BOOK REVIEW: “Girl In A Band” by Kim Gordon

Kim Gordon photo Gordonbook_cover_zpsa8e361b6.jpg When I found out Kim Gordon was coming out with her own autobiography, I knew I had to make sure to read it. I first heard of Sonic Youth in 1986 through a Seattle music video show called Bombshelter Videos, where I saw “Shadow Of A Doubt”. The music, her voice, and the visuals of her “sitting” on top of a train car pulled me in while it also made me ask “what is this?” I had been aware of who they were but living in a town without a college radio station made me curious. Thus, my fascination with her and her music, and in truth more about her music than anything about her but Girl In A Band: A Memoir (Bey St.) is her telling her own life how she sees it, which is the way how she writes her lyrics and poems, how she plays her music, and how she paints.

There were two things I wasn’t aware of when I read this. First, I didn’t know she was raised in California. What I know about Gordon is through her songs, albums, and interviews but that’s always one deliberate aspect of an artist wanting people to get to know they have new product available. Second, I didn’t know she and her family lived on Oahu for about a year. When she mentions how she enjoyed living in Manoa Valley, she says it freely as if she’s a local girl, but also states that for the first time in her life, she felt like a minority due to Hawai’i being primarily Asian. Also, having a name like Kim had kids make fun of her as the name Kim is often given to males within the Asian communities.

Her story primarily begins on what was a surprising note. The chapter is called The End and while I had suspicions of what it might be about, I had to read for validation. The End refers to not only the end of her relationship with guitarist Thurston Moore, but the end of Sonic Youth as a group. The official statement states they are now on a temporary hiatus so while fans are always hopeful for a reunion to happen, it’s most likely going to be “don’t bother waiting for the time being.” Reading that chapter is exhausting, only because I as a fan knew the story and what happened, and she explains part of what dissolved. She does get into it in detail but that happens only in the last part of the book.

From there, we bounce back to her childhood and how she became who she is through her mom and dad, essential factors in her upbringing. Also of importance is her older brother, and together they helped to provide what will become her interests, be it painting, writing, or music. It was a need to be creative, and she gets very detailed on her interests. While I am not someone who knows about fashion designers and obscure film directors, she mentions various people and things in a way that is very understandable, nerdy when it needs to be but always done in a way that has her creating a list for those who wish to look it up further. Her brother eventually became mentally ill to the point where he was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, physically and mentally draining. While she did her share of traveling with her family, she knew that when it was the time, she would like to move on to somewhere further. In that time, we find out some of the people she dated, including Danny Elfman, another things I learned in this book.

In time she would make it to the East Coast and into New York City, and she clearly states that what she wanted to do was to be able to live independently, on her own terms, even if it meant living in a dingy Chinatown apartment that wasn’t glorious. It is where we learn about 84 Eldridge Street, the apartment where she got into exploring various New York clubs and venues, discovering new forms of music, meeting up with important people and meeting Thurston Moore for the first time. From that point on, the story explores in detail the journey Sonic Youth went through, from recording their first music in a basic recording studio to performing their first international shows to finding their way onto a major label and a bit of fame. While Sonic Youth were always known for their alternate tunings with their guitars, Gordon states that her bass were always one of the anchors of the band and was always tuned the same way for every song. Before the SY story is explored, she touches on her first live performance and how she wasn’t sure if she could do it but once she did it, she felt something she did not expect and one that she wanted to do repeatedly, which she would do for 30+ years. If you know about her story, she does mention people that is part of her path: Kathleen Hannah, Courtney Love, Julia Cafritz, Michael Stipe, ChloĆ« Sevigny, Henry Rollins, and Kurt Cobain, whom she called a dear friend. Some of these people are discussed with the utmost respect while others were ridiculed in a manner that perhaps they ridiculed her.

She does talk about watching her daughter Coco grow up to eventually wanting to get involved in music in her own way but also going to college for the first time. By then, Gordon returns to what happened between her and Moore and one begins to have a greater sense of compassion for her as much more than just an artist. It may be nothing more than an appreciation for her as a person, but nothing wrong with that either. I also really like how this book was written. Outside of being direct and to the point, Girl In A Band is designed in a way that’s not unlike her music, a painting, or even a film. In fact the last chapter is done in a way where the reader may say :wait a minute: so what happened?” or “is there a moral to the story in the way you just told me?” For all I know, she could have been citing the end of a film like 400 Blows or something, where we see people around but the image stops and pans forward. What do we think? What should we think? Perhaps that’s the point in how Gordon told her memoir, to let everyone know about who Kim Gordon is, insecurities and concerns, hopes and dreams, hits and misses, and everything in between. If she’s going to throw out something random, she will and perhaps did. Or maybe the end of the book was written in a manner that is supposed to be. That’s why this book is called Girl In A Band because in a way, that’s who she wanted to be, became, and was. Through the process, she became a stronger person with a better sense of purpose. You may end up wanting to hear her discography from start to finish once you finish this, one of the best biographies I’ve read in some time.

(Girl In A Band will be released on February 24th. An audiobook version, in both CD and MP3 versions, will also be made available.)

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DUST IT OFF: Nirvana’s “Nevermind” 20 years later

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As a longtime resident of Washington State, I was very aware of who Nirvana were when they released their second album on this day in 1991. I had been involved in my local punk scene at the time, and while I lived 200 miles from Seattle, I knew of some of what was going on up there. I loved Sub Pop Records and much of what they were releasing, but Soundgarden had moved on to A&M. Green River was long gone, so some of its members moved on to Mudhoney, others went to Mother Love Bone. Mother Love Bone had been signed to a major label when its vocalist, Andrew Wood, died of a heroin overdose. In time, there would be discussion of a new band called Mookie Blaylock, who would eventually change their name to Pearl Jam. I liked the almighty Tad, but my favorite band on Sub Pop was Mudhoney. They were raw, grungy, and not grungy in “sound” but just… if they wanted to be sloppy, they had no problem in doing this. They were not my favorite Seattle or Seattle-area band, that honor went to Melvins and Melvins only, although by the time the 90’s started they had moved to Los Angeles.

Then there was Nirvana.

I think what I liked about Nirvana is that they could do the loud and distorted thing very well, but turn around and be pretty, harmonious, and delicate. Bleach was an album that became mandatory listening not only for music fans in the Pacific Northwest who loved the Seattle music scene, but anyone who looked to Seattle as a place for something different musically. If you wanted college rock, you normally had to turn to the “left of the dial” on the radio. Or you had to seek independent magazines or fanzines, and when you dipped into the underground, those publications were plentiful. If you wanted it, you had to seek it out yourself. England, however, showed an appreciation for the Seattle music long before the U.S. did, and that attention in England and the rest of Europe lead to an appreciation in Japan. Even if Sub Pop did find incredible ways to promote/hype their artists, it was effective and it got them into more venues, expanding their audiences incredibly. Or at least “incredible” in an indie label way.

In 1991, there was a great publication called Backlash, edited by Dawn Anderson, whose work I liked in another Seattle publication I had read frequently, The Rocket. In the March 1991 issue of Backlash was a Nirvana cover story, and it would become the magazine’s final issue. On the cover was a photo of the band, and the word “BYE”, which at the time seemed like nothing more than Anderson saying goodbye to her readers. The article hinted that the group were signed to a major, but it was almost as if she was hinting at something more, even though she didn’t know what that “more” would be. In truth, no one knew, but perhaps there were hints that Nirvana were going to get a greater push than any other Seattle band signed to a major label up until that point. Soundgarden were popular, but they were still a Seattle band. It was almost as if the “BYE” was saying aloha to another chapter in Seattle’s rich music history. Six months after that issue hit the streets, we’d found out exactly what would be changed.

Everyone has a Nirvana memory, or more specifically a Nevermind memory, and mine may not be any different than any others, but this is how I viewed things 20 years ago. A few weeks before the release of the album, MTV aired “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on its alternative music show, 120 Minutes. The music scene at the time was still about the power of hard rock and heavy metal, and while Nirvana never shied away from their love of hard rock & heavy metal, this was a different vibe. I was familiar with it, because the tattooed cheerleaders and slam dancers in the high school gym all looked like friends I hung out with at shows. Dave Grohl had been in the band for a short time at this point, but I knew of him from Scream. The video looked like the kind of mosh pit I wished I had in high school, and that everlasting note at the end of the song made me think “wow, what the hell?” I didn’t think “ooh, music is going to change from this point on”, it was an honor to realize that this band from 200 miles the west of me were getting airtime on MTV, and that was that.

Or so I thought.

Nevermind was released on September 24, 1991 by DGC, or the David Geffen Group. They had invested a good amount of money in the hopes Nirvana would break it big, but at that point in time, their major bread and butter was Guns N’ Roses. Geffen had just released the massive 2CD/4LP set Use Your Illusion, sold as two separate albums, on September 17th, so Geffen was more than happy to do anything for their golden boys. At that point in time, hard rock and heavy metal was king, so when it came to loud and abrasive, Guns N’ Roses were it. A month before this, Metallica had released their self-titled “Black Album”, which pushed them into the mainstream in a major way, pushed by the soon-to-be-radio-friendly “Enter Sandman”. Metal fans now had to battle between the old school GN’R and then-new school thrash of Metallica, there were headbanger battles on who would reign supreme, who would spend time with a patch on their denim jackets. Nirvana didn’t intend to be a swift kick in the nuts, but because they too also rocked but with an attitude that was far from metal and more like the prankster skateboarder kid who would mock you right in your face, people noticed. Nevermind caused a few ripples, which was to be expected since only 46,251 copies were initially pressed. Wikipedia also states that 35,000 more copies were pressed in the UK since most of Nirvana’s fans were there. The group were appreciated overseas, so they at least knew sales of it would lead to more tours. But the presence of a video on MTV, which for many was the first time they had witnessed slam dancing or a mosh pit, made everyone want to know who they were and what they were about. Sales of Nevermind would eventually grow, and of course the rest is history.

When I listened to Nevermind in full for the first time, I liked it. Lots of heaviness, lots of cool songs, and a few mellow tracks. It was merely a follow-up to Bleach and the other songs the group had released, nothing more than just “new Nirvana”. After “Something In The Way” ended, my CD player kept going but nothing was playing. I didn’t know what was going on, but I figured I’d wait it out. Then I fast forwarded. 9 minutes, 10 minutes, nothing. 12, 13, and then I hear something. Rewind the CD dial. The band begins a new song, not listed anywhere on the cover, and it starts out with nothing but a bass. Then the guitar comes in, then the drums. It’s loud and distorted, and then it gets to a delicate part. Kurt Cobain sounds like he’s just moaning into the mic, then the venom comes back. Not even a minute into the song and I’m completely feeling this song, as it reminds me of a band Nirvana knew very well, Melvins. I knew Cobain used to hang out and go to many Melvins shows, but this song to me sounded like some Melvins tribute. They were honoring their friends, the band who arguably pushed these guys to become who they were, and I ate it up. The song then sounded like he was smashing his guitar in the studio, so all you ended up hearing was Grohl’s drums and Krist Novoselic‘s bass. After almost seven minutes, the song was over and I had the biggest shit-eating grin on my face. This was truly “nirvana”, I felt spent but I went to play the song again.

It wasn’t until early 1992 that I found there was a title for this song: “Endless, Nameless”, which makes sense since it had no proper title and it sounded like it could/should never end. Even though “Something In The Way” is the album’s proper ending, when I hear the album get to that point, it’s so open-ended that it’s openness left me going “okay, now I want a proper close.” Was “Endless, Nameless” in a small way a thank you to Melvins, a tribute to the Pacific Northwest, and to all of their fans who had stayed with them in the few years of their existence? The feedback sounds like a massive, sonic fuck but it’s so beautiful because that stereophonic chaos feels like it’s meant to be for you. Everything you ever wanted for people to know about the Seattle music scene felt like it was coming out of that damn studio in Los Angeles, it was like they were saying “c’mon fuckers, now we’re going to kick you in your face, this is our shit.” The last 20 seconds of the song comes off like a chime from outer space before the fuzz of the amps slowly fades out. I knew I would be listening to it in a year, 5 years, 10 years and now? “Endless, Nameless” is as awesome as it was when I first heard it. The song was their orgasm, and now we were bathing in the afterglow.

Too poetic? It didn’t matter. People speak about the 27 curse, and when Cobain died three years later at the age of 27, it almost solidified him as someone of importance. When he died, people wanted to make him a monarch and maybe rightfully so, since the power of the band *as a whole* made people want to cheer. That’s the power of music. Would he want to be a monarch, hell no. But people looked at him dying at 27. People also noted that Cobain’s major label exposure was barely three years. roughly the same time that both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin had between their first major label releases and deaths. Deep down, Cobain was just a punk rock kid from a small hillbilly town with a love for music, writing, and art. He wanted to escape, first through his music, and with his music he left the town that made him feel like an outsider. I think with age, he might have realized that a lot of us are outsiders, but we eventually find someone or something that takes us to where we need to be. I’d like to think for a short time, Cobain was able to see an escape from the doldrums, and I’m certain he knows that his music helped many to leave their own situations as well.

A band like Nirvana would never get the kind of attention by major labels as they did 20 years ago. Because of Nirvana, every other major label wanted to have a chunk of their Seattle pie, but it helped push alternative music to a place it had never been, something that would never happen in that way again. Nirvana were something long before Cobain died, and will remain that for those who put faith in their music and how they did it. Nevermind is some incredible music, and I hope people who discover it for the first time today will appreciate what it was like to hear it when it was released in 1991, same for those in 2031 who will honor its 40th anniversary.

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SOME STUFFS: Nirvana’s “Bleach” gets the deluxe treatment for its 20th anniversary

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I’m glad to say that I am one of a number of people who were aware of Nirvana before they were on MTV, and the album that you had to hear was Bleach (Sub Pop). It was pushed because critics back then loved it. They could have remained an obscure band from Aberdeen, Washington, but soon the world would discover an album by a band who paid around $600 for this to be put together.

In honor of its 20th anniversary, Sub PoP Records have put together a special deluxe edition of this album. If you didn’t get the original limited edition white vinyl pressing in 1989, you settled with the regular black vinyl version and that was that. But take a look at how this deluxe edition will look, be it vinyl or compact disc. Loads of extra songs, photos previously unseen (including the cover shot that isn’t a reverse negative, so you can see how it actually looks), and liner notes found in a 52-page booklet for the CD version, or a 16-page booklet for the double LP. The album was remastered by its producer, Jack Endino, so you know it’s going to beat up your face.

The deluxe will be released on November 3rd, and both the vinyl and CD versions can be pre-ordered directly from Sub Pop (click the link).