By Liz Maher for Stupefaction
Viv Albertine, original Slit girl and It girl of the 70’s London punk scene, long before the Kates and the Caras, has released her memoir CLOTHES, CLOTHES, CLOTHES. MUSIC, MUSIC, MUSIC. BOYS, BOYS, BOYS. (Thomas Dunne, on sale 11/25) The title comes from Albertine's long suffering mother’s exasperated summation of Albertine’s autoelectic description. Mother Albertine nailed it. Fortunately, Albertine grew up impoverished in the UK council estates (you know, the staircases and hallways are on the outside like at an Eileen Warnos era Florida motor court) instead of the USA where she could have easily have taken the ubiquitous mall rat turn. Thus charming transcends annoying. Malcolm McLaren and Viv Westwood’s frock shop, Sex, was Viv’s university and family, and they used her without mercy. The Diane Lane film based on Viv and her mates, Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains, missed that part.
Albertine’s memoir does more than reminisce about her days as guitarist of the pioneering female punk bands (The Slits, The Flowers of Romance, and Flying Lizards), it tells a coming of age story which also serves as a historical insider’s guide to London’s early punk scene. The Slits served as female counterparts to The Clash - touring with them and The Buzzcocks and opening for The Sex Pistols. Declaring herself a feminist throughout the book, Albertine eschewed the traditional groupie/girlfriend role women - think Bebe Buell, Uschi Obermaier (my brother’s fave), Pamela Des Barres – women who also obtained a measure of agency through a more traditional and outwardly submissive role. Instead she immersed herself into the music scene as a musician and artist and uninhibited public persona who redefined her identity to embrace the world beyond the council flats. What Albertine might actually mean by “feminist” seems to be an autodidactic sense of rejecting the role of the abject and being assigned to ontological irrelevance. A plaster caster, she was not.
Admittedly she could not actually play guitar when she started out but that was part of punk’s search for the arche blues energy and its charm as an arresting fairy tale in the age of disco, self-absorption and Silver Jubilee commorative tea sets. Obsessed with having the perfect look and band cred, she eventually learned to play power chords. On the side she dated The Clash’s Mick Jones, inspiring the song Train In Vain, and Johnny Thunders (who I remember watching on stage wedged in between two speakers, drunk out of my mind at age 13,) was Sid Vicious’s BFF and ran with Chrissie Hynde and Siouxie Sioux.
Albertine offhandedly stakes her claim to setting the Doc Martin with minis, shrunken dress and taped torn stocking trends and Sid started the safety pin thing. More accurately, it happened around McDowell and Westwood’s boutique on Portobello Road and they glommed onto the trend and pushed the merch. At one point Albertine mentions her influence on 15-year old Slit’s bandmate Ari Up (RIP, Johnny Lydon’s daughter in law and creative msifit). Later she served as role model for Sleater-Kinney, Carrie Brownstein, Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain through the phylogenic persistence of her “mosquito guitar” sound). If that is not enough, her analysis of Sid Vicious’ handwriting alone makes it worth reading. I had always wondered about graphology and the creative process. In Sid’s case he was a sensitive slob, behind his – um – public image.
In keeping with the brevity of punk tracks averaging under 3 minutes, Albertine’s writes in speedy, two page per chapter bursts, a roman a clef version in the vein of Dashiel Hammnet, James McElroy and the 30 Second Bunnies ‘tunes. She takes the reader through a treacle flavored tour of her life from her first memories as a child immigrating from Australia to an dodgy life in England, growing up in an abusive broken home, coming of age on the cusp of punk rock’s development in the UK, attending art school hoping to follow in the footsteps of Ray Davies, too many boyfriends, battles with addiction, cancer and personal demons. Albertine experiences more in three chapters than most people experience in a lifetime. In short a Scholastic Books type morality tale for the middle –aged. Albertine writes about a lot of sexual harassment which she doesn’t feel the need to call out thereby making a stronger statement. She muses wistfully upon Joe Strummer’s lack of loyalty to his bandmate Mick Jones as Strummer “pesters (her) to sleep with him” despite his rotting teeth and overbearing political naiveté. Strummer wasn’t the only Clash member to solicit her. On the other hand, Vicious is portrayed as the eternal gentleman, if gentlemen spit, curse and start fights.
The Albertine-Jones relationship is complicated. It starts out with her whining to Jones about another
boy she's shagging after which he asks her on a date. With no effort or intention on her part, it progresses to a thing with Albertine reluctant to publicly acknowledge the romance (on the surface not conform to societal expectations but really because she didn’t want to hurt her chance with other boys.) Their love is challenged by Jones’ jealousy, a lonely abortion, more jealousy from Jones, Jones’ infidelity leading to VD for VA and finally ends with his blowing Albertine off after she won’t have sex with him will dealing with depression. She really should have gone with Thunders, possibly the only larger narcissist on the scene.
CMB is sectioned into two parts: Side One (young Viv) and Side Two (Middle Aged Viv). Side Two brings to mind the Arctic Monkeys’ anthem Fluorescent Adolescent of a woman who “used to get it in your fishnets, now you only get it in your night dress.” Part Two has our heroine trying to remain relevant by attempting re-create her band, teaching aerobics and taking a sort-of traditional job. Cancer, divorce, aging and loneliness enter but Albertine doesn’t let that or any man get her down. Albertine presents as not overly self-conscipus of her own talent. She is very skilled at showing things with her writing without having to state it, a sure sign of someone who never fit in. Her refusal to submit to undermining statements from male mouths is pronounced a bit too often and loud, we got the point. However, it is appreciated and maybe does need to be pronounced, discussed and chanted like a battle cry. It all ends on an uptick with Albertine counting her blessings and again her determination that no man will break her spirit. Albertine soundtracks her whole life in an appendix at the end, omitting the Arctic Monkeys. Let's say she lost her groove after 1981.
CMB is a great read/gift for both punk-o-philes and young women who these days identify with strong heroines (i.e. Katniss Everdeen.) There are a few cringe-worthy sex scenes in the book but they are so strained and uncomfortable they are more likely to promote abstinence than promiscuity. Vivian Albertine, you will never become a fixture in the Victoria & Albert, but her exegesis will be referenced in the catalogue.