Kim Gordon (Michael Galinsky)

Dirty, sister, daydream: I wanted Kim Gordon's bad-assitude

The Sonic Youth rocker took no BS, made the most amazing noise, was sexual but not for sale. I loved all of it


Elissa Schappell
February 21, 2015 5:00AM (UTC)

In my dream I am standing alone in the California desert. Then suddenly a red Rambler appears in front of me in a cloud of dust. The driver, a blonde in black shades coolly leans over and opens the door. It’s Kim Gordon. “Get in,” she says. I get in.

At which point I wake up, reach for my phone and before I lose it, type in fast: “Dreaming I wrote this. Dreaming of how to fix it.”

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It is this essay.

If you are familiar with the music of Sonic Youth, the seminal post-punk art-rock band that Kim Gordon co-founded with Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo, you might see how this line echoes a line from “Tunic (Song for Karen Carpenter).” Dreaming, dreaming how it’s supposed to be.

The song, which Kim wrote and sings in the voice of the tragic ’70s pop star is, at its center, about the desperate need many women feel to be perfect. In the case of Carpenter, who died at 32 of heart failure resulting from chronic anorexia, it killed her.

Being unable to write about how Kim Gordon has, over the last 20 years, been a major influence on me personally, although it wasn’t killing me, had me freaked out. I couldn’t find my groove, couldn’t find the right voice, the distance, the structure. The piece was, at its best, the rambling mash note of a fan girl, reports from an accidental stalker, an overly earnest feminist treatise. It was far from perfect.

The next morning when I reached for my phone, I heard the line that Kim channels from the lowest register of Carpenter’s consciousness -- I ain't never going anywhere... I ain't never going anywhere… in my head, that ego-annihilating loop of self-loathing had been on repeat in my head for days; I was sick of it.

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Fuck it, I thought. I know exactly why I got the car with her. I looked at my phone. And that’s where she was taking me.

The first time I saw Kim it was at CBGB. It was the late ’80s. I was out of college and living in NYC with my new boyfriend, who was a big Sonic Youth fan. I didn’t know that much about the band; I liked their stuff, especially the new song “Sister,” although my boyfriend called it “poppy.” I’d heard about the show, a benefit for a record store that had flooded, through Spy, the magazine where I was working. It gave me great pleasure to, for once, be the one who came up with something cool for us to do.

When we arrived the band was standing just off stage, waiting to go on. People were slamming and thrashing all around Kim and she was just leaning there against the amp looking slightly bored but focused. Even from the back of the club I recognized her. Recognized her type. Kim was that cool older girl, aloof and mysterious, who everybody is in awe of. She was the one who strides across the parking lot of the 7-Eleven pausing to flick her cigarette at the dudes in muscle cars catcalling her. Yeah I’m a girl. Unintimidated in cut-offs and boots, a band tee, hair bleached blonde, unaffected by the macho posturing. Sure take it all in. She was that girl who stares down the assholes in the parking lot and says I got no time for your nonsense. We -- and she meant the rest of us girls --  We’ve got no time for your nonsense.

And when she strapped on her bass and took her place in the front of stage it was clear she had no time for nonsense. And I had no time for nonsense.

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A lot is happening up on stage; Thurston is screaming into the mic and jamming a drumstick into his fret while Lee bleeds distortion out of his electric guitar with a screwdriver. In the back Steve Shelley is pummeling the drum kit, and Kim is working over her bass, making noise. That is revelatory, the fact that a woman is making that noise. A girl is standing in front this mass of people whose gaze is trained on her and she is unselfconsciously ripping apart her bass and singing and playing like we’re not even here, like she’s alone in her basement, only she’s not alone, we’re here, and she is taking the crowd’s energy and you can tell when she lifts her bass screaming feedback up to the amp like an offering to the gods of noise and holds it there, and holds it there, and holds it there, howling, calling forth this transcendent distortion, the music is her gift to us. She’s not like other people.

Kim is remarkable. In an industry that is all about marketing female performers as girl-next-door cutie pies or wanton sex symbols, Kim is fiercely feminine but not girlie, sexual but not for sale. In the dawning age of alternative rock and grunge Kim is the rare female face, the rare female voice, holding her own, as comfortable hanging out with the guys as she is with the girls.

Not long after that first show I discovered that Kim and Thurston were a couple. No, Kim and Thurston were married. Which shouldn’t have surprised me; onstage they were so clearly riding the dissonant soundwave they created together, but they’d exchanged no moony-eyed we’re-a-happy couple gazes. There was no psychosexual tension; the only grinding was the sound from their guitars. They were equal, separate and together. Their personal relationship was private.

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At the time this equal, separate but together thing mattered to me, because I was freaking out about being in love and thinking about getting married. Since I’d begun working at Spy, a fount of snark and irreverence, the amount of irony pounding in my veins had tripled. The world was one big joke.

So I winced when friends teased me about getting “hitched,” which sounded like a lifetime consigned to pulling a plow. The word “wed” was softer and more poetic, if uncomfortably close to web. And yet, and yet, there were Kim and Thurston, the ultimate hipster couple, hitched, wed, married.

I couldn’t know what Kim and Thurston’s personal life was really like, only that in public they appeared easy with each other, simpatico, the vibe much like that they gave off onstage. I’m just stepping in and taking my place, which is right up here in front, beside you. It confirmed my belief that my boyfriend, who was also a writer, and I could do this thing. There was something un-ironic and brave about declaring your love for someone. No joke. It felt akin to rebellion.

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*

In addition to working at Spy I was doing a lot of freelance reporting. Being small and female, with a dyed blonde pixie and a pearl stud in my nose, I was used to not being taken seriously. What I wanted was to be as self-possessed — in possession of one’s self — and powerful as Kim appeared to be. (I also wanted to be able to wear a white leather mini skirt, white go-go boots and a giant faux fur coat.)

At that time it would never have occurred to me that Kim might encounter the same sexist bullshit I did when she interviewed rising rap sensation and future sitcom star LL Cool J, who was promoting "Walking with a Panther" for Spin. I expected what she had expected -- that with her indie hardcore cred, and her general bad-assitude, she and LL would, if not click, at least have a substantive back-and-forth.

Kim vs. Cool J is a classic in the pantheon of uncomfortable interviews. Stratospherically high on his new stardom, LL can scarcely be bothered to offer more than monosyllabic answers to Kim’s questions. When she does manage to draw him out he swoons over Bon Jovi for singing about the working man’s struggle and proclaims, “a guy has to have control over his woman.” He's figuring, I guess, that Kim, the bleached-blonde indie chick, is so zonked on his testosterone-jacked man musk that she wouldn’t write that down, or even if she did, she wouldn’t call him out on being a misogynistic prick. And she doesn’t.

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She doesn’t do that until a year later when Sonic Youth’s new album "Goo" drops, and it becomes clear that the ill-fated interview is the inspiration for “Kool Thing,” which will become the band’s first major-minor hit. The songs on the album written and sung by Kim have an unabashedly subversive feminist message. Despite the fact I’ve always been a feminist, only now, in the early nineties, am I’m calling myself one, and out loud. In my mind, growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, feminists are mirthless, furry-pitted man haters who burned their bras and melted down other women’s lipstick to make war paint. But now Kim is becoming a part of my conscience.

The songs on "Goo" are the most obvious representation of Kim’s fascination with our country’s celebrity obsession and the effect it has on women -- the cost of taking a ride in the dream machine. Her songs kick ass.

Rap-savvy readers will pick up on the humorous references — the lines “walking like a panther… let me play with your radio… the repetition of the lyrics “I don’t think so.” Even the video, directed by a young Tamara Jenkins -- in which the “panther” is played by a black house cat that Kim cuddles -- resembles LL’s video for “Going Back to Cali.”

What I was struck by most here was the way that Kim was able to take the disastrous interview and elegantly turn it into something much larger than its parts. Working at Spy I was used to putting myself into the path of trouble, and when it found me I took notes. Kim had taken notes and then transformed the experience into a sharp and witty social critique of gender, race and power that you could dance to. “Kool Thing” is more than Kim’s assault on LL Cool J’s ego, but a self-mocking jibe at her own liberal politics. The sarcasm in her voice when she addresses “Kool Thing” (Public Enemy’s Chuck D) in the breakdown is self-mocking -- the female voice inflated by privilege and naïveté. I just wanna know, what are you gonna do for me? I mean, are you going to liberate us girls from the white male corporate oppression?”

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It’s a joke at her expense, sure, or so it would seem until she slips us that line, like a kiss with a razor blade under her tongue, “I just want you to know/We can still be friends…” Because that’s what girls like me have been conditioned to say when really what we want to say is Fuck you. That’s what we mean but we can’t or won’t say it. In “Kool Thing,” Kim is writing in code. There’s so much aggression in what would appear to be such a simple throwaway line, and I envy her being able to do that.

Two years later, Sonic Youth’s album "Dirty" presents “Swimsuit Issue,” a tune inspired by Kim’s discovery that a Geffen executive was being sued for sexual harassment. The narrative is much straighter. She says what women who are being abused by powerful men want to say, but often can’t. “Don't touch my breast I'm just working at my desk/Don't put me to the test I'm just doing my best.” In case you didn’t get it, Kim ends the song by reciting the names of all of the models in the March 1992 issue of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue.

Kim’s high profile as a woman succeeding on her own terms in the sexist white boy-dominated world of alternative rock, and the songs she’s writing, demonstrate that women are capable of more than love songs and break-up songs, that it’s possible to write songs with a powerful feminist message, all of which is helping feed the burgeoning Riot Grrl movement.

What I see is Kim writing write songs that are political without being preachy or strident, songs that are dead-serious and sly. Not only could a woman make art that reflected her reality, she should. Why the hell not? Songs that satirized the culture, and stuck a finger in the chest of all those who say Be a good girl now. Stand there and look pretty -- they were the songs I needed to hear.

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The kind of songs Kim is writing are the kind of stories I want to write. I want to write about the experiences we share but don’t like to talk about, but have to talk about. What I’m learning from Kim is that if you want people to hear your message — especially if you’re female — make sure they’re already listening before you start screaming. And in this battle you have to be smart, attack from the side, don the enemies' armor.

It isn’t until I tune into the feminist message Kim is putting out there on “Goo” that I realize it was there two years ago in the song “Kissability,” which is on Sonic Youth’s masterwork, the epic "Daydream Nation." I just hadn’t really thought about it, although even without intellectually keying in, I’d had a visceral reaction to it.

In “Kissability,” Kim flips the dirty casting couch on its end. Writing from the point of view of the predatory director, she sings in the flat voice of commerce, “Look into my eyes, don’t you trust me/You’re so soft you make me hard/I’ll put you in a movie, don’t you wanna/You could be a star, you could go far.” His heavy breathing builds with the song, until he’s panting, and you can almost hear the sound of the teeth in his zipper parting. “You’re driving me crazy/I feel so sick/You’re driving me crazy/Give us a kiss.”

I can’t help smirking every time I listen to that song. It’s a relief, for once, not to be the victim. There is something radical in the way Kim inhabits the character of this pervy creeper. How, instead of punishing him herself, she lets him talk, allows him to become a victim of his own ridiculousness. It’s like she’s taken his hand off our ass, and twisted it behind his back.

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That feels so good.

*

The more I think about my dream, the more I realize it’s no accident that Kim appears driving a big red car. Cars are a stand-in for male power and sexuality. She’s taken the wheel.

Men help men. Women, despite the extraordinarily high premium placed on female friendships, are often less willing than men to help each other. You know, there are only so many spaces at the big man’s table, and we have to fight over them. Rarely is the amount of power one has commensurate with one’s willingness to share it. Even though, as the saying goes, “There is a special place in Hell for women who don’t help women.” If this is the case, Kim is enjoying free drinks in the VIP section of rock n’ roll heaven.

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Kim inspired Kathleen Hanna and legions of Riot Grrls to take back the mic and claim the stage for themselves. To unapologetically raise their voices, get loud and get busy. She was co-producer of Hole’s first album, "Pretty on the Inside," an early supporter of Tamra Davis, who directed “Kool Thing” and “Dirty Boots” videos, as well as “100 %” director Spike Jonze. Kim’s old L.A. friend Mike Kelly’s art adorns the cover of “Dirty;”

Being in the middle of a thriving arts community is a big deal. The year my daughter turned 1, my husband and I had an opportunity to be co-founders of a literary magazine, "Tin House." It was scary. Not only did starting a magazine require tons of work, it would mean working together more than we already did. It was crazy.

As I had at other critical junctures in my life, I looked to Kim and Thurston. There they were onstage, tidal waves of sound crashing around them, smashing guitars, yet in this sonic vortex they were solid. They worked together and they were married. I thought we could do it, too.

I don’t remember there being a child’s car seat in the back of that red Rambler, but there might have been.

In 1994 Kim and Thurston had a daughter, and named her Coco. It was a relief. In the same way that I believed that to marry was to lose a part of your self, I believed that, by having a baby before I published a book, I was forfeiting my ambition. I believed the lie that women have to choose, that if a woman is serious about her work there can be nothing but the work (outside of fucking, drugs and travel). Family trumped art. Male artists could have children because no one expected them to raise them; that’s the job of the art wife. Men keep rocking, while women rock the cradle.

Clearly Kim didn’t get the memo about shelving your hopes and dreams along with the baby food, because she didn’t get sucked into the maw of motherhood. She didn’t turn down the noise. Not only did she keep making music with Sonic Youth; there were side bands like Free Kitten and Ciccone Youth; and when she wasn’t making music, Kim, who started as a visual artist was making paintings and curating shows, and, oh yeah, launching a clothing company called X-Girl and a limited-edition fashion line, Mirror/Dash, “clothes for cool moms.” Kim was the cool mom. Hell, she was the coolest. The rebel swagger that had attracted me to her before — the noise, the rad feminist lyrics, refusing to be pinned down to one art form, being major but not mainstream -- had since exploded tenfold. If Kim could do it, I thought, I could at least try.

Not only that. On and off stage Kim showed that a mother could still wear hot pants and go-go boots and be a style ninja with a baby strapped to her chest instead of a bass. Maybe I couldn’t pull off the black slip dress six months after my daughter was born, and I’d never have Kim’s legs, but still.

If anything, Kim’s art and music seemed to be getting smarter and deeper, and I had to wonder if maybe if I had a kid there might be the chance that my own work would do the same. As she was getting older she was becoming less afraid, more willing to take risks and trust her self. She was able to make herself more vulnerable, and there is strength and real power in that.

By continuing to make art and noise on her own terms, Kim was an inspiration. Years later, after I’d had my own daughter, I’d understand the importance of Kim demonstrating all this strength to her daughter. Anais Nin says, “Life expands or shrinks in proportion to one’s courage.” You don’t have to give up anything, although you do have to accept that sometimes you’re not going to do everything well, and that’s okay.

The decision Kim and Thurston made to leave Manhattan for Northampton, Massachsetts, so they could raise their daughter in the most normal way two high-profile indie rockstars could manage, gave scores of new families (I am not alone in the “If Kim and Thurston can do it” camp) permission -- or cover -- to make the move out of the city.

I reached a point while writing my last book, "Blueprints for Building Better Girls," a collection of linked stories about a cast of archetypal female characters -- the slut, the party girl, the perfect mom -- where I had to write a story about an anorexic woman. You couldn’t write a book of stories about the dark side of women’s lives without a few characters with eating disorders, if only for verisimilitude. But I was afraid it would sound trite, yawningly familiar and unimportant.

Every book, every story has a soundtrack, and I found myself listening to “Tunic (Song for Karen Carpenter)” a lot when I was trying to gin up the courage to write the story. Kim Gordon gave Karen Carpenter a voice, and in telling Karen Carpenter’s story told the story of millions of women. Because she thought Karen Carpenter’s story deserved to be told, I could play it really loud over and over again while I was writing, I could drown out the voice in my head saying This is stupid no one cares about this shit.

Because fuck them if they didn’t care about my story. And that made me take my story — and this story -- more seriously.

The more I listened to that song, the more I keyed into the detachment in Kim’s voice. That was essential. The fluctuating distance of the p.o.v, the mordant wit and the tonal shifts -- that was what my story needed for it to transcend being just another story about a woman starving herself. It was the same thing she did in “Kissability” and “Kool Thing.” The woman’s power may seem only skin deep — she’s a sex object, she’s white, in the case of Karen Carpenter she’s a superstar. That’s why the culture thinks they have the power, but Kim turns it around.

The song opens with Kim as Karen, an angel from above speaking to brother Richard and her parents in her best-girl-in-the-world voice. Don’t be sad, she tells them, Heaven is great. There’s Elvis, Dennis and Janis. She’s in a band and playing the drums again.

I’d forgotten Karen Carpenter was a virtuoso drummer. In my mind Karen Carpenter was just the preternaturally sunny pop songbird with the feathered hair, the star, in Barbie form, of Todd Hayne’s cult flick "Superstar." She was a joke. A punch line.

There is a sick dreaminess in Kim’s voice, as she recites Karen’s diet: another green salad, another ice tea. We nod, maybe laugh nervously. It’s important not to take up too much space, figuratively as well as metaphorically.

I am listening in anticipation of the moment when Kim-as-Karen’s voice darkens and drops into a menacing incantation, You aren’t never going anywhere — I ain't never going anywhere. It’s terrifying. Terrifyingly familiar.

Kim was speaking to all the girls who felt they had to be perfect. All of us who felt like no matter how we might succeed it would never be enough.

Equally scary is the shift in Kim-as-Karen’s tone when she sings, Hey mom! Look up here — I finally made it, her voice suddenly scampering back into the higher register, up into the light, so angelic and bright it hurts.

And every time Karen’s mother responds to her saying the band doesn’t sound half-bad with Honey don’t let it go to your head, some part inside me shrinks. That’s not just her mom, that’s the culture speaking. This is what we’ve been hearing our whole lives. Don’t forget it. Good girls stay small in every possible way.

Seeing Sonic Youth perform “Tunic” live was a profound experience. Watching Kim, hair sticking to her face as she haunts the microphone, the guys churning up sound behind her, my body pressing close to everyone else near the lip of the stage, men and women moving back and forth together toward the stage some with their eyes closed singing, others mouthing the words, and some screaming along with the lyrics because  the only way you can say those hateful words is to throw them back. That is art.

*

The stereotypical rock 'n’ roll couple is married for a few years, Kim and Thurston, the Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward of the music world, were married for 27, which is a long time for anyone. The stereotypical reason a marriage breaks up is that the man strays. He seeks to replace his wife with a newer version of her. Which is what Thurston did. The announcement in 2011 that Kim and Thurston were splitting was met with howls of disbelief and true sadness from those who lamented the fact that there would be no more music, and those who were also mourning the death of a marriage that had been a confirmation that it was possible to have it all.

I don’t know why I was so surprised, but I was. It’s not that I couldn’t imagine Thurston cheating (although I couldn’t have imagined he’d been carrying on for six years); I couldn’t imagine why, or how he could possibly leave Kim. Of course no one knows what goes on in other people’s marriages, what deals they’ve made, or how they fare against their demons. It’s none of our business really.

As you get older there are fewer forks in the road, but they are bigger. The decisions you make seem more dramatic. In Kim’s case, everyone is paying attention. Since the break-up Kim has had gallery shows in the U.S. and abroad, and she’s started a new band with Bill Nace called Body/Head, an experimental, improvisational noise band whose guitar and feedback sound recall the early No Wave days of Sonic Youth, before they became stars. However, the emotion and lyrical content on "Coming Apart" are miles away from those early days. The feminist themes that have been weaving through Kim’s lyrics for decades are in the forefront now. Female identity and male power, the roles women are conscripted to play and those they choose out of duty or desire. The work is the most emotional and honest work in Kim’s career. It’s naked. How many 60-year-old women would let you see them naked?

Kim had to know that the audience that gathered in December to see her perform at the Issue Project Room in Brooklyn were as anxious to see her and judge for themselves how she was doing as they were excited to see the show. The crowd had rumbled to life with applause as Kim walked to the front of the stage. Standing silently for a long moment in front of the microphone, she looked out over the noisy crowd and then, leaning in, put her mouth against the mic and whispered, Hush. One breath, one long, sustained exhalation, Hush. Like a lover, a mother, an old friend, Hush. Here I am. And the room fell silent.

In my dream, Kim and I are on the road. We’ve been listening to the radio and eating candy and having those kinds of intense conversations you only have on a road trip, about the stuff you really care about. At some point she slows down and pulls over, she gets out. “You drive,” she says. I can.

Excerpted from the forthcoming anthology "Here She Comes Now: Women In Music Who Have Changed Our Lives," edited by Jeff Gordinier and Marc Weingarten. Published by Rare Bird Books. Reprinted with permission of the author. All rights reserved.


Elissa Schappell

Elissa Schappell is the author of, most recently, the short-story collection "Blueprints for Building Better Girls."

MORE FROM Elissa Schappell

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