CLOTHES, MUSIC, BOYS
A First Lady of Punk Rock Talks
After growing up in the London projects, Viv Albertine became a guitarist in one of the first all-girl punk bands. Her new memoir looks back at her life lived by the principles of punk.
“Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke,” Viv Albertine, a former member of the influential British punk band The Slits, writes candidly in the opening of her memoir. Then she confesses: “I’m a bit of both.”
It’s this kind of self-awareness that runs throughout the rest of Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys. In her new memoir, Albertine recounts her life in a matter-of-fact fashion—her childhood with a deadbeat father, her discovery of—and love for—music, her effort to start a family, and her battle with a life-threatening illness.
“It was heavy,” she told The Daily Beast of drudging up old memories. “It was horrible really, because it was like living through the past. But, I felt there was good enough reason to do it.”
Albertine, who was born in Australia but grew up in London’s public housing, spent her formative years like most children her age: getting into trouble with her younger sister, teasing boys she liked, and dreaming of The Beatles, who sparked her love of music.
Her father split by the time she was 11—he moved out while the rest of the family was on vacation. But, her mother saw the change in a positive light and raised the two girls on her own. Albertine’s obsession with music and fringe culture continued to grow. She went off to art school and quickly became enveloped in the emerging punk scene.
The Clash’s Mick Jones became one of her first serious romances. Soon, Albertine was learning proper spitting techniques from Sid Vicious (the two met after one of his gigs with the Sex Pistols) before being kicked out of his side band, The Flowers of Romance, because she couldn’t properly play guitar. Jones helped her chose her first one, and she quickly learned to play.
By 1977, Albertine had joined The Slits, one of the first all-girl punk bands of their time, flushed out by bassist Tessa Pollitt, drummer Palmolive, a 14-year-old Ari Up, who was unexpectedly stabbed by strangers on the street during two separate occasions. The girls ran in the same circle (Palmolive was also in the Flowers of Romance) and the group was looking for a guitarist.
“People didn't know whether to fuck us or kill us, because we looked like we'd come out of a porn magazine,” Albertine writes. Though they may have been scantily dressed with photos of naked breasts on their shirts, Albertine admits that the only porn she’s ever seen is Paris Hilton’s sex tape (“and I don’t want it in my head,” she said).
The band shopped at Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s fetish-influenced fashion boutique, Sex, learned how to properly “squat” at abandoned homes, endured friend’s drug overdoses, and toured the States on The Clash’s 1977 White Riot tour.
Then, everything fell apart. Albertine’s relationship with Jones dissolved. Ari got pregnant and the band broke up. Albertine was forced to move back in with her mother with no sign of a future career.
So, at 29, much like picking up her first guitar, she began to shoot a short film with little prior knowledge of what she was doing—figuring out the production processes as the film evolved. Albertan applied to film school, was accepted, and forged a successful career as a television director for major networks in Britain throughout most of the 80s and 90s, before becoming a full-time mom.
“I wanted to show young people to keep trying at life, that sometimes there will be patches of whole years—five years, ten years—when life just goes a bit wrong and you have to get yourself back on track,” Albertine says of her decision to write a memoir.
Great loves came and went—she married and divorced. She fought to conceive a child many years after she had an abortion, and she survived bouts of depression and a dose of terminal cancer.
“I just wanted to make it realistic and not glamorize life,” she said. “I’ve only done a handful of things in my life that have stood out. The rest is just broth: mistakes and boredom.”
But through the good and the bad, the ups and the downs, “life is better than it’s ever been” for Albertine, who recently celebrated her 60th birthday.
She reunited with the Slits for a brief period in 2006, released a solo album in 2009, made her acting debut earlier this year in Joanna Hogg’s film Exhibition, and is raising a healthy teenage daughter, all of which are examined throughout the B-side of her memoir.
“I’m fit and every day is an interesting mix of younger and older people,” she recalled of her week’s schedule. “I went on a fashion shoot on Tuesday. I went away with a handsome guy on Wednesday. And today [Friday], I worked with a young music team.”
“I still adhere to those [punk] principles of not being clichéd, not being lazy with life, and taking risks,” she says of negotiating a lifestyle between her punk past and societal pressures, “but there is a way to still be that person and realize you don’t need to lose your idealism just because you’re older.”
And then, at the close of our conversation, her punk roots reared their head like they had never disappeared.
“What’s next on the horizon for you,” I asked. Her response was a “very un-macho, uncool, and unexciting one,” according to Albertine. Just a simple, yet joking: “fuck off.”