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An interview with Viv Albertine / by Grace Ambrose

Viv Albertine refers to the period of her life occupied by The Slits as “punk time." Best known as the guitarist of the pioneering London band, her recent memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys is indeed full of stories about the group, famously so wild they were barred from staying in the same hotels as their tourmates in The Clash. The introduction helpfully indexes the mentions of punk, preemptively taking the piss out of readers short-sighted enough to only be interested in those years. Tales of wearing a tampon as an earring while walking down King’s Road to Sex, band practice with Sid Vicious, snogging Johnny Thunders, and being on the dispensing end of a blowjob gone awry with Johnny Rotten are, of course, irresistible, but the book excels in its latter half, a portrait of a rich and long life, of a woman cycling through illness, the building and dissolution of a marriage, motherhood, and back into creative production.

Last fall, I called Viv from my home in San Francisco—when I told her I was the editor of a magazine about DIY punk she asked me, “What even is punk in 2014?" Thankfully after that she let me ask the questions.

I read your book in under twenty-four hours. It was striking in its immediacy—there was very little of that specter of hindsight that poisons so many memoirs. It was like watching a life unfold, not looking back over a life lived.

My friends had been saying, “write a book, write a book." And I really didn’t want to. I mean, The Slits hadn’t really been rediscovered yet, the Internet hadn’t really kicked off, and I didn't really think we were that relevant—it was only when young people rediscovered us that I thought we were worth looking at again. I didn’t want to be just a nostalgia band. Then when my marriage split up and I came back to music and people were still saying, “Write a book" I thought, well, actually I can see quite an interesting book in there. I’d sort of come full circle, picked up my guitar again, against the odds. Everyone was saying “You’re mad, don’t do it, you can’t play, you can’t sing" and it all felt so familiar.

The internet made it feel like the ’70s again, where you could be a bit DIY again. So exciting and I had all of these songs in me that I had to write. I thought, “This is interesting, I can see an arc now." I had done a lot of scriptwriting at college. The publisher said, “We’ll sign the book if you do three chapters and an overview but I’m telling you Viv, if the writing’s not good, I don’t care what anecdotes you’ve got to tell. If the writing’s not good we’re not going to take it." It was terrifying to be sent off with that.

Before I even put my fingers on the keyboard I made a pact with myself that I was not going to write to be liked. Otherwise I knew it wouldn’t resonate. I thought back to comedy like Curb Your Enthusiasm or Seinfeld and how what people like about those things is the way they say things that you feel or think but never say, and make them humorous. I thought, I can tap into that. Say those things women never usually say and tell everything absolutely honestly, only write about events if I was in the room and saw them happen, no hearsay, and throw away the whole notion of being liked which, for a woman, is very hard.

I had to keep policing myself through the whole of the book ’cause every now and again, just like when you tell a story to a mate or whatever, you can’t help but want to edit a boring bit out or big yourself up a little bit more, make yourself sound a bit nicer or cleverer, a bit sexier, a bit funnier and it was very hard to keep catching myself and saying “no, you were boring there, you were disloyal there, you were caught up in your looks there when the others weren’t." The band, they weren’t as obsessive about their looks as I was.

Five chapters in, policing myself, writing it very straightforwardly, there was something a bit dead about it and then I switched into the present tense. It was quite by accident—I thought “I’ll write the chapter about Vincent [Gallo]"—I was writing my fun chapters first, I didn’t write it chronologically—and as I wrote, I slipped into the present tense. A bit later I read something Hilary Mantel, whose got loads of classic history books wrote: “All your characters should not know what’s coming next." Don’t have an overview, no “little did I know…", no knowing voice. I blundered blindly through the book and I felt like an idiot, knowing as I wrote that I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing but I did it. To write with that innocence in a way was hard. I wrote that chapter in the present tense and the whole writing came alive and my voice clicked.

You didn’t write to be liked, but you come off as quite likeable, precisely because those very human qualities are laid bare. When you asked me about what punk means in the year 2014, it was impossible to talk about it without talking about the internet. It’s interesting that you said it made things feel like the ’70s again—it’s so easy now for people to hear new music, to see things, to collaborate with people across the globe. At the same time, I think it also makes it really easy for people to over-document their lives. You never took photos or kept a diary.

I don’t want to knock younger people, but I think they are very, very nervous about not documenting what they’ve done. The whole of my book was written from memory—no photographs, no diary. Of course, there are thousands of memories I’ve forgotten, whole of Slits tours, years when I was directing. But then you think of the Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park, the free concert after Brian Jones died and the detail with which I remember it…there are hundreds of details I don’t remember but the ones I did remember were enough and they stayed with me for forty-odd years. In a way you remember so much more when you don’t take a photograph. There’s something about not keeping a diary, not writing it down. When I was going to the Roxy Club in the ’70s, I thought to myself, “I know I should be keeping a diary. I’ve got a feeling I really should be writing this down." And then I just thought, fuck it, I want to be absolutely immersed in the experience. There’s something about if you’re documenting, you’re not partaking somehow. Not participating in the same way, your whole emotional being isn’t in it. I am telling you, you will not remember it as well and as beautifully and as poetically if you document it. The internet is still new and we still have to learn ways to use it and ways to leave it when we don’t need it.

I think something that goes along with the current impulse to over-document is also the impulse to edit the documentation as you go, to only let the things that you identify with in the moment make their way into the public eye. There are amazing photos of you in the book—if you had those photos on a cell phone, you might have deleted them!

“Oh, my clothes are shit in that one! Delete it! My hair is flat!" In a way you need to get forty years on to think, “Oh, I looked great," to see yourself with some sort of kindness. I just think people have got to take little steps and realize that they can trust their memory. And it’s not about recalling words and names and dates and faces, but rather that what you document when you don’t take pictures is the emotional imprint and that’s what my book is about.

I haven’t got my dates and my places particularly right, I’ve had to write a little disclaimer in the front that says, “This is not a bus timetable, don’t write to me, boys, if I’ve got dates and times wrong." Emotionally, the really humiliating moments really imprint themselves on you, the times when you get rejected, the times when you fought something and you won. Those moments. When I went to Hyde Park and someone stubbed their cigarette out on my toe, when I tried not to walk on the dead butterflies…those sort of things, the way things imprint on you is different if you don’t document them. They don’t go away. The good stuff and the meaningful stuff doesn’t go, it just sticks with you in a different way, in a much more meaningful way.

I think as women we need to be responsible for writing our own histories—if we leave it to men they will either fuck it up or leave us out. I also think that as women we also have to inordinately protect ourselves from being attacked by people for including what they see as spurious or subjective information, emotions over facts.

I totally expected male critics and male readers to trivialize the book, put it down because it was an emotional recounting of a time rather than a factual one. I had a very terrible three or four months before it came out when I delivered the book and I couldn’t get it back and change it anymore and I thought, I am going to be ridiculed, laughed at, hated, because I haven’t painted myself as a very good person. And I made an emotional document.

I think it’s really interesting. Men love the book, they have been very moved by the book, even the second half. Women I knew would get it. Maybe female influence on the world has had an effect and the way we talk and think has become recognized by more of the status quo as being valid. The Slits were sort of dismissed because we used nursery rhymes and playground rhymes—that was our only history. When I was making film in the ’80s, the oral history that was passed around between women was considered very second rate compared to the way that men documented things.

The trouble is when something is accepted, it becomes absorbed and then it becomes commercialized and then it becomes soulless. I’ve always said I’d rather be a woman than a man. I’d still rather be slightly on the outside of society. Even though, as a white woman you aren’t that far outside society, as a woman I feel like it gives us a more interesting life. I don’t want it to be all taken and commodified and used and made acceptable and accessible. That’s what’s happened to music in my eyes. Any little rebellion that comes along now is swallowed up and turned into dollars so quickly. There’s no time to be a rebel anymore, there’s no time to speak up. “Your hair looks crazy, you’re dressing like this—get it on the catwalk." “Your music is wild and heavy—headline this festival." Any rebellion is immediately digested and turned around within months.

I’ll send you some current London rebels. They’re still there, I promise!

I don’t like ugly music. Don’t send me something thrashing away! It’s so subtle, the different ways you can be a rebel. The Slits music is quite beautiful—there’s melody and structure but the way we dressed and the way we acted and the things we wrote about and the accents we sang in…everything added up to something that had never been done before whereas so much of what I hear now is just regurgitation, repackaging.

I think that’s part of the reason why the Slits were so threatening to some people—your music was melodic and musical and still aggressive.

Hardly anyone even heard our music! They were so terrified, looking through this veil of fear. People came to our gigs who had never seen a girl on stage playing guitar or drums before in their lives. They could barely even get to the point of listening to what we were doing. It was just too gobsmacking. It was like watching monkeys in the zoo. And that’s why I think it has taken this long for our music to be appreciated. Now it’s without the fear.

In the book you write about how the boys—Johnny Thunders and Sid Vicious and Mick Jones and the rest—were desperate to be rock stars, while the women had to make their own models. You have a teenage daughter now—do you think she has the same impulse? Or have visible models emerged for her?

In the ’70s I had never seen a young woman be a lawyer, run her own business, there were hardly any women at art college. I hadn’t seen any women in cool job—apart from that, I was poor and I didn’t know anyone who was a lawyer or anything interesting. All I knew was teachers—I went to school every day so I could see that was a job and music. But of course they were all proper singers. There are definitely more models now.

The trap now for young women is that they have to exercise their choice very carefully because they have so much of it. You’re bombarded. People are walking encyclopedias and libraries now—we only knew one thing, two things. I had two tv channels, two best friends, I liked three bands, I had one pair of jeans, two t-shirts. It was so much more singular—there was so little choice that you could very easily say “I’m on that side, not that one." There are no sides any more, which is great in a way, not so petty and small-minded, especially Britain which is such a small island. The internet has made everyone’s lives international. Films, art galleries…young women are so much more sophisticated than I was but at the same time they must exercise choice.

We had no expectations at all on us. We were ignored, thought of as worthless, as not any use to society. At the same time that meant we could go out and cause a bit of trouble without being noticed, cook up a whole scene without being noticed, get it off the ground without being noticed and then with our small choice we made something that has actually resonated for thirty or forty years.

Now people don’t necessarily have to say “why" they chose a certain thing, since there is so much choice.

You saw how I wrote in the book how strict we were to each other about music—what we played, what we wore, why we wrote that song, what the lyrics meant. It was like going to the worst sort of university, you had to justify every single thing you did. I don’t look back on those times as pleasant and easy and great fun and oh what a laugh, I look back on those times as really difficult, really worried all the time that I was going to put a foot wrong, that I didn’t know what I was doing. Everything you were doing you had to think so carefully about. And I think that’s not a bad thing to do. And do, every five to ten years in my life anyway, I completely talk though my mind and my circumstances. Is this where I want to be? Am I on track to where I want to go?

In the afterword you include detailed lists of the clothes, music, and boys that featured prominently in different periods of your life. I could imagine lists of books appearing as well—there’s an amazing assortment of epigrams at the beginning of each of your chapters. You obviously have a long life of reading.

When I was younger I was a big, big reader because we didn’t have TV. It was the end of the hippie period, quite an intellectual time. I was just at a comprehensive school, what we call a state school, coming from a poor background and yet I was reading Dostoyevsky and Colette and Anaïs Nin, Grapefruit by Yoko Ono.

The musicians I followed were all quite intelligent and you'd hear about Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies and you would hear about all these sort of interesting things that would lead you on to something else. It was a very inquiring time and if John Lennon mentioned Hoffman or Lenny Bruce or someone you would go to the end of the earth to try and find a book or something by one of those people. I was a big, big reader for many years and it fell off a bit during punk time. I read a bit about Situationism, I read about anarchy and that kind of a thing during punk time. On the road I didn’t read so much.

I sometimes think the books you read between sort of fifteen and twenty are the ones that resonate and stay with you most. I can still remember books like Les Grand Meaulnes, Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles, all the Beat poets, obviously. I think always slightly rebellious, quite musical writing like Beat or Anaïs Nin or people who have a certain rhythm in the way they wrote…Heady Russian stuff. I started reading a lot the last ten years again. I read sort of most of the big contemporary books that come out, especially by women. My favorite, favorite books are about relationships in some way or another. I much prefer female authors. I very rarely like a male author, strangely.

Or not so strangely! As someone who works for a monthly publication, up against a constantly ticking clock, I feel like I never get to reset and take stock of my work. You have had periods of activity and fallowness in terms of artistic production. I really admire your ability to resist the outside pressures to be constantly producing.

Writers would love for me to have something I am working on to wrap up their articles with. I’m not going to give into that. I’m not working on anything. I’ve completely gone fallow. I do wish more people would stop for a couple of years here and there. Someone like D’Angelo—he hadn’t done something for fifteen years and I think that’s fantastic. It’s not cause he’s not talented, he’s massively talented. He doesn’t put anything out until he’s ready. That is a proper artist. I understand that music has in many ways become entertainment and that’s fine, that’s another genre, but there always used to be another genre of music, which was about revolution and being radical, being a true artist, expressing yourself when you’re ready. There is no way as a true artist that you are ready every eighteen months to churn out a new album or sit down and write a new book.

Do I want to get back on this treadmill? Everyone’s saying, “You should put an album out Viv, you’re hot at the moment and then once you’ve done that, write the next book." I went twenty-five years and then I put out a great album and a great book. I’d rather wait another twenty years. But it was nice. When I put it all together, for the first time it all congealed into a life.

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