SLITS GUITARTIST VIV ALBERTINE’S brutally candid autobiography, Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys, has been voted by MOJO's writers and staff as their favourite book of 2014 – and no wonder, as it positively overflows with cracking revelations and uncommonly honest insights into the extraordinary life-journey of its authoress, blooded in the new wave explosion of 1976 and ’77 as guitarist with her pioneering all-female reggae-punks and a survivor of subsequent travails including debilitating low self-worth and health issues.
What follows is MOJO Reviews Editor Jenny Bulley's uncut interview with Albertine, the edited version of which appears in the latest issue of the magazine, as part of our 17-page celebration of the best music-related things of the last 12 months.
MOJO: How did you come to write a book?
Viv Albertine: I didn't really know what to do after being in a band. I went to Goldsmiths to learn to read music, thinking, I need to know the nuts and bolts of it. After that I was in a bit of a no-man’s-land. And then I got very ill. A couple of friends said, “Write a book, Viv.” They didn't like the fact that I’d let it go and that I was becoming a mother and a wife. I think my whole personality left my body actually. Coupled with the illness and years of IVF.
“I tried not to be vindictive. The first draft was!”
I didn't want to write a book about punk because The Slits weren't about nostalgia or sentimentality – that was very much against our ethos. It was really only six or seven years out of my life and The Slits were written out of history around that time. Until the ‘post-punk’ moniker was made up there wasn't really a place to put The Slits. We thought it was because we were girls and we weren't taken seriously but I think in retrospect it might have been because our music wasn't the three-chord thrashy punk thing, there wasn't a box to put us in.
Then with the help of Vincent Gallo [actor and Slits fan who contacted Albertine out of the blue in the ’00s to declare himself a fan] – who didn't know what he was doing but the way he spoke to me, just the way he talked to me like a whole person and an artist – made me think, “Oh, if someone sexy like Vincent Gallo can think that at my age I'm still relevant and still attractive, as an artist…” He was one of many threads that came together in the writing of the book. I got fit again, I went to art school and started to think of ideas again.
You write in the present tense throughout, which makes the visceral stuff – blood, sex, fertility treatment – all the more vivid.
I just thought I'd write as I talk. I did about six chapters and it was looking really bare, almost like journalese. But I was so determined not to be all flowery and not to put too much description in. I knew it was going to quite a feminine book – I was talking about bodily functions and all these things – but I didn't want to alienate men. But so many men have told me that they love the second half of the book. Which I think is amazing because it's really just about women's waterworks.
I got five or six chapters in and it just wasn't happening and then one day I switched into present tense. I wrote the Vincent Gallo chapter in present tense, quite by mistake, and that was when everything just clicked. I partly tried it because I heard Hilary Mantel mention that every character in her book doesn't know what's coming next. I thought, how great to write an autobiography from that point of view: that you don’t know what’s coming next. It was a really hard thing to do. I knew as I wrote that I was looking stupid sometimes, with the heroin part and the abortion, but I wrote as if I was completely in that moment with only the knowledge I had up to that point. I wrote it like the idiot that I was at the time. That's when I found my voice.
And I tried to only use words that were used at the time. It was the ’70s so I'm talking about blowjobs and him going down on me and sucking a guy off, things that you don't say now.
The amount of casual violence in the book is quite startling.
It made me realise that the streets are a bit safer now. Plus there were the IRA bombs going off then. There were the skinheads the Teds. Men were much less emotionally educated than they are now. It was a very different world for a young woman, people were constantly hitting on you, and you were so objectified. But there was also violence. The minute we started dressing like we did, they had the attitude that if we dressed like freaks, they'd treat us like freaks. We didn't even have that tiny bit of respect that a man had for a woman – even that was gone by the time The Slits walked down the road. We weren't even treated like humans. We were nothing.
The threat that we posed to straight men was huge because we were taking all these signifiers that men used – like fetish S&M wear, which was only for men. Some people didn’t understand the album cover when we were naked but we thought, “No, we’re going to take our bodies back.” You can see from our stances that we were not for anyone's pleasure doing this. That was revolutionary then. It was such a shame that so many people didn't get it. Men didn't get it; feminists didn't get it. That was so radical, to take nudity out of the hands of men and say we're claiming our naked bodies back, thank you very fucking much.
“Mum would meet me at Highgate station with a kitchen knife in her pocket.”
On the 1977 Clash tour the reaction to The Slits was so strong. What did they think you were going to do?
It was just a threat to mankind. When I picked up my guitar again I got that from my own husband. It was simply that when you picked up that thing – the electric guitar – you were crossing into a masculine world. It was the threat that they were going to lose their control over women, their power over women. It was all at such a base level they couldn’t have even verbalised it, but that’s what was frightening to them. My mum used to come and meet me at Highgate station with a kitchen knife in her pocket.
The Slits were very physical, though I didn't do it so much because I felt uncomfortable. The other girls were very rough and tumble and physical. I always felt comfortable with [drummer] Palmolive next to me; she was always good in a fight.
That’s the other thing that Norman the coach driver [on the White Riot tour] didn’t like, we were so physical, we were running in and out like a bunch of boys. We were in their foyers and on their radio shows and in the CBS offices and they didn’t like it.
You thought Paul Simonon trying to scrub off Chrissie Hynde’s tattoo with a pumice stone while she read aloud from the Bible was sexy. Were you too romantic for punk?
For years I thought, “Ah, I can never be the sort of girl Chrissie is.” I could never entertain a man like that! It just sounded so wild. She was pretty wild.
What have reactions to the book been like?
I've had a much wider response to the book than to anything I've ever done. I think partly when you take music out of the equation you take taste out of the equation. It's more like a conversation. We're so tribal in Britain about music. But my music – my guitar playing, the rhythms, et cetera, just express my personality, because I'm self-taught. That's why The Slits are timeless because we didn't adhere to any fashion. We just distilled all our influences through ourselves. But does it count if no one can get it?
Cult status is often retrospective.
Exactly. It's like the Velvet Underground – everyone goes on about them now but how many of them were interested at the time? Hardly anyone.
Punk was such an exciting time because there were no rules. You could go and knock on Sun Ra's door – and he was in the phonebook, under Ra! You could go and see Junior Wells or Buddy Guy, all sorts of amazing people in America, and there was no one there. They were playing little cafes and bars.
“Girls were nothing in the ’70s. There were no role models.” Viv Albertine
It’s interesting that the book has really resonated. I don't see it as a music book, it's just the journey of a woman and the context is music. What’s really resonated is the honesty. I felt like nothing for 15, 20 years and now people say, “Oh Viv, you’re a legend,” and I thought, “Well, that's funny because I've just been pushing my broom around my kitchen for the last 15 years feeling like shit, so how come I'm a legend?”
I really had young people in the back of my mind when I wrote the book. I was writing a letter to myself in a way. Girls were nothing in the ’70s. If you hadn’t been born into a decent family and had a decent education as a girl you were fuck all. There were no role models. On a class level it was just awful – nothing was expected of you. It's a wonder more girls weren't delinquent in the ’70s but we didn't even have that! We didn't have that drive, that energy to be bad. It was such a small box we were in. To break out of that, it’s no wonder guys didn't like us.
I look at someone like Laura Marling and I do feel a bit like, “Why wouldn't she be a good songwriter and musician with her upbringing?” It’s the people who transcend their backgrounds who are interesting to me. I have got a bit of inverted snobbery.
You had a successful career in film after The Slits. Did you ever think about going back to that?
The thing about film is that it takes a lot of money, especially if you want to do your own thing – make a short film or whatever. I really felt I wanted to get really raw and talk about one person’s experiences and emotional ups and downs. Film is a whole team and millions of phone calls to get a bit of money here and there. It’s so fucking slow. And then you end up with a really watered down version of your vision. Whereas, to sit on my bed with my guitar just felt like enough. It doesn’t get any more direct than that.
There won’t be a film of the book then?
I’ve had so many offers to buy the rights to the book and I’ve said no because I don’t want myself as a living person portrayed on a film and have people who don’t know me think that’s me. But also, I know that the costume department will get it a bit wrong, the dialogue will be a bit off, and in the end it will be this bastardised version of me.
The only way to do it would be to get some real auteur to do some real, fucked up vision, his or her vision, and that would just be in the spirit of the book.
Have you had much feedback from people who are in the book?
Mick [Jones], bless him, he took about a month to get back to me and I thought, “God knows what he thinks of it,” but he rang up – I wasn’t in but he left a message – saying that he was really moved, that he thought it was a brilliant book and he’d read it twice, just to make sure. He really took it so seriously. Mick always took me seriously. He said he was inspired and that he thinks it’s inspiring to other people, but more than that it’s inspired him. He’s the only person I really give a shit what they thought about it.
Weren’t you tempted to use the book to settle scores?
I tried not to be vindictive. The first draft was! Because the thing is, I know a lot of stories about people that other people would love to know. But I can’t just write anecdotes about John Rotten or Paul Simonon or Chrissie Hynde or whoever. But the book’s not about going off down these little avenues. It’s the story of the survival of a woman, any woman or person. And it’s not about going down a little road with a bit of gossip – which I’m sure everyone would love to know.
I had to leave those bits. It wasn’t about dissing this person or that person. I never wrote about anything if I wasn’t in the room. No hearsay.