Books

Viv Albertine
Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys

“Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a bit of both.” From the opening line we’re sent careering through a chapter titled “Masturbation”, but it doesn’t come across as opportunistic or crass. The recollections of Viv Albertine, once of seminal all-girl punk band The Slits, create a valuable chronicle of a time when very few women played instruments in bands, and her bluntness and humour ensure a cracking read.

For Albertine, born in Sydney but raised in London, music was an escape during an underprivileged childhood, but she never thought she could play – she’d never seen another woman do it. At 22, encouraged by her boyfriend, Mick Jones of The Clash, she bought her first electric guitar and invented a style from scratch by re-creating noises such as animal sounds. Soon The Slits asked her to join them. Fronted by the highly energetic and driven Ari Up, who was 14 at the time, their sound was ferocious and inventive and Albertine meshed with them instantly. Within five months they were supporting The Clash on their White Riot tour, despite the fact Albertine couldn’t even play guitar standing up yet.

She is never too cool, always analysing her own role in events and taking responsibility for them. Her anecdotes provide fresh insights into punk protagonists we think we already know – Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. They are often very funny, too. On a tour to Philadelphia, the band decides they want to meet their hero Sun Ra and look him up in the phone book, where, unbelievably, they find him listed under “Ra”. (Sadly, when they went to his house, Mr Ra wasn’t home.)

Albertine describes The Slits recording their classic first album, Cut, in 1979 and her distress when they broke up following their second. But while most rock memoirs would trickle into ordinariness at this point, Albertine’s just gets more interesting. The second half describes her going “straight” and getting a job and a husband, as well as her struggles with IVF and cancer, a weird relationship with Vincent Gallo, her divorce, and her gradual relearning of the guitar (she released her first solo album, The Vermilion Border, in 2012).

Albertine always rebelled against society’s expectations but her ultimate giddy realisation is that now, as an almost 60-year-old woman, she’s more punk than ever.  BB

Faber, 432pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 5, 2014 as "Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys, Viv Albertine". Subscribe here.