Viv Albertine of The Slits new memoir is both great fun and utterly compelling…
“Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys”, the recent memoir by Viv Albertine of The Slits, is marketed as a girl’s view of punk, and while it is that to some degree, it is also a study of the impulse to create art, and an inspirational one at that. There has been an influx of ‘insider views’ of the music industry from both big players and also-rans of late which made me view this release with some skepticism. It seems as though anyone who used to be in a band is giving the whole ‘writing a book’ malarkey a go, with varying degrees of success (for the record I loved and would recommend both Tracy Thorn’s Bedsit Disco Queen and Peter Hook’s Inside Joy Division.) Would Albertine’s punk girl memoir offer anything new?
The answer is a definite yes. Punk as social history has now been done to death, with John Savage writing the definitive account with England’s Dreaming anyway. I no longer have any interest in reading anything new along the old McLaren/Westwood/ Bill Grundy/Queens Jubilee/Binmens Strike trajectory. It is highly refreshing to read an account which gives us new depictions of punk’s main players beyond John Lydon as wild eyed Finsbury Park visionary and Sid Vicious as the scene’s doomed idiot.
Albertine knew the whole gang as friends, and thankfully is brilliantly indiscreet with sharing all the gory details on page, showing them all in their awkward teenage glory. Here is Viv, making a failed attempt to give Johnny Rotten a blow job. On one page she is being ticked off by a haughty Vivienne Westwood, and on another Johnny Thunders, fresh off the plane from NYC, has fallen for Viv and given her a love token of a syringe full of A grade smack into her arm (actually into her arm rather than the vein – it goes black for some time afterwards.) And then there is poor old Mick Jones. Now we know where those brilliant love lorn Clash tunes such as Train in Vain and Should I Stay or Should I Go? come from as on/off lover Viv continually gives him the run around, much to his dismay. She paints a portrait of her friend Sid Vicious as both a wild and destructive character, essentially sweet and surprisingly ambitious (chucking Viv out of their band The Flowers of Romance because she can’t play – pot/kettle etc.) One of the funniest scenes occurs when, after confiding in Nancy Spungen that she has never had an orgasm, Sid comes and offers Viv his services, explaining that Nancy has trained him up and gives her full seal of approval.
All this is great fun and brings home the essence of punk as we are reminded that while these kids were trying to tear it all down and build something new, they could never have guessed the legacy the scene would have. She is as much a fan and observer of punk as a member of the scence – she loves the Pistols and desperately wants to be in a band but can’t play. Her determination to express herself musically, without the experience or knowledge to do so, is the most compelling aspect of her story and shows that behind punk’s anyone-can-play ethos there had to be real work and creative desire.
Funnily enough, while The Slits were mocked as talentless by many men at the time, their music is now often viewed as more musically innovative and generally funkier than most of the stuff the punk boys were peddling. With the birth of The Slits comes the formidable and eccentric Ari Up, one of music’s most original front women. Viv has an uneasy relationship with Ari which is touched on throughout the book, and made me wonder if the passing of Ari in 2012 allowed Viv to write more freely.
Albertine has an authentic and distinctive narrative voice, and in some ways the second half of the book, which deals with the fall out from The Slits split, her subsequent career in film making, years of depression to unlikely creative re-birth, is much more interesting than the first. The bravery which Viv shows when beginning to make music again after so many years out of the loop is compelling, and inspirational to anybody who has an urge to create despite being told they can’t. In Viv’s case it was her own husband who wrongly told her nobody could possibly be interested in what she had to say. This book and her recent acclaimed solo album are also a victory against those who want to keep any women over the age of 50 invisible. Viv is in her late 50s and still looks pretty foxy singing onstage with her guitar wearing a pair of hotpants. And if that’s not punk then I don’t know what is.