Deft Punk: Viv Albertine (01/15)

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. by Viv Albertine. New York: St. Martin’s Press / Thomas Dunne Books, 2014. 432 pages.


Viv Albertine was the guitarist for the Slits, the female London punk band that could have been called Upheaval. Her autobiography is a great book. It can stand next to Chuck Berry’s Autobiography (1987), Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One (2004), and Jenny Diski’s The Sixties (2009). But no genre can hold it. The title refers to Albertine’s mother’s judgment on the only things her teenage daughter cared about—and the title hits home near the close of the book. “Side One,” the first half of the story, ending with the demise of the Slits in 1981, is a tremendous ride, coursing through infinitely fascinating tales of fighting off thugs leaping out of audiences and the mud-and-breechcloth photo shoot for their first album, Cut (1979). But “Side Two,” which chronicles Albertine’s life from then to now—through film school, her career as a TV director, marriage, motherhood, a happy and then deadly dull life as a housewife, a return to music after more than twenty-five years, the end of her marriage, even a brief return to a new Slits, her recent life as a single woman—is more affecting.

Clothes, music, boys—that really is the frame of the story Albertine tells, and she can hang it wherever she likes. Again, near the end: It’s 2010, she’s fifty-six, she meets a guy in a bar in London. “He’s gorgeous. They become a couple, but he’s full of rage, he hits her, he has sex problems, and she says it’s over. He goes berserk. He drags her off by her hair, pushes her face into the carpet, and pulls her hands behind her back. “So this is how I find myself,” Albertine writes,

a middle-aged mother of a twelve-year-old girl—wearing a stripy blue-and-white sailor-style Sonia Rykiel cardigan with an appliqued red silk heart on it, knee-length red linen skirt cut on the bias, bare legs, hair in a scruffy pony tail and blue Havaiana flipflops—on my knees, with my face pressed on the floor, in a poky bedsit above a Chinese takeaway in Camden Town, held down by a man fifteen years younger than me who has the strength and unpredictability of a lunatic. A man I’ve introduced to my mother and my daughter, cooked for, laughed with, worn my best dress for and attempted to amuse. Jeez, there’s just no pleasing some people.

That’s the book: detailed, immediate but contemplative in the moment, a jaded eye cast in the mirror of the writer’s own life, a laugh at herself.

Albertine was a natural punk, but not because she bought clothes at Sex and attended one of the Sex Pistols’ first shows, in 1975, and found herself changed forever: “At last I see not only that other universe I’ve always wanted to be part of, but the bridge to it.” For her, punk means questioning everything and holding nothing back. “We hate double standards and false people and all of us are very vocal in our damnation of any hapless person who crosses our path who hasn’t thought rigorously about life,” she says of the Slits. They’re in a TV studio with a singer in a

peasant gypsy-type dress and warbling away in a breathy little-girl voice. We went up to her afterwards and told her she was shit, that she was compounding stereotypes and doing a disservice to girls, that she should take a good look at what she was doing and how she was projecting herself and be honest about who she was. She burst into tears. We do that sort of thing all the time.

But decades later, even if she denies it, the same person is there. After years of trying to get pregnant, two miscarriages, and thirteen operations, Albertine writes

I am not a person, I’m a shadow, creeping along walls, quivering along pavements, my body itching, my mind wild, my patience stretched tight, ready to snap at the slightest provocation. I can’t stand to look at pregnant women. I hate them. I can’t even bear pregnant friends—I stop seeing them. If anyone walks too close to me in the street or at a bus stop, I want to kill them. I will kill them, just let that fucker take one step close, it’s nothing to me, I’m dead anyway.

And the same person is there more than a decade later—after cancer, after a killing depression and revelation (“From that day, when I’d realised I’d got up off the sofa and was sweeping the kitchen, it took ten years until I could honestly say, ‘I am well'”)—when she decides to find a teacher and learn to play again so she can rejoin the Slits: “Take a bored Hastings housewife and turn her into a punk-rock guitarist in five months.” She practices, she learns, and her teacher begins to take her to open-mike nights.

There’s a scene where Albertine drives up to her beautiful house on the coast in the middle of the night. She gets out of the car and stands still. Her husband is about to tell her it’s music or him. She knows her marriage is over, but deep down it doesn’t matter: “Mummy,” her daughter has told her, “you were born to play guitar.” “The reason I’m walking up the path to my house at midnight with a guitar,” Albertine says, “is that twice a week I drive three hours to a random pub and three hours back home again, to play two of my songs in public.” “I’m embarrassingly awful. I am shit. But the songs are good… And I have to get them out there somehow. They are little creatures clamouring to be heard.” One night someone comes up to her. “You ever heard of a band called the Slits? You remind me of them”—and in that instant the whole book, a whole life, collapses onto itself, the past and the present indistinguishable.

In the pubs, she gets bolder, less becoming a punk again in her midfifties than becoming more of a punk than she ever was before, finally realizing the promise of her natural self: “I don’t take shit anymore when I play. One night in front of a crowd of braying ponytailed old rockers I shout, ‘Anyone here ever taken heroin? Made a record?’ There’s a stunned silence. ‘Well I have, so shut the fuck up or go home and polish your guitar?'”

This is the best book on punk, though it’s about punk only to the degree that it cuts in and out of one woman’s life. Albertine will tell you about seeing the Sex Pistols and her friendship with them, but she doesn’t have to mention that they broke up, even though she babysat Sid Vicious’s girlfriend Nancy Spungen while the band was in the U.S. She doesn’t have to tell you he was charged with murder or how he died. The word punk is always in quotes, as if to stress her doubt that the liberty it seemed to stand for ever existed at all: “‘Punk’ was supposed to be open-minded and DIY but was actually rigid and unforgiving.” That is, until the book’s very end, when pathos has so deepened over the preceding one hundred and fifty or so pages of her life after the Slits that a single sentence can bring everything into perfect focus. The quotes still distance the writer from the word, but the reader can feel them float right off: “‘Punk’ was the only time I fitted in. Just one tiny sliver of time where it was acceptable to say what you thought. Perhaps I was lucky to have that.”


Artforum, January 2015


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