If you truly love music, you remember the moments when a song or an album changed your life. One of these pronounced occurrences happened to me in August 1988, two weeks before I turned 18, when I played the vinyl record of Daydream Nation by Sonic Youth on the college radio station turntable at the University of Alabama where I attended college and it transformed me. They became one of my favorite bands overnight.
Until then, my rock influences had been mostly commercial, mainstream acts like the Allman Brothers, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Van Halen or whatever hair band was big at the time like Motley Crue or Def Leppard. Sonic Youth was the opposite of these groups, check that, they were anti-them.
Atonal, loud, mixed-up, bizarre, poetic, literate and weird in a good way, Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation took me to a place I neither recognized not understood, for years. I found the band’s videos on MTV’s 120 minutes and became addicted. The front man was Thurston Moore, a six-foot six shaggy-haired proud uber-geek who thumped his guitar. But the center of the experience was bass player Kim Gordon.
Tall, androgynous, talented, and aloof, she was like David Bowie but female and so interesting you couldn’t stop watching or listening. Unlike other women in bands, I didn’t fantasize about Kim Gordon, she was older, 17-years my senior, she was more like the killer big sister or fantastically cool aunt you just wanted to hang out with, learn about music from, and become enthralled by her stories.
For two and a half decades, this was how I imagined Kim Gordon. She was married to Moore, their union was rock’s greatest success story, starting in 1984 and lasting until 2011, broken up, shockingly so by his infidelity. My parents are still married after forty-five years so this is how it seemed if my folks did break up. No more Thurston and Kim, and as a result, no more Sonic Youth. It was devastating.
When I heard Kim Gordon interviewed on NPR recently and learned of her memoir, Girl In A Band, I almost didn’t get it. My daydream nation of how Kim was couldn’t be touched. Then I mentioned to my wife that the book was out, and before I could explain to her I was scared to read it, she ordered it over her phone.
Girl In A Band is part history textbook of the alternative music genre of the 1980s and 1990s (my favorite kind and time in music), part travel guide to the art scenes of Los Angeles and New York, and part personal account of how a self-made artistic giant accomplished it all.
Kim Gordon’s writing voice is just like her musical style in Sonic Youth and brand as a visual artist and journalist. There’s an interesting distance, almost Lou Reed-like, combined with heart-breaking personal narrative of a mentally ill brother, unexpected but fulfilling life as a mother to a now 20-year-old daughter (only a year older than my own) and a rock and roll marriage that fell apart in the most banal way, ever. Music books or I should say, books about music people, are best when they are equally revealing as they are mysterious. Kim Gordon pulls this dynamic off, flawlessly.
Sonic Youth changed popular music from the underground without ever compromising their integrity. In Girl In A Band, you learn it was because of their artistic phenomenon bass player who kept it all from becoming normal.