Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys
by Viv Albertine
* * * * *
by Margaret Chrystall
SINGER and guitarist Viv Albertine powered female punks The Slits, was embedded in the 70s London punk scene and has survived marriage, IVF, cancer – and depressingly frequent outbreaks of sexism.
The latest, she informs us near the end of her book, is her manager walking out on her because she won’t agree to let someone else write the book we’re reading.
Luckily for us, she dumps him and writes the book anyway – no surprise once you’ve lived through 50-odd years of life with Viviane, who tends to face her demons.
As she writes after a particularly hair-raising moment: "I’m scared, but I go anyway. That should be written on my gravestone. She was scared. But she went anyway."
Soulmate of The Clash’s Mick Jones, compadre of Sid Vicious in pre-Sex Pistols band The Flowers of Romance, regular shopper at Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s era-defining clothes shop SEX, it took Viv time to get where her heart wanted to take her – into a band.
But she was born into the right time, when punk meant you didn’t have to have brilliant music skills – just attitude, ideas and style.
And Viv also had true grit to persevere with a dream, long after good sense told her to give up.
She recalls the slow progress of learning guitar: "My neighbour Sue comes round. She very politely begs me to stop playing. She says she’s been sent round by the rest of her flatmates to tell me that I can’t play guitar… She’s absolutely right and I know it. I’m not progressing. I have no natural musical talent. I’m making a terrible noise. But I’m not going to stop. I don’t know why. Maybe because there’s nothing else in the world I want to do."
Then after various chances to be in bands had come to nothing, Viv got the chance to join The Slits and be a musician and performer on her own terms. Feminists, making their own music and trying to steer away from being exploited, the group toured, made albums and finally imploded, leaving Viv a grey shell broken and eking a living as an aerobics teacher till a film degree and marriage followed.
As a historical witness to punk’s early days, she is fascinating – as is her postscript list of boys, clothes and music from each period of her life.
But Viv is also exceptional because of her own take on a life which has been packed with ups and downs, tests, tough times and her own determination to express herself – whether through music, fashion, film or ceramics.
She begins the book on a note that will be shocking to some people – if only for the reason they think all punks must have been promiscuous and scarily depraved.
And just a warning that there is just the odd incident with bodily functions, one moment where Viv is injected with heroin – and a graphic description of being spat at by an overenthusiastic punk audience.
But some of the most illuminating moments in the book are when the Viv – of now – comments on her past self: "I care what people think about me to the point of despair, am over-sensitive to criticism and lacking in self-confidence but I don’t let my negative feelings stop me from doing stuff."
Now her 20-year time as a Hastings housewife and mum has given way to a return to music.
And the one-time Slit – pictured bare-chested and smeared in mud on their debut album cover – seems to be facing just one more, apparently minor, challenge, compared with what she has been through.
Viv’s doctor tells her she will find a new "someone" to share her life with.
She writes "He may as well have said ‘One day you will find a unicorn’."
But women like Viv Albertine are rarer.