Kim Gordon's memoir, Girl in a Band, chronicles five decades of her extraordinary life and career in Sonic Youth. Obviously, that includes endless compelling and varied stories: how her first job in the art world was hawking cheap frames for a then-unknown Larry Gagosian; how she dealt with having a brother with serious mental health issues; how her first band, in college, was as anarchic as Sonic Youth had ever been. It's deeply engrossing, and anyone who grew up thinking Kim Gordon was the coolest woman alive doesn't even know the half of it. (The fact that a now-"softened" statement she made about Lana del Rey became the pre-release press focus in a book with 53 chapters on her accomplishments in various artistic disciplines is a testament to the persistent, divisive, and boring-as-fuck misogyny of music coverage.)
In the book, which was released in February, Gordon is reflective, she is ginger, she is methodical and thoughtful; like many women, she's probably a little bit too hard on herself, but she also understands where her issues took root. And she deeply comprehends the machinations of her artistic impulses more fully than any critic, of course, so it's an exciting look into Sonic Youth's process—not mired in technical jargon, and more a study of how the group worked relationally.
One area where her underestimation of herself and her musical reflection intersect is when she writes about Free Kitten, an old side project she formed with Pussy Galore's Julie Cafritz (and, later, Yoshimi from the Boredoms and Mark from Pavement). In a chapter that opens with an incredible photo of Gordon and Cafritz wearing rollerblades in a bodega, she describes the band's objective as a "joke designed to make fun of the CBGB improv scene of experimental, free noise, and jazz, where people played abstract music for very long stretches of time. In spite of some great stuff... we felt that men didn't always know when to stop." Gordon says the band was a fusion of that jokiness as well as an attempt at real rock swagger, as filtered through the disarrayed cool they admired in Royal Trux. She writes that most people didn't seem to understand their philosophy at the time, and that "it's always hard doing something outside a familiar context."
It's interesting to read these passages, which seem like they're written with a trepidation uncharacteristic to the rest of the book. It unfurls with a very calming pace, mostly a function of her natural writing voice; even in the most emotional passages—the parts about Thurston Moore's affair, and their subsequent divorce—she is measured. (That's not to say she's overly restrained—it's just clear that Gordon is a quite considered person with a gimlet eye.) The Free Kitten passages, however, read as though she is, or was, unsure about Free Kitten as a project, whether it was successful in its goals, whether people got it. And it got me thinking about how much Free Kitten meant to me.
I was a teenager in 1995, when Nice Ass came out, Free Kitten's second album and the first I'd heard about. (I lived in Wyoming and it was the '90s so the information superhighway to my skull was still under construction, sorry 'bout it.) I'd listened to Sonic Youth a lot by then, both their early stuff like Bad Moon Rising procured on used cassette via the one cool tape shop, and their more recent stuff—Washing Machine dropped in '94, I copped on vinyl. At that point, though, I didn't have the background (or the sophistication) to really get most of what they were doing, even though I appreciated their metallic whorls of distortion, so I leaned towards the more melodic stuff and, of course, everything Kim Gordon had a voice on. (Their best songs remain the ones where Gordon is asserting herself the strongest—being the most herself—like the punk sensualism of "Eliminator Jr.," still my favorite Sonic Youth song, or "Tunic (Song for Karen)," which viscerally articulated Karen Carpenter's deep despair.)
Free Kitten made more sense to me than Sonic Youth, what I felt was a very boy-y band despite her presence—or at least, if they weren't boy-y, they were certainly used as a marker of territory by boys who thought they were cooler than I was, but weren't. (This continues today.) I loved aggressive music—definitely needed an outlet for rural-suburban ennui, at the least—but I didn't want to feel more alienated. Despite their downtown free-jazz spoof, to me Free Kitten could be poppier than Bikini Kill or Sonic Youth, which appealed a little better to my sensibilities. But the main reason I liked them was because hearing women's voices in together in this way, was revelatory and liberationist in the way that Salt 'n' Pepa's Black's Magic had been for me four years prior. And like Black's Magic, Nice Ass was explicitly feminist with a sense of knowing, a sense of irony, but also a sense of letting us in on the joke. "Revlon Liberation Orchestra" felt like a secret handshake.
Red Rover, Red Rover let Kim and Julie get over
Makes a statement without saying a word
Like Sylvester without Tweety Bird
Fresh and fruity, soft and sexy
From jump, Kim and Julie were "getting over"—they were pulling a fast one, juking the system, deconstructing perfection via namedrops of cartoon characters and supermodels alike, on the most lo-fi, scratchy, chaotic recording. They threw the mud back, on "Scratch tha DJ" or on "Proper Band" or on "Alan Licked Has Ruined Music For Me," a noisy loop of a song spoofing the style of then-musician and journalist Alan Licht. In retrospect, some of Free Kitten's music is more aligned with her current work in the improv duo Body/Head than Sonic Youth was—it was Gordon, playing music with her friends, unloosed from the pressures that a career band with your husband might impose. To me, it sounded a lot more fun, too.
Free Kitten dropped two more records after Nice Ass—1997's Sentimental Education, and 2008's Inherit, but neither hit me like that first smash of dissonance and bricks. Or maybe it was just my youth, how those first Free Kitten sounds took up spots in my soul like filigree. In her book, Gordon connects those sounds to youth, too. She writes:
In high school, [my daughter] Coco started her own band, Big Nils. On the rare occasion I hear a Free Kitten song somewhere, usually I don't recognize it. I think, "Hey, who is this—Coco?" and then I realize... Oh yeah, right. It's the strangest feeling, rediscovering your own self and, if enough time has gone by, listening to it without hating it. It is sort of like looking at old photos of yourself and realizing you looked pretty good after all.
Her music formed me, and as an adult, her book is equally impactful, in a different, adult way. What's so inspiring about all this, from Free Kitten to now, is that there was never anything about Kim Gordon that is a construct, persona-wise. She was always who she was, and that is what made her the coolest. She talks in Girl in a Band and on a recent Marc Maron podcast about spending her whole life with the self-perception that she was a suburban, square person who was "never gonna be punk rock" like Lydia Lunch, for instance. But it's that suburban, square person coming through that made her even more punk rock than ever—she had something to rebel against. She was never interested in being a rock jesus, trying to pose or put forth a certain persona: it's always been about the integrity of the ideas, the realization of them. Free Kitten's ramshackle unity was a testament to that. That's what makes her a true artist, and a true punk icon. Fuck everybody else.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.