Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Kim Gordon

I finished reading Kim Gordon Girl In A Band, A Memoir the other night, and it was a pretty fun and breezy read.  I think the impetus for me wanting to read it was because I was curious how she came to learn how to play the bass guitar, and also how she got into the band, Sonic Youth.

She starts the book by describing Sonic Youth's final concert playing in a rather large Music and Arts Festival in Brazil with several other acts like Faith No More, Peter Gabriel, Black Eyed Peas, Kanye West, and others.  She also touched upon how she and Thurston Moore were separated and not speaking to each other.  Actually I never knew they were married, as I haven't followed the rock press very closely for a while now.  So most of what's inside the book was news to me.  But what comes across from her book is that she's actually a pretty good and self-aware writer.  She's also pretty aware of the visual art scene as well, and over the course of her book name drops many different visual artist that had me Googling their names to check who they were and what they'd done, another interesting feature of her memoir.

After the first chapter, she back tracks and begins telling about her early years, being born in Rochester, New York, but spending most of her youth in California.  Her father worked at UCLA for many years, and her mother was a housewife.  She had an older brother, Keller, who later while attending college started having emotional problems and was diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Overall she had a happy childhood and teenage years.  Her parents had liberal friends and they all go camping in the summers, fishing and such.  She talks about growing up seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show and later on listening to musicians like Crosby, Still, and Nash, Joni Mitchell, and more or less normal stuff teens listened to back then.  But she also liked some of her Dad's jazz collection of Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Brubeck, and Stan Getz.   At any rate, she writes there was always music and laughter in their household.

Growing up in California during the late 60's could be a pretty wild place, and although she and her brother experimented with drugs, she wasn't exactly a wild child, however, she seemed to already be drawn to arty type people.  She knew early on she wanted to be an artist and painted and sculpted some.  Also being in and around California at that time she'd bump into and get to know roadies of bands, and relates how she knew a friend of a friend that got to be famous.  One of the roadies she met was Richie O'Connell who was a friend of Bruce Berry, who knew Neil Young.  Berry was also kin to Jan Berry of the sixties duo, Jan and Dean.

Later she got into college and transferred to York University in Toronto.  In college she'd meet other artist as well, and filmmakers.  For an art project at school, she was in her first band, she sang and played a tambourine.   She describes their sound as an explosive mess and mayhem.  But perhaps that was her inspiration to continue performing.  She also met many artist within that scene like Mike Kelley who did the artwork to Sonic Youth's album, Dirty.

She eventually moved to Manhattan in 1980.  I have to hand it to her, she was not complacent, and being in New York at that time had to be a unique, if not scary experience.  To make a little money she worked in a few art galleries, bookstores, and whatever it took to make ends meet, while staying with friends starting out until she could afford a place of her own.  Of course it was around this time frame that a precursor movement to punk started happening known as No Wave.  It was such an explosive small movement and had such a short lifespan that it almost went unnoticed.  But bands such as Lydia Lunch, DNA, Mars, James Chance and the Contortions came out of that era.  There was one compilation album released of those bands called No New York.

Quickly after that the punk movement started with acts like Blondie, the Police, Talking Heads, and many others.  It was around this time that she met Thurston at the Danceteria.  Both of them pretty immediately shared similar interest in art, music, and what was going on in New York at the time.  He was already playing music with other people, but nothing developed from it.  Eventually Sonic Youth came together.  Their first EP was recorded in 1981.  Though Kim doesn't talk much about how or when she began playing bass, which was one of the things I was curious about.  To be honest, she's not a technical proficient bass player, meaning she doesn't read music, had lessons, or was schooled in music.  She, I assume, plays by ear and was taught to play it, again I assume by Thurston and other bass players.  I'm not snubbing her for that as that's how a lot of people learn to play their instruments.  They are self taught, but I wished she talked a bit more about that aspect.

What she did make clear, however, is that she seems to think conceptually about art, and it's that ability, which is her best asset, being able to blend into a band.  She also sings, although a limited vocalist, and wrote many of the lyrics to their songs.  Again that's part of her strength, and also a part of the bands strength--to be able to construct songs.  Not everyone can do that.  Believe me I've tried.  It's really hard to communicate with another musician the conveyance of musical ideas.  You almost have to be on the same wave length as to what's the sort of music you want to create or it's not going to happen.  Most musicians starting out just wanting to jam or copy other hits of the day, and more or less become a cover band if they're talented enough even to do that, but not too many go beyond that and try and create their own songs, write lyrics, etc.  It's hard and can be frustrating.

Another thing she mentioned was that before the internet, if you weren't a mainstream band, it was nearly impossible to get your music heard on the radio.  Even moreso if your music was avant-garde, arty or experimental.  Touring was the only way to get a label to market your music.  At any rate, the take away is although Sonic Youth have broken up along with Kim's marriage with Thurston Moore, Kim is a survivor.  She has a knack, way and means to involve herself with any art project if that is her intent.  She's been a musician, had her own clothing line, does visual art, and has been pretty diverse in the arts.  She has her daughter, Coco, and many friend, so life is good.  If the early punk rock scene and New York City at that time holds any interest for you, and you're interested in learning something about a few other visual artist, you might want to check out her book.


At 5:26 PM, Blogger Richard Bellush said...

I wasn’t aware of Gordon’s book, but memoirs of that type can be intriguing sometimes. One I liked was “Neon Angel” by Cherie Currie, lead singer in the ‘70s for the Runaways, which also featured Joan Jett, Lita Ford and Sandy West. Hers was an all too common tale of addiction and self-destruction and an all too uncommon tale of recovery. The 2010 movie “The Runaways” (also not bad) was based on part of “Neon Angel.” I got a copy of “Front Man” from Richard Barone (formerly of the Bongos) when he played at a relatively small local venue. It was an interesting read too. You mention Lydia Lunch whom I never saw live, but she is one of the most original and interesting performers of the 70s, 80s, and 90s – her compilation album “Widowspeak” is weird but very much worth owning. Music is so tied into our own sense of personal history that good stories about the people who make it start out with one leg up on other bios. I suppose it is possible to write an intriguing book about being, say, a plumber or a car salesman, but it definitely would be more of a challenge.

At 7:53 AM, Blogger El Vox said...

I'd always heard of Lita Ford. I knew she was a rock guitarist, but never knew where she came from. I'd saw where there was a Runaways film, I just haven't rented it yet. I recently read a post from a guy that said he saw Joan Jett in concert, and still looks great as if she hasn't aged and played well too.

But you are right, about music being tied to our past, and how musician that write bios already have a leg up on our interest. You relive part of that past as they write about it. You remember where you were and what you were doing too. The only mainstream person who made his mundane life readable, that I can think of off the top of my head, is Harvey Pekar and other cartoonist of that ilk. Now they may embellish parts of their past to make it more interesting, but I used to love reading stuff in that genre. You don't see much like that anymore. Though for a while, I used to enjoy such writers like Pekar, R. Crumb did a little of that, Joe Matt, Chester Brown, Seth, Peter Kuper, Adrian Tomine, Joe Chiappetta, and many others.

At 8:38 AM, Blogger Richard Bellush said...

Joan Jett indeed still plays good sold rocknroll. My review of her most recent CD is featured on Amazon. I recommend The Runaways which isn't bad by the standards of that kind of film. I reviewed it some years ago: http://richardbellush.blogspot.com/2011/04/runaways.html . I suppose it's hard to avoid the temptation to embellish our pasts. Politicians are the most shameless about it. I often read the memoirs of Presidents and the spin is always enough to make one dizzy.

At 2:07 PM, Blogger El Vox said...

Richard--Re: embellishing the past--this might be done for different reasons. For the politician it might be for ego, among other reason, however, for an musician, although they're writing non-fiction or a memoir, you want it to be interesting on some level to their reader (actually, both would want to do that).

So in some ways it's not exactly or totally non-fiction, but I guess we pad our lives with in conversation too. I'm not saying they're out and out lying, just that who remembers stuff that well ten years ago or whatever?


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