Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Kim Gordon's GIRL IN A BAND & Paula Hawkins' GIRL ON THE TRAIN. Rock memoir & thriller--exceptional women in post Feminist wastelands


plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. The more things change, the more they are the same.  
This proverb is an ironic subtext for the two exceptional women in these otherwise dissimilar books. Rock memoir and thriller both have soulful narrators, searching for truth buried in the wreckage of their marriages. Blindsided at huge emotional cost, they need to figure out what really happened to become whole again. The answers have much to do with the status of women and the status quo of male expectations.

GIRL IN THE BAND, Kim Gordon's memoir is a history of punk, post punk, wave, no wave 1970-80's rock music and her roles as iconic rocker, visual artist, wife and mother. She adds writer, after this entertaining and philosophically rich look at the life of an original, who says she became so almost by default. Gordon writes that whatever she became was because of her crazy older brother, a paranoid schizophrenic. Charismatic, brilliant and sadistic, Keller created the "self-annihilating world" of her childhood. Her famed self-containment onstage was habitual, a way to survive his onslaught. She learned to hide her sensitivity and express nothing. This daughter of a sociologist has great analytical ability. She well understands how her background propelled her to find transforming experiences-- good and bad.

Gordon says performing gave her tremendous release. By allowing herself "to be at the extremes of emotional risk," she experienced a "spiritual transcendence. What LSD promised, my psyche delivered." Compared to her childhood, the "on the edge, insecure, hallucinogenic world of alt punk music was stable in the instability of unceasing change." She was also a California girl used to scary waves, who grew up with Charlie Manson wandering the neighborhood. Gordon's glad she never got into that family's car.

In GIRL IN A BAND Gordon is generous in how she assesses the men in her life. Despite Keller's tyranny, she credits his brilliance as the stimulus for her to probe the meanings of life and develop herself as an artist. As Keller spiraled further into illness, she came to believe what she accomplished was for both of them. Her parents,exhausted by Keller, offered no objections to art school. As long as she wasn't crazy, she could be whatever she wanted. At 19, she had a"lucky break," when she heard Dan Graham's extraordinary lecture on art and culture. Gordon began a lifelong friendship with him and Mike Kelley. Graham mentored her in the burgeoning rock music scene of the 70's--garage bands like The Ramones and art rock bands, like The Talking Heads from Rhode Island School of Design.

Though Gordon had no formal training in playing an instrument or singing, she played for ecstatic release. Not knowing musically what she wanted to do, she learned in baby bands. She met Thurston, when he was 21 and she was five years older. Together they evolved the songs and layered sound that became Sonic Youth. Originally, they worked as a No-Wave band with an egalitarian structure. Gordon was so used to being the only woman in male bands, she didn't think of being a stand-out, until they signed with Geffen. Though Sonic Youth had critical acclaim, they didn't have big audiences. She had to become the "girl," who could sell the band. If an audience was put-off by their discordant sound or scruffy appearance, the good-looking girl up front meant the band was all right. .

Gordon learned to stand front center, a place she was less than comfortable, and to dress for the band, as well as for herself. Her style, which she thought awkward, was widely imitated and eventually she became co-designer of a popular clothing line.  When the band ended, after the break up of her marriage, Gordon returned to her first love--visual art. She created performance pieces and showed art in major galleries and museums. She is currently very engaged with visual art but Sonic Youth is perhaps her best known creation.

As you might expect in a celeb memoir, she includes her meetings with other celebs. But Gordon's insight goes beyond name dropping. Kurt Cobain was a friend and her equal in sensitivity. She talks about both the violent death wish he enacted in performance and the tender yearning of his music.When she describes Courtney Love's unhinged but calculating performances onstage and off, it's the annoyance of a professional, as well as the concern of a mother. After Kurt died, Gordon, who visited with him and his daughter Bean, was concerned about the girl.

The major thread through Gordon's memoir is recounting the trajectory of her marriage. Though they made decisions about Sonic Youth jointly, Thurston, the business head for the band, had sure instincts. He was also her artistic complement. Sonic Youth's songs encompassed personal emotion, politics in the U.S.A. and life on the planet. They were played like a hurricane. The band was a shared entity filled with decades of personal history, love and trust. When she learned about the affair, it was almost less shocking than the facts of his having a secret life and lied to her about it.

Gordon wryly notes that considering they were sophisticated artists, the reasons for the break-up were ridiculously pedestrian, She lost him to a predatory younger woman, a groupie. Gordon writes the woman first tried for her but would have had anyone in the band. Somehow Thurston could not resist. Gordon says she always chose to "turn a blind eye" to his dark "fascination." She also knows he had a mid-life crisis. Sadly, a look at their history shows conditions familiar to telenovas, "Lifetime" plots,the old soaps.

When the family moved from New York City to suburban Massachusetts to raise their daughter, they gained physical space but felt dislocated. While their daughter adjusted easily and Gordon found friends and community, Thurston used the house as a way station between New York and other places he traveled to on the business of Sonic Youth. Though they continued their tour schedule and, in the early years traveled with their daughter, Gordan shifted her focus to staying home with their daughter. Increasingly, she left decision-making for the band to Thurston. When she learned of the affair, she had to help her daughter through senior year and the college application process. Thurston vowed to end the affair but secretly continued. The marriage was over.

Exceptionaly accomplished woman, beautiful and bold, yet Gordon was blindsided by her husband's infidelity. She wasn't paying attention to the fact that while she had changed, men's expectations were the same. There have always been breakthrough women who by sheer force of character push their talent and meet success. But many men still want to be the main star with a back up woman. Gordon writes of how she always loved how men play guitars onstage; competitively, sexually. In her memoir, she became first the "girl" with the band, then the front woman. While they had equal billing, Thurston had to share the spotlight.

Many women struggle to balance kids and career and many husbands find themselves at once a lesser priority and relied on more. The facts of Sonic Youth's break-up are domestic drama--a mid-life man with an accomplished spouse, strays to a younger woman who gives him the adulation he craves. But Thurston, seeking to recapture his youth, chose to be free and unmarried. Gordon  had little patience with him acting the "rock star" onstage on their last tour. She was smart enough to understand and be angry.

Gordon pushed the feminist edge in Sonic Youth, Deborah Harry did some of that in Blondie. But today that seems less common in bands than with lone artists, like St. Vincent. In our post-feminist era, male rock stars artists have the usual prerogatives, while their talented female equals trail in pay and suffer more scrutiny. Only recently did pop princesses Beyonce and Swift admit they are feminists--now that they know it's not an anti-male label.

In GIRL ON THE TRAIN, the fictional Rachel is also obsessed with her "dark side." She has drunks that cause black-outs, leaving her with no memory of what she's done--except for her ex-husband's awful reminders Because of her drinking, the reader, like the cops that question her in a murder investigation, find her an "unreliable narrator." Her self-pity and failure to "move on" at first seem aberrant; her estrangement from the community somewhat deserved. But in the alternating viewpoints of those involved in the events of the murder, you learn from her husband's present wife, that Rachel was once curvy and "striking", successful in her job in public relations. You begin to wonder, as Rachel does, what happened?  Why did her once happy marriage fail?  Yes there's her failure to conceive, her shame at being barren and her sorrow, but that's only part of the story.

An outcast, a suburban village "madwoman," Rachel travels her old daily commute to London, though she lost her job. She's doing it so her flat-mate thinks she's still employed but there's more to it. As she travels past her old town, where she shared a house with her husband, Rachel deeply mourns her marriage and blames herself for what she's become--a depressed, fat, unemployable drunk. Though, at her core, she doesn't quite believe it. Rachel's authentic, no matter who doesn't believe her or in her--including herself.

So back and forth Rachel travels and tries to understand her life. Out the window of the train, she sees a young couple on their patio and fantasizes about their happy marriage, as a loving relationship with humor and trust. Their lives are imbued with all Rachel's longings. Along with husband, home and job, she's lost friends, self-respect and maybe her sanity. She fears she may have done terrible things in a drunken state. Yet drinking is what she does, the reason she was fired from her job, But how could a person do awful things drunk, they would not do sober?

The suburbs she travels are full of pretty young women with baby carriages, like her ex-husband's wife who lives in the same house Rachel once shared. She started her affair, while her husband was married to Rachel. Now she has a baby to protect from this drunken wraith, mooning around the neighborhood. Rachel is disturbing, a menace to her world centered around babies, nannies, play dates, keeping in shape, buying clothes and making perfect dinners for her working husband. She has no conscience about having contributed to their break up and only wants Rachel, to disappear.

Among the alternating chapters are also those of the murder victim, a beautiful blonde, who once owned an art gallery, Uninterested in children, she's the secret subversive. But in this landscape of guarded complacency, Rachel's the unwilling standout. Unable to get over both her inadequacy to conceive a child and blaming herself that her sorrow cost her a marriage, she's a pariah in the suburban town. Yet that status makes her the truth-teller, an exceptional woman underestimated.

As the story develops, what's real in Rachel's life, what happened or didn't, becomes crucial. And, as you read the perceptions of the other characters, you get a sense they are only as reliable as their limited perceptions. The truth behind the events of the murder is more elusive than the stray facts. Suspense lies less with the unmasking of the murderer than the undoing of the women in this town. In different ways they are self-hypnotized by the mythology of unending love and happy families, and themselves as objects of desire. There is an infinite sadness about how the women experience the gap between their emotional needs as people, and fulfilling the sexual desires of their lovers.

The men in THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN seem less traditional entitled males, than paralyzed actors circumscribed by their emotional drives and lack of introspection. Even the refugee psychologist, skilled and sympathetic, is unwilling to control his sexual appetite. These are underlying tensions in a brilliant thriller about a woman going nowhere on a train. One of the pleasures of the novel is to see Rachel unravel both the murder and the secret behind her transformation from a "stunning," successful woman to "Poor Rachel."You cheer, as she scrupulously straightens out reality and herself.

Only gradually, reading this book, did I think of "Gaslight" or The Stepford Wives. Paula Hawkins' storytelling is more subtle, as is the calcification of feminism in this time and place. Rachel finds a real path to recovery but happiness is more morphous. The real life Kim Gordon seems is have reached much the same conclusion. But she's a creative woman. I imagine whatever happiness she's found is of her own making.