A Cut Above: Viv Albertine in the Wylde Interview
PORTRAITS BY SARAH LEE
TABOO-TRAMPLING PUNK PIONEER VIV ALBERTINE SHATTERED STEREOTYPES AS A MEMBER OF SEMINAL GIRL GROUP THE SLITS. WHAT HAPPENED NEXT? GOOD TIMES, BAD TIMES AND A PHOENIX-LIKE REVIVAL. PIPPA BROOKS MEETS THIS FAR FROM “TYPICAL GIRL”.
For me, one of the most important and enduring feminist images of the second half of the 20th century is the cover of The Slits' 1979 album Cut. Ari Up, Viv Albertine and Tessa Pollitt, caked in mud, unashamedly stripped to the waist; feral warrior women confronting the male gaze. Powerful. Different.
If you haven't read Viv Albertine's autobiography, Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys, then shame on you! It's outstanding! A friend of mine just got back from New York and said it's everywhere! Good. In my Instagram feed, everyone's reading it, or at least re-gramming the cover to look like they are! Albertine, guitarist in the hugely influential punk band The Slits, tells her life with characteristic raw honesty. This is only partly a rock-memoir, though. The years as part of punk's beau monde are riveting. But the intervening years between then and now have seen Albertine go through years of being 'unseen'. The highs and, more often, lows of her battle with cancer, being a film-maker, fitness instructor, housewife, mother, actress and her horrific IVF treatments… losing herself and then coming full circle and picking up her guitar again in her 50s and making an album, is an inspiration.
We meet in my shop in Hackney, I'm chatting to my friend in the doorway and Albertine strides into view on the opposite side of the road. She waves, looks fantastic. I usher her inside, then cringe because my iPod has shuffled up Johnny Thunders (an ex-boyfriend of hers) duetting with Patti Palladin, so I loudly discuss herbal tea choices until the track shuffles off!
Pippa: Can we just talk about your punk credentials? Which are ridiculous: you formed a band (The Flowers of Romance) with Sid Vicious, hung out in McLaren and Westwood's shop SEX, your first ever blowjob was given to Johnny Rotten, you went out with Mick Jones, Johnny Thunders... all this before forming one of the world's first all-female punk bands. I could go on, but the stuff of punk legend had a relatively small cast, and you were one of the major players.
Viv: I don't want to be a legend, don't call me that, please! When I first came back people kept saying “Oh, Viv, you're a legend!” so I decided with the book that I wanted to deconstruct that whole thing. I've had years of failing and doing things wrong, of my body falling inside out, and I wanted to show young girls especially, that you don't have to be confident, or a man, or born into a fabulous, bohemian family, or be wealthy, to make your way through life. It's so funny because The Flowers Of Romance are still famous! Someone wants to do a radio show about it and there was never one gig or one song! Thirty-odd years later!
You've described Clothes, Music, Boys as a self-help manual. What is the most important message you want people to take away from reading about your life?
That you can be a complete fuck-up and still muddle your way through life! In fact, that's what life is: muddling along, trying to hang on to who you really are. You could almost call it How Not To Be a Woman! Because I did everything wrong and Caitlin Moran [who wrote How To Be a Woman] did everything right! But you know, just because you made an album, or you're in a film, doesn't mean you've had a successful life. I wanted to deconstruct all that, like The Wizard of Oz!
I love the part of the book where you're trying to teach yourself to play guitar, in the hot summer of '76.
It didn't come easily to me, I wasn't naturally musical. I wanted it badly, but I wasn't disciplined. I'd been to a very flaky comprehensive. Everything about it was hard for me.
And the way you chose the guitar to be your instrument; I've never heard it described the way you do: that you thought the sound of the guitar would resonate with the sound of your voice?
The timbre of my voice really suited the instrument. My nasal, north London voice really suited the Telecaster. I didn't necessarily master it but you can hear my voice in my guitar-playing, which you can't really say about many other female guitarists. You can about loads of male guitarists. So I'm pretty proud about that.
You have a characteristic way of playing that is entirely 'you'. In fact the Slits still sound so fresh as a band today, listening back, because your influences were way off what everyone else at the time was doing. You listened to a lot of reggae and dub didn't you, but also Burt Bacharach?
We weren't following the 12 bar rock practices, which were the fashion then. We were referencing dub, but also we were referencing musicals. We thought about every aspect of what we were creating, from every note we played, to every word we spoke, to everything we wore.
I think it's interesting that 'Clothes' are the first on the list in the title of your book. I like that you give your appearance and how you presented yourselves the weight it deserves. The mix of SEX clothing with dance-wear from Freed, Terry de Havilland shoes, home-made pieces, rubberwear. But women had never looked the way The Slits looked before had they?
You can wear anything now. But then, you could take stuff like fetish wear and you could wear it in a subversive way. It was a political statement. Men didn't know if they wanted to fuck us or kill us! They were torn and knocked off balance. They knew we were saying 'fuck you' and taking our bodies back.
The 70s were bleak times, not least for women’s rights. Who did you look to as a role model?
The 70s were very patriarchal and backward, like the 50s, in a way, where women were concerned. There was no one to aspire to be. Maybe to be a primary school teacher, or in the police. I used to copy boys because they had a more interesting trajectory.
And also in your book you tell of desperately searching the records of bands you liked for the "thank-you's", in the hope of finding a female mentioned. For The Slits to even get up on stage must have been such a kick in the eyes!
The audience had NEVER seen a girl drumming or playing guitar before! It's crazy to think now but we were so alien!
It's almost as though your appearance got in the way of the music in way, don't you think?
Yes, at the time most critics couldn't see past our appearance. It's actually since this new generation has discovered The Slits via the internet and actually listened to us that they realise the music was great! The establishment wouldn't have put us where we are now, it's young people, reappraising us, especially musically. That's one of the great things about the internet, is how music can spread via word-of-mouth; you don't need record companies. The same with my book; that has all grown via word of mouth.
The cover of Cut [above] is so important I think… for women to see you so defiant and beautiful and not submissive.
We took our bodies back; it was “Fuck you! Our naked bodies are for us!” There's nothing wrong with nakedness, we were reclaiming it. It wasn't passive. With topless girls in the 70s it was all passive eyes and 'fuck me.'
Ari Up, the lead singer of The Slits was a child, fourteen, when The Slits formed. It's really shocking to read inClothes, Music, Boys, how much physical violence you all, but especially Ari, had to endure. She was stabbed twice!
Never once did anyone shake her from her path. She was a little warrior. Imagine being 14, 15 being stabbed, spat at every time you went out on the street. That's why we travelled in a gang, slept on the floor of each other’s houses. Because it wasn't safe. But we weren't going to go into the loos and change, we were living it.
You have a lot of valuable life experience to impart, and one of the best things about you is the fact that you haven't mellowed with age! Would you like to teach?
I do lecture. Mostly at art schools like LCF and St Martin’s. I tell them all the things their teachers don't want me to say! Kids are so straight now! You're not going to make anything fresh or life-changing if you're aspiring to get on the housing ladder at 18 or 19. We had no aspirations to own a place at that age; it's crippling them to want to do that so young. If you’re focused on that, you won't take risks. Young people feel they've failed if they haven't 'made it' by 26, and then they'll get to theage where they definitely won't take risks.
Another very important lesson I took away from Clothes, Music, Boys was the fact that creativity saved you so many times. Would you say that's true?
It has, every time. My life has fallen apart emotionally so many times. It's hard to be a female artist and be supported by a man; they hate that. Men don't like to be nurturing, sidekick-y types. My husband thought I just wanted to go back to music to be looked at by men. In my fifties! Having been faithful for seventeen years! That I wanted to go on stage to be looked at by men; that's what he reduced it to. I just can't meet a true soulmate, even though running throughout everything, it is probably what I want more than anything [wry snort!]. I almost reluctantly turn to creativity. And it does save me every time.
What about a cut-off point, especially for women, in our culture? Is there a shift in whether it is 'seemly' for an older woman to do certain things. Like perform live music on stage?
Middle-aged women have sort of started coming to the fore now. Even six years ago, when I picked up my guitar again it wasn't the case, I felt like I was back in the 70s again. That was one of the things about Vincent Gallo that was so great. He socialises with women like Kim Gordon and Anna Sui and there was no doubt in his mind that I could do what the fuck I wanted.
I was about to ask about Vincent Gallo! In the book, the section where he contacts you right in the midst of your 'housewife' years like a bolt of sexually-charged lightning is, at times, difficult to read. In such a good way! You are so fabulously honest about your crush-y feelings, the reactions of your girlfriends to his attention and the way it affects your home life. Has he read the book?
Yes! [At this point, Albertine's body language is contorted with teenage awkwardness]. The thing is that I can't be in touch with Vincent. I totally appreciate him [a knowing smirk passes between us], and I totally appreciate him from afar very much, and think he's interesting and wish him well... but I can't deal with how he isn't really there for you as a friend. He's like a cat with a mouse, patting you about. I'm all-or-nothing and I want a friendship or not a friendship, not getting patted about like a plaything.
Nevertheless, his appearance in your life, your long, transatlantic telephone conversations, were the catalyst for huge change in your life weren’t they?
He came into my life at an important time. I clung on to him like a raft or lifeline. I'm quite sluggish, and I needed someone as beautiful and mysterious and driven as Vincent to pull me out of it. He was strongly influenced by punk and saw The Slits play in the 70s and he was kind of returning the favour in a metaphorical way. He's in his fifties and he was showing me that you can still be iconoclastic, driven and wild, and you don't have to try to please or be liked. He carries it well. He was reflecting all those things that I thought then, back at me. I needed to drink it all in. I was so mired down by illness and stuff, so squashed. I don't know what he thinks of the book though! [laughs].
You started to make your solo album The Vermillion Borderin 2010, despite everything being pitted against you. [FYI, reader: my favourite track is Still England which I'm listening to while transcribing this. Probably because it will be the only song in history to name-check one of my heroes, Laura Mulvey, but also because Albertine has the genius to rhyme pineapple chunks with cunt!]. It was a brave move...
I don't think you can be rebellious in music anymore. But I think the most rebellious thing you could do is what I did: I was a fifty-year-old housewife and I was throwing away my marriage and my kid's home to pick up my guitar. When I hear about bands that are supposed to be edgy because the lead singer takes his top off or whatever I think ‘Fuck off!’ They're not edgy… I'm edgy! But people won't get it for another thirty years. I'll be dead and they'll be saying, ‘Oh, Viv was edgy..!’ [laughing].
You've said you wanted Clothes, Music, Boys to be almost a self-help manual. Who is your ideal audience for the book?
I hoped that for young girls reading it, it would almost be like having honest older sister who wants the best for them. That if they went through a bad period in their lives they could think, well Viv had down-times and she ended up alright...
THE WYLDE QUESTIONNAIRE: VIV ALBERTINE
Who's your best friend?
Trace. I can say anything in the world to her, from bowels to bands!
Do you vote?
Argh! My Mum would kill me, because, for her, the fight of the Suffragettes was so important, but I don't. I like being sort of off-grid.
What's your favourite TV show?
Oh God, I don't want myself to sound really thick [laughing] but I could easily watch trash TV like X-Factor or Bake-Off.
Are you a good cook?
I can't be bothered to cook so I'm a bit of a gatherer of berries and nuts, like a hamster!
So you're quite healthy then?
Well, I have a body that's very sensitive. I can feel if I've eaten sugar. I'm constantly trying to resist temptation. I know it's not good for me, but I live near the Violet Bakery, so if the slightest thing goes wrong in my life, I think, 'fuck it, I'll have a cake!' I had two the other day...
First thing you do in the morning?
I don't really have a routine at all. I might go through a period where I do a little bit of mindfulness for a while and then I don't do that again for months. If I'm writing, I write first.
What was the first record you bought?
Well, I had no money. I was in to the Beatles, the Stones, Marvin Gaye, Tamla Motown. I'd sort of steal a record from this or that person. One of the best ways of starting a conversation was to carry an interesting record under your arm, then you'd stop and talk to someone if they liked it too.
Would you ever appear on a celebrity reality TV show?
I wouldn't go on a fucking game show! No way! I think they're mad! Maybe they go on for their career but I'm not into 'career’. To be a careerist isn't to be an artist.
What did you feel about the Riot Grrrl movement in America in the 90's?
I went to see Bikini Kill. I thought 'good', like part of our legacy was going forward. But it didn't touch my heart because I was somewhere else by then. Nothing really captured my imagination about it. With punk, it was fuelled by artists, and ideas from French philosophers, the Situationists, anarchists, lots of other things feeding the movement. The Riot Grrrl movement didn't really have that, although maybe in the States it did.
You have a daughter; has she read Clothes, Music Boys?
Yes, and all her friends have read it.
Your determination to be a mother (hard as it was, with gruelling, painful IVF treatments), is one of the hardest parts of the book to read. Like everything else in your life, your strength of will against the odds is incredibly inspirational.
My daughter is the best thing that ever happened to me, without a doubt.
Are you driven? A workaholic?
I'm like a reluctant artist. I could hibernate for winter quite happily. I once went to bed for three months! When I'm burnt out, I take to my bed. I think there's great value in daydreaming, away from social media or racing to see this band or that band. Just looking at a patch of sky...