Reading Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, I felt like this was the punk exhibit that the Metropolitan Museum wanted to put on a few years ago with its replica of CBGB’s bathroom, and then, weirdly, a bunch of couture paper plate dresses and Alexander McQueen creations. I could see how those designers had been influenced by punk, but as for the clothes themselves—the DIY ethos that was the core of the punk movement—nope, not so much.
Luckily, Albertine, the guitarist of the female punk band the Slits, gives detailed descriptions of the key pieces she bought at Sex (the boutique, run by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, that was a cornerstone of the punk movement) along with bargain-bin finds that helped give her band—first Flowers of Romance with Sid Vicious and then the Slits with Ari Up and Palmolive—the necessary look. Because the punk look always came before the music, according to Albertine.
She’s named her book after a catchphrase her mother teased her with when she was a teenager. Albertine would come home from school, and her mother would chide her with “Clothes, clothes, clothes, music, music, music, boys, boys, boys” because she said that’s all that her daughter talked about.
Albertine’s autobiography is organized thematically according to her title, and it works like a collage of punk, which is a small miracle since her manager was pressuring her to use a ghostwriter who was in her early twenties, a music journalist who would get it “right.” After reading so many music memoirs where that was done—Belinda Carlisle’s Lips Unsealed and Bobbie Brown’s Dirty Rocker Boys come to mind—I can just imagine the trite story arc that would have gone with that. Thankfully, Albertine is headstrong and did it her way, showing how she got to the triumphs of her life and through some major downs as well.
Originally Albertine and some of the great women of music spent their time following around boys in bands. There was no room for them in music, so they took the second-best thing—to become the girlfriends of the boys in bands. But then Albertine listened to Patti Smith’s Horses and her attitude changed. Smith who originally lived with Robert Mapplethorpe in a groupie type of role, supporting him while neglecting her own artistic yearnings, emerged with a breakthrough record that had come through her poetry written on the side. Smith’s music ends up giving Albertine the confidence she needs to write about female sexuality from a woman’s point of view, but first she had to find the right band.
She started in Flowers of Romance, a band that she was in with Sid Vicious, who was far from the lazy lugabout that he usually is portrayed as (before becoming addicted to heroin). Albertine recalls one night where Sid stays up all night after taking speed and teaching himself bass by listening and playing along to a Ramones record over and over.
Albertine dated Mick Jones when he was in the Clash and watched how he was always on the phone trying to get things going for the band and took notes from him. He helped her buy her first guitar with inheritance money from her grandma when she didn’t know a damn thing about how to play and the salesman of the music store sneered at her. At first, Albertine was terrible, and her neighbors would beg her to stop practicing. And then Sid kicked her out of the band, leaving her devastated, but Albertine got a chance to try out for the Slits, a group of ladies who liked her look and attitude. She started writing music with them and everything fell into place.
Albertine says, “In the past I listened to tracks as a whole, paying most attention to the lyrics. Words were what I knew, what I was familiar with; they worked or didn’t work for me. That’s how girls listened to songs. Most of the songs I’ve been exposed to are about romantic love. They’re an extension of the fairy tales I read as a little girl—I’ll love you forever. You’re the only one. I’ll rescue you. You broke my heart. Blah blah—which is shocking when you think about the effect that obsessive listening and repetitive exposure to songs about idealised love must have had on my brain. I’ve been brainwashed. The Slits’ lyrics are very carefully thought about and scrutinised. No peddling clichés and lies for us. No lazy escapism. Words have to be true to your life. Write what you know. And make people think.”
Ari Up, the band’s lead singer, was underage, and after watching how Jones hustled to keep the Clash going, Albertine becomes the linchpin for the Slits, organizing band practices, giving players the boot when they’re not fully committed, etc. After the band is signed, Dennis Morris, Island’s art director, had a simplistic concept involving pink for the Slits’ first album cover. Albertine refuses, and at their famous photo shoot for the half-naked album cover, Morris wants a wind machine to be used so the band looks sexier. Albertine becomes incensed with his suggestions and the band does it their way, but not before Morris tries to kick her out of the band for being disruptive.
Eventually the Slits break up, and Albertine goes through a huge depression. She has a stint in the 1980s where she teaches aerobics and then goes into film. Eventually she marries and spends all the money she’s ever made on IVF treatments, desperate to have a baby. And then cancer strikes. Albertine keeps going through all these tragedies, rising to the top more often than not by challenging herself, and it’s this willingness to pick herself back up, to risk making a fool of herself that make her heroic.
After years being offstage, Albertine teaches herself to play guitar again in her own particular style and she starts singing and performing as a solo artist. Albertine calls this her “Year of Saying Yes,” and when a friend brings her to her first open-mike session, she starts performing again at the bottom. First a mild panic attack ensues. Albertine remembers, “He must be mad. I can’t stand up in front of people and play and sing. I would rather die. Remember, Viv, the Year of Saying Yes. So what if I die? So what if I’m crap and make a fool of myself? I know that no one ever does anything or gets anywhere without failure and foolishness. I’ve got to do it.”