Punk past in my eventful life story

Viv Albertine, author and former member of punk band The Slits.
Viv Albertine, author and former member of punk band The Slits.
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Viv Albertine, best known as a former member of all-girl punk band The Slits, has written a memoir. She spoke to Duncan Seaman.

CAUSING a stir was perhaps not the first thing in Viv Albertine’s mind when it came to sitting down and writing her memoir, but frankness and fearlessness 
are embedded in her DNA.

Bandmates, boyfriends, acquaintances, her ex-husband, even Albertine’s own battles with IVF and cancer are written about with searing honesty in her book Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys.

“I’ve always lived like that, really,” explains the former guitarist with all-female punk group The Slits. “It’s caused me great problems, but there are problems either way. I am pretty frank. I’m not fearless but I can be pretty brave. I don’t want life to slip away because I’m shy.”

She says she has been “surprised” that people have been so generous about her book. “They don’t mind frankness and honesty. I thought they would hate me.”

Albertine was there in punk’s infancy – she hung out at Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren’s clothes shop Sex, was a member of Sid Vicious’ first band, the Flowers of Romance, while at art school she dated Mick Jones of The Clash, and she went on to join the all-female punk group The Slits with Ari Up, Palmolive and Tessa Pollitt. Yet she says she did not want to write a book that was “particularly punk-based”; the readership she had in mind was girls of her daughter’s age – 15.

“We were the first generation of young women who had been able to live a more interesting life,” she says. “I wanted to show girls all the pitfalls along the way so that if they encounter them they’d know that we did this and came through it. It’s the whole journey of a woman, how many times I was put down along the way and how many times I got up.”

Many things led her to punk as it was formulating in London in the mid-1970s, including, she says, her mother. “She came from a generation that was very repressed. She was much smarter than my dad but he was the one who went out and did interesting things.

“I was a scared person. It was seeing my mother’s generation being squashed. They had had enough. We were the products of them, that dissatisfaction, that led to punk.”

She was “galvanised” by seeing Patti Smith and the androgynous Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. “Before that I had not really seen someone like me in a band. I thought I could be as daring as him.”

The Slits might have been short-lived – they made two albums before splitting up – but they were trailblazers.

“We intended to make a classic album that stood the test of time,” Albertine says. “People had never seen a girl play guitar or drums. It was shocking to an audience of boys who’d been going to gigs for years. It was fascinating to them. At the end of the set we would jump into the audience and dance to the next band. The way we dressed nobody had seen before – I might wear a Brownie uniform with Dr Martens or a tutu with rubber stockings. We were girls who did not look like girls, in a way.

“Then there was our music – we decided carefully not to just copy 12-bar blues chord structures and write the same rubbishy lyrics. We were totally honest in our words – at the risk of being ridiculed or laughed at.”

Beyond punk, Albertine recalls her battles with IVF and cancer and the break-up of her marriage. “That’s almost the most important part of the book,” she says. “I’ve done so many things so many ways, so much has gone wrong. To me, I felt to talk very honestly about that stuff would be helpful. I hope writing the book makes people feel less alone.”

Clothes Clothes Clothes... Music Music Music, Faber & Faber, £14.99. Viv Albertine will be at the Off The Shelf Festival on October 22. For tickets visit http://tickets.sheffieldstudentsunion.com/ents/event/6814/