“Rock music is all about repression,” Kim Gordon wrote in the catalogue for the artist Mike Kelley’s 1993 retrospective at the Whitney Museum. Thankfully, though, Gordon holds nothing back in her new memoir, Girl in a Band (HarperCollins, 2014). The book comes on the heels of the break-up of her band, Sonic Youth, and the end of her marriage to that group’s singer and guitarist, Thurston Moore. She begins at the end, Sonic Youth’s final show at the SWU Music & Arts Festival in São Paulo:
“Thurston double-slapped our bass guitarist Mark Ibold on the shoulder and loped across the stage, followed by Lee Ranaldo, our guitarist, and then Steve Shelley, our drummer. I found that gesture so phony, so childish, such a fantasy…[He’s] never been the shoulder-slapping type.”
And this is only the man’s first appearance. Moore appears as the villain over the course of this memoir, with dark foreshadowing of his decline even when times were good. This is not even to mention the woman he carried on an illicit affair with, who is, in turns, according to Gordon, a “nutcase,” “a groupie,” and “a current that dragged you underwater and you were miles from home before you even realized it.”
My takeaway is you do not want to make enemies with Kim Gordon. She emerges almost ridiculously triumphant with this book. Reading it, I couldn’t help but retroactively cringe at Moore’s comments in an interview with New York magazine last year in which he complained about “these feminist intellectuals who are attacking” his “beautiful feminist intellectual” girlfriend. Gordon’s last laugh: “I did feel some compassion for Thurston, and I still do. I was sorry for the way he had lost his marriage, his band, his daughter, his family, our life together—and himself. But that is a lot different from forgiveness.”
These passages make me think of other great memoirs cataloguing spousal indiscretion—in particular Norris Church Mailer’s A Ticket to the Circus, about Norman Mailer’s “grand experiment in monogamy” with the author, his sixth and last wife, which of course was a failure (“I’m not going to talk about the numerous girlfriends, but you know who you are, and there are many more of you than you think,” she writes). Gordon’s relentlessness in the face of Moore’s betrayal is a welcome addition to the canon of tell-alls, but far better is her garrulous romp through the New York art world of the 1980s, which Gordon flitted around in various capacities—as an artist, as an assistant, and as a member of an alternative-rock band that functioned more as a roving sound installation, at home in both the regular rotation of MTV and the writings of Dan Graham. Girl in a Band might be the best record we currently have of the golden age of downtown Manhattan, casually filled with myth-like anecdotes and scorched earth.
Graham lived above Gordon on Eldridge Street, and he offered her an introduction into the art world, though she’d had a taste for it before this neighborly intervention. Her first band, Below the Belt, played its second gig at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, entering the stage to their drummer asking “the spics and cunts to come out and play.” They were drunk and quickly thrown from the stage, but Mike Kelley was in the audience, and thought it might be a good idea to start a band of his own. Gordon’s first job after high school was as an assistant for one Larry Gagosian, then a lowly poster-seller in Westwood, not terribly far from where Gordon grew up in Los Angeles. “He was mean, yelling at us all the time for messing up, being too slow, just plain being,” she writes. “He was erratic, and the last person on the planet I would have ever thought would later become the world’s most powerful art dealer.”
This character assessment is nearly kind compared to those Gordon offers of other figures from the Grunge era and beyond. Billy Corgan is “such a crybaby.” Courtney Love is “manipulative,” “egomaniacal,” and “might be mentally ill.” Of Lana Del Rey, Gordon’s disciple in moody, aggressive half-singing, Gordon merely says, “Why doesn’t she just off herself?” After she moved to New York, Gordon became Gagosian’s receptionist at his gallery in SoHo. He would occasionally visit Gordon at her loft, groping at her and receiving a kick in the shins for his efforts. Though he claims to this day that the two dated, Gordon vehemently denies it. “I just couldn’t take Larry seriously, ever,” she says.
One day, while Gordon was working the front desk at Gagosian, a young artist named Richard Prince walked into the gallery carrying a portfolio of “rephotographed watch ads,” which, as if to appear in the know, he had packaged in the “signature awful frames” of Gagosian Gallery. Gagosian rejected him for being “too conceptual.” (Of course, history has a way of revising itself, and Prince is now one of Gagosian’s superstar artists; the gallery recently sold blown-up screen grabs of Prince’s Instagram out of its New York bookshop.) Gordon and Prince became fast friends and would frequent Mickey’s on University Place, where a young Julian Schnabel worked as a line cook, cavorting with an unknown Jeff Koons, who had recently done an exhibition of a series of standing vacuum cleaners. “Pretty much no one liked Jeff,” Gordon writes.
Gordon met Moore at 27, and she describes his deejay set at the Squat Theatre, early on in their relationship, where he shared a bill with Nico and a band fronted by David Johansen, onetime leader of the New York Dolls. This was, Gordon writes, “a depressing evening. Nico cried[.]” After Gordon and Moore put together Sonic Youth, their debut album in 1982 was released to little fanfare. As if verifying their art-world cred, the band’s first serious public mention came months later in Greil Marcus’s column in Artforum. He wrote about their cover of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” sung by Gordon with as much violence and fury as a serial killer. “This woman knows stuff that I don’t know,” Marcus wrote. Marcus was an early supporter and thus a friend of the band. The same couldn’t be said for Marcus’s contemporary, Robert Christgau, music critic for the Village Voice, who attended a Sonic Youth concert only to have someone in the audience try to set him on fire. “Playfully, though,” Gordon explains. Gordon would go on to eat fried chicken with Neil Young on his tour bus, guest star on The Simpsons, headline Lollapalooza, and bellow the immortal lines of “The Sprawl,” from Daydream Nation (1988): “To the extent that I wear skirts and cheap nylon slips I’ve gone native”—one of the great openings of any song ever.
Which makes the unceremonious end to Sonic Youth all the more disappointing. Their last show, at the festival in Brazil, was drowning in corporate sponsorship and was headlined by, among others, the Black Eyed Peas. The set was short and it rained the whole time. Everything ends, though. New York is now, in Gordon’s words, “one echo-effect mall-friendly chain store after another,” all the things she loved “worn down and chased out.”
M.H. Miller is senior editor at ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 20 under the title “How to Kill Your Idols.”