In David Browne’s 2008 biography of Sonic Youth, Goodbye 20th Century, he writes on the group’s lasting stability:
They’d grown accustomed to each other’s idiosyncrasies and personalities; old grudges and personality clashes had largely subsided. They expressed their exasperation with each other by way of vague wisecracks to outsiders, but for the most part, they’d come to accept each other’s contributions and imperfections. After all the years, they knew the four together made a sound they couldn’t achieve with any other combination. “People complain,” [Kim] Gordon said, “but they never leave.”
At the time of Sonic Youth’s 2009 record, The Eternal, it seemed as if the band was moving into a new, prosperous era. They had moved from major label Geffen to the great indie label Matador. Pavement’s Mark Ibold had come on as the band’s new bass player, once again freeing up Kim Gordon to explore more guitar work, as she had done previously during Jim O’Rourke’s stint with the group. Despite Ibold being the same age as Steve Shelley and seven years older than O’Rourke, his presence seemed to exert a new youthful spirit in the group — there was a fresh vitality in their onstage chemistry. In addition to the personnel move, the group was also a semi-mainstream presence, playing on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and delivering one of its most accessible records ever, cracking the Billboard Top 20, which represented Sonic Youth’s highest-charting album to date.
Sonic Youth sounded energized on The Eternal. The interplay between Gordon and her then-husband, SY guitarist/vocalist Thurston Moore, in particular seemed stronger than ever. The two exchanged sexy call-and-response vocals on the grungy “Anti-Orgasm” and harmonized on the melodic “Leaky Lifeboat.” There appeared to be a feeling of solidarity and collaboration that suggested the band would not be slowing any time soon.
I saw Sonic Youth in the fall of that year, playing a show with Dinosaur Jr. at New York City’s Terminal 5. It was a set consisting mostly of Eternal cuts, which further showed off how strong the material was, the five of them attacking the songs with the vitality of a brand new act. While the band looked happy and excited, however, no one knew that we were watching a group that was dying on the inside, a group that — unknowingly — had already been poisoned before it recorded what would be its final album. Moore was already more than a year into his affair with book editor Eva Prinz, and Gordon was still several months away from discovering it.
In her candid and excellent new memoir Girl In A Band, Gordon tells the story of her early life in California and her mentally unstable brother. She gives an album-by-album breakdown of Sonic Youth’s career. She also talks about motherhood and, of course, her divorce. While Gordon gingerly talked about the wreckage in her 2013 Elle interview, her book reveals what was an entire year of failed attempts at salvaging the marriage — “a pattern of lies, ultimatums, and phony promises, followed by emails and texts that almost felt designed to be stumbled on.” Feeling as though she had been turned into Moore’s mother, Gordon was forced to “make a decision that he, Thurston, was too much of a coward to face.”
Gordon’s discovery happened sometime in mid-2010, when the band was still playing scattered shows after the Eternal tour. “One morning I got up to do yoga. Thurston was still asleep, and I looked down at his cell [phone]. It was then that I saw her texts about their wonderful weekend together, about how much she loved him, and his writing back the same things.” Devastated and humiliated, Gordon’s confrontation with Moore over the discovery began a period that she defines as living in slow motion for a year: “a nightmare you don’t ever wake up from.” After confronting Moore, the two agreed to work things out, with Moore claiming that he would break things off with Prinz.
As a fan, reading through Gordon’s memories of all of Moore’s backslides is a fairly frustrating task, especially considering Gordon’s alleged willingness to move on with their marriage, with Moore supposedly claiming, repeatedly, that he wanted to come back to the family. “It was a pattern that would happen over and over again. I wanted to believe him.” Nonetheless, writes Gordon, the affair persisted throughout 2010 and 2011. Gordon claims she remained upfront regarding her right to check Moore’s mail. “I had told Thurston that as someone who had been betrayed by him, I felt I had every right to look at his laptop, especially if he, as he kept saying, had nothing to hide.” A series of hotel rendezvous, erotic photos, and “porno-like” videos were all fairly easily discovered over time, writes Gordon, not to mention “hundreds of text messages between the two of them proudly displayed on [their] monthly cell phone bill.” According to the memoir, Moore only willfully confessed to seeing Prinz one time without previous discovery by Gordon.
“No one could understand how Thurston, who always had a good nose for the user, the groupie, the nutcase or the hanger-on, had let himself get pulled under by her,” Gordon writes. “I did feel some compassion for Thurston … but that’s a lot different to forgiveness.”
Gordon chooses to leave out a few details in the book, some for the sake of other people’s privacy, and others presumably because they are too painful to acknowledge. For one, she never mentions Prinz by name, instead referring to her by pronouns, or simply as “the woman.” She also mentions how Prinz was romantically linked to a close associate of the group years earlier, referring to this person by the alias, “Tom.” Tom is probably Jim O’Rourke, who had been rumored to have been sleeping with Prinz while she was married to her first husband, Andrew Prinz, circa 2003. On Prinz and O’Rourke’s relationship, Gordon writes: “All of us had seen this very shy, anti-technology, anti-domesticity guy transform into a man clutching a cell phone.” She describes that affair ending “badly, theatrically, crazily, like some tabloid story,” and that, “Tom had moved across the country to escape her.” This move may or may not have been the catalyst for O’Rourke’s departure from Sonic Youth in 2005; O’Rourke set his sights for Japan around that time. One year later, Prinz and Moore started a publishing company together, Ecstatic Peace Library.
A month after Matador’s announcement of Gordon and Moore’s separation, Sonic Youth played their last string of shows together in South America. It was on this last string of tour dates, Gordon claims, that she reached a sudden revelation about some of the songs that appeared on the band’s final LP. “During rehearsal, and all that week, I remember Thurston making a point of telling the band he didn’t want to perform this or that Sonic Youth song. It suddenly hit me that certain songs he wanted to leave out were about her.”
The same appears to be the case with much of Moore’s third solo album Demolished Thoughts, which was released in May 2011. Gordon describes Demolished Thoughts as “a collection of sophomoric, self-obsessed, mostly acoustic mini suicide notes,” and something that will “always will be, about her.” Oddly enough, Gordon says she had actually encouraged Moore to make the record as a way for him to clear his head, which he set out to do in January 2011. “My reasoning was that if Thurston had more of a solo presence as a musician, and if he could work outside of his comfort zone, maybe he would feel less swallowed up by the band and be happier with his life.” This plan backfired — Moore reportedly admitted to Gordon a few days into the trip that he had seen Prinz again after Christmas, right before the band played two New Year’s shows in London. Although a “moment of clarity” overtook him where he managed to stop the marriage from fuming out entirely right then and there, that didn’t stop him from making a record filled with allusions to new love and desire, and which features a handwritten scrawl in the liner notes reading, “She collapsed into me.” Allegedly embarrassed by what he created, Moore confessed to Gordon that he didn’t even want to release the album, saying “I just feel like walking into the woods and disappearing.” Demolished Thoughts came out with little promotion, which Gordon sees as a parallel to Moore’s affair — if you pretend it’s not there, maybe no one will notice.
The last song on The Eternal is “Massage The History,” the only song Gordon admits is about her marriage. “It has the line ‘I dreamed’ in it, maybe because I was dreaming of the first record we ever made. It was before I found out what the dark cloud following Thurston around consisted of, but I already felt it.” On the song, Gordon sings, “Here’s wishing you were with me/ Here’s wishing we could massage history.” Having detected a downward slope in the marriage, Gordon chalked it up to normal relationship valleys, saying also that, “when a marriage ends … little things you never noticed before practically make your head split open … I was aware of his unhappiness, but I made excuses, too. I had my doubts about our relationship, but I pushed them under, reasoning that every long-term relationship has its pitfalls.” Her hope was evident in the song, which now plays like the dying gasp of Sonic Youth’s career.
Sonic Youth’s final show at the SWU Music & Arts festival in São Paulo is available to watch on YouTube. Gordon says she’s never watched it and never will, which is impressive considering how vivid her memory is of all of Moore’s “phony” mannerisms from that day, from giving Mark Ibold a double slap on the back as they walked on stage, to Moore telling the audience, “I can’t wait to see you again!” Writes Gordon: “I remember wondering what the audience was picking up on or thinking about this raw, weird pornography of strain and distance. What they saw and what I saw were probably two different things.” As a Sonic Youth audience member myself during their final days, I can confirm that, yes, what we were all perceiving was much different image than the reality of what was occurring inside the band. When watching the video of the SWU show now, Gordon’s anguish and Moore’s sense of excitement contrast louder than the music, but at that time there was still so much speculation as to what was causing their split. The idea of infidelity breaking up indie rock’s royal couple seemed too clichéd to possibly be a reality. But it was indeed a stereotypical but nonetheless ugly and sad ending: “A male midlife crisis. Another woman. A double life.” In the end, a band as unconventional as Sonic Youth was destroyed by something so played out.
Girl In A Band: A Memoir is out 2/25 via Dey Street Books.