Kim Gordon
Kim Gordon playing with Sonic Youth.

Credit: Trisha Weir on Flickr, under Creative Commons

(WOMENSENEWS)–“As a woman, you’re in a constant state of ‘catching up.’ I felt like this because I had a career and a child, but also because even though I was playing music, I have always thought of myself as a visual artist.”

Kim Gordon began the conversation on “mistakes” by talking about how she’d just been thinking about the pressure that women can feel “to do everything.” Gordon would know–she has certainly done a lot.

Gordon became known for being part of the band Sonic Youth, with her former husband, Thurston Moore. An early review in the New York Times described the band by saying, “Sonic Youth tears rock apart from the inside out,” that it “simply ignores everyone else’s rules.” Seemingly without thinking much of it, Gordon gradually became a role model for a whole generation of girls and young women–and boys and young men, for that matter–who wanted to create music outside of the confines of traditional rock ‘n’ roll. She didn’t start playing bass until she was in her late 20s; now she’s held up as one of the female icons of 1990s-era rock music, and although in recent years her marriage ended and Sonic Youth disbanded, Gordon has continued to make both music and art. With collaborator Bill Nace she formed Body/Head and released an album called Coming Apart in 2013; she’s also working on a memoir.

In Gordon’s Words

A lot of people in high school or college don’t know what they want to do; I always did. In fact, an old friend of my parents’ says that I’m exactly the same person as I was when I was 5 years old, making little clay elephants. I always wanted to be an artist, even though I didn’t really know what that meant.

In the early 1980s, I came to New York to do art. I got a job at a gallery and witnessed what was really an art explosion. Suddenly a lot of people were buying pieces from these young artists, who were like rock stars. I soon realized that I didn’t like being in that world, where art was becoming a high-end consumer object being sold to wealthy people. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, but when you’re making art, it can feel disheartening.

A friend, Dan Graham, introduced me to music. Dan was a music critic and an artist, and through him I learned about the No Wave movement, which was dissonant, expressionistic music. It was influenced by minimalism and was more nihilistic than punk rock. Dan encouraged me to write, and I wrote this very short essay, “Trash Drugs and Male Bonding,” for a magazine called Real Life. The essay was about the phenomenon of male musicians being into a drug called “locker room,” which was really just amyl nitrate. They’d take a hit and then double down on the guitar in this minimalist way, and I wanted to describe that I noticed that it afforded them a certain kind of camaraderie. In general, playing music has often allowed men to show their female side; I think of Mick Jagger prancing around the stage like Tina Turner, for example, in such an emotional and expressive way.

I would go with Dan to see shows, but soon I started to think that I’d like to be more in the middle of it instead of being a voyeur. It seemed very free and I thought, “I can do that.” I started playing music with friends and around 1981, Dan invited me to play in a performance piece that he was doing: with a mirror onstage, Dan would describe the audience looking at him and describe himself looking at the audience. Because he was writing music criticism about all-girl groups, he wanted one to actually be in the piece and asked me if I’d join some female friends of his to do that. I said yes. He introduced me to Christine and Miranda, and after we were in his show at the ICA in Boston, we kept getting together to play music. Miranda introduced me to Thurston Moore and we soon formed Sonic Youth.

Women in Punk

Initially, I was inspired by all the women in the punk and No Wave scenes in the late 70s. In the 80s, there weren’t a lot of women in music, but I was a tomboy and used to being around guys, so I didn’t really think about it much. When we started touring in England, people would ask what it was like for me to be the only woman in Sonic Youth, and I thought, “Well, it’s not like I’m in a band with a bunch of smelly jocks or frat guys.”

My role in Sonic Youth was unique partly because I wasn’t a performer in the way that other punk musicians were. In England especially, they each had a punk persona expressed by one style or outfit–almost dressing as characters. Siouxsie Sioux, for example, was “witchy.” Even Patti Smith was somewhat stylized in this sort of spiritual way. I thought they were amazing, but I had come from a middle-class background, and for me being in Sonic Youth was really about the music and about having a presence onstage. I came to understand that I didn’t have to be some freakazoid to be a performer or a singer; I could just be a girl and that was enough. So my “persona” was just me, and while I’m interested in the relationship between the performer and the audience, I’ve always been conscious about not wanting to exploit that. It was enough to be there in the middle of things, with the electricity swarming around me.

Sonic Youth had some significance in a cultural way, and it’s hard to make art with the same kind of significance–but in a way, that’s my goal. Still, it’s not easy to make people set aside that part of my career in a way that allows me to be taken seriously, so that my art isn’t just an accessory to my life in Sonic Youth.

Trying to maintain two careers, visual art and music, and to be a mother at the same time, always felt kind of impossible. When you’re feeling that you can and should do everything, then you never feel like you’re going to achieve anything. I think what kept me going was this deep understanding that it wasn’t going to be perfect, and that it didn’t have to be.

From “Mistakes I Made at Work” by Jessica Bacal. Published by arrangement with Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC. Copyright 2014, Jessica Bacal.

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