Gordon is a founding member of Sonic Youth, visual
artist, feminist icon, mother and fashion trendsetter.
Now she can now add "memoirist" to her list of
accomplishments. Her new "Girl in a Band," not
only offers insight into music, art, the shifting tides
of underground culture and the dynamics that made Sonic
Youth tick, itís also more transparent about her
personal life than she has ever been.
and her husband of 29 years, Thurston Moore, finalized
their divorce in 2013, effectively ending Sonic Youth,
the band they co-founded in New York City in the early
í80s, when the couple separated in 2011. Since the
breakup, Gordon has formed a new avant-rock band,
Body/Head, and been the subject of numerous exhibitions
of her visual art around the country.
a phone interview from her home in Massachusetts, Gordon
said the dissolution of her marriage prompted her to try
to "make something constructive out of it."
steps in front of you, you have to take it on," she
says. "When something traumatic happens in your
life, like a breakup, it sets you off thinking about
your life. How did I get here? Who am I? I started
thinking a lot about my childhood, and it was helpful in
making sense of where I am now."
an edited transcript our conversation.
You write that you did some high-school dance
choreography for Frank Zappa music. So I have to ask,
how do you dance to Frank Zappa music?
(Laughs) It was me thinking about what is the most
off-the-wall thing I can do. It was the only creative
class in high school, and the teacher was a gym teacher
who left me to my own devices. I was doing modern dance
outside of school, so I kind of knew what I was doing. I
hated high school, so here was my chance to rebel. I did
a more legit piece of choreography to (the music of)
Pentangle. The Zappa piece, there was a toilet mechanism
and toilet paper involved.
Did you get a good grade?
I canít remember. It was probably pass/fail.
Your first rock band, Below the Belt, you describe as
"pure mayhem and caterwauling." You were
stepping into music for the first time after being in
the art world. How did it feel?
It was super exciting, because Iíd never done anything
like that before. We started a band for a college art
class project, so it was within that context. I donít
think it mattered how it sounded. The art context can be
very forgiving (laughs). When I was at Otis (College of
Art and Design in Los Angeles), people were doing
experimental music, and that piqued my interest. When I
moved to New York, I was super influenced by Warhol, the
Factory, and art that had music attached, like the
Velvet Underground. Music was a new thing, but I didnít
really think about pursuing it further. I moved to New
York to pursue visual art.
Are the challenges to developing a career in visual arts
and music similar?
When I look back on Sonic Youthís journey, I wonder
how did that happen? There was no money for a long time,
and we were not thinking what will come out of it. It
was always about letís make a record, get a gig at CBís
(New York punk club CBGB), get a tour. When youíre not
thinking about anything else you just move one day at a
time. The art world is the same and yet quite different.
The art world now is a lot more commercial than when I
started out. Itís harder. Iím still establishing
myself as an artist in that world. I guess Iím a late
bloomer. I was in a band for 30 years and did what I
could in art. In 2003, I started more seriously getting
back to this thing that is so much a part of who I see
myself as in the world. In the art world, careers slowly
progress or they donít progress at all. Itís not
like having a hit and selling a bunch of records. In the
art world, there is always going to be the hot trendy
new artist thing, but itís hard to sustain that.
You wrote an essay in the í80s about your desire to
get inside of what you called the male dynamic that
defines rock bands. Why was that important to you?
Maybe it had to do with the (bad) relationship I had
with my brother. I was looking for a better relationship
with guys. I grew up such a tomboy and I wanted
something brotherly. My dad was a sociologist, and that
had something to do with it. I only recently figured
that out. I have this memory of looking at my dadís
books and seeing titles like "Men and Their
Work" when I was 9 years old and wondering what
does that mean?
But you couldnít just be one of the guys either,
I felt a little like a dork, sort of an outsider. I did
admire all these girl groups: the Slits, Raincoats,
Runaways, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Lydia Lunch, Au
Pairs. It wasnít like I just had male icons, but I
ended up with these guys. (Before Sonic Youth) I was in
a band with girls, but it didnít work for long. The
alchemy of personalities, thatís whatís so
fascinating about bands. Why something works with one
group of people, and not another group. Itís so
reliant on each of our personalities and how they mesh
You write that the need to be a woman out front never
entered your mind until Sonic Youth signed with Geffen a
decade into the bandís career. Why is that?
I guess I didnít feel like my style was together.
Things changed after we made "Daydream" (Sonic
Youthís breakthrough album "Daydream Nation"
in 1988). The songwriting became more structured. Even
though I was there and contributed, I felt like I had
less creative input in songs that were more
conventional. For me, it became about thinking about
image and playing around with that. The record company
was not really behind that. For me, some of the ideas
were more playful, inspired by Blondie. I liked the way
(Blondieís Deborah Harry) used clothes ironically. The
goofy glam shots (on the inner sleeve of the 1990 "Goo"
album), that was my idea. I was conscious of getting
more into fashion, and what I could wear on stage,
because I could afford to buy nicer clothes. My friend
at (Gordonís í90s fashion line) X-Girl, we would
have conversations about cool white jeans, FranÁoise
Hardy, Marianne Faithfull, and the way these (female)
artists (from past generations) would dress, and have a
dialogue with that in a way.
Youíre critical of Billy Corgan in the book when
writing about the lines drawn between underground and
mainstream in the early í90s, and the
"authentic" and "manufactured" music
of the alternative-rock era. How do you feel about those
distinctions now and why do you think theyíve melted
away in many ways?
I didnít mean to slag off Billy in the book. I was
trying to explain the sociology of what was going on
back then. But the lines that were created have fallen
away. Look at the way people listen to the Carpentersí
music. When they first came out, the songs sounded like
an ad for a bank youíd hear on the radio, they were so
conservative in the midst of all this groovy stuff. It
was hard to listen to that (in the í70s), but now they
are appreciated. Thatís what happens to history. The
context of the time disappears, and now the line between
genres is pretty much obsolete. I donít know if itís
good or bad. Now I can hear a Smashing Pumpkins song and
think, "That sounds good." (Visual artist)
Raymond Pettibon, some of his best work was the way he
took on the whole hippie thing in the middle of the punk
era. History changes music and art in a way, because the
context for it slips away and itís rediscovered by a
younger generation in a new context.
In the same way, you write about the way Madonna used
her sexuality to sell her art and that evolved into a
cultural landscape where porn is everywhere. You argue
that it was about a woman using a maleís idea of
marketing sex. How does someone like Beyonce fit in with
that wave of sex-as-marketing?
Iím all for sexy images. I donít see that many
Beyonce videos, but I think there are so many different
ways to involve sexuality in the way women present
themselves, but just presenting it in one way gets kind
of boring. I donít see a lot of sexy images lately (in
the mainstream) aside from conventional ones. Itís
more about gender fluidity now, thatís where the
conversation is. People like Lady Gaga have brought
humor back to these (sexual) images, where no one had
been doing it since Debbie Harry.
Why did you decide to write so openly about your breakup
Thurston was part of my whole story, and I didnít want
to leave it out. What happened between us is an
important part of where I am now. (Gordon writes in her
memoir that she found phone messages her husband had
been secretly exchanging with another woman and
confronted him about a long-standing extramarital affair
that eventually broke up their marriage.) I thought this
was my best opportunity to clear the air. Iím sure weíll
hear his version of it. I could have gone into huge
detail and made a whole other book out of it, but I didnít
want it to take over the book and I didnít want to
write a salacious thing. I have compassion for people
falling in love, but I do have issues with how it
happened and what it did to our daughter.
didnít want pull quotes about it. I realized that
people do look at me as some kind of (cultural) figure,
so I felt I was writing about something that happens in
so many peopleís lives. And, yes, it happened to me,
and this is how I dealt with it.