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Kim Gordon on Divorce, Art and Life After Sonic Youth

An alt-rock icon opens up in her new memoir ‘Girl in a Band’

Frank W. Ockenfels 3

Kim Gordon wants to get a burger at the Apple Pan, a tiny burger joint on Los Angeles’ West Side that opened in 1947 and which she began frequenting as a kid. She leans forward on her stool to catch the counterman’s eye: “I’ll have a hickory burger, no cheese – and could I get a slice of raw onion on that?” Gordon, who played bass and shared vocals in the heroically inventive noise band Sonic Youth, is awesomely overdressed for the place: black top with a dramatic horizontal slit exposing her lower back; matching black miniskirt; black heels. “My family used to live in a house on the other side of Pico, then we moved to another house close by, and we always came here,” Gordon says. “There was this guy, Gordon, who worked here for years. I remember him as this tall guy who just progressively got fatter as time went on.” She smiles at this memory, then gestures across the street, where an enormous mall looms. “You can see how this place is just dwarfed by new developments now.” Not that change is necessarily bad. She just noticed a Guitar Center next door: “I’m actually looking for a tremolo pedal. . .”

Gordon, 61, has a particular preoccupation with history these days because she’s about to release her memoir, Girl in a Band. The catalysts for her writing the book were two life-upending events. In October 2011, Gordon and her husband of many decades, Thurston Moore – who co-founded and co-fronted Sonic Youth with her and the guitarist Lee Ranaldo – announced their divorce. A month later, Ranaldo heralded the dissolution of Sonic Youth itself, intoning that “every band runs its course.” For the group’s cult of admirers – a category that over the years has included Kurt Cobain, Michael Stipe, Kathleen Hanna and Carrie Brownstein – both pieces of news were fairly earthshaking. In 1989, MTV had declared Sonic Youth the “standard-bearers for alternative rock,” and it was taken for granted by the 2000s that the band, and the romantic partnership at its core, must surely be immortal. Gordon, for her part, had established herself as an unlikely fashion icon, resilient tastemaker and all-around feminist badass. But the band had grown fatigued, and Moore had cheated.

Newly single and with her main creative outlet gone, Gordon says, “there was a kind of, ‘How did I get here?’” So last February she escaped Northampton, Massachusetts, where she and Moore had set up house, and she rented a $159-a-night Echo Park bungalow on Airbnb. She put herself on a rough schedule of writing for a few hours every morning, sorting through her life for meaning, insights and order. “It makes you look back and dig in,” she says.

Gordon’s hickory burger arrives in greasy paper. “Can I get some ketchup?” she asks. She says that, at first, she envisioned the duties of a memoirist prankishly. “I was like, I want to write a book like Bob Dylan’s Chronicles and just make stuff up,” she says. That didn’t happen, but she retained a looseness as she went, obeying impulses and avoiding any topic she deemed boring. “I decided not to try and research and include everything.” She laughs. “I didn’t wanna overthink what I was gonna do. I know someone will one day write a good Sonic Youth book, but at the outset I said, ‘This is not that.’”

She focused, instead, on distinct memories, like growing up in awe of her older brother, who began showing signs of schizophrenia in his youth and now lives under supervised care in the Valley; moving to New York City in 1980 as an aspiring conceptual artist and crashing briefly at Cindy Sherman’s apartment; playing Sonic Youth’s final show, in Brazil, by which point she and Moore had ceased speaking to one another. She also tried to tease out broader themes “that I thought maybe women could relate to,” like for instance, female body image, which Gordon discusses while recalling the Sonic Youth song “Tunic,” which she wrote about Karen Carpenter.

She had at least one extremely critical reader in mind as she wrote: “I tried to make it as accurate as I could, so that the book couldn’t be dismissed by people who wanted to dismiss it,” she tells me, chomping into her burger. Who would want to dismiss it? I ask. Moore? She smirks at me as if to say: Come on, son. “That one voice was in my head as I wrote,” she replies, nodding. Even now she’s careful what to say about Moore on the record: “I don’t want to get weird e-mails about it.”

Though Gordon discusses the demise of her marriage in Girl in a Band – reserving especially harsh words for Moore’s new partner – her ex-husband appears as an oddly ghostlike figure in the book. Gordon writes glancingly little about why they first fell in love, why they decided to start a band, and how their relationship developed and frayed. In part, she says, these omissions are a function of an impulse toward privacy, but they’re also because, on a fundamental level, Moore had become un- recognizable. “He was a stranger, in a way,” she says. “Obviously, there’s a lot I didn’t know about him. Like, ‘Who are you? Who is this person?’” In the book, she wonders aloud, while recounting their early courtship, “whether you can truly love, or be loved back, by someone who hides who they are.” (There are also swipes at Billy Corgan, Courtney Love and Lana Del Rey, whose fatalist aesthetic Gordon finds so distasteful that she wrote, witheringly, “Why doesn’t she just off herself?” Gordon included these asides, she says, at her editor’s insistence, although the Del Rey line only appeared in pre-release galleys and not the published version of the book.)

Gordon jabs her thumbnail between her teeth, casually trying to dislodge a piece of lettuce. We get in her rental car and drive to a golf course where her mom “used to sneak onto the back nine early in the morning and play.” As we stroll the grounds, Gordon says that, even if it weren’t for her split from Moore, “the clock was ticking” for Sonic Youth: “You do something for 30 years . . .” she says, shrugging. “I think we were all kind of feeling” – she frowns like she’s tasted something rotten – “but we never got to cash in. We still had to tour.” Lately, she’s busy with her new act, an improvisatory guitar duo called Body/Head, but Gordon says she long considered herself a visual artist who happened to be in a band and, in a sense, she’s come full-circle after a 30-year detour: She’s single, in L.A., trying to mount shows of her conceptualist-influenced artwork. (Her daughter with Moore, Coco, is now a painter, as it happens, enrolled in art school in Chicago.)

Things on this front have been good: Last year, her friend Larry Gagosian helped stage a show of hers. Meanwhile, she started to date again. And so Girl in a Band carries an overarching, albeit tentative, theme of renewal. In Sonic Youth, Gordon says, it felt like, “my life’s going by and I haven’t done all these things I’ve put off doing.”

The afternoon sun warms the golf course’s freshly cut grass. “James Ellroy used to be a caddy here,” Gordon notes. She slides on a pair of black sunglasses with mirrored X’s over each lens. She isn’t sure where she’s going to wind up. Moore’s living in London; Coco wants to retain an East Coast foothold. “I’d like to do a kind of bicoastal thing, if I can afford it,” Gordon says, then gets into her Corolla to fight the traffic across town to Echo Park: For now, Airbnb will have to suffice.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in February 2015.

From Rolling Stone US