite bands of all time.  I was first exposed to them in the Fall of 2001, by the same friend that I have probably written about more than once here, but most prominently regarding Cap'n Jazz.  He lent me Sister and Daydream Nation.  I didn't really get them at the time, but I remember liking Sister slightly more, probably because it was shorter and more digestible.  At the time though, I experienced what most people probably do upon first listening to them: confusion.  Yes, it was rock music, but it seemed like they were purposefully trying to be a difficult listen.  A year later I went to NYU and a friend showed me The Year Punk Broke, and my interest was renewed.  By the time Murray Street came out in 2002, I had burnt CDs of several of their albums and picked it up on or around its release date.  At the time, I thought they were old, and were losing their edge.  I hadn't even really listened to A Thousand Leaves yet, so I guess Washing Machine was my most recent point of reference.  Except for "Plastic Sun," it seemed kind of mellow and boring to me.  I got into basically all of their other albums after that, and when Sonic Nurse came out in 2004, I proclaimed to everyone that it was their best since Washing Machine.  I would say the same thing after Rather Ripped in 2006 and The Eternal in 2009.  I also saw them play live about five different times, the last of which was performing Daydream Nation at the Pitchfork Festival in 2007, a really fond memory of mine.  

Then there was also the time I met Kim and Thurston.  It was at the Tonic lounge in the Fall of 2002. Thurston was playing a weird, free jazz noise concert with the drummer Chris Corsano and another guy I forget, and I approached Kim.  I totally forgot what I said to her, but I think I asked her if she could give a zine I had just printed to Thurston.  I said, "Kim," and she turned around and said something to me in German, I think.  Later I would talk to Thurston after the show and get his autograph in my journal and find out from him that the band would next be playing at Irving Plaza, a show that wasn't announced yet.  I think I saw them both at one other show, about a year later--Godspeed You! Black Emperor at Warsaw in Brooklyn.  

Girl in a Band got a lot of advance press, primarily from the salacious excerpts that were unveiled in a couple different reviews about the breakdown of their marriage.  There were also extremely pointed comments on Courtney Love, Billy Corgan and Lana Del Rey.  I read them in awe, and could not wait to read the book.  It seemed like Kim was about to absolutely destroy all the posers and bust out with pure, unadulterated truth.  While this book is extremely powerful, and made me super nostalgic and happy, reigniting my desire to make art and challenge expectations, I must report that those looking for similar cutting remarks will not find many more.  They will probably be most enthralled by the last thirty pages or so--but nobody should be disappointed by this book.  I only don't name it one of the best books reviewed on Flying Houses because it sometimes feel clipped--many of the first chapters are only a few pages long, giving the appearance that they were each written as one day's work--and some details or impressions are repeated, as if the reader will not remember the first mention.  Regardless, I loved it.

It begins with an account of Sonic Youth's final show in Brazil, and after finishing the book last Saturday, I watched it on YouTube.  The sound leaves something to be desired, and it takes them a while to gain momentum, but it is a fitting end to their epic career.  It's a good place to start the book, because it sucks the reader into what unfortunately must be the main gossipy reason for its allure: telling the story of how the marriage failed.  After watching the show I had to conclude that Kim was either really good at faking the appearance of having a good time, or genuinely savoring the catharsis.

From there, the book goes into a narrative of her family history and early life.  It is tempered with just the right amount of detail--not an exhaustive genealogical report, but a collection of highlights one might tell a close friend.  This one reads like an extrapolation of the meaning behind the song "Brave Men Run," which is later referenced around the middle of the book:

"In my family, history showed up in casual remarks.  I was in my senior year of high school when my aunt told me that my mother's family, the Swalls, was one of California's original families.  Pioneers.  Settlers.  The story went that along with some Japanese business partners, my great-great-grandparents ran a chili pepper farm in Garden Grove, in Orange County.  The Swalls even had a ranch in West Hollywood, at Doheny Drive and Santa Monica Boulevard, on land that's today all car washes and strip malls and bad stucco.  At some point the railroad laid down tracks, slicing the street into Big and Little Santa Monica Boulevards.  The ranches are all gone today, of course, but Swall Drive is still there, swishing north and south, a fossil of ancestral DNA.
I've always felt there's something genetically instilled and inbred in Californians--that California is a place of death, a place people are drawn to because they don't realize deep down they're actually afraid of what they want.  It's new, and they're escaping their histories while at the same time moving headlong toward their own extinctions.  Desire and death are all mixed up with the thrill of and the risk of of the unknown.  It's a variation of what Freud called the 'death instinct.'  In that respect the Swalls were probably no different from any other early California family, staking out a new place, lured there by the gold rush and hitting an ocean wall." (15-16)

She writes about her father, and how he conducted the first sociological study on categorical high school cliques, for UCLA while in Hong Kong.  She compares him to William S. Burroughs, whom she visited with Thurston, their daughter Coco, and Michael Stipe in 1994.  She writes about idyllic fishing trips with her parents and their friends in Northern California.  She writes about her mother, who was somewhat mysterious to her.  And she writes about her brother, who may have affected her personality more than anyone else:

"His ridiculing and button-pushing went beyond the typical sibling ragging.  At dinner, I'd let drop some trendy word or expression and Keller would jump on it, and on me, for my faddishness, my ordinariness, my lack of originality.  When a scene in a movie or a Disney special made me laugh or cry, he'd make fun of me for laughing and make fun of me for crying and make fun of me when I didn't say anything at all.  He always knew he could get a response from me, which provoked him to do it even more.
At some point I turned off entirely.  Knowing I'd get mocked or teased, I would do anything not to cry, or laugh, or show any emotion at all.  The biggest challenge as I saw it was to pretend I had some superhuman ability to withstand pain.  Add that to the pressure girls feel anyway to please other people, to be good, and well mannered, and orderly--and I backslid even more into a world where nothing could upset or hurt me." (40)

From there she goes on to talk about her high school days, and college at three different schools.  There are fascinating stories about her early brushes with art-punk and encounters with semi-obscure celebrities.  The book seems to hit its sweet spot when she writes of first moving to New York and ruminates on the artistic motivations of her colleagues and the burgeoning No-Wave scene.  Such nostalgia trips become all the more poignant when situated against the present:

"These days, when I'm in New York, I wonder, What's this place all about, really? The answer is consumption and moneymaking.  Wall Street drives the whole country, with the fashion industry as the icing.  Everything people call fabulous or amazing lasts for about ten minutes before the culture moves onto the next thing.  Creative ideas and personal ambition are no longer mutually exclusive.  A friend recently described the work of an artist we both know as 'corporate,' and it wasn't a compliment.  The Museum of Modern Art is like a giant midtown gift store." (85)

Passages like these make me glad that I am no longer there (though obviously my present abode has its own depressing defining qualities).  But they also make me miss, terribly, the years between 2001 and 2004.  Kim probably would say that things have not really changed that much since then, though.

The section of the book about Sonic Youth feels somewhat touch-and-go.  There are 53 chapters, and several "movements," but the majority of the material on the band comes in the context of specific songs she highlights (though again, these chapters also feel loose--the chapter on "Death Valley '69" is pretty much about Bad Moon Rising, etc.).  I particularly appreciate her discussions on women in the music and art worlds.  Of course there is the regrettable (and revised) comment on Lana Del Rey's version of feminism--which felt very badass at first and now feels watered-down, but was the right thing to do (I won't reprint it here, you can find it on plenty of other sites).  Feminism is a super-hot topic right now and younger voices should take heed: Kim is a perfect example of a pioneer that can equivocate calmly and speak with maturity and wisdom:

"I also felt limited as a singer.  When the band first started, I went for a vocal approach that was rhythmic and spoken, but sometimes unleashed, because of all the different guitar tunings we used.  When you listen to old R&B records, the women on them sang in a really fierce, kick-ass way.  In general, though, women aren't really allowed to be kick-ass.  It's like the famous distinction between art and craft: 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.  We either shun those women or deem them crazy.  Female singers who push too much, and too hard, don't tend to last very long.  They're jags, bolts, comets: Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday.  But being that woman who pushes the boundaries means you also bring in less desirable aspects of yourself.  At the end of the day, women are expected to hold up the world, not annihilate it.  That's why Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill is so great.  The term girl power was coined by the Riot Grrl movement that Kathleen Hanna spearheaded in the 1990s.  Girl power: a phrase that would later be co-opted by the Spice Girls, a group put together by men, each Spice Girl branded with a different personality, polished and stylized to be made marketable as a faux female type.  Coco was one of the few girls on the playground who had never heard of them, and that's its own form of girl power, saying no to female marketing!" (127)

As she approaches the end of the "songbook" section of the book, Kim describes the events of 9/11, which rendered the band's recording studio on Murray Street inoperable.  As a person that witnessed the events, from about ten blocks further north, I found the description spot-on:

"The next morning Daisy called me and told me to turn on the TV because a plane had just flown into the World Trade Center.  Daisy's husband, Rob, worked in a building across from the Towers but hadn't left for the office yet.  I called Jim [O'Rourke] and told him to leave the studio, and then I called Thurston.  Jim knew nothing but told me that dust was starting to gather through the open windows.  It was difficult for me--for everybody--to make any sense of what was happening.  I had no TV or radio, but the phone worked, at least first.  By the time the second plane hit, phone service was crackling away to nothing, and when I called Thurston a second time, I couldn't reach him, but I finally convinced Jim to come to our apartment.  As Jim was leaving Murray Street, the second tower was collapsing and people were jumping out of windows.  Lee, his wife Leah, and their kids, who lived downtown, showed up at our apartment, too.  Below us, literally right outside our door, Houston Street and Lafayette were barricaded, and police weren't letting anyone go south of Houston without ID and proof of residence.
It was a surreal, terrifying day.  People--stranded models, people who'd come to town for Fashion Week--were wandering around Nolita and Soho in a daze.  Jim arrived finally, completely traumatized.  We all slept there that night." (216)

The ending may be the strongest part of the book, just because throughout the entire story Kim has portrayed herself as an emotionally-distanced person, in line with the impressions of her personality in the popular culture (though this phrase sounds super-awkward because if you randomly asked 100 people on the street--outside of Greenwich Village, etc--if they know who Kim Gordon is, maybe 10 might say yes).  She finally drops her cool exterior and divulges nearly as heartbreaking an account of a relationship's end as I've ever read.  It is raw, and feels more like the work of a seasoned fiction writer than a primarily musical and secondarily visual artist.  Thurston does not come off very well, but it is especially touching when they attempt to work through their difficulties.  Kim does not write bitter, hateful prose--it is more along the lines of intense disappointment.

This is probably a really inappropriate place to mention the song "Kim Gordon's Panties" by Steve Albini's post Big-Black project Rapeman, but it's too bad Kim never mentions anything about that song.  The song feels like a pseudo-parody of "Teenage Riot" and "Schizophrenia," the opening guitar part and lyrics directly referential.  It feels particularly ironic in that it seems predictive of events that would take place 23 years later.  "I went up to Milwaukee to see an old friend of mine/then Thurston came over/he was out of his mind."  And later: "If I had that to come home to/I'd never leave again."  Gordon did write an essay that is excerpted here, and also in Our Band Could Be Your Life, where she drops the line, "How many boys want to get whipped by Steve Albini's guitar?" but there are no other references.  I've always been a bit confused by the weird rivalry between Albini and the band, and I am curious whether she found it offensive or amusing.  Some mysteries must remain....

I am not going to spoil the sequence of events at the end, but there is one detail that I found scathing, humorous, and incredibly sad:

"Thurston's solo record, Demolished Thoughts, was like a collection of sophomoric, self-obsessed, mostly acoustic mini suicide notes.  When I first encouraged him to record it, I hadn't given any thought to what the lyrics might be about, but hearing pieces of one or two songs, I realized I could never listen to it again.  'I think the lyrics are probably about both of you,' Julie said helpfully, but to me, the lyrics, and the songs, were, and always will be, about her." (256)
She also mentions performing "Aneurysm" with the surviving members of Nirvana at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  A friend tells her that it was the most punk thing that will ever be done at the show, and it is definitely worth a view.  In a similar way, this book is worth a read.  I've read a few memoirs by musicians, but none have been as punk (they've lacked the raw honesty exhibited here).  There is an artistic rendering of the word "DARKNESS" on the inside covers, and the implication is both ominous and profound.  It is up to us to make something beautiful or true in this window between two periods of nothingness.  Kim has done that in her life, as well as these pages, and we are all the more fortunate for it.   


Anonymous said...

What are your thoughts now on law and the legal profession?

JK said...

Is this a request for a special comment? My thoughts are largely unchanged except for circumstances surrounding my present employment.

JK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

You posted a lot about law school in the past, so I was curious about the present. Have you considered a longer post about how you feel about law school. Another N.I.E.D. post, perhaps?

JK said...

While that is true, it was primarily to contribute to our school newspaper. The N.I.E.D. columns would never have existed without the BLS Advocate.

I still think about it too much. (Definitely not worth $98,000 in debt for my present occupation.) I am actually writing a book about the experience, but due to your request, I will post one final N.I.E.D. sometime in April.