The Slits' Viv Albertine: "I can be older and still live by those punk maxims "

The Slits guitarist talks about punk-rock glory, life after -- and finding her voice again

Published December 14, 2014 2:00PM (EST)

Viv Albertine       (Michael Putland)
Viv Albertine (Michael Putland)

For a decade now, since Bob Dylan’s "Chronicles, Volume One," the rock 'n' roll memoir has become something of a major literary subgenre. Keith Richards’ "Life" (2010) sold over a million copies and Patti Smith’s "Just Kids" won a National Book Award that same year. With a professional ghostwriter, a rocker didn’t even have to be any good at expressing him- or herself beyond verses and choruses to make the bestseller list, and so dozens of aging musicians turned into authors, to the point that a certain fatigue set in (which did not stop editors from signing them up). With the exception of Smith, most of these recollections, amounting to a kind of collective history of the last 40 years of rock culture, were written by rich and famous men who’d had pretty much whatever they wanted since they were in their early 20s: life’s winners. This makes relative unknown Viv Albertine’s new memoir, "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.," all the more remarkable.

Yes, Albertine is, in certain progressive circles, as influential a guitarist and cultural figure as rockers turned authors Neil Young and Pete Townshend. A member of the classic lineup of the post-punk band the Slits (along with drummer Paloma Romero, aka Palmolive; bassist Tessa Pollitt; and the late singer Ari Up), she co-wrote the classic 1979 album "Cut," and helped create a contrarian, liberated model for scores of marginalized young women to follow.

Albertine was a friend of the young, pre-Nancy Sid Vicious and a member of his first band (he threw her out), the Flowers of Romance. Keith Levene of Public Image Ltd. was another chum. She dated the Clash’s Mick Jones and the Slits supported them on the legendary “White Riot” tour in 1977 as well as at their storied residency at New York City’s Bond’s Casino four years later. Former New York Dolls guitarist, then Heartbreakers leader, Johnny Thunders and, later, filmmaker Vincent Gallo were besotted with her. But by age 27, she was, in her own words, washed up. The Slits disbanded, Vicious was dead (and so was punk) and she found herself unhappily married (this after a childhood often marked by abuse and frustration), and for a time, forgotten by history: one of life’s losers.

Albertine's stories of being a wife, a mother, an aerobics instructor (!), a cancer survivor and simply a middle-aged woman,  after her brief period of punk-rock glory, truly set the book apart. Greil Marcus has called it, “Not only the best book about punk but one of the best books of any kind I’ve read in five years.”

Albertine began releasing music again with 2012’s "The Vermillion Border" and tours regularly, moving forward and, like any good punk, not keen on dwelling on the past. But she stops to discuss the book, her youth, the youth of today, and how one can grow up and old without throwing the punk ethos in the dustbin.

Writing a memoir seems like it would be easier than writing, say, a novel, but it’s actually really difficult. I did one a few years ago. It helps if you have a trove of diaries, or a stack of photos or Polaroids. Did you turn to anything like that to jog the memory?

Not at all, no. I saved photos but I never, ever wrote anything down. I’m still conscious now when I’m going through exciting times that maybe I should be writing this down, but I’m so caught up in the moment that I can’t. I really don’t understand how people document it when they are in the middle of life, because all my energy is taken up by living it. People document everything now. I never took pictures of anything back then, but it’s all burned into my memory as if I was still there.

A memoir is how you remember it anyway. You’re not writing an autobiography, you’re writing your memories, so nothing is really wrong.

I can’t remember any Slits tours. Or touring with the Clash. I only remember when I got upset with Mick Jones; I don’t remember the gigs. The book is not meant to be a geeky, nerdy sort of dates and times and places account. It’s more of an emotional patchwork quilt.

How about music? Did you put on any albums from the era to help you climb into the time machine?  

I didn’t listen to any music at all through the whole writing process. Writing is so much about rhythm. If you’ve got another rhythm in the room, it spoils the rhythm of the words. I very much thought of it as composing. I thought of song structures as I wrote, with each chapter having a good clean ending as we did in "punk times."

Many of the chapters are like very short bursts of songs.  Some are longer, but others are more like vignettes. It's a bit like the Beatles’ "White Album" in that way, where the shorter songs have to be there along with the longer ones for it to be complete.

Yes, Neil Young writes the same way.

Have you been a longtime collector of quotes? Each chapter is headed by a great quote, from an eclectic group including Art Tatum and Camus, and from Warhol to Bruce Lee to Noel Coward, Brian Eno and even the Bible. 

I do collect quotes. About four or five of them I had to go and find. I love reading quotes [at the top of a chapter] when I read a book, and I love when they absolutely get it right.  I wanted each one to be 100 percent right for the chapters. Sometimes it was a very literal quote as it pertained to the chapter and sometimes it expressed the underlying fear of the chapter. I adore quotes.

The book is a reflection but it’s in present tense. Talk about that style choice.  Did you want to affect a sort of immediacy?

The present tense thing was great. I started writing and I thought, I don’t want it to be all flowery. I want very straightforward, unembellished language, kind of how I speak and adhering to punk values.  I wrote five or six chapters and I thought, There’s something a bit dry about it, and then I started writing the Vincent Gallo chapter and accidentally switched it to the present tense, because it was still fresh in my mind, and literally that little light bulb went off and I found my voice. I went back and wrote the whole thing I had already written into the present tense. Often in an autobiography there’s that conceit of  "little did I know in two years time, I would be …" --  you know, that knowing overview -- and I didn’t want that. I wanted to stumble through my life, and for people to say, "Oh my god, you idiot!" like in a horror film where people go into an underground car park. I wanted people to be with me that moment that I blundered into something like drug taking or blundered over to America to see Vincent. There are so many stupid things I did. I read a quote by Hilary Mantel the author. She writes fiction: "Write as if your characters don’t know what’s coming next because that’s how you are in life. You don’t know – you make your decisions in that moment not knowing what’s coming next so why should the author know?"

I probably know the answer to this, but did you read any punk era memoirs? Rotten has one. Belinda Carlisle has a pretty great one. Nick Kent put one out a few years ago. You open your book by declaring, “Anyone who writes a memoir is either a twat or broke,” which made me laugh out loud. I wondered which one I was. Both probably.

"A twat or broke," yeah – no I absolutely did not read any. I do read a lot of autobiographies and biographies but from people who are not in my field – older women, older artists, Miles Davis.

Morrissey put a pretty good one out, too.  

I did read Morrissey’s and I thought he had quite a beautiful writing style. A little long-winded, but I’m not interested in punk history that way. It was a couple of years in my life – it means quite a lot more to other people than it does to me. They were just a bunch of spotty boys I was hanging out with at the time. I did fight for my band to be heard and to change things for girls and change the roles because they were very backward back then in the '70s. We wanted to change the roles and the aspirations of girls – but I wasn’t sentimental about it, reliving my glories. I sort of left it all behind and got on with the next bit of my life.

The book is very explicit in its treatment of basic bodily functions, “blood and shit,” as you call it.There’s a bravery there, a  sort of “I don’t give a fuck, I’m going to tell you the truth.”

Yeah, but I do give a fuck.

Everyone gives a fuck.

The thing that has resonated with people about this book (when it was published in the U.K.) is the honesty in it. When I handed in the book to the publisher I nearly had a breakdown I was so sure I would be vilified and ridiculed, and it was lovely to see people weren’t disgusted by me for saying those things

Maybe you had a postpartum thing, and I don’t mean that in a gender objectifying way – sometimes you hand in a big book,  you literally feel like there’s a piece of you missing.

Oh god, yeah, it was so new to me that feeling …

You explain the title in the book; it’s such a great, attention-grabbing title. I wanted to talk a bit about clothes. You have a great memory for what you were wearing and you describe it in a way that invites the reader in.  I’m thinking now that maybe fashion was what jogged your memory. A vision of your ensemble helped you recall what you did. 


Some people are clotheshorses and some people are not and you are clearly a person who loves clothes and expressing yourself through what you are wearing and the beauty of the craftsmanship and the attitude of certain garments. You knew Vivienne Westwood, and you write about her being an influence on you …

It’s something that is often thought of as a very vacuous thing. But at the time, when the Slits put together clothes that signified girls and mixed them all up – and seemed to take them away from men and the patriarchy of the time -- remember, the '70s was like the '50s and the only time you ever saw fetish wear it was for men in men’s magazines. We sort of took it and put it on ourselves and reclaimed it and it was very political to mix it up with men’s working boots and scruffy hair and spitting in the street.  It very much confused men and the establishment. They’d never seen women before who weren’t for their gaze. So a "vacuous thing" can be quite political. You can wear what you want in London today but in many parts of the world, clothes are still very political, as they were for us in the '70s.

You write very frankly about the unhappy childhood, and that your father was not the greatest dad. You’re an art student working in a bar and all of a sudden you have this moment in history and this family of fellow young people with similar  joys and pain and ideas. Did it feel like finding the family you were meant to have?

Yes, exactly, that’s what I felt -- lucky -- about it.  I didn’t see it as a "movement." I didn’t think we’d be anything important, and I certainly didn’t think 30 years later that people would be the least bit interested, but I did feel so lucky. And as I said later in the book, for this little moment in time my personality, which is very straightforward, quite confrontational, fit in, for about 18 months – the only 18 months in my lifetime I’ve felt I’m OK as I am.

Punk in London was a shorter period than many people realize. It burned very quickly and you all acted very fast. You and Sid Vicious, for example, were not necessarily natural-born musicians but you instinctively knew that in order to get with this, you needed to find an instrument and form a band. You write about getting and learning to play your first guitar as well as I’ve ever seen it described in a book. You bypass the acoustic and go straight for the Les Paul, and you literally describe how it fit your body. It’s a great passage. 

I nearly didn’t write that bit. I didn’t think anyone would be interested in me playing guitar and trying to find a sound. I put it in almost as an afterthought. I worried it was big-headed.

A lot of Keith Richards' memoir "Life" is all about just that. 

He’s known as such a great guitarist. I didn’t know if I was over-talking about myself; I’m such a small guitarist and still have that doubt in the back of my mind – and yet a lot of people responded to that chapter ...

Another thing people don’t realize about the first wave of punk was that if you looked different it was dangerous. You describe the danger very frankly. How if you turn the wrong corner and run into some skinheads, that was it. 

Every moment we were on the street, us girls, we had to go everywhere together because if we split up and one of us went home on our own, we’d be killed.  The law was different then. Now if you hit someone, even in self-defense, you’re probably going to prison for it. In those days on the street it was the Wild West. Even at the gigs we were attacking people and people were attacking us – boys trying to attack us onstage. We wouldn’t let them get away with it. It wasn’t like we could go to the police. Ari got stabbed! Honestly, it was like Dodge City, it was so rough and so wild. And a lot of it was sexual politics. Men and boys saying, "You don’t want to dress like a girl? You want to dress like a freak, we’ll treat you like a freak." And because of how we dressed it gave them an excuse to sort of attack us and be violent toward us, because we didn’t look like women to them. It made them think they had an excuse; normally they would hold in that aggression.

The book is interesting in the way it describes Sid Vicious, who was your friend. In America, probably because of the Alex Cox film "Sid and Nancy" and Gary Oldman’s portrait of him, and because of what happened to him and Nancy in New York, we only know him as this junkie dolt, possibly the guy who killed his girlfriend. It was interesting to read your account of this young guy, basically trying to get along. 

I look back and think, Why did that one survive and that one didn’t? And with Sid Vicious, I think having a mother who was a junkie and an absent father is such a sad beginning, you have nothing solid there, and looking back he hadn’t much of a hope. A lot of people who’ve read the book (in the U.K.) have said, "You’ve written about him tenderly." I literally just wrote about the times that we were together and that just added up to a more human picture of him.

It’s a more sensitive and intelligent and complex figure we get, for sure.  

He was in the early days. When he got into heroin that’s when it all went down.

Speaking of, you also write about your encounters with Johnny Thunders, who was strung out at the time. Chrissie Hynde, I believe, has said heroin basically killed the scene. Would you agree?

Yeah, it did.  And also people dressing up as punks but not knowing what punk was about killed it. The media killed it. It wasn’t just heroin, really, but that certainly brought out the people who weren’t really revolutionary. They were just rock 'n' rollers.

Now, Johnny’s gone. Sid is gone. What about the people you write about like Mick Jones, who figure so prominently in the book. You two had a great punk love affair. He wrote (the Clash hit) “Train in Vain” about you.

You reveal a lot about him and even publish a picture of him looking very un-punk. Also, if you want to know what it’s like to give Johnny Rotten a blow job, you can read this book. Did you go to any of these people with any sort of warning: "Look I’m writing this book and I'm going to say some things"? Both are still very visible.

No, I didn’t go to anyone. I knew I was treating Mick so fairly. I knew that would be fine and he heard me do some readings before the book came out. I asked Vincent Gallo if he minded because I know he doesn’t like to be written about that much and he said it was fine. And I tried to ask Johnny Rotten, but he wouldn’t come out of his dressing room so I said, fuck it, I’m going to write what I want. In the end I’m humiliating myself so much more than anyone else.

That’s the key to a memoir, I think. If you are the one who is taking most of the heat, a context forms and other people can’t really be offended. Let’s talk a bit more about the Slits. A sort of myth has grown around that first record.  I’m sure it’s contributed quite a bit to the initial interest in this book, the way "Cut" has aged so well and been discovered and embraced by a new generation. Ari Up is gone now as well. In the book you portray her as both the comic relief as well as a kind of natural genius.

I did think long and hard about how to write about Ari. I’m writing about someone who can’t stand up for themselves because she’s passed away. I didn’t want to write a glorified rose-tinted version. I wanted to be honest and if I was honest I’d have to say how difficult Ari was. And yet as I wrote, I sort of fell in love with her again … to be 14 or 15 years old, and around these 21-year-olds, holding her own? She was stabbed and attacked much more than us. She was a louder, bigger personality but she was only a child, and yet she was so brave right to the end.  Everywhere she went people tried to hobble her and stop her and she just had too much personality and too much belief in herself. I discovered that again, which is very beautiful. As far as the Slits “myth,” this is a very recent thing. When Ari died, she was still very upset that the Slits hadn’t been recognized the way she thought they deserved to be, musically and as revolutionaries. So it’s only in the past few years that they’ve come to the fore and I think it is young people going to the Internet and saying, "This music is great and not a lot that’s happened in these last 30 years can hold up to it in terms of bravery and radicalism and breaking down barriers musically." We all gave up. We felt a bit peeved and felt we’d been written out of history. We weren’t in any of the books or on any of the compilations on punk history, and all the men our age who were writing books didn’t write about us. It was the young people who rediscovered us and put us back into history where we belong. We were viewed through glasses of fear – we were so threatening back then – people couldn’t even hear our music it was so mixed up with worry and fear and sexual threats and insecurity.

It’s ironic because the music itself is so accessible and well-produced and danceable.

They couldn’t hear it. They couldn’t give it the time of day.

I don’t think it’s dated at all. But as we all do, you’ve dated. I think readers will be surprised by how much of your actual life you chronicle that is not devoted to punk, per se, but in a way remains very, very punk in attitude. 

Exactly! I’m glad you got that because I believe you can live your life by those maxims: whatever you believed in when you were young. I think something I wanted to say, in a way, was, "You don’t have to throw away the ideology." I tried to find a way that I can be older and still live by those punk maxims and I tried to show that in the style of writing too, in the punchiness of the chapters and in the way I’ve lived my life and still live it uncompromisingly, and how when I did compromise, I died. When I compromised, I faded away.

A lot goes on during “Side Two” of the book. After the Slits split, that’s just as dramatic. You survive heartbreak, illness, a failed pregnancy, all the trappings of parenthood, marriage, divorce, and then there’s Vincent Gallo on top of it all.

He was my relief to all that, to be honest. Because I’ve been ignored so many years at home.

There’s a happy ending in that, musically, you find your voice again. And then there’s the book.

I poked my nose back out and started playing guitar again, yes. And I was nervous because I wasn’t very good and I was old, but I noticed people saying to me, "Viv, you’re a legend." And I thought, Oh, my god, that’s everything we were against. Being called a legend. So I’m going to take that, and in this book, deconstruct it. People on the outside might see the albums, or a film and a book, but all the years in between are fallow periods, mistakes, going down the wrong roads, rejections, divorce. Deconstruct the legend of anyone on this planet, anyone who’s made it in some way, and there are failures and mistakes and hard times behind them. It’s the only way to empathize with someone. So many young people now feel they’ve failed by the time they’re 26 if they haven’t achieved a home and money and a career, whereas we didn’t have any expectations. Nobody wanted anything from us and as much as it made us shout it gave us a certain freedom to make mistakes and fail and cause trouble, where I think youngsters have that feeling today that everyone is watching them.

It’s an honest book about growing older and growing up. I’ve been in the rock scene here in New York a long time and when I was younger I’d go to parties where kids in the '90s would mix with punks from the '70s who were still going out and still wearing the same clothes and hair or wigs and they looked like wax models of themselves. You don’t have to dye your hair jet black and spike it forever or look like John Cooper Clarke to be punk and you don’t have to die young. Nick Lowe has white hair; it’s a little shocking but at the same time that’s probably the coolest thing that he can do. And the idea that you can grow up and old and still have those values is a very powerful thing to read, and I think that’s part of what's attracted the attention and  justified the rave reviews in Britain. That is something not expressed in a book before.

Some people have done it so well, haven’t they? I went to see [ex-Talking Heads bass player] Tina Weymouth, just herself, and she has. If you’re an artist you keep evolving. You don’t play the same song. You don’t dress in the same clothes. You’re not stuck in aspic.

Like Picasso.

Right. "My ‘Blue Period’ was very good so I’ll go all over touring my ‘Blue Period’ around the country." I just wanted to come back as a new artist who is in her 50s, and I thought, That’s pretty punk –

And your new music reflects your age. I’m thinking of the MILF song.

Yes, “Confessions of a MILF.”

By Marc Spitz

Marc Spitz is the author of "Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York City in the '90s" (Da Capo Press). His new book on rock and roll cinema, "Loud Pictures," will be released by Dey Street Books/Harper Collins in 2017 Follow Marc Spitz at @marcspitz

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