Kim Gordon wants to get a burger at the Apple Pan, a tiny burger joint on Los Angeles’ West Side that opened in 1947 and which she began frequenting as a kid. She leans forward on her stool to catch the counterman’s eye: “I’ll have a hickory burger, no cheese – and could I get a slice of raw onion on that?” Gordon, who played bass and shared vocals in the heroically inventive noise band Sonic Youth, is awesomely overdressed for the place: black top with a dramatic horizontal slit exposing her lower back; matching black miniskirt; black heels. “My family used to live in a house on the other side of Pico, then we moved to another house close by, and we always came here,” Gordon says. “There was this guy, Gordon, who worked here for years. I remember him as this tall guy who just progressively got fatter as time went on.” She smiles at this memory, then gestures across the street, where an enormous mall looms. “You can see how this place is just dwarfed by new developments now.” Not that change is necessarily bad. She just noticed a Guitar Center next door: “I’m actually looking for a tremolo pedal. . .”
Gordon, 61, has a particular preoccupation with history these days because she’s about to release her memoir, Girl in a Band. The catalysts for her writing the book were two life-upending events. In October 2011, Gordon and her husband of many decades, Thurston Moore – who co-founded and co-fronted Sonic Youth with her and the guitarist Lee Ranaldo – announced their divorce. A month later, Ranaldo heralded the dissolution of Sonic Youth itself, intoning that “every band runs its course.” For the group’s cult of admirers – a category that over the years has included Kurt Cobain, Michael Stipe, Kathleen Hanna and Carrie Brownstein – both pieces of news were fairly earthshaking. In 1989, MTV had declared Sonic Youth the “standard-bearers for alternative rock,” and it was taken for granted by the 2000s that the band, and the romantic partnership at its core, must surely be immortal. Gordon, for her part, had established herself as an unlikely fashion icon, resilient tastemaker and all-around feminist badass. But the band had grown fatigued, and Moore had cheated.
Newly single and with her main creative outlet gone, Gordon says, “there was a kind of, ‘How did I get here?'” So last February she escaped Northampton, Massachusetts, where she and Moore had set up house, and she rented a $159-a-night Echo Park bungalow on Airbnb. She put herself on a rough schedule of writing for a few hours every morning, sorting through her life for meaning, insights and order. “It makes you look back and dig in,” she says.
Gordon’s hickory burger arrives in greasy paper. “Can I get some ketchup?” she asks. She says that, at first, she envisioned the duties of a memoirist prankishly. “I was like, I want to write a book like Bob Dylan’s Chronicles and just make stuff up,” she says. That didn’t happen, but she retained a looseness as she went, obeying impulses and avoiding any topic she deemed boring. “I decided not to try and research and include everything.” She laughs. “I didn’t wanna overthink what I was gonna do. I know someone will one day write a good Sonic Youth book, but at the outset I said, ‘This is not that.'”
She focused, instead, on distinct memories, like growing up in awe of her older brother, who began showing signs of schizophrenia in his youth and now lives under supervised care in the Valley; moving to New York City in 1980 as an aspiring conceptual artist and crashing briefly at Cindy Sherman’s apartment; playing Sonic Youth’s final show, in Brazil, by which point she and Moore had ceased speaking to one another. She also tried to tease out broader themes “that I thought maybe women could relate to,” like for instance, female body image, which Gordon discusses while recalling the Sonic Youth song “Tunic,” which she wrote about Karen Carpenter.