*The Story of Them

A literal portrait of Joan Crawford

A literal portrait of Joan Crawford

I confess I am an individual who is perfectly capable of reading a book about a person of whose work I know nothing, merely so that I can get all the juicy juice about their personal life. And, therefore, even though I have no particular feeling for Sonic Youth, I was in a frenzy to get my hands on Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band, given that I’d heard she really dishes the tasty dirt regarding her split from her bandmate, the improbably named Thurston Moore. Unfortunately, Gordon immediately gets off on the wrong foot by having written, or, at the very least, approved, cover copy that actually states ‘There are few artists who inspire such reverence as Kim Gordon’. Take that, Leonardo da Vinci, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the Brontë sisters! I mean, geez, while I am certainly not qualified to judge anyone’s musical-instrument playing, Gordon strikes me as one of those people who has managed to get away with being a singer without actually being able to sing only because she happened to belong to a musical group comprising up-themselves New Yorkers, as if there is any other kind of New Yorker. The good news, though, and, while none of us, except for her and her publisher, can know how much editing was done (and, of course, it may well have been little to none), Gordon is a fairly able writer of prose, and she has an absorbing story to tell.

When it comes to absorbingness, she did, of course, have the marvellous luck of having been born in 1953. I would gladly be even older, and so making even less gazelle-like movements, than is already the case if I could only have been born fifteen years earlier. To start with, I would have been a teenager in the nineteen sixties and so a first-hand witness of whether that almost mythical decade was, as I suspect, really all about a limited choice of sandwiches, standing on public transport next to someone sweating through their synthetic clothing, and constantly having to unclog the little tube in the Taft hairspray. And not only that, I would have been in my twenties in the nineteen seventies, and so, rather than, having my entrails irritated out of me by what they call ‘progress’, would have been having the question popped to me at the Summit revolving restaurant while my crêpe suzettes were being set alight. And I could have had all this and still, arguably, have been young enough in the early nineteen eighties to have been one of the New Romantic face’n’floor slappers in the video for ‘Bette Davis Eyes’.

Furthermore, Gordon has the advantage of being a citizen of the United States of America, putting her much closer to the centre of the action than those of us who grew up in Australia would have been. Probably the most exciting that things would have got for me would have been an accidental visit to the Yellow House, but Gordon was a teenager in Los Angeles in the nineteen sixties, with its ‘I’m probably going to run into a member of the Manson family at the shops’ frisson. Then she went on to be as Arty as Hell in New York in the very early nineteen eighties (admittedly, though, being arty in New York while it still had ‘edge’ is my one of my biggest personal nightmares, given the rats, freezing cold and inadequate toilet facilities that always seem to have been a major part of this endeavour). As well, Gordon gets full marks from me for going straight to dessert, with an account of the band’s last show during which she and Moore were not speaking to each other, because she’d discovered he was having an affair and had asked him to move out. Not for Gordon the infuriating route of beginning with how her great-great-grandfather was a clock maker, and all about his travails while competing for the mayorship of a small town; and how her great-great-grandmother was the daughter of a steel worker and had a famously strict outlook; and how they kept themselves entertained on Sundays by playing the piano.

Getting back to the downside, though, Gordon does make a massive deal about how sensitive she is, something that is always immensely annoying, given that this claim is generally code for being extremely sensitive to your own feelings but largely indifferent to anyone else’s. Second, she demonstrates no sense of humour to speak of (though at least she doesn’t pretend that she has a sense of humour, like Joan Crawford in A Portrait of Joan: The Autobiography of Joan Crawford talking about the time she fell off a horse); and third, it seems that nothing is ever her fault, especially any tricky situation involving Courtney Love. So, Gordon has written a book with, it seems, the intention of making herself look pretty good, and, which is what usually happens when a person has that aim, actually comes across worse than she does in real life (at least on the basis of the only two interviews with her that I’ve come across, in which she, in fact, seemed neither self-important nor humourless; too, Girl in a Band‘s acknowledgments are extensive and gracious). Now, whether it’s worse for someone to be more of a great big pain in their book than they are in real life depends, I suppose, on whether you actually have to mix with them or can just sit back and read their words at a comfortable distance.

Spinning the lazy Susan back round again to the positive, a fresh round of applause to Gordon for truly getting in there and, like a baby with a cup of coffee, having a good go at spilling the beans, which must be a terrifying thing to do, really, whatever the pleasures of being paid to have a public forum in which to point out that your ex is a wanker. (Though, whatever Moore’s percentage of wanker may be, I’m impressed that he once had a cat called Sweetface, and I’m in agreement with his alleged antipathy to moving to a big house in New England with all that snow shovelling, and, no, this is not because I fancy myself as so very urban but because doing anything outside the city is so damn hard, as I discovered when I once tried to find an open chemist in Ballarat on a Sunday morning.) While being highly critical of others is virtually all that keeps me going, I’d have to be too drunk to stand the entire time I was writing a memoir in which I took a knife to an ex, as well as too drunk to stand for about a year after publication, because I would be so damn frightened of finding myself on the end of hostile emails, not to mention a big fat lawsuit. Gordon, though, was prepared not only to come right out and talk about her divorce but actually admit to not liking people, unlike Amy Poehler, who really got a ride on the Free Pass Express with her book, Yes Please. Precisely because it’s not even up for debate that Poehler is extremely talented, this particular work is almost as irritating as any of the op ed pieces by someone who claimed to find Poehler’s split with Will Arnett depressing because the writer is herself a hilarious, forthright gal just like Amy and feels that their split indicates that she herself will never really be valued by a man.

Now, I like glossy paper and a nice font as much as the next person, but a book having these attributes does not make up for it largely resembling an anodyne cross between stuff the author has been keeping around the house, tediously diplomatic correspondence with someone she neither knows nor trusts, and a refrigerator magnet. Poehler barely discusses her divorce, because, she says, she doesn’t like people knowing her ‘shit’, which, almost in the words of Addison DeWitt, is a revolutionary approach to the memoir. Still, while this particular yap-shutting decision may make me regret having shelled out the $32.99, I do actually understand it – what I can’t forgive is Poehler having a chapter by Seth Meyers all about how terrific she is. Not only does this seem hideously conceited, it points to the whole exercise being yet another instance of a celebrity writing a book she has no time to write. In fact, the many demands on Poehler while she was pulling the manuscript together is something she discusses at unendearing length in the preface. While her doing so is surely intended to head off criticism of the book for being a mishmash, as is her admission that, yes, this is exactly why she’s telling us how busy she was while writing it, it serves only to make the reader wish from the earliest pages that someone had asked Poehler to, for the love of god, put this project to one side until Parks was axed. And the fact that Yes Please isn’t all bad, as it does actually contain a few interesting stories, some engaging and funny prose, and even some useful advice, just makes the whole thing even more exasperating.

Most recently, though, I entered a new world for me, of reading a memoir by someone I actually know: Fallen by Rochelle Siemienowicz. As it is a candid account of Rochelle’s upbringing as a Seventh-day Adventist, and her, to put it mildly, colourful love life, the downside here was that my own existence seemed incredibly boring in comparison. I cannot help but feel that having a mother and father who adhere strictly to one of the more boutique forms of Christianity, not to mention being part of an open marriage in your early twenties, is more interesting than, by parental decree, having had to walk out of All That Jazz; eating two stale muesli slices in the university cafeteria and dashing out to see Switching Channels to fill in lonely hours between classes; or spending summer evenings watching Doctor Doctor, an almost-forgotten sitcom starring the actor who was the voice of Max Headroom. Too, I was obscurely offended that, even though I’ve only known Rochelle for a couple of years and I don’t even know her that well, she has friends to whom she’s closer than she is to me, as I always want everyone who knows me to like me more than everyone else they know, not excluding their own children. On the upside, though, I had to force myself to put Fallen down so that I could go to sleep at night, as I was just dying to know how things would work out for her, even though I know; and Rochelle’s prose is so lucid and lovely that reading what I hope is only her first book is as purely satisfying as gazing at a perfect example of your favourite architectural style.

The point is, though, that it’s on the public record that Rochelle originally wrote Fallen as a novel, and I wonder if it might have been this that makes it such a satisfying memoir, both in terms of her telling – or, at least, making the reader feel as though she is telling – us everything, and in terms of her story having such a wonderfully robust skeleton. Decades of watching biopics, in preference to, as is clear, my getting out and living life, has brought me to the conclusion that the best biopics are the result of their makers getting the story to work as if it were fiction (exhibit A: Chopper), as opposed to being a scrappy bunch of highlights and lowlights (exhibit B: pretty much every other biopic). So, if you are setting out to write the story of your own life, maybe writing it as though it were fiction while telling a bit more truth than perhaps you can even bear to is the secret there too.

2 Responses to “The Story of Them”

  1. Though Joan Crawford writing about herself falling off a horse may not be funny, I did chuckle when reading what you wrote about it.
    Amy should’ve called her autobiography “I don’t like people knowing my shit”

    • Many thanks, Ronnie! And hell yes re. Amy, though the powers that would probably have insisted on having camouflaging dots in ‘shit’.

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