THERE is a video on YouTube of a young girl in the 1970s dressing in the foyer of a bank, while outside her friend hisses like a cat at a bystander. The hisser is Viv Albertine, who became the guitarist in the notorious all-girl punk band, the Slits; the girl who writes “this should be written on my gravestone. ‘She was scared. But she went anyway’.”
Albertine’s memoir, Clothes, Music, Boys, is unflinching, from her childhood in an abusive home, to her teens and her involvement in the London music scene, to her evolution as a wife and mother, musician, artist and now writer.
The book, written in sharp, choppy prose, chronicles her struggle to be the kind of girl who is “natural, passionate about work, articulate, intelligent, equal”.
Clothes, Music, Boys presents 1970s London as full of potential; a time to push boundaries, to experiment, to fight against the constraints of being working-class.
Albertine’s pin-ups were political activists, and “music, politics, literature, art all crossed over and fed into each other”. She was obsessed with music, bought an electric guitar and, even though she could barely play (she she is still not happy with her playing) joined The Slits in 1977, when girls didn’t play in bands and definitely didn’t play electric guitar. In hindsight her life was effortlessly cool; she was a regular on the London punk scene, an early convert to Vivienne Westwood, a friend of the Sex Pistols, girlfriend of the Clash’s Mike Jones and oh yeah, the Slits supported The Clash on their White Riot tour.
The book is a catalogue of struggles, personal and professional. Albertine seems to be anxious and insecure, but if she succumbs to these traits, it is only for a short time. “I care what people think of me to the point of despair, am over-sensitive to criticism and lacking in self-confidence, but don’t let my negative feelings stop me from doing stuff,” she writes.
It is impossible not to see the contrast between teenage life in the 1970s and for millennials.. “We had so few choices, in clothes, music or friends, that it was easy to be driven, to pick a direction and be something”, she says. “How can young people be driven now? There is a panoply of choice, everything is international, and young people are almost retreating inside themselves”.
Her toughness helped her to survive an era where easy access to drugs and sex was all new.“I survived by the skin of my teeth” she says, and attributes a lot to her mother, who “was strong and supported me emotionally and artistically”.
Albertine grew up in a male-dominated world. “No-one questioned men’s authority. Women were for titillation, and when a girl band, like The Slits, appeared it was the first time that women had dressed not for men’s pleasure”.
The Slits wore fetish and bondage gear, leather and torn tights. Men, particularly older men, couldn’t stand it, Albertine is credited with starting the enduring trend of wearing Dr Martens shoes with dresses. It was entirely practical. Punks were routinely beaten up. Her ‘Docs’, she says, allowed her to run fast.
She recounts occasions when a woman merely declaring an opinion led to clashes with management, photographers and later with producers in television and film.
The second half of her book has resonated strongly with women. Her hilarious decision to become an aerobics instructor, her seven hellish years of trying to get pregnant via IVF, a cancer diagnosis six weeks after her daughter was born, the ensuing treatment: it’s all described vividly. Albertine doesn’t flinch from blood and gore. Speaking about her health, she says “I will never be 100% - not only because of suffering cancer, but because I was careless about my health when I was young”.
She lived rough and experimented with drugs, while doing the rounds of the squats, pubs and clubs of London. “It may not be glamorous and sexy to say that…people may say ‘oh, but you are a legend’, but there is a price to be paid for years of struggle and going against the grain”.
Punk, she says, was only a small part of her life and she’s spent years trying to stop it defining her. These days, the 59 year old’s career is moving in another direction. She has found a talent as a writer that she will continue to explore.
“Now, I am confident to follow myself wherever I go, and only going to do things I am passionate about”.
We can expect to see her in Ireland this June, as she will be speaking at the Dalkey Book Festival.