Summer reading: A change is gonna come…three post-modern musicians

Summer holidays gives me precious time to read and learn more about the women who continue to inspire.  This season so far three books have entertained, posed questions and provided joyful new perspectives.  

To start at the beginning, I must recall Patti Smith’s book ‘Just Kids’  I was struck immediately by how much attention to detail Patti gives when writing about her belongings.  Identifying a kindred spirit from a normal working-class background, it is testimony to how she lovingly describes every new addition to her sparse wardrobe.

Patti and Robert (Mapplethorpe) began their relationship with a poetic purchase of a Persian necklace which became the physical symbol of their love for one another.  Patti records her encounters with others so perceptively, understanding their mood or belonging to a particular ‘tribe’ in New York by their garments or the conspicuous absence of them.

Patti’s style of dressing is forensic and fascinatingly linked to her music. Patti’s strong androgynous appearance on her album cover ‘Horses’ is a real see-change in Smith’s self-belief, as being a woman beyond the patriarchal gaze of the music press.

Patti’s writing is a little too indulgent at times but is swiftly tempered by her talent for understanding people in an instant but never judging them on how they look. Patti’s kindness to dysfunctional characters, in contrast to her strong personality makes her writing all the sweeter.  “You’re a pearl…a pearl of a girl” she purrs comfortingly to a distressed Janis Joplin.

Summer reading: Patti Smith, Kim Gordon and Tracey Thorn.

Summer reading: Patti Smith, Kim Gordon and Tracey Thorn.

A very good friend of mine, always in the loop about good music and who is also a great lover of fashion told me about Kim Gordon’s “Girl In A Band”.

The book begins on the last leg of a Sonic Youth tour in South America and introduces the actions that have resulted in the band parting company. Due to a series of complications and interests outside of the band, the unhappiest being Thurston’s secret affair with a fan, Gordon is left to deal with the emotional impact of working together alone.

Gordon courageously finished the tour without making a ‘car-crash’ of herself. She then picks up the story by slowly unraveling the very intelligent, witty and sensitive woman she is.

Much like Patti, Kim takes us on a journey through her childhood and on to the music and artist scenes in New York.  Spoken with a no bullshit West Coast deadpan, Gordon reminds everyone of her credentials as a creative individual and scene-starter beyond her years with Moore and co.

Kim first arrived in NYC in the late 1970s, describing her look as ‘A hodgepodge of thrift-shop styles, boho symbols mixed with conventional ones’. She goes on the confess that in the early days she wore glasses and professes to being ‘uncool’ with ugly face furniture.  A nasty, bullying encounter with tired junkie, Johnny Thunders (The New York Dolls) shouting insults like ‘Four Eyes’ at Kim in a coffee shop, makes Gordon re-evaluate her appearance.

Kim grows in confidence making fewer mistakes in love and work. Meeting many great minds who collaborate on ground-breaking projects, whilst Thurston Moore is still recovering from a hurtful comment made about his trench coat by an art show goer.

Kim eventually meets this man (five years her junior), her soulmate and creative partner until sadly, years later, Thurston becomes a matrimonial cliché.

What strikes me is Kim Gordon’s understanding of the visual and the musical combining to create an experience.  Gordon’s ability to negotiate the choppy waters of the music industry with three male members of a band is no mean feat.

It is arguable that she is the most important member of Sonic Youth, as a square is only a four-sided shape having all its sides. However, It is undeniable that Kim Gordon brought a uniqueness to sound-making and played bass guitar her own way.

Next: A bedsit disco queen gets naked at the Albert Hall!

Next: A bedsit disco queen gets naked at the Albert Hall!

The last memoir and my favorite read of the year so far. Tracey Thorn’s ‘Bedsit Disco Queen’ is a gem of a book and Thorn has all the hallmarks of a truly honest and insightful writer.

Tracey’s story chronicles the life of a suburbanite schoolgirl with prevailing stage fright who somehow managed to, with a lot of lyrical talent, become a singer of songs. Tracey’s disbelief in her raw talent is what makes her so great – not a hint of a show-off.

Getting into bands with haphazard guitar playing, being collared to sing when no-one wanted to do it and bravely doing so from the safety of a wardrobe! Tracey fondly remembers not quite being a punk, her tentative years in two-tone outfits, new wave hairdos and notes her frustrations at what she describes as ‘the limitation of femininity’.  Being an introvert in a extrovert’s wet dream, Tracey recalls tedious treatment and sexist behavior she endured from music journalists who didn’t know how to talk to women.

Starting a successful band ‘The Marine Girls’ with her school friends, Thorn went on to influence countless other fledgling musicians (Kurt Cobain to name but one).  Having her own recording contract at 19, getting a First in English Literature from Hull University and forming Everything But The Girl with Ben Watt were game changers. Throughout the book, Tracey is coherently herself and steers her own course.

Tracey’s look had been important to her personally but she explained that in the 1980s and 1990s ‘Popstars’ on the mildly famous level were never given much flack about the way they dressed.  Tracey acknowledges that one of the reasons she has stage fright (sadly to this day) is wanting to be heard but not seen.  I for one understand where she is coming from.

Tracey Thorn’s ‘Naked at the Albert Hall’ is all about singing and is my current read.

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