Updated: Nov 26, 2020
Music Contributions: Singer, songwriter, bassist, and guitarist, for the groundbreaking and influential band Sonic Youth.
Biographical Highlights: Born in 1953 in Rochester, NY but was raised in Los Angeles as her father was a professor at UCLA. Her family lived in the never ending asphalt of middle class LA where everything is the same: “freshly mowed green lawns camouflaging dry desert-scape; constant, compulsive watering and pruning; everything orderly but with its own kind of unease, what with the constant pressure to be happy, to be new, to smile. And beneath it all, shadows and cracks and breaks—all Freudian death instinct.” She was, however, enamored with the canyons around LA, which are more mystical and “where all the interesting, seemingly non-self-obsessed types were, and where the cool musicians lived.” Her parents contrasted each other: her father an obsessive brooder; her mother a practical seamstress. You can see aspects of both in Gordon: the intellectualism of her lyrics and minimalistic bass playing mixed with the unconventional fashion she wore on stage and promoted through her fashion lines.
Gordon spent her youth painting, smoking pot, and listening to Joni Mitchell and other Laurel Canyon bands as well as avant-garde jazz. For her early grades she attended a lab school at UCLA that emphasized hands on learning and experimentation, an experience that left an indelible mark on her art & music. That background also made public school a forgettable experience. Her brother, Keller, was another important influence. When they were young he was charismatic, nerdy, and highly unpredictable. It turns out Keller was a paranoid schizophrenic. He teased her relentlessly and sometimes became physically violent. Her parents never reacted, and Gordon learned to bury all emotions. Her life with Keller left another indelible imprint. As she puts it:
“Maybe that’s why for me the page, the gallery, and the stage became the only places my emotions could be expressed and acted out comfortably. These were the venues where I could exhibit sexuality, anger, a lack of concern for what people thought. The image a lot of people have of me as detached, impassive, or remote is a persona that comes from years of being teased for every feeling I ever expressed. When I was young, there was never any space for me to get attention of my own that wasn’t negative. Art, and the practice of making art, was the only space that was mine alone, where I could be anyone and do anything, where just by using my head and my hands I could cry, or laugh, or get pissed off.”
After high school, Gordon attended an assortment of colleges graduating in 1977 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Otis College of Art & Design in downtown LA. In 1980 she moved to New York City in hopes of pursuing a career in art. Gordon became immersed in the NY art world, writing for ArtForum, exhibiting her own art and curating exhibits. It is intriguing to me that of all the female rockers I have studied, Gordon is the only one who didn’t have dreams of being a musician as a young girl. In fact, it doesn't seem to be even on her radar to play music.
So, how did it happen that an artist with a love for music but not having played any ended up in one of the most influential and important bands of the 50 years? We can thank the No Wave movement and her mentor Dan Graham. While in NY Gordon spent a lot of time seeing and hearing No Wave bands. The No Wave movement was a reaction to the New Wave of melodic, danceable punk. No Wave was born of the destruction, lawlessness, and violence that was the Lower East Side of New York in the late 70s. It was anti-melody, noise, feedback, a clear evolution of the Velvet Underground. Though No Wave was short-lived it was highly influential and I’d argue that through Sonic Youth it gave birth to the Alternative Rock of the 80s. As Gordon put it, “In a way it was the purest, most free thing I’d ever heard—much different than the punk rock of the seventies and the free jazz of the sixties, more expressionistic, and beyond, well anything. …Its sheer freedom and blazing-ness made me think, I can do that.” While art had always given her direction, No Wave filled in a missing piece: “A phantom thing had been missing from my life and here it was, finally, unconventional, personal but at the same time not, and confrontational.”
Enter Dan Graham. He had been challenging Gordon to go beyond merely putting art in a studio and enter a more encompassing dialogue with American culture. He challenged her to write something. When she finally decided to put the pen to paper, she decided to write about men and how they interact on stage and bonded by playing music. She wrote a fascinating essay on how male relationships are triangular. They bond together over a third item that isn’t them: music, girls, video games, sports, etc. The essay “unlocked the next thirty years” of her life. It was a rebellious act to not write about women and instead attempt to enter that triangle herself. The next step was obvious: start playing music.
Her first foray into music came in the form of a three-piece all girl band that played for one of Dan Graham’s performance pieces. Though the group only performed once, it clearly lit a fire in Gordon. And through one of her bandmates she met Thurston Moore. One night her friend took her to see Moore’s band, the Coachmen. Gordon was enamored with his quiet self-confidence and clear direction for his life. Moore had been raised in nearby Connecticut but had been virtually living in NYC for years. He had been profoundly influenced by the punk scene at CBGBs; Television, The Ramones, Richard Hell, Patti Smith. He knew he would also be in a band one day.
Gordon says of their relationship: “From the start I knew that our relationship wouldn’t center on mutually shared ideas about art. But that excited me, too. Our relationship felt more like an intersection of two separate lines. By coming together the two of us could maybe make something new and bigger.” In the early part of their relationship Gordon loved his subtle charisma, sensitivity, unpredictability, and gregariousness. Of course, most of us know Gordon & Moore came to represent what we all thought was the model couple in rock n roll. They seemed to be equal partners in the creativity of Sonic Youth’s music. Gordon was such a badass on stage and in her lyrics; Moore seemed supportive of feminism; both seemed independent yet together. We were living through the Reagan/Bush era but all was well as long as Gordon & Moore were together giving us brilliant music. When we all learned of Moore’s betrayal, the end of their relationship and, thus, the end of Sonic Youth, it was like a part of our past suddenly became suspect. Gordon has said that their independence also masked the loneliness of their marriage. Gordon summed up her thoughts:
“Today, when I think back on the early days and months of Thurston’s and my relationship, I wonder whether you can truly love, or be loved back, by someone who hides who they are. It’s made me question my whole life and all my other relationships. Why did I trust him, or assume I knew anything at all about him? Maybe I imposed on Thurston a dream, a fantasy.”
Sonic Youth began with Moore on lead guitar, Gordon on bass, and Lee Renaldo on rhythm guitar and a series of drummers before settling on Steve Shelley. Their first EP, Sonic Youth, was released in 1982.
It combined No Wave with a bit of Warhol’s Factory music but it only hints at what will come. It isn’t until the trio of late-80s records—1986’s EVOL, 1987’s Sister, and 1988’s Daydream Nation—that Sonic Youth solidified their reputation as the most important band in alternative rock.
Below I've included two songs that I think represent the best of SY during this period. The first one is them playing a live version of "Schizophrenia" from the Sister album in 1987. The second video is the original video for "Teen Age Riot" from the Daydream Nation album, what most consider their "break out".
In 1990 they signed to a major label and their sound evolved in a more aggressive but melodic, accessible manner. Through all this time Gordon became an icon in the alternative rock scene. Her voice was like none other, more spoken word, like her heroines The Shangri-La’s. I became a huge admirer from the moment I heard EVOL. Gordon’s lyrics opened my eyes to all sorts of issues helped me along my political journey. She was the role model for tough, assertive, independent women in the later 80s and 90s. A torch she passed to Kathleen Hanna and the Riot Grrl movement. If I had to only pick one video/song from this period it would be "Kool Thing"
Throughout the next couple of decades, while still playing with Sonic Youth, Gordon was involved in a number of artistic ventures. In 1991, she co-produced Hole’s debut album, Pretty on the Inside. In 1993, Gordon started a side project called Free Kitten with Julia Cafritz (of Pussy Galore), later joined by Yoshimi (of the Boredoms) and occasionally Mark Ibold (of Pavement). The band has released three albums, combining a little noise, feedback, alt rock, and punk. Also, in 1993, she started a clothing line called X-Girl with Daisy von Furth (sister of Julie Cafritz). Though grunge style clothing was all the rage Gordon & Cafritz went after something harkening back to the early 70s, “clothes vaguely inspired by Brian Jones or Anita Pallenberg circa Exile on Main Street." The line was sold years later but still exists in Japan. The most important event of her life occurred in 1994 when she gave birth to her daughter Coco Hayley Gordon Moore. Gordon also held several exhibitions of her artwork and released two books of photographs, collages, drawings, and paintings. Beginning in 2005, she started doing bit parts in films and TV. In 2008 she launched another clothing line called Mirror/Dash based on the idea that “there’s a need for clothes for cool moms.”
In 2011, after 27 years of marriage Gordon and Moore separated and finally divorced in 2013. The separation was due to an extra-marital affair Moore was having and would not end. This also led to the end of Sonic Youth. The break-up of this couple was devastating news to the indie rock community and all of us who followed their career. I remember it specifically and not really believing it could be true. There is so much we as fans never know but they seemed to represent the best of what relationships could be in music and art. Gordon discusses the break up to an appropriate extent in her memoir, Girl in a Band. It is clear Gordon did all she could to try and keep her family together but Moore sadly refused to change his behavior.
After the divorce, Gordon continued playing music, creating art and doing acting. In many ways she is like Suzi Quatro in that there is so much more to her life than music. In fact, Gordon as said “I almost feel like I'm making up for lost time. I feel like I owe it to myself. Because my whole life I wanted to be a visual artist. I really got sidetracked into music.” Still, she has made some fascinating music in the last several years with the bands Body/Head and Glitterbust as well as releasing her first solo album, No Home Record, in 2019. I think it is safe to say no other 60 year old has made music this contemporary or groundbreaking. It is a remarkable album.
Kim Gordon's career in music and art has been inspiring to so many and has paved a way forward for all who feel that they don't quite fit into an expected mold. I think Kathleen Hanna summed it up better than anyone in 2013 for Elle magazine:
“She was a forerunner, musically. Just knowing a woman was in a band trading lead vocals, playing bass, and being a visual artist at the same time made me feel less alone. As a radical feminist singer, I wasn't particularly well liked. I was in a punk underground scene dominated by hardcore dudes who yelled mean shit at me every night, and journalists routinely called my voice shrill, unlistenable. Kim made me feel accepted in a way I hadn't before. Fucking Kim Gordon thought I was on the right track, haters be damned. It made the bullshit easier to take, knowing she was in my corner.”
All unattributed quotes come from Gordon's book, A Girl in a Band.
I also recommend the Terry Gross 2015 interview with Gordon: