Gano was born in Connecticut to actor parents Norman and Faye Gano. The family moved to Oak Creek, a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1963. His father, an American Baptist minister, opened a church in Oak Creek. Rev. Gano, an accomplished actor, formed a community theater group in Oak Creek, and Gordon appeared in many of its productions, notably "Sing Out Sweet Land" in 1974. His father played guitar, and exposed his son to a wide array of musical genres, including country and western, show tunes, and gospel. The liner notes to the band's compilation album Permanent Record describe Gano as "a devout Baptist".
Older siblings from his parents' previous marriages living in the NYC area exposed the young Gano to such influences as The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, Patti Smith, Jonathan Richman, and the B-52's. Gordon's garage band days began with covers of Bob Dylan, The Beatles and moved through Grateful Dead (Hunter/Garcia) songs to Lou Reed and Velvet Underground songs by 1979. Gordon began writing his own songs in the mid 70's, influenced by the vocal stylings of Lou Reed, the story-telling of Hank Williams, Sr. and the poetics of Patti Smith's "Babelogue". Given his acting background, Gordon wrote many of his songs for characters, whom he would portray while performing the associated song.
In 1979 the Gano family moved to Hales Corners, where his father took over an existing American Baptist congregation. At this time Gordon began attending Milwaukee public school—Rufus King High School, from which he graduated in 1981. After graduating from high school, he worked briefly as an encyclopedia salesman.
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