Woman/Manly

Kristin Dombek

  • BuyGirl in a Band by Kim Gordon
    Faber, 288 pp, £14.99, February 2015, ISBN 978 0 571 31383 9

‘Sound is war,’ a sound tech I know likes to say. He means that when you try to extend its life, things get messy. Sound is fragile and decays quickly; when you fight that, it can become wild. Plug a bunch of instruments into amplifiers to try to get the sound of a rock and roll band to vibrate in the ears of twenty people in some dirty little club and you have trouble on your hands. Everything affects everything else. I play a shitty bass guitar – open it up and it looks like someone took sandpaper to the wiring – and in every practice space and venue there’s a new interaction between my bass and the system or the room, a buzz or click or the sound of some radio transmission. Try to get clean, balanced sound that will soothe or terrify ten thousand people in an arena and you are playing a dangerous game with nature. To capture the sound of a band on a recording can be a process so laborious and stressful that a lot of bands don’t make it through the mixing process without breaking up. We work hard to extend and capture sound, copy it and make it represent, repeat or revise a narrow set of conventional rhythms and harmonies transmitted to us digitally, turn it into sonic wallpaper, something that lends a bit of movie-soundtrack significance to an experience, or just a kind of aural junk.

For thirty years, Sonic Youth turned the war of sound into a war on the reproducibility of music for consumption, and the failure to create the perfect rock product into music itself. I didn’t really get it, at first. I didn’t see them until they played Lollapalooza in 1995, by which time every indie rock kid was complaining that Lollapalooza was already lame and indie was no longer indie. Since guys liked Sonic Youth, learning to like them had seemed like a way to borrow a little male bonding, like wearing flannel, skipping class to drop acid, or fumbling my way through a hacky sack circle. Figuring out my sexuality in the 1990s came with the ambiguity of never knowing whether I was making out with boys in order to be like them, or trying to be like them in order to make out with them.

The day felt diffuse and ominous, as festival days can, but I was too young to know whether it was the day or me. Kurt Cobain had killed himself the year before, or, we suspected, had been murdered. His widow, Courtney Love, covered the Nirvana song ‘Pennyroyal Tea’ and the crowd booed and threw things at her until she started screaming at us. Cypress Hill was the only act that moved a few thousand Michigan kids out of our stoned, depressed stupor to dance. What I remember about Sonic Youth was that they seemed very rigorous about what they were doing – they reminded me of the intricate, dissonant classical music I’d learned about growing up. And there was Kim Gordon, lined up between Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, in the middle of the huge stage, not a token girl bass player, not a riot grrrl in an angry all-girl band, but a musician among musicians, standing next to her husband, to all appearances equal, taking turns. It meant something, the way she was, and I started listening.

I didn’t know that day that she was a new mother, that Cobain was her dear friend, or what it’s like to be in the rhythm section, how much she was keeping it all together up there. Since 1981, in New York City, Sonic Youth had been turning rock music into untamed sound and back again, and bringing this experimental work to a mainstream audience, whether we got it or not. They jammed drumsticks, drills, screwdrivers, rubber bands, and who knows what else into the bodies of their many guitars, which were often set up in previously unheard tunings. Their lyrics mocked and criticised the machinery of pop stardom and media sexism. They were collaborative and egalitarian, and seemed to have set up a kind of laboratory aimed at discovering new ways for sound, disordered and freed from the familiar forms, to be disturbing and sublime again. Their performances had a ritual quality. Gordon didn’t so much sing as incant. At the end of a song like ‘Teenage Riot’[1], Gordon and Moore and Ranaldo would sometimes draw out their last chords as long as physically possible before they faded away, walking slowly back and forth across the stage holding their guitars like sacramental objects, lifting them above their heads, rubbing them reverently or carelessly against their amps. They could do this for a very long time, until you heard notes that hadn’t previously existed, and things that definitely weren’t notes at all. They were going for ecstasy.

Whether grunge and indie rock would ever have sounded like they did, and would have reached as wide an audience, without Sonic Youth, whether they sold out, whether they’re overrated or one of the most important bands of all time – these matters have been taken up by countless music critics and fans for three decades, every guitar they used catalogued, every song analysed. (For an example of the hyperbole Sonic Youth can attract, see Matthew Stearns’s book on Daydream Nation, the album with the Richter candle on the cover,[2] for the 33 1/3 series: ‘Certain records arrive like howling bullets at crux moments and split the face of music wide open, exposing long-concealed sonic musculature, ripping tonal tissue from previously unexplored sockets, and melding it all back together into a form at once oddly familiar but, at the same time, unrecognisable …’). I wasn’t that big a fan. But the Seattle scene that Sonic Youth helped to inspire sent grunge and lattes and angst east to my Midwestern city, and the New York where they lived and made music sent us thrift store leather, black jeans and black T-shirts, and a dream of avant-garde collaboration. It was their New York where I went to grow up.

*

Kim Gordon moved there in 1979, to the city that she’d learned about in art school in LA – the New York of Judson Church and Yvonne Rainer, of Andy Warhol and Patti Smith and Lou Reed. It was disappearing as she arrived, as cities do. She wasn’t sure whether she should be a dancer or artist or filmmaker or writer or musician; what mattered was less what kind of artist than to be one, there. Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen were recently dead, and she’d pretty much missed punk, Television, the Ramones, Lydia Lunch and Teenage Jesus. She caught the end of No Wave nihilism before it destroyed itself in fights over who should be included on a compilation album Brian Eno was trying to make. The tide was turning to New Wave and pop, and money was flooding into the art scene.

It’s the most conventional thing she’s done, Gordon has said in interviews, writing a memoir, and this much, at least, is a conventional story – the vague artistic ambitions, the disappearing cities. She gives a brief black-and-white memory of Rochester, New York, where she was born, its factories and aqueducts and cold winters, a city she’s forgotten ‘like any birth canal’. And then the California of her childhood and adolescence, where her ancestors had owned a ranch in what is now West Hollywood. Los Angeles in the 1960s was a ruin and a construction site. She walked with her friends inside the giant sewage pipes leading out to the ocean, played on the dirt mounds that would become on-ramps to the freeways about to be built, in a city vanishing even as she grew up inside it, until it was ‘overtaken by more cars, more gas stations, more malls, more bodies’ and mini-malls covered in terrible stucco, their parking lots filled with SUVs.

She writes of her father’s jazz records, most importantly John Coltrane. She had a schizophrenic older brother, who teased and bullied her throughout her childhood, leading her to turn off completely, to which she attributes what others have called her remote, detached demeanour, and the need to express the feelings she keeps hidden through art and music. The family lived for a year in Hawaii, and another in Hong Kong. In the late 1960s, they were back in an LA haunted by the Manson murders: ‘There was a sense of apocalyptic expanse, of sidewalks and houses centipeding over mountains and going on for ever, combined with a shrugging kind of anchorlessness. Growing up I was always aware of LA’s diffuseness, its lack of an attachment to anything other than its own good reflection in the mirror.’

Her New York had an art and music world as cosy and fertile as it always seems in an artist’s memoir, where all the people the artist meets are people we know, because of course they’re the ones she would mention. She slept on Cindy Sherman’s floor, worked at a copy shop with Jim Jarmusch’s girlfriend, and as a receptionist for Larry Gagosian’s gallery, where she met Richard Prince. These were the Basquiat 1980s, when before he made it big Julian Schnabel worked as a cook at Mickey’s, where Jeff Koons hung out. She admired female artists who were critiquing the commodification of art, like Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer and Louise Lawler,[3] and was friends with Dan Graham, who shepherded her through the downtown art and rock scenes, introduced her to Gerhard Richter. She did art installations in people’s homes, then at the White Columns gallery. Her first musical performance in New York was with Graham, in Performer/Audience/Mirror,[4] as part of an all-girl band that was supposed to act out a rock show in front of a huge mirror, and comment on the audience between songs, disrupting their desire to consume the performance invisibly. The women didn’t do what they were supposed to do, Graham was upset, but Gordon felt something ‘lodging new in my brain’, realised that performing was like ‘a high-altitude ride’.

She lived on grilled and buttered Chock Full O’Nuts corn muffins. She met a man, and they bonded over a guitar leaning against the wall in her Eldridge Street apartment, a Drifter discarded by another woman – as it turned out, he knew the woman, and he’d played that guitar before. They moved in together, and started a band. It was called, for a bit, Male Bonding, and a few other things, and then it was called Sonic Youth.

She couldn’t have been more conscious, the first time she picked up a bass guitar, that she was crossing a threshold – between listening to and making rock and roll – and it was different for a woman on the other side. In 1980, before they started the band, she’d written an essay about No Wave testosterone for Real Life magazine, called ‘Trash Drugs and Male Bonding’, deciphering a Rhys Chatham performance as a ritual of male intimacy through musical heroics. How serious was she when she wrote the following much quoted reverie, in a tour journal a couple of years later? ‘I always fantasised what it would be like to be right under the pinnacle of energy, beneath two guys who have crossed their guitars together, two thunderfoxes in the throes of self-love and combat, that powerful form of intimacy only achieved onstage in front of other people, known as male bonding.’

It seems that, under the proto-slacker sarcasm, she was dead serious. She was obsessed at the time, she writes, with the way men used guitars, like women and video games, to be close, the way they needed a triangle to get ‘some version of intimacy’: ‘I wanted to push up close to whatever it was men felt when they were together onstage – to try to ink in that invisible thing … I joined a band, so I could be inside that male dynamic, not staring in through a closed window but looking out.’ That the memoir is called Girl in a Band (from the lyrics to ‘Sacred Trickster’ on their final album, The Eternal, which is in turn a question scores of journalists asked Gordon: ‘What’s it like to be a girl in a band?’), and that this is still a good title in 2015, means both that the threshold between consuming and playing music is still marked by gender, and that it’s marked differently now, thanks to her.

Because there she was, looking out from inside the triangle, returning – as she puts it in the book – the audience’s gaze, but also looking out from inside herself. She was also listening, I can see now when I watch the countless concert videos on YouTube, and perhaps that’s the more powerful thing. She wasn’t a natural onstage, she was an imperfect instrument, which was what made her so riveting: she was able to show herself breaking through whatever part of her gave a shit about that. ‘I’ve never thought of myself as a singer with a good voice, or even as a musician,’ she writes. ‘I’m able to put myself out there by feeling as though I’m jumping off a cliff.’ She would reach for the rawest edge of her voice, not grooving with the bass in some conventionally sexy way so much as pacing forward and backwards with it, towards us and away from us. She was pulling the guitars and drums together, sometimes pushing them ahead, sometimes following a split second behind, while the band dodged what you wanted from music, allowing a pretty chorus now and then only to take it apart, make it drone when you wanted it to soar, collapse instead of gather into an anthem, scatter into dissonance instead of gathering into harmony, until music having become just sound became more fully music again.

*

Gordon had a huge influence on the Riot Grrrls, and she pays respect to Kathleen Hanna and the whole movement, especially their avoidance of all media. But what was so striking about Gordon onstage, and her part in the thirty years of Sonic Youth, was a bit different: there was an equality there, in the turn-taking; there was a dream, dreamed by at least some of her female fans, that even straight marriage could be a balanced partnership, and an artistic one, too. It was like that image of masculine-feminine collaboration Virginia Woolf uses – a man and woman getting into a cab together, to go somewhere – in A Room of One’s Own. Woolf claims the best writerly mind would be like that: collaborative within itself, androgynous by virtue of being man-womanly, or woman-manly. She and Moore were that onstage, and, as far as we could tell, in their lives and in the making of their music. For this to fall apart in a conventional way – ‘mid-life crisis, younger woman’ – broke a million hearts. Many of those readers will come to this book for the dirt on the ex-husband, the younger woman. And there’s a bit of that. But the book’s real revenge is quieter, and more important.

When I moved to Kim Gordon’s New York, it started disappearing, and then CBGB’s closed and now it all feels gone. ‘Did the 1990s ever exist?’ Gordon asks, near the end of the book. She has a habit of interrogating the audience, like that first Dan Graham performance in front of the mirror. About New York these days, she asks: ‘What’s this place all about?’ Some of her rawest anger is reserved for the new city: ‘The answer is consumption and moneymaking.’ It is a ‘city on steroids’, ‘more like a cartoon than anything real’, a ‘moated kingdom’. She lists the missing places: how can all the worlds that made you and that you made disappear so completely, and if they’re gone does it mean they were false?

A conventional memoir might exploit our nostalgia for the lost city. And there is a dirty old New York here, and a record of the seemingly easy cross-currents of inspiration in a pre-corporate underground art and music scene, but there’s none of the melodramatic romanticising of being a young artist in New York that you get in, say, the blockbuster memoir by Patti Smith, Just Kids. If rock stars’ memoirs are supposed to reify our fantasy that artistic stardom can provide you with a ‘suspended adulthood’, as she puts it, she refuses to comply. This is a book about the very adult problem of having worked so hard at an artistic career that you can wake up to accidentally see a text message on your spouse’s phone and find your cities, your industry and your marriage irrevocably changed, all at the same time, in such a way that to sort out what is what, what you have done to get here, can ‘make your brain split open’. When you’ve been making your money touring with a band that’s broken up because of the aftermath of that text message, and you have to fund your daughter’s college education, revenge is, first and foremost, finding a new way to make money, on your own; in interviews, Gordon has been disarmingly frank about this memoir being exactly that.

But it’s more than that. It’s a record of a life lived as the rare artist who has managed to negotiate an industry vertiginous with corporate consolidation and technological change. Midway through, she stops recounting the story of her life, and starts listing, album by album, what she was thinking about, listening to, watching and reading as each of Sonic Youth’s albums got made. In the place where she should be telling us about wild rock star antics, dishing on what her marriage was really like, she records her intellectual labour, all those years inside that triangle, under the ‘pinnacle of energy’, between those bonding male guitarists. And when we might start getting nostalgic about the loss of a music industry that could pay a brand new experimental art rock band an advance big enough to make an album, and a time when such a band could make a living touring small venues, the time before Spotify and so on – instead of feeding our nostalgia, Gordon asks the reader these frank, big questions about what we consume when we consume rock and roll, why we pay ‘to watch the destruction of the artists’ own lives’.

Gordon regrets writing about Kurt Cobain even as she writes about him; she doesn’t want to contribute to that mythology, the suffering artist, the tragedy of grunge. She criticises Lana Del Rey for selling female suffering. The book ends not with catharsis but in an improvisatory stream of stories about audiences and artists who rebelled against each other. She’s taken ‘the rock star thing’, she tells us, as far as she can, and points us back to her artistic work – visual art and performance, and the experiments in sound that she’s doing in her new collaboration with Bill Nace, Body/Head. Their first album, Coming Apart, is improvisatory, smart, and if you want to imagine it pulsing with the anger and undoing of the last couple of years, you can.[5] The opening line to ‘Trash Drugs and Male Bonding’, that essay she wrote before Moore and Sonic Youth and everything, was ‘Throughout one’s life, one becomes “out of tune”.’ She has always been interested in making music that is like that, like life. This question she doesn’t ask straight out, but it’s there: if you wanted this book to be about a life destroyed, why?

[2]

'Daydream Nation' by Sonic Youth (1988)
'Daydream Nation' by Sonic Youth (1988)

[3]

Jenny Holzer's 'Private Property Created Crime' in Times Square (1985)
Jenny Holzer's 'Private Property Created Crime' in Times Square (1985)