Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon On Marriage, Music And Moving On

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Kim Gordon is a founding member of Sonic Youth. (Courtesy of HarperCollins)
Kim Gordon is a founding member of Sonic Youth. (Courtesy of HarperCollins)

For 30 years, the band Sonic Youth had, as its core, its two main vocalists: Thurston Moore on guitar, Kim Gordon on bass. They were indie rock's power couple — a shining example of love and loyalty in maybe the environment least conducive to marital bliss.

Sonic Youth ended in 2011, with their divorce.

Now Gordon has written a new memoir, Girl in a Band, about her marriage, her music and the origins — and the end — of Sonic Youth.

The Beginnings

Gordon moved to New York City from California back in 1980 — not for the amazing music scene, but to be an artist.

Kim Gordon performs onstage during the "Mike Kelley" Members' Opening at The Geffen Contemporary At MOCA.
Kim Gordon performs onstage during the "Mike Kelley" Members' Opening at The Geffen Contemporary At MOCA.

"I was pretty much an outsider," she tells NPR's Arun Rath. "I didn't have a peer group that I moved there with. So the first work I did was sort of doing work in people's apartments or other spaces — because galleries just really weren't available."

That's when she fell into the city's burgeoning "no-wave" scene. Artists like Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham were making dissonant, unconventional music. And in that no-wave crowd, Kim Gordon met like-minded, gangly, 6-foot-6 guitarist Thurston Moore. They released their first album together as Sonic Youth in 1982. Two years later, they were married.

When Sonic Youth started to attract national attention in the mid-80's, Kim Gordon got a special kind of attention. Reporters wanted to talk to this fetching blonde bass player.

A lot of people seemed more interested in Kim's appearance than what she was playing. Gordon was surprised to find her choice of clothing analyzed by the press.

As Gordon recalls in her book, during one shoot, a photographer asked her, "Do you want to look cool? Or do you want to look attractive?" Gordon took "cool" to mean androgynous, and "attractive" to mean cut-off jeans, crop tops and cleavage.

Over the years, she obliged both.

But "cool" caused her more trouble — like the time MTV banned Sonic Youth's video for the song "100%" because of what was written on Kim's shirt.

"It's a bootleg Rolling Stones shirt — the big mouth — and it said 'Eat me' on it. At the time, I just took it, like, 'Well, that's confusing, because they've obviously got, like, mostly naked women in their videos.' "

'People Change'

Sonic Youth's final show was at a festival in Sao Paulo: November 14th, 2011.

She describes the painful show and her marriage's dissolution in her memoir, in the very first chapter:

"I was the last one to come on, making sure to mark off some distance between Thurston and me. I was exhausted and watchful. Steve [Shelley] took his place behind his drum set, like a dad behind a desk. The rest of us armed ourselves with our instruments like a battalion, an army that just wanted the bombardment to end.

...

Thurston and I weren't speaking to each other. We had exchanged maybe 15 words all week. After 27 years of marriage, things had fallen apart. The couple everyone believed was golden and normal and eternally intact, who gave younger musicians hope they could outlast a crazy rock'n'roll world, was now just another cliche of relationship failure — a male midlife crisis, another woman, a double life."

Gordon tells Rath she started the book with the lowest moments in her life for a reason. "It's part of my story, so I felt like I needed to put it in, and it made me look back on my life and figure out how I got to where I am," she says. "And it's created perspective and distance for me."

Gordon says she's back to focusing on her artwork these days. She's got a couple of shows in June. And with the release of this book, she's finally put Thurston Moore's infidelity behind her.

"People change," Gordon says. "People can't help who they fall in love with, no matter who it is, and it's not that I'm not sad about it, but I feel like, in a way, maybe I was stuck in my life. And it's kind of freed me up to do other things - or do what I was meant to do. So I can only really see it for myself positively."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

When the Smithsonian added the Sonic Youth album "Daydream Nation" into its national registry, putting them alongside musical titans like Stevie Wonder, Dave Brubeck and Toscanini, they wrote that the band dismantled rock and roll right away, reveling in feedback, power drills as instruments and old, battered guitars with unusual tunings.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEENAGE RIOT")

KIM GORDON: (Singing) Everybody's talking about the stormy weather. What's a man to do but work out whether it's true?

RATH: For 30 years, the core of Sonic Youth was its two main vocalists - Thurston Moore on guitar, Kim Gordon on bass. They were indie rock's power couple, a shining example of love and loyalty in maybe the environment least conducive to marital bliss. Sonic Youth ended in 2011 with their divorce. Kim Gordon has written a new memoir. It's called "Girl In A Band." Here she is reading from the book.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOK READING)

GORDON: Thurston and I weren't speaking to each other. We had exchanged maybe 15 words all week. After 27 years of marriage, things had fallen apart between us. In August, I'd had to ask him to move out of our house in Massachusetts, and he had. He was renting an apartment a mile away and commuting back and forth to New York. The couple everyone believed was golden and normal and eternally intact, who gave younger musicians hope that they could outlast the crazy rock and roll world was now just another cliche of middle-aged relationship failure - a male midlife crisis, another woman, a double life.

RATH: I spoke with Kim Gordon recently about her marriage, her band and the beginnings of Sonic Youth. Gordon moved to New York City from California back in 1980 - not for the amazing music scene, but to be an artist.

GORDON: I was pretty much an outsider. I didn't have a peer group that I moved there with. So the first work I did was sort of doing work in people's apartments or other spaces because galleries just really weren't available. And when I moved there, it was sort of - people were playing no-wave music - dissonant music that was unconventional, not really a song form like punk rock. But kind of, like, the spirit of punk rock, I think, opened up a lot of things. It's, like, a jumping off point. Like, you didn't know where it was going to take you, but suddenly there's this sort of interesting thing going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONIC YOUTH SONG)

RATH: In that no-wave crowd, Kim Gordon met the like-minded, gangly, six-foot-six guitarist Thurston Moore. They released their first album together as Sonic Youth in 1982. Two years later, they were married.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONIC YOUTH SONG)

RATH: When Sonic Youth started to attract national attention in the mid-'80s, Kim got a special kind of attention. Reporters wanted to talk to this fetching, blonde bass player. A lot of people seemed more interested in Kim's appearance than in what she was playing. She was surprised to find her choice of clothing analyzed by the press.

GORDON: You know, I've always been a tomboy, but you totally rock, you know. It's, like, a certain style there.

RATH: What do you mean? Why not?

GORDON: Embarrassing...

(LAUGHTER)

GORDON: No, I mean, like, there's a swagger. There's an attitude about rock and roll that I think is great, but the rest of it - it's a little corny.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SPRAWL")

GORDON: (Singing) To the extent that I wear skirts and cheap nylon slips...

RATH: During one shoot, a photographer asked Kim Gordon - and only Kim, not the guys in the band - do you want to look cool, or do you want to look attractive? Gordon took cool to mean androgynous and attractive to mean cut-off jeans, crop tops and cleavage. Over the years, she obliged both, but cool caused her more trouble, like the time MTV banned Sonic Youth's video for the song "100 Percent" because of what was written on Kim's shirt.

GORDON: It's a bootleg Rolling Stones shirt - the big mouth - and said Eat Me on it. And at the time, I just took it, you know, like, well, that's confusing because they have all these, like, mostly naked women in their videos.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "100 PERCENT")

THURSTON MOORE: (Singing) I've been around the world a million times, and all you men are slime.

RATH: While the mainstream never entirely embraced Sonic Youth, the band carved out an unlikely fan base that far eclipse their no-wave counterparts back in New York City. They played all over the world to massive arenas and festivals. And it was at a festival down in Sao Paulo when the band called it quits - November 14, 2011. Here, again, Kim Gordon reads from the first chapter of her memoir.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOOK READING)

GORDON: I was the last one to come on, making sure to mark off some distance between Thurston and me. I was exhausted and watchful. Steve took his place behind his drum set like a dad behind a desk. The rest of us armed ourselves with our instruments like an battalion - an army that just wanted the bombardment to end.

RATH: Gordon says she started the book with the lowest moments in her life for a reason.

GORDON: It's part of my story so I felt like I needed to put it in. And it made me look back on my life and figure out how I got to where I am, and it's created perspective and distance for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWEET SHINE")

GORDON: (Singing) Is it just some story you wrote all for me? You think you're my home. Deep down, you're just a little whorey.

RATH: Gordon says she's back to focusing on her artwork these days. She's got a couple of shows in June. And with the release of this book, she's finally put Thurston Moore's infidelity behind her.

GORDON: People change. People can't help who they fall in love with, no matter who it is. And, you know, it's not that I'm not sad about it. But I feel like, in a way, maybe I was stuck, you know, in my life, and it's kind of freed me up to do other things or do what I was meant to do. And so I can only really see it, for myself, positively.

RATH: That's Kim Gordon. Her new memoir comes out on Tuesday. It's called "Girl In A Band." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.