Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon: The Surprising Thing I Learned About My Father

The following is an excerpt from Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon of the popular band, Sonic Youth. Reprinted with permission of Dey Street Books. 

Once when Sonic Youth was on tour in Lawrence, Kansas, opening for R.E.M., Thurston and I paid a visit to William Burroughs. Michael Stipe came along with us. Burroughs lived in a little house with a garage, and the coffee table in his living room was crisscrossed with fantasy knives and daggers—elegant, bejeweled weapons of destruction. That day, all I could think of was how much Burroughs reminded me of my dad. They shared the same folksiness, the same dry sense of humor. They even looked a little alike. Coco, our daughter, was a baby, and at one point when she started crying, Burroughs said, in that Burroughs voice, “Oohhh—she likes me.” My guess is he wasn’t somebody who spent much time around kids.

My dad’s academic specialty was sociology in education. In Rochester, he’d done his Ph.D. on the social system in American high schools. He was the first person ever to put a name to various school-age groups and archetypes—preps, jocks, geeks, freaks, theater types, and so on—and then UCLA had hired him to create an academic curriculum based on his research.

One of the conditions for my dad taking the UCLA job was that Keller and I were able to attend the UCLA Lab School. That school was an amazing place. The campus was designed by the modernist architect Richard Neutra, with a large, beautiful gully running through it. One side was grass and the other concrete—for hopscotching or hula-hooping or whatever. The gully flowed up into an untamed area where a covered wagon and an adobe house sat beneath some trees. As students, we fringed shawls, pounded tortillas, and skinned cowhides out among those trees. Our teacher drove us down to Dana Point, in Orange County, where we tossed our cowhides down on the beach for imaginary incoming boats, copying what the early traders must have done. There were no grades at that school—it was all very learn-by- doing.

My dad was tall and gentle, with a big expressive face and black glasses. He was a gestural guy, physical, emphatic with his arms and his hands, but incredibly warm, too, though the few times I remember his getting angry at Keller or me were frightening. The angry words seemed to start in the soles of his feet and travel up through his entire body. Like a lot of people who live in their heads, he could be absentminded; there was that popcorn story, after all. Once when I was little he put me in the bathtub with my socks on—he hadn’t noticed—which of course I begged him to do again and again from that point on.

He’d grown up doing chores beside his mother and sister—cooking and gardening, pretty much anything involving his hands—and the habit stayed with him. During cocktail hour, which my mom and he never missed, he made amazing martinis and Manhattans with a chilled martini shaker kept in the freezer at all times. This was the late fifties and early sixties—people took their cocktail hours seriously. The backyard of our house in L.A. was thick and stringy with the tomato plants he grew. My mom liked to tell me that my dad’s skill with his hands was something he’d passed down to me, and I always loved hearing that.

Someone once wrote that in between the lives we lead and the lives we fantasize about living is the place in our heads where most of us actually live. My mom told me once that my father had always wanted to be a poet. It is likely that growing up during the Depression with no money made him want to seek security, pushing him toward a career as a professor instead. But aside from his love of words and the self-deprecating jokes and puns he slung around with his close friends, it was something that until she told me, I never knew about my father, which is striking, especially since my brother later became a poet.

From my childhood I recall days spent home sick from school, trying on my mom’s clothes and watching television show after television show. I remember spooning out chocolate or tapioca pudding from the box—tapioca, a word no one uses anymore. The smell of the house, damp and distinct. The aroma of old indigenous L.A. houses, even inland ones, comes from the ocean twenty miles away, a hint of mildew, but dry, too, and closed up, perfectly still, like a statue. I can still smell the barest trace of gas from the old 1950s stove, an invisible odor mixed with sunshine streaming in from the windows, and somewhere, eucalyptus bathed in the haze of ambition.

To read more or to order Girl in a Band, visit Amazon. Copyright Kim Gordon, 2015. 

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