Viv Albertine on Surviving the Slits, Cancer and the Quiet Life

by James Rickman

Shortly after joining the Slits, an all-woman punk/dub band forged in mid-seventies London, guitarist Viv Albertine found herself on tour with the Clash, where every show offered a barrage of loogies, beer cans and fists. Offstage, her romantic involvement with the Clash's Mick Jones was flaming out; it ended with Albertine "jumping like a maniac" on a hotel bed that Jones and another woman were sleeping in. And throughout the tour, the Slits were banned from buses and hotels, in part because of their style -- "a mixture of leather jeans, rubber dresses and knickers on top of our trousers." All this and more in one brief chapter of Albertine's new memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.

The collisions between clothes (e.g. Vivienne Westwood), music (decades after she left the Slits, Albertine shoehorned herself out of quiet domesticity and into a solo career) and boys (like her passionate, platonic tryst with Vincent Gallo) only intensify in the second, post-Slits half of the book. Skyping Albertine in London on Black Friday, we asked about the weird duality of being a shy young woman with no music training who joined one of the most confrontational punk bands ever, and the risks of being a mother in her fifties whose book promises full disclosure, "(genital) warts an' all."

So the book has been out for almost six months over there. Has anything surprised you as far as the feedback you've received?
Completely surprised, actually. Nothing I've ever done artistically has ever resonated much beyond the very underground response kind of thing. A much wider audience has enjoyed the book and newspapers have put it at the top of lists, and I just can't believe it. It's been a very warm response and people are saying that they're very inspired by it, which I didn't expect because I thought I had written all my mistakes, all my problems. I wanted to show the flipside of someone who looks like they've got their life together and what is really underneath it all, so I wrote all the downsides, and yet people found it very inspiring. Whereas I thought they'd think I was an idiot. [laughs]

Have people come back to you after reading about themselves in the book?

Yeah, yeah. Mick Jones called me and said he'd read the whole book through twice and he thought it was inspiring to other people and that he was inspired himself. It reminded him of who he used to be -- he felt he'd changed a lot in between and he wanted to get back to that sort of pure, music-loving person that he was. I was so pleased, because he was the person I really didn't want to upset. I know that John Lydon is OK about his blowjob chapter. I was a bit worried about that. The only other person I was worried about was -- well, not worried about, but I did wonder whether Vincent Gallo might be a bit pissed off because I know he's very private. But I haven't heard anything from him, which is good, y'know. Means he's not going to sue me.

Are you going to promote the book at all over here?
I would love to, absolutely love to, but I don't know if it is financially viable, really. It's great because when I play gigs, I play in sort of dirty, dark, undergroundy places with filthy lavatories, and now I'm reading in lovely, big open rooms that are nicely lit and at least 50 percent women come, which is much less than come to gigs, and it's a much nicer environment, I tell you. I don't know if I can go back to playing.
Something that struck me the deeper I got into the book is that you start to come across as a very private person, despite having been in this totally in-your-face band. And of course the book itself is brutally honest. At any point while you were writing, were there moments of doubt that you could put yourself out there like that?
Well I can't help but sort of still work by the old punk ethos, which is still in me. I wasn't a punk because it was trendy; I was a punk because that's how I felt. And part of that was being honest and authentic and taking your vulnerabilities and making the most of them. Until I met Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood, Johnny Rotten, I was kind of embarrassed that I'd come from a poor family, I wasn't very well educated, I couldn't play guitar, I had no musical knowledge. All those things I felt were terrible setbacks for me and made me uncool, whereas when I met them, they were proud of the fact that they were coming into something unschooled and could bring a sort of passion and naiveness and a fresh eye to it. So they taught me that whatever you are, and whoever you are, shouldn't ever limit your confidence or your dreams. So I sat down, and the first thing I thought was, "I'm not going to write this book wanting to be liked." And all the way through the book I had to keep stopping myself from just slightly changing a sentence so that I came out a bit better, or just setting the scene so it wasn't so boring. It was very hard as a woman to write not wanting to be liked, because we are appeasers and we like to please and we're sort of brought up that way, and I had to keep throwing it out the window.
Was the writing all memory based? What kind of research did you do?
I was determined to make the writing process fun for me, so originally the structure of the book was going to be -- every chapter was going to be a different boy I went out with, and I would chart my life through those relationships because, especially in the seventies, boys meant a lot more to me then because they were the only ones having interesting lives; there were no role models for me or for girls. Especially being working class and sort of poorer, there was no one I could really aspire to be, no women in great positions, no women in bands, etc. So I'd date guys who I found interesting and could learn from, so I thought I would base each chapter on boys and it would be fun to write -- I could remember humiliating things or sexy things -- but there were just too many boys! [laughs] And as I started to write, the real drive of the book started to reveal itself, which was just this woman, it could've been any woman or even any person, who just keeps getting up and falling down and getting up and falling down throughout her life. So in the end I only kept the stories or the boys in that fed that thread. And I didn't use any research; I thought, "I'm only going to write things that are absolutely burnt into my emotional memory."

What is a typical day for you now that the book is out?
I feel a bit like I've had a baby that's taken three years to gestate and I just want to enjoy this baby for a bit before people begin to ask me when I'm going to have my next baby. And I just feel like it has been a huge, slow build-up, like an elephant giving birth for me to get this book out, and I just want to get it across, enjoy it and enjoy the reaction, all the oohs and aahs to my lovely baby. Also I'm a great believer in fallow periods, and I can quite happily sit now for six months or a year or however long it takes -- I mean the last one was 20-odd years -- and not do anything until I get that passion again. I mean, to get that album [The Vermillion Border] out, I was so passionate, I was so desperate, I lost my marriage and everything over that music, which is a huge thing for a woman in her fifties. I think it is incredibly radical to say, "I'm gonna pick up my electric guitar, I have to write songs, I have to make music, and I'm throwing away my home and my financial situation and my daughter's family to do that." It's not like being a young boy, still living at home and rehearsing in the garage. It's really a radical thing to do.

That's awesome.
And I'm getting older and older, and I just wish I'd known how cool it was to get older and how my life has gotten better and better, and I wouldn't have been frightened of it. I think everyone is a bit frightened of getting older, but if you play it right, it just gets better! You have your bad things, I had the cancer, but having come through that, it has only added to who I am and what I see about me is so much richer now because of it. I'm looking forward to the future, and I'm not at all worried about it. I feel confident and a bit bolshy, probably. Do you know that word in America? Bolshy?

Bit of a Bolshevik, y'know, can't help but go against the grain, can't help but tell the truth. I did this thing last night on radio where you have to give marks out of ten to six new records, and I couldn't help but tell the truth, and I'll never work again for any of those record companies. But that is what I love about the Internet: I don't need a record company. It very much reminds me of the '70s, the Internet thing, because just for a little period back then, we actually managed to get our foot in the door without being a part of the big CBS, EMI or whatever, and it feels like that again. I can actually tell the truth. I can make music at 50. I don't need an A&R guy to tell me, "You're too old. Sorry, you can't sing. Sorry there's no niche for you." I can just put it out straight to the people. Many might not see it, but there still is an outlet. It's a really exciting time because of that.

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.
is out now from Thomas Dunne Books

Photos by Carolina Ambida and David Corio

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