Kim Gordon was always the cool one. Sharing the stage with her husband and musical partner, Thurston Moore, the striking blonde bassist-singer offered a focal point, a still alternative to Moore’s thrashing dark guitar antics. As cofounders of Sonic Youth, they put noise rock on the map, establishing themselves as art world/alternative darlings: the married couple who could create — music, a family, anything — together. Until they couldn’t.
When the couple announced their separation in October 2011, after 27 years of marriage and 30 years of making music together, it made headlines in Rolling Stone and Spin. It also broke the hearts of indie-rock fans. As Gordon writes in her unflinching new memoir, “Girl in a Band,” they had been “[t]he couple everyone believed was golden and normal and eternally intact, who gave younger musicians hope they could outlast a crazy rock-and-roll-world.” “For some reason,” she writes later, “Thurston and I seemed to intersect with a generation of late baby boomers who lived in cities . . . and didn’t want to age the same way their own parents had.”
The reason for the breakup, which came out a few months after the announcement, was, as Gordon writes, “just another cliché of middle-aged relationship failure.” Moore had been having an affair.
Writing in the intellectual, almost impassive voice fans will recognize from her on-stage style, Gordon explores the reasons for both the relationship’s golden aura and its eventual collapse. Although this is a full memoir, from earliest childhood on, it is bookended by the split, and many of Gordon’s observations are about how her unconventional childhood played into both the myth and the breakup of her marriage.
The daughter of distant, intellectual parents, Gordon spent much of her California childhood in the company of her older brother, Keller, who would later be diagnosed with schizophrenia. “He was, and still is, brilliant, manipulative, sadistic, arrogant, almost unbearably articulate,” she writes. In response, she says, she became “shy, sensitive, closed to the point where to overcome my own hypersensitivity, I had no choice but to turn fearless.”
Far from a stereotypical California girl, Gordon saw the dark side of her sunny state. “[D]eath, or the idea of it, kept pushing its way into my life.” Some of that was because of Charles Manson. “So many people I ran into as a teenager had had brief encounters with the charismatic wild-eyed little man,” she writes. Much of that darkness had to do with her family’s dysfunction.
Growing up with such turmoil, particularly as her brother’s illness became pronounced, Gordon learned not to rock the boat. This may have helped her channel her emotions into painting and, eventually, music. But this early training, she points out, also most likely contributed to her unwillingness to confront her husband as he grew distant.
In addition to a sharp analysis of an artist and a marriage, “Girl in a Band” is a portrait of a scene: New York in the ’80s, a period when the art and music worlds bled into one another. Involved in both, Gordon drops names, devoting long passages to her relationships with now-famous art dealer Larry Gagosian and artist Dan Graham, as well as musicians such as Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. Often, however, she uses these connections to discuss issues relating to art. “A lot of artists listen to music while they work, and many think, Why can’t I make art that looks as intense as the sounds I’m hearing?,” she writes, in a section about Graham, concluding, “I don’t have an answer.”
Gordon’s matter-of-fact delivery can trip her up, and some of her pronouncements about the world at large are just plain silly. Her statement, “[t]he 1970s was the first era that learned how to exploit youth culture,” for example, is off by at least a decade, as someone who grew up in the land of Annette Funicello should know. When she sticks with firsthand experience, however, Gordon is smart and appealing, her sharp edges cutting through to human truths.
Clea Simon is the author of “Mad House: Growing Up in the Shadows of Mentally Ill Siblings,’’ among other books.