For decades Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore seemed like the model artist couple—incontrovertibly cool, multifariously creative, and fiercely independent—but that illusion shattered in fall 2011, when they announced they were separating. They subsequently divorced, taking their main shared endeavor, Sonic Youth, down with them. Gordon kept quiet about the circumstances of the split until 2013, and her new memoir, Girl in a Band (Harper Collins), lays it all out—though she refers to the woman who had an affair with Moore only with "she" and "her." Gordon's account of the breakup reminds us that even star couples live down here on earth with the rest of us—it's all depressingly familiar and quotidian. The majority of the book, thankfully, reflects on Gordon's career as an artist, writer, and musician—its title comes from the sort of interview question she's heard too many times ("How does it feel to be a girl in a band?"). As she's pointed out, by writing it she's added another kind of artistic pursuit to her repertoire.
Interviewing Gordon for this week's Artist on Artist is Chicago's Sally Timms, a longtime member of the Mekons with a series of superb solo recordings to her name. Though on the surface she often seems unwilling to take anything too seriously, she's a formidable thinker and artist who doesn't suffer fools.
On Thursday evening, Gordon discusses her book with Chicago Humanities Festival associate artistic director Alison Cuddy at the Music Box Theatre. Girls Rock! Chicago alumnus Alex Lund opens the event with a brief performance, and a book signing follows the discussion. Gordon won't play any music, says Cuddy, "unless she surprises us." —Peter Margasak
Sally Timms: I got the book yesterday, so I had to speed-read, basically. I will say I enjoyed it very much. I especially liked your descriptions of California growing up. I wanted to ask you, because you've written art criticism before—but this is a whole different ball game. A huge amount of work, I would imagine. How did you approach the process of actually having to sit down and write a book about your life?
Kim Gordon: Well, I wrote the first chapter and then the end breakup chapter first, for my book proposal. And then I basically started writing from the beginning. I mean, I always liked writing about California, so that was the most fun part for me—just thinking about it. But I had some kind of outline and worked my way through. I'm not a journal taker, so things that were—I believe in self-editing, in a way. Things will come back that are important.
There's obviously a lot of detail in going back through all these elements of your life from an early stage. Did you keep diaries, or were you able to have that kind of recall?
I didn't. I have a lousy memory for a lot of things. I just really had thought about a lot of that stuff over the years. The hardest part was in New York, trying to integrate art-world things into what is, essentially, a popular-genre format. That was difficult, because I didn't want to bore people who, you know—talking about visual art is kind of hard to get across. It was kind of like, "Oh, do I have to?" And I'm known as a musician or a member of Sonic Youth—[art] is a huge part of me, though, that nobody knows about. So if I could, I would've sold my book of selected paintings along with it, bound together. It's hard to know how much to include, and that was one of the most difficult parts.
I thought the sections about your childhood and early years really felt like a stand-alone piece of writing. The title, Girl in a Band—when I saw that, I thought, well, it's kind of breezy, like this Girl on a Motorcycle or 60s Julie Christie movie or something. But I'm sure that wasn't really the intent. I thought it was quite interesting, talking about how you wanted to integrate yourself in the kind of "male" experience of being a musician. I know, it's a hoary old chestnut. For both of us—I've been asked that question myself so many times, and I just feel like, "What does that question even mean?" You know, "What's it like being a woman in an office?" Or "What's it like being a woman?"
Yeah, nobody says, "What's it like being a man in music?"
Or "What's it like being a male journalist?" You did call the book that, and you were gender aware, so you do reference those points. What were you trying to encompass with that title?
Well, it's kind of ironic, actually. It was thrown up. I didn't actually think of it; someone else did. And I was like, "OK, I can come up with something better than that," but I never really did. You know, I was thinking of [using] song titles, and everything else was so loaded. So I liked that it had this minimal, kind of many meanings to it. Because obviously, I'm not just a girl in a band. Also, just the way people relate to the word "girl" in a title.
It had this kind of throwaway quality to it that I liked.
Yeah, I liked that.
Us being all the same age, I read Viv Albertine's book earlier this year—different subject [Albertine was in the Slits], slightly different era, but still, women who grew up probably never thinking they were going to make their lives as musicians. I thought that was quite interesting about punk rock. Not that long ago, I read a Vivienne Westwood autobiography. Ten years ago she put one out where she said she never had any intention of being a clothes designer—she was a schoolteacher. And I'm curious how it works for us, that we put ourselves in these positions not really knowing what the outcome would be, because there was so much up for grabs during punk. I know you said that you wanted to be an artist, but I'm sure you never anticipated that the real thing would be that music dominated so much of your creative life.
Yeah, that's so true. It's kind of funny, I was just thinking this, and then this writer friend of mine was thinking the same thing—she wrote me about thinking of yourself as pretty traditional, coming from a middle-class family, and then realizing, "Actually, I'm not like that at all." I don't really like conventional things. I guess I do lead sort of a bohemian life, and I didn't want a conventional art career, even. It kind of makes me think I really should stop thinking about myself that way, but I can't. And when I was raising my daughter, I was thinking that too. I wanted to give her this really solid, middle-class, non-rock-style life. Yet she did go on tour for a good deal of her childhood. But it was always coming back to a sort of normal place. I don't know why I need to think of myself as traditional or middle-class—it's weird. I don't know if that answers your question.
I remember at 18—well, I was probably 17 when punk really broke in England—but at 18, all I remember was, "I need to meet Pete Shelley [of the Buzzcocks]." It wasn't a groupie thing; it was just this idea that I wanted to focus on this. And I did. I went and met him, and within six months we made a record together. I wasn't thinking, "I want to be a musician." I do think that's what punk was, and that's what I got out of Viv's book too. The idea that women would move into these roles in music. And none of us were really front women. We were part of a group; we're not putting ourselves up there as the main singer. Groups are collaborative. Punk just opened up that whole sphere.
Yeah, definitely. And it's really hard to explain to people why I don't think of myself as a musician, and why I've never really learned how to play an instrument properly and didn't really care about it. That's a really good point.
Men don't approach being in bands that way either. They'd be in their basements since they were 15 practicing, and then put ads in the paper. But it wasn't as if I had a musical intent. It sounds like you kind of did, but it wasn't at the forefront.
I did always want to be an artist and never really thought about anything else, and then always had boyfriends who were musicians.
Right. Well, they're compelling [Laughter.] For good and bad.
I think I had such a shitty relationship with my brother that maybe I was just always trying seek out some other, better relationship with men or something. I don't know.
Yeah, that's a tough one. There are so many reasons.
Because you're revealing a lot of your personal life, do you think you consciously or subconsciously had to do that to just create this huge line between the past and now so that there are no paths back? Did you think, "This will be kind of an explosion," or did you feel, "This is my life, fuck it, I'm going to write about it and I'm going to put it out there."
Well, I just wanted to make something constructive out of these horrible events as a kind of survival mechanism. I started out with it because I think I knew that people would be curious about that, so I just wanted to get it over with. [Laughter.] But it's also a part of my story, and memoirs have to tell a story. It can't just be a bunch of information. I mean, it can, but, you know. So it was just part of the story, and actually, because it happened, it really set me back looking at my whole life, like, "How did I get to where I am?"
Is that when you started the idea of writing the book, or had you had ideas to do that prior to that point?
I had no thoughts to do it. I mean, at first I wanted to make some, like, art book—just do like three copies and sell it for lots of money. People started asking because memoirs—Patti [Smith]'s book was so huge. People started being interested. This one editor had been a fan for a long time, Carrie Thornton. And frankly, I had to actually find other sources of income—I mean, my main source of income had disappeared.
Yeah, I was thinking that. I have a regular job, but we've never been in a position where we made livings from music. That reality has been constant, so I've never had to confront, like, "Well, what do I do now? That section of my life is over." But I would say, for you, it sounds like quite an exciting time. You're suddenly footloose and fancy free, and now you just go forward.
Yeah, so many amazing things have happened. And now my art career is my main focus—I have a gallery in New York that I really like working with, and crazily all this stuff is happening. But I do have that nightmare of having to get a nine-to-five job.
Old age: Disgraceful or graceful? Are you planning a disgraceful one or a graceful one? Or a combination?
I don't know—I hope it's a graceful one. I feel like a teenager right now, so . . .
I'm slightly behind, but not much. Having been in bands and having presented yourself as this person, people perceive you often as much wilder than you are in reality—the reality is much tamer. Just this idea of, well, how do you move that into this late stage of life, as you're moving out of middle age and on? It's like, how do we translate that?
I'm kind of a slow developer. I think I see art as a way to concentrate. I don't really want to go on some endless tour, but I like performing with Body/Head. In the U.S. we've played a lot of museums. We've played all over, but I don't want to do that as my main focus. Like literally, every time I have to plug in my own effects boxes, I get incredibly cranky. I hate touring.
I definitely know the feeling. "I can't go to the Cleveland Grog Shop ever again. That's it."
Do you still play music?
The Mekons still play. I mean, we don't play that often. We just went and did a tour of the highlands and islands of Scotland. So what we do, in true punk-rock style, is just go and find things that are interesting to us. We do standard tours of the U.S. very occasionally, but this was just all put together. We played on the Isle of Jura, which has 200 people on it. It's the size of Chicago, and it's the most beautiful place. We went to all these incredible places—the Orkney Islands—so that to me is a way of us moving forward.
That kind of makes it more fun.
There's no way I could ever even contemplate going on those long standard tours where you're playing at 11 or 12 at night. I'm in bed at eight o'clock watching TV.
It was nice talking to you. I hope you do write more.
Thanks so much! It's my pleasure to talk with you.