Viv Albertine is most recognized for her 70s group The Slits—an all-woman rock band borne from England’s punk scene that blends elements of revolutionary sounds, shock, fashion, and feminism. Albertine’s scope, however, goes beyond just music. Her versatility as an artist encompasses the world of paint, sculpture, film, and fashion. She is a great deal more than just a woman who once rolled alongside groups like the Sex Pistols and The Clash, hitting the bars and streets with fellas like Sid Vicious and Mick Jones and chicks like Siouxsie Sioux and Chrissie Hynde. She balls up her life’s yarn in her standout memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.
Clothes… Music… Boys… doesn’t simply serve as a vehicle for nostalgia: In addition to covering Albertine’s hilarious, moving, and painful memories of growing up in England during the years following World War II, the memoir examines the stifled culture of the era that she and her peers in the punk movement revolted against. It uniquely illustrates her coming into childhood, girlhood, womanhood and, most importantly, personhood—the stage where she learns to get in touch with herself fearlessly. The book likewise catalogs the fashion trends that Albertine witnessed and participated in, especially at “the Shop”—SEX—the iconic London boutique established by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood—where Albertine picked up a pair of boots (upon Westwood’s insistence) that she proudly sports to this day.
Apart from documenting the cultural and social atmosphere of these times, Albertine’s book is extremely personal. Her narration strikes a balance of confidence and vulnerability, and the resulting voice is emboldening. Dual spirits reside in her book: one that is pensive and anxious, and the other ruthlessly bold and grounded—a dichotomy that leaves the reader feeling empowered, understood, and granted permission to trust her own instincts. Despite Albertine’s naysayers (the friend that begs her to please stop playing the guitar because she can’t bear the sounds; the OBGYN who tells her she’ll never conceive; the medical world that tells her she’ll die of cancer; the husband who says she’ll never be an artist or a soloist), her willpower does not leave room for compromise. She turns the volume up on her own inner voice.
Albertine’s memoir is not only a book about her own journey, but a reaffirming guide to trusting oneself for young women everywhere.
Below is a recent conversation I had with Viv Albertine via email. We discussed her writing process, femininity, and our culture’s failure in the arts due to white middle-class men’s dominance.
Grace Jung: What did you read in order to get yourself motivated or inspired to write a memoir?
Viv Albertine: I read some Anais Nin, which I had read when I was younger. I like her sexual honesty, but she was also elegant. [And I like] the everyday ordinariness of her diaries. I like that juxtaposition. Also, Proust, Violette Leduc (The Bastard)—all French writers! I like how they realize that the everyday and commonplace is significant.
GJ: You write your book in the present tense. Any specific reason for this choice?
VA: That happened way into the book and I had to go back and rewrite it. It happened accidentally when I was writing the Vincent Gallo chapter. I wrote the chapters out of sequence. It was about the fifth chapter I wrote. I slipped into the present tense and the writing came alive.
That thing happened when you hear about, “I found my voice.” It was exhilarating. I also heard Hilary Mantel say, although she was talking about fiction, “Write your characters as if they don’t know what’s coming next.” I thought, ‘That’s fantastic,’ and so obvious, and it would be great to write an autobiography like that because in life you make some stupid choices but that’s all you can do with the knowledge you have at the time. I didn’t want my older, wiser self looking back at the younger me and making judgments.
GJ: During the writing process, did you learn anything new about yourself or others? Did anything happen while traversing through your memories that surprised or moved you?
VA: It was a very difficult process, like going through your loft and coming across all the letters you’ve written, all the failed love affairs, college applications, family secrets—it was traumatic. Once the book was published and the arc of my life was between two cardboard covers, I saw what I’d done in a different light. The book validated my shifting between mediums to express myself, and because the process was contained in a book, it legitimized something I’d always thought of as a weakness. Now people praise me for being so fluid! They think I’m a polymath. Also, I didn’t realize what a willful survivor I was until I finished the book and Don Letts said to me, “You keep getting back up again every time you’re knocked down.” I’ve never thought of myself as strong, brave, confident […] it was the writing down of my trajectory that showed this to me. I couldn’t believe it when I realized, ‘I am strong!’
GJ: The scenes you illustrate of your time in London where you began your journey as a musician and fashionista have a raw, wild, almost feral vibe. Looking back, what, in your opinion, do you think it was that the young people wanted or needed but weren’t getting that led them to be so rebellious and creative?
VA: We were ignored by society, by the establishment. We had no opportunities that appealed to us. No one expected anything of us. They just wanted us to keep quiet and go away. That attitude is crushing and makes you feel invisible, but we took it as an opportunity and got up to mischief, which is one of the advantages of being invisible. No one notices what you’re up to until it’s too late.
GJ: Your early days as an artist in London encompass rebellion, violence, strangeness, detachment, amusement, uninhibitedness, and a kind of sordidness; do you think this was characteristic of that scene only, or do you think it’s somewhat universal, like a spirit of youth? Do you recognize some of those elements in young people today at all?
VA: It was the spirit of youth at the time. It started after WWII and built, and we were at a certain point on that “youthful rebellion” graph. Actually, I think we were pretty much at the end point on that graph. In the West, the rise of consumerism, acquisitiveness, and the internet have made for a very different landscape for young people. But I would never be nostalgic about the past and write today’s young people off. Choice is everything now, and so choice is what they have to be very vigilant about and very good at. For Western teenagers, most of your above adjectives do not apply. It’s just different. I think we are too deep in this phase to see it objectively.
GJ: Would you say that the world we live in world today still goes out of its way to discourage girls and women to not do things? To not create, to not speak up when inconvenienced, to not contribute?
VA: It’s about time that girls and women booted down any doors left that are closed to them. We did that forty years ago. Fuck “the world.”
GJ: You mention in an interview with Channel 4 that you wrote this book with young girls in mind, as sort of a self-help book. I really did sense that throughout while I was reading it, and I was thrilled to finally have a kind of compass to help me navigate through life as a woman in her 20s. Are there any books that you read that had a similar effect on you? That either helped or liberated you in some way?
VA: Patti Smith’s “Horses”
Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit
Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch
Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto
Valerie Wilmer’s As Serious As Your Life
Just a few. I read a lot.
GJ: Your book traces multiple traumas from your life. How would you describe your willpower that made you want to survive through it all? Does your willpower have a shape, color, smell, light—any abstract description—that makes it personal to you?
VA: I have very vague visions when it comes to creative work. I don’t let them get too clear or specific. It’s almost like a soft diffused light just on the edge of my inner vision and I wander towards it but never give it too much attention or look it in the eye. That would be frightening and crush it. I had a little twinge that told me to pick up the electric guitar again. If I’d thought about it too much—‘I’m in my fifties, I can’t sing or play, no one else in their fifties is doing this,’ etc., if I looked at that twinge full in the face and shone a bright light on it, I would not have picked up the guitar. So I picked it up and the next vague thought was, ‘I’ll find someone who can teach me some chords.’ There’s never a frightening end goal. The fact that I made an album, or played the royal festival hall five years later would have terrified me if I’d tried to aim for that. My aims are tiny. Same with the book. ‘I’ll write about some boys I went out with.’ Just a laugh. What could be easier than that? Three years later I have a book. Step by step.
GJ: You also mention in the interview with Channel 4 that music seems to have become just entertainment, and no longer a form used for revolution. Do you think we need a revolution today? If so, what do we need to revolt against, and what needs to evolve? And if you could choose a medium to do that now, what would it be?
VA: Popular music in the West is not a revolutionary tool at the moment. It’s not talking to disenfranchised youth. Every festival I went to last summer—and I went to about ten in the UK—was like a white middle-class holiday camp. An upmarket Butlins.
Now I think revolution is quieter, underground, invisible. It’s in family roles changing, women being human rights lawyers, activists, writers, journalists, women running their own businesses—areas I had no chance of being in when I was young.
I think white middle-class men have had their day. They are still dominating but they are just filling up the airways at the moment. I hope women break through stealthily, and sometimes not so stealthily, because we need them to. Men and women need a whole different perspective. So many boys in bands saying and playing the same old thing, making art, on TV shows—I can’t bear it anymore. I switch off. Male artists I meet at parties have nothing new to offer. It’s the reverse of when I was young and women had nothing to say, nothing to offer (because they had no opportunities) and men and boys were living such interesting lives. Now the men have had it their way too long and they need to get off the pot. If you’ve been [on] top of the tree for centuries, as white middle-class men have, you have nothing to add to art. But they won’t let go. I’m only interested in men who are builders, plumbers or internet wizzes. That’s the only time my eyes light up now when I’m introduced to a man.
GJ: Your album, “The Vermillion Border,” is complex, raw, funny, and poignant. Are you working on another record?
VA: Not at the moment. Waiting until I’ve got something to say. NB.
Grace Jung is the author of Deli Ideology and producer of feature documentary A-Town Boyz. Her translation of Lee Cheong-jun’s The Abject is forthcoming at Merwin Asia Publishing. She is currently working on a feature length narrative and her second novel. She is a former Fulbright scholar. Her website is here. Follow her on Twitter.