Monday, January 12, 2015

Clothes, music, boys: Viv Albertine

The Slits, 1977: Viv Albertine, Ari Up, Tessa Pollitt, Palmolive

The full title of Viv Albertine's memoir is Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys—"that's all you think about," she says her mother used to tell her (p. ix). Albertine was the guitarist for The Slits, an all-women (at least in their first incarnation) punk band in 1970s London. When I picked up her book I assumed the title was ironic; unfortunately, it's descriptive, although a more accurate title would be Boys Boys Boys Clothes Clothes Clothes Music, since Albertine spends more time talking about her boyfriends and her look and than about performing with her band or the creation of their songs.

Side 1

The Slits—in addition to Albertine the original lineup included vocalist Ari Up (Arianna Forster), bassist Tessa Pollitt, and drummer Palmolive (Paloma Romero)—started out playing thrashy two- and three-minute songs about shoplifting and housing estates. Their first gigs were shambolic. Here's Albertine describing their first night opening for The Clash on the White Riot tour in 1977; at this point she didn't yet know how to tune her guitar, and she counts off "one two three four" at the start of a song like Dee Dee Ramone, but doesn't yet realize that her count is supposed to set the tempo:
We all play at different speeds. Ari screams as loud as she can, I thrash at my guitar, Palmolive smashes the drums—the stage is so big and Tessa's so far away, I can't hear what she's doing. I can't differentiate between the instruments....We all play the song separately, we know we should play together, but we can't. I hope that if I remember my part and the others remember theirs, with a bit of luck we'll all end at the same time. That doesn't happen. (p. 173)
But because they don't know how they're "supposed" to play their instruments, their music at this stage is strangely compelling: here's "Newtown" from their 1977 Peel sessions EP:

As they went on they absorbed influences from ska and reggae (their first album, Cut, was produced by Dennis Bovell, whose band backed the dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson). My favorite Slits song from this era is "Typical Girls":

Some of the lyrics:
[Typical girls]
Can't decide
What clothes to wear
Are sensitive
Typical girls
Are emotional
Typical girls
Are cruel and bewitching
'She's a femme fatale' [1]
Typical girls
Stand by their man [2]
Typical girls
Are really swell
Typical girls
Learn how to act shocked
Typical girls
Don't rebel

Who invented the typical girl?
Who's bringing out the new improved model?
And there's another marketing ploy
Typical girl gets the typical boy
It's odd that the woman who wrote these lyrics, which describe how women are influenced to obsess about clothes and boys, has written a memoir largely about what clothes she wore and what boys she flirted with, hung out with, and slept with (sometimes chastely). Of course, Albertine didn't wear typical clothes and wasn't interested in typical boys, but the concern with wearing the right outfits and having the right boyfriends doesn't feel very subversive of mainstream values.

And while Albertine gets points for frankness—we hear about her first (and second) case of crabs, her first time shooting heroin, her first attempt at oral sex (with Johnny Rotten—it didn't go well), and her attraction to bad boys (including Sex Pistols' guitarist Steve Jones, Sex Pistols' bassist Sid Vicious, Heartbreakers' guitarist Johnny Thunders, and, later in life, the actor Vincent Gallo)—the book has some odd elisions, too.

One of these comes when Albertine forces the other Slits to choose between her and Palmolive, who co-founded the group with Ari Up and was one of its main songwriters. Albertine writes that Palmolive had missed rehearsals and seemed interested in pursuing other possibilities (she later joined The Raincoats). But in Albertine's telling the decision to kick her out of the band was made in Palmolive's absence, and it feels like some of the story—even from Albertine's side—must be missing.

Also missing are mentions of many of the other women musicians in the punk scene: in the first part of the book ("Side 1"), which covers events up to the Slits' breakup in 1982, there's exactly one reference to The Raincoats, and none to Poly Styrene (X-Ray Spex), The Adverts, The Mo-dettes (formed by The Slits' first guitarist, Kate Korus, whom Albertine replaced), Delta 5, Au Pairs, or Kleenex/Liliput. Since Gina Birch of The Raincoats, for one, has mentioned how much she was inspired by The Slits, the absence of these bands from Albertine's recounting of this period feels like deliberate disregard.

There are mentions, though, of the places Albertine bought her clothes. One photo caption actually names the source of the polka-dot hair ribbon she's wearing. Style has long been crucially important to self-definition in British youth culture—Dick Hebdige's 1979 book Subculture is subtitled The Meaning of Style—and Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McLaren's clothing shop Sex was both a sartorial and cultural center for punk. But in Albertine's memoir clothes and boys receive so much attention that other significant aspects of the cultural moment feel like they're given short shrift.

Albertine was somewhat older than many of the other participants in the punk scene: when she joined The Slits in 1977 she was 22—Ari Up was 15—and when they broke up she was 27. Perhaps because of this her sense of failure and the closing off of possibilities was especially devastating: "This feels like the death of a huge part of myself…I've got nowhere to go and nothing to do…I'm burnt out and my heart is broken." (p. 250)

Side 2

The second part of the book ("Side 2") recounts the long and painful process of reinventing herself and finding renewed purpose in the band's (and punk's) aftermath. It clearly wasn't an easy process: we hear about bad dates, mean bosses, life-threatening health crises, and her increasingly rocky marriage (surprisingly traditional, in that as in other ways). But again there's the sense that, despite all the self-revelation, key pieces of information are missing.

As an example, Albertine says that the decision to renovate their house in 2007 put a strain on her relationship with her husband from which it could never recover. But much earlier there are signs that all is not well between them. In 1999, after the birth of their daughter and her treatment for cervical cancer, Albertine is weak, exhausted and depressed, and experiences flashes of anger towards her husband:
Hubby does all her feeds and changes her nappies. She's started looking to him eagerly for cuddles, she feels safer with him because he's the the provider of comfort.

I watch as the intense bond I had with my daughter slips away. I'm losing the child I fought so hard to have in my life…

The next morning I say to Hubby, 'From now on I do all Baby's feeds and changes. No matter how tired I am.'

I don't have the energy to do it but it's that or lose my daughter… (p. 298)
That Albertine sees the care of their daughter as a zero-sum game—that every time her husband feeds their child or changes her diaper it means less affection for herself—suggests very strongly to this reader that their marriage already has some serious problems. (According to a Google Books search, the phrase "our daughter" occurs four times in the book; "my daughter" occurs 24 times.)

As her marriage disintegrates, Albertine returns to writing and performing music for the first time in 25 years. (After the end of The Slits, she writes, "I can't bear to listen to music. Every time I hear a song I feel physical pain, just to hear instruments is unbearable, it reminds me of what I've lost." (p. 250)) She begins to play open mics and small gigs, and with the support of friends like Mick Jones (The Clash), Jah Wobble (Public Image Limited, John Lydon's post-Sex Pistols band), Glenn Matlock (the Sex Pistols' first bass player), and Gina Birch (The Raincoats), records The Vermilion Border album, which was released in 2012. Here is "Confessions of a MILF," about the confinements and disillusionments of her marriage—sort of a "Typical Girls Part 2":

But confessions are not enough. In her memoir Albertine recounts plenty of appalling and/or mortifying incidents, but (as in the "losing my daughter" moment) her book is at times oddly tone-deaf. It reads a bit like worked-over diary entries, with occasional commentary by her present self added in italics. The present-tense approach gives a sense of immediacy, but at the cost of reflection and insight. To put it bluntly, if you weren't already a huge fan of The Slits or punk rock (and even if you were), why should you care where Albertine was buying her leggings and hair ribbons? Ultimately, C3M3B3 doesn't provide enough of an answer—or enough stories like this one:
...In a week's time the Slits are going on the White Riot tour with the Clash. I've got to learn all our songs, I can't even play guitar standing up yet. We haven't played a gig together either, so we go down to the Pindar of Wakefield pub in Islington to see if we can have a quick go on their stage. When we arrive we see that a bunch of boys are churning out some old rock music; we've got our guitars with us but we hold them behind our backs so no one suspects anything. In between songs I go up to the guitarist in the rock band and ask him if we can play a song. He says no, so I pull him off the stage and Ari, Tessa and Palmolive pull the other guys off, there's an uproar, a couple of cymbals get kicked over but Palmolive doesn't care, she doesn't use them anyway. We bash through "Let's Do the Split" before the manager and barmen pull us off. That's our warm-up gig done. (p. 172)

1. A reference to The Velvet Underground, "Femme Fatale," from The Velvet Underground & Nico, Verve, 1967
2. A reference to Tammy Wynette, "Stand By Your Man," Legacy, 1968 (released in the UK in 1975). The Clash's "Train in Vain" from the album London Calling (1979), with its refrain of "You didn't stand by me," was written by Mick Jones about his and Albertine's on-again, off-again relationship.

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