‘Anyone who writes an autobiography,’ Viv Albertine cautions unflinchingly from the outset, ‘is either a twat or broke’ – before conceding, self-deprecatingly, ‘I’m a bit of both.’
In a similar vein, the opening passages of Albertine’s brutally elegant memoirs clatter and stumble their way into the cultural crosshairs with a series of ruthless short, sharp shocks; an approach entirely in keeping with the lawless and (genuinely) anarchic spirit of The Slits, the groundbreaking band that first brought her to public prominence. Chapters entitled ‘Masturbation’, ‘Shit and Blood’ and ‘Blow Job’ might sound like the kind of ropey B-sides routinely knocked out by bands at the less auspicious end of the punk rock spectrum, but instead succeed in exemplifying everything you need to know about Viv’s story, and indeed the artist herself. For where less assured narrators may have elected to filter these devilishly beguiling recollections via a soft-focused dilution of self-delusion and vacuous diplomacy, Albertine opts to confront the reader with an account that perfectly mirrors her approach to love, to liberty, and to life itself: unique, uninhibited, and endearingly true to herself.
‘Great! We could do with some crumpet in our band!’ exclaims the boorish male vocalist, a fellow member of the Class of ’77, upon learning that Viv is a guitarist (take a bow, one Paul Weller); the twin menace of bigotry and chauvinism being a common strand that permeates the first half, or ‘side one’, of the book. A depressingly recurrent insight into a musical movement that succeeded in liberating the likes of Albertine, Sioux, and Poly Styrene often despite (not because of) the intractable reactionary rump that still existed at its periphery. It’s easy enough to reflect upon The Slits as pioneering feminist icons from the relatively cossetted confines of 2014, but to do so detracts from the truly hostile cultural landscape from which they were initially spawned.
The Slits, even at the peak of the band’s success, were as despised as much as they were adored. A misogynist doesn’t change his worldview simply because you spike his hair with soap and stick some safety pins in his jacket, and the gleefully confrontational feminist stance adopted by Albertine and Ari Up et al goaded you to make your choice; to take a stand; to define which side you were on. Accordingly, it is my solemn and sober duty to warn my fellow ’70s fetishists that the author’s depiction of our fabled decade recurrently departs from the conventional party line. In lieu of glitter, public information films, and the collected output of the Children’s Film Foundation, we are confronted with a bleak and all too sinister backdrop of violence, exploitation, and unremitting sexual menace. The rapes, the assaults, the manifold ‘touching-ups’ are retold in almost impassive tones, starkly emphasising the desensitising impact of it all. And consequently the author, like so many of her generation, takes her cultural, artistic and self-sufficient lead from the sexually and politically emancipating Patti Smith. ‘If I can take a quarter or even an eighth of what she has and not give a shit about making a fool of myself, maybe I can still do something with my life.’
The story of punk, even more so from a British perspective, has almost solely been recounted via male voices, and it is this diversion from the tired received wisdom of the period that lifts Albertine’s story above its weary pack of literary predecessors. Her lovingly tender and wonderfully human deconstruction of its almost mythical male figureheads, Vicious, Strummer, and Rotten, is a joy; a series of borderline comical interludes that belie the almost godlike esteem in which they are often held. It is The Clash’s Mick Jones who remains a constant and guiding presence throughout Albertine’s life however, a lifelong friendship and mutual devotion born of lust, love, and heartfelt admiration: ‘Even though he is aware of coolness,’ the Albertine of 1976 ponders, ‘Mick would never change himself to be cool. If he likes something or someone, he sticks to his guns – that’s one of the best things about him.’
The spiky on/off nature of their relationship however – the inspiration for The Slits’ ‘Ping Pong Affair’ – mirrors the guitarist’s relationship with her fellow Slits, a rumbustious and unruly cocktail of fire and petrol that spits creative genius and arbitrary conflict in equal measures. It is the author’s depiction of a bygone lost London, a grubby yet ultimately affordable London, that will make the same ’70s fetishists weep most profusely though. A city that once fostered untold creativity and individuality amongst its squats and affordable housing, and which offered up universal opportunity for those who were sufficiently motivated to grab and twist it by the balls. A period that admittedly harboured degrees of random urban peril within its shadows, but one in which the spirit and ambition of its youth was not defined solely by the bank accounts and trust funds of its parents.
‘Side Two’ of Viv’s story commences with the implosion of The Slits and swiftly segues into a self-proclaimed ‘lost’ period that stretches from 1982 to 1984, one in which her titular obsessions of clothes, music and boys are reduced to a sorry beige trickle of mundane practicality and daytime Radio 4: ‘I can’t find meaning in anything, so I may as well do meaningless things like go to the launderette and stare in rich people’s windows.’ It reads as a de facto sequel to the initial 250 pages, depicting as it does a series of excruciatingly and bleakly personal life events that blissfully culminate in a self-directed upsurge of personal and creative redemption. In doing so, we grow to appreciate that Viv’s latest album, the spine-tingling The Vermillion Border would be a lesser entity (if indeed, it existed at all) without the interminable heartbreak of the failed attempts at IVF, the soul-destroying slow-drip of an ultimately joyless provincial marriage, and the sexually-charged transatlantic flirtation with auteur terrible Vincent Gallo. Notably, the book concludes with the starkly defiant declaration ‘I still believe in love’: the mark of a survivor, of one who has absorbed the knocks, the beatings and the blows and refused to allow them to sour her spirit.
Ultimately, Albertine measures her riches not via the health of her bank balance nor the size of her home, but by the degree to which she is free from personal and artistic suffocation. In this sense, I can think of no finer book for my eleven year-old daughter to inherit.
Illustration by Dean Lewis