Kim Gordon: Star Turns

Beginning at the end puts a definite cap on the future and spares the fatigue that speculation would induce. Even though memory acknowledges no finitude, there is only so far an individual can go back, only so many elaborating tangents the mind can follow, only so many embellishments and discursive riffs even the most dedicated self-examiner or memoirist is willing to indulge.

Kim Gordon has just published her memoir, Girl In A Band (William Morrow, Dey Street, 2015) and the opening chapter is called “The End.” After 30 years Sonic Youth, the band she co-founded with Thurston Moore, whom she married three years later, was playing its final concert in a small town outside São Paulo, Brazil, in the rain. Their marriage of 27 years had just ended. The South American tour was a final commitment, the last one to be met as Sonic Youth.

The first thing that struck me as I read Gordon’s memoir was the book’s cadence, its metre so measured and even. She is an accomplished writer and the book is infused with a sense of dignity and constraint which is never forced. It is rich with information, primarily on the period and universe of Sonic Youth, but also, of course, with Gordon’s autobiography where it is relevant to her life lived as the girl in the band. Sorrow is present too, tinting the palette when she writes about the dissolution of her marriage and about the loss of friends, like Kurt Cobain with whom she had a special connection. And clarity in the sense of a certain rain-washed-light transparency and generosity, a generosity that I think comes out of genuine interest and curiosity. So rarely does she make critical judgements about people that it is notable when she does. Courtney Love, before she was with Kurt Cobain, had persuaded Gordon to produce Hole’s first album. Gordon had agreed, recognizing that Love had a “great punk rock voice” and that her song titles and lyrics were “pure provocation.” It was the person about whom she was highly critical, describing her as cunning, smart and ambitious, the kind of person “who spent a lot of time growing up staring in the mirror practising her look for the camera.” Gordon said that to her, and to Don Fleming, who co-produced the album, Love was always sweet—in anticipation of where they might take her—but others, including everyone in her band, were the unfortunate recipients of abusive screaming and yelling. Ambitious and manipulative were designations Gordon used for Courtney Love, and early on in their meeting she’d expressed a hesitancy about contact, saying it was the kind of drama she tried to avoid in her life. Love must have presented with some kind of acutely visible Danger! alarm lights blinking around her to be picked out in a music world populated by high energy performers and stars, all in need of affirmation, attention and praise.

Gordon’s own songwriting bears close kinship to her critical writing, all of it solid, thorough and very direct—like the language in her memoir. She says her song lyrics are influenced by whatever else she is reading but the form is consistent with her clear style. She says, “I tend to write lyrics with a sense of space around them, one-liners almost, short sentences containing phrases that build tension along with the music, as if I’m awaiting some big drama or crash to occur, though it never does—the song just ends.” It’s this space, and time, that provide a kind of resonant immanence that adds to the enigmatic distance her presence on stage portrays. Gordon says she doesn’t identify herself as a musician nor does she suggest she has a good voice but she says from close listening to female jazz singers with her brother, Keller, when they were growing up, she’d noted a particular quality of these voices, qualities she’s applied to her lyric writing too. She says it’s the idea of space, phrasing and in-between-ness. It’s the female performer on stage, as outsider, finding a space in which to exist intact—the spaces in between. This interstitial space has always been interesting and available since it’s often uninhabited and therefore, tempting. Artist Robert Rauschenberg’s early interest was in working in what he called “the gap between art and life,” where he could readily question distinctions between art and the everyday. For Sonic Youth, for Gordon and for punk musicians this blurring of boundaries that fused life on stage and off was a kind of natural home. The artists about whom Gordon has written, whose work has often appeared on Sonic Youth album covers, also worked “hi” and “lo” into a single reading: Mike Kelley, Raymond Pettibon, Tony Oursler.

Achieving an ecstatic moment, that sought-after place, is a powerful motivation for performers. It’s an individual experience and also transactional—received and felt by an audience of one or a crowd at a concert. Decades ago, in an interview, the Abstract Expressionist artist Robert Motherwell responded to our question about why he would continue making art when the pain and anxiety about the achievement never eased, no matter how accomplished the work, nor how celebrated he was. He carried on, he told us, because what he wanted above all else was to communicate. “What could really be more interesting, or in the end more ecstatic,” he said, “than in those rare moments when you see another person look at something you’ve made and realize that they got it exactly, that your heart jumped to their heart, with nothing in between” (Border Crossings, Volume 8, Number 4).

While Gordon says she doesn’t identify herself as a musician, even after being a key member of Sonic Youth for 30 years, she does say she loved playing music. Her explanation echos Robert Motherwell’s, though genres and generations separate them. “From the beginning, music for me was visceral. When it was going well, it was an almost ecstatic experience. What could be better,” she said, “than sharing that feeling of transcendence with a man I was so close to in all the other areas of my life, someone who was having the same experience?…I wanted deliverance, the loss of myself, the capacity to be inside that music.”

It was seeking a form of the ecstatic, or at least the power of that sensation, that she wrote about in an essay titled “Boys Are Smelly:Sonic Youth Tour Diary, ’87,” and published in Kim Gordon, Is It My Body? Selected Texts (Sternberg Press, 2014). The opening line of her essay is loaded and powerful: “Before picking up a bass I was just another girl with a fantasy.” It’s an improbable statement, provocative in every sense. And the elaboration has to be read as a parody. Maybe. The fantasy—until she held the bass in her hands—was to imagine herself underneath two guys with guitars crossed, a perfect X of electric-sexual magnetism, two guys who were rapt in the intensity of male-bonding and self-love. On stage, of course with an audience just beyond, stomping, clapping, swaying rhythmically. How sick, she says. But entirely understandable. Gordon, however, is no longer entrapped. But she was, or may have been, before being empowered by her own bass and standing with her own band.

She wrote the song, “The Tunic,” from the album, Goo, for Karen Carpenter who, in exercising the control that she felt able to take over her body, starved herself to perfection—a woman wanting to please. For Gordon, Carpenter was culture’s quintessential woman, looked at, desired and compliant, with no real power of her own, except the leaving.

In the paragraph following the one in which Gordon stated her pre-bass fantasy she also wrote, “In the middle of the stage, where I stand as the bass player of Sonic Youth, the music comes at me from all directions. The most heightened state of being female is watching people watching you.” Here, she is Manet’s Olympia gazing back, and while she feels powerful she has also to know that she can be seen as an object—an object of desire which does carry its own power, a nicely manipulative upper hand that is actually still tentative. Contingent on the audience’s giving it, the subject demanding or earning or winning it, an uncomfortable tautology that could also be a chokehold. It was in the 1987 tour diary that Kim Gordon wrote about the empowering bass and the female frisson of being looked at on stage and also that “being a girl bass player is ideal because the swirl of Sonic Youth music makes me forget about being a girl. I like being in a weak position and making it strong.”

Twenty-eight years ago is almost three decades, almost the span of Sonic Youth and the duration of her marriage to Thurston Moore. It is a career that is nearly a lifetime and hers is one filled with accomplishments as an artist, writer, musician and key cultural actor. Those statements could be written again today, alas, by someone at the outset of a passionate career full of the best strivings and heartfelt longings. The members of Pussy Riot could have said some of that. The all-female punk bands like The Slits did, but differently. Dan Graham concludes his essay, “New Wave Rock and the Feminine,” published in Rock My Religion: Writings and Projects 1965–1990 (MIT Press, 1993)—pessimistically or realistically—both correct. Is it different 22 years later? Graham wrote, “The Au Pairs exemplified the self-consciousness and pessimism of the post-Frankfurt School Left, who still wanted to utilize the media for self-expression despite knowing that it ultimately co-opted all radical strategies or ‘Solutions.’” Recognizing that rock was an entrenched part of the media, the group engaged in a distancing self-critique which fizzled, and rather than being a remedy, he said, they became part of the problem.

Kim Gordon has described Dan Graham as her art academy. In a conversation with frequent collaborator, Jutta Koether, published in Is It My Body? Selected Texts, she cites Graham’s life as being a model. He didn’t only make art, he wrote about it and about the culture it at once generated and inhabited. With unwavering honesty he has always been active—participating, commenting and living in it in every way.

Kim Gordon and Kurt Cobain had a special connection she realized at their first meeting. Whatever its nature the tie had tensile strength and she feels it still. He is present throughout her memoir. He was slight, but on stage, fearless and this she found alarming because it easily slipped into self-annihilation while the audience watched, struck by the distance he would go.

Gordon wrote about her own fearlessness but hers contained no elements of physical harm. She was speaking instead about both the audience and a performer’s need and willingness to respond. She had written, and cultural critic Greil Marcus has often quoted, that “People pay money to see others believe in themselves.” She wasn’t writing about religious faith but about a performer’s value rising with her willingness to fall farther, in public.

Tenuous, wary and essential are all applicable in identifying a performer’s relationship with the audience. Mutuality and symbiosis play a role, but there also has to be a distance or what you have is the current and accelerating nightmare of culture designed in response to audience and marketing questionnaires. It’s becoming a case of—give them what they want; alas they’ll go home, and likely not return again so quickly. In her memoir Gordon wrote that she’d spent her entire life “never doing what was easy, never doing what was expected,” adding that she had no idea what image she projected on stage but “was willing to let herself be unknown forever.” In her relationship to her audience she recognized that self-consciousness was the beginning of creative death. Stardom held no appeal.

She has a wonderful and crucial section near the memoir’s close where she writes about Iggy Pop and the Stooges, present since the ‘60s but surging to the fore in the late ‘70s as punk rockers. She described Iggy walking into the audience breaking glass and smearing himself with peanut butter. What he was giving the audience with these gestures didn’t need to be defined as music or as a show; what it was moved beyond that and to something critical for audience and performer. It was the wonder of estrangement, an offer and promise of something they hadn’t seen before. Surely risky, startling, new and, ideally, unsettling. Maybe an occasion like the premiere performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

What Iggy Pop did with his performance and presence, Kim Gordon wrote, was deconstruct entertainment and she asks, “What is a star?” Is it a “kind of suspended adulthood? Is it a place beyond good or evil?” Here she could be calling on Rilke’s Duino Elegies and, finally, “Is a star a person you need to believe in—a daredevil, a risk-taker, a person who goes close to the edge without falling?”

Or, in our passivity and disengagement are we asking for this surrogate to step over the edge and wake us from our period’s torpor.