Words, not guitar: Viv Albertine on the book she never thought she’d write

Viv Albertine’s memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys won both the Mojo and NME book of the year awards in 2014 but it is a far more complex story than readers might have expected from the former Slits guitarist.

I arranged to meet Viv outside Violet, a small bakery in Hackney, on a swelteringly hot day in early July this year. We had agreed to discuss her book and the impact it has had since it was first published in 2014.

Friends had been urging Albertine to write a book for years, but she had always resisted: “I wasn’t the least bit interested in writing a book about punk”, she tells me. “Which sounds odd, because that’s what people know me for, but when you’ve done something for a couple of years, thirty years ago…it just didn’t interest me, I’m not the nostalgic type.”

Her return to music in the 2000s, and the release of her 2012 solo album The Vermillion Border, changed her mind. “It’s funny – when I found myself coming back to music in my late forties, then I thought, ‘that makes an interesting arc, actually’.” The record had been well-received critically, but it had been a struggle to get it released and sold modestly.

“I’d absolutely spent myself musically, and financially – I divorced at the same time – so I started thinking ‘Oh well, I’ll give it a go.’ And someone introduced me to a guy at Faber, who said to me ‘Well, give us a couple of chapters – if you can write, then we’ll publish. But we’re not interested just ‘cos you’ve got good stories to tell.’ Which was quite scary, because I didn’t know if I could write.”

The three chapters Viv sent to Faber initially, “probably weren’t that good, but they were intriguing enough, I think, for them to say ‘OK, here’s a small advance, get on with it.’” She adds “And, of course, they wanted it to be about punk. They weren’t really interested in anything else, you know, young guys, publisher and everything.” This attitude on the part of the publishers was understandable from a trade point of view. Punk books do sell and, given the precarious nature of publishing, Faber could perhaps be forgiven for wanting an easy, rather than complex, book to sell.

But Viv’s intentions were always bigger. “I said I wanted to tell the story of a woman trying to express herself through all these decades that were very ungenerous, in a way. I was born in the fifties”. The book was to be the story of a woman who grew up just wanting, “to be an artist, I suppose.” The book then became a document articulating Viv’s ongoing attempts to become an artist, through art school, music, film school, and – later – sculpture and, once again, music. It wasn’t easy to be a woman and an artist – and it hasn’t really got any easier.

The publishers were not entirely convinced that this approach would work. “I think they were a bit worried about that, but once I delivered it they thought ‘Yeah, it’s OK.’ It’s actually more the reaction that’s convinced them. I don’t think they really knew – and I don’t think I really knew – until the public started reacting to the honesty”.

“A lot of people bought it for the punk era, and ended up enjoying the second half, or being moved by the second half of the book much more. So, that was a risk. I think it was also suggested to me that it was in two books but I felt completely that the second half mirrored the first half, in a way; it was déjà vu coming back to music, almost experiencing the same setbacks, and knock backs, and stabbings in the back, as before. And I thought, ‘no, this is interesting’, to have the flipside when you’re older, when it’s all these years later and it’s still not that different, not really.”

“I’m very invested in teenage girls. I always have been. I love films about them, I love books about them…that time in my life was really important”

Another unexpected quality of the book is its conscious, deliberate appeal to todays’ teenage girls.

“I’m very invested in teenage girls,” says Viv. “I always have been, you know: I love films about them, I love books about them…that time in my life was really important. I had a girl gang at school. Well,” she hastily explains, “not a rough gang. We were like drippy, slightly hippy types, and listened to music, so I suppose I feel very attached to that age really, and I feel very protective. You know, Ari [Up, Slits singer] was very young – she was [only] 15 in the band. [I] just feel very protective about that age group of girls.”

The book Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys even got its title from a frequent assessment of the teenage Viv’s interests, courtesy of her mother. Viv’s intention was for teenage girls reading her memoir today to learn from her experiences but, “without me being didactic and saying ‘Now girls, don’t do this, don’t do that’.”

“I wanted all these sort of lessons in it, but in…you know, when you meet someone really interesting, and they’ve got a lot to tell. So, if they came across a druggy situation, or a violent man, or whatever, they’d have some reference point, some place where they can think ‘What did Viv do? She did the stupidest, wrongest thing – I’m not gonna do that.’ Or ‘What did Viv do? She fought for her right to speak – I’m gonna do that.’ So, even if they go against what I did – ‘cos a lot of what I did was so stupid – that they’ve got some reference point, someone who’s been honest with them about that situation, and not ashamed all the time thinking about it.”

The account of the 16-year-old Viv standing naked on newspapers in the kitchen while her mother picked pubic lice off her is one example of such frankness. There is also a, sadly, timeless example of Viv’s attempts to deal with a man who became obsessed with her while she worked as a teenage barmaid at Camden Dingwalls. The book also details Viv’s adult experiences, including cancer, IVF, and divorce, with similar frankness and honesty.

She adds “I thought it was quite interesting, coming from a woman that they probably thought ‘Oh, she’s quite cool’ and I look quite groomed, but, you know, [there’s bits in the book] about my body being fucked up or bleeding. No matter how a person behaves themselves, we’ve all got a back story, with things that have gone wrong.”

She elaborates: “It’s much more interesting if someone quite together-seeming peels it all apart than someone who’s a bit rough around the edges – you don’t take it so seriously. But someone who’s been there, but still manages to keep it together. ‘Cos when I came back to music, [having] been completely ignored for 25 years, and people started saying ‘Oh Viv, you’re a legend’, it was such a joke because I’d been through all that, and was doing nothing but living a boring, domestic life, being terribly ill…no-one had taken any notice of me, and suddenly I pop my head up and I was a legend.”

The idea of being a legend clashed violently with Viv’s roots in the London punk scene. “I wanted to deconstruct that whole idea of a legend: I hate that word. Maybe when you’ve been dead, 50, 100 years, you can use that word.” She continues: “The whole sort of ethos of punk was that everyone’s equal: here’s three chords, go and make a band. Don’t come and watch our band, make your own band. I wanted to deconstruct the whole idea that there’s this woman who’d been in a band, been cool, made a film, and this, that and the other, and I’m gonna rip it apart and show you the dirty inside.”

In keeping with this radical approach, and the teenage readership hoped for, the book was written in the present tense.

“I think that was the saving grace, actually” says Viv. “No memoirs are written in the present tense, why would you?” Inspiration in this respect came from a surprising source. “I heard Hilary Mantel on the TV, saying that when she writes her characters, she writes them – she didn’t say in the present tense – but they never know what’s coming next. Because, she said, in real life you never know what’s coming next.”

She adds “It just stuck in my head, and I thought ‘Yeah, that’s true – if I wrote it as though I didn’t know what was coming next, it’d be much more immediate’. So, instead of having a clever over voice [voice over] saying ‘Oh, little did I know in five years time I’d meet that person again’ or ‘Little did I know doing that would change my life forever’ [I took a different approach]”.

“I didn’t want a judgemental voice, because if you write in the past tense you can’t help but judge from where you are now. And I was probably about five, six chapters in before I slipped into this present tense by accident, and that was it, that’s the moment I found my voice, and I went back and re-wrote all the others.”

This approach worked because it made the book, “more alive. But some people said ‘Oh, what an idiot she is’! I was an idiot, and I knew people would think I was an idiot. It’s hard to put yourself down there as a bloody idiot, on the page, or a bit mean, or a bit disloyal, or a bit arrogant sometimes. It just wasn’t an easy thing to do because who wants to be disliked?”

But, it has been this refreshing honesty that has been integral to the book’s success. “The great thing about good comedy is things you daren’t say out loud. And I sort of wanted it to be things that were true and you didn’t dare say out loud. I didn’t know if everyone felt them or if it was just me. So many different things and sometimes tiny things. One woman wrote to me and said ‘My husband asked me to put my artwork out in the garden as well’ [Albertine described her husband sneering at her artwork and stating he wouldn’t have it in the house and that their daughter couldn’t see if because it was ‘sexual’. It was, in fact, a representation of a naked female]. It’s just a sentence that I put in, and yet that so resonated with her, you know, all these different little things that resonated, that I almost didn’t put in, half of them.”

She adds, “In a way, in the back of my head, I thought, ‘It’s a self help book masquerading as a memoir’ because just to write a memoir…it’s too egotistical. I didn’t want to do something just saying ‘Oh, look at my life.’ I’m not worth writing about. It’s embarrassing. But I thought ‘If some good can come out of it…’ and, therefore, I had to go all the way.”

“By the time I was 12, I was consciously looking for women or girls and I’d always ask, ‘Is there a girl in it?’ If there’s not a girl in a band or a book or a film, I’m not interested”

The response was extremely positive from readers. “I got so many messages, saying it was ‘inspiring’ to them. Not a word I thought would be used at all.” Unlike most self help books, Viv’s account doesn’t follow the traditional pattern of misery followed by salvation. “It is more ambiguous,” she concedes, “which is not so satisfying in some ways. And, I did think ‘well, I’ll never have a friend or a lover again after this’, you know, because I exposed too much. No one really wants to know too much about another person. But I thought ‘Oh, what the hell, I can’t do it by half measures’. In fact, I read a really good quote the other day, saying ‘The only way to write is by the light of the bridges that are burning behind you’.”

Throughout the book there is a sense of a constant searching, on Viv’s part, for heroines. “By the time I was 12, I was consciously looking for women or girls and I’d always ask ‘Is there a girl in it?’ You know, every book…it wasn’t interesting to me if there wasn’t a girl in it. That was quite an unusual thing to think back then, I didn’t realise it, but…yeah, girls are what interested me, girls are what make – what makes – a book or a band or whatever, exciting for me. If there’s not a girl in a band or a book or a film, I’m not interested.”

She continues: “I was thinking back: who were the heroines for me back then? And I remember I read all the French female authors like Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, Violette Leduc. I read a lot about women like that, and that’s all I could get my hands on when I was younger. There were no women in music.”

Both of us had read, as teenagers at different times, Jenny Fabian’s infamous 1960s memoir Groupie. “I met her years later”, recalls Viv. “I didn’t say it’s a sad thing, but I do think it’s a sad thing…her book meant a lot to me back then. Because I was so desperate to find a woman who was doing something different and with music, but it was just groupies, backing singers. Until I saw the [Sex] Pistols, I didn’t make that leap that I could be someone in a band. It took seeing boys for that to happen.”

Viv explains: “He [John Lydon] was a north London boy, I was a north London girl. He was from a council estate, I was from a council estate. Comprehensive school…everything was the same as me except he was a boy, and he was quite androgynous – very androgynous – so somehow…I don’t know how my mind made that leap at that point.” As, literally, the boy down the road, Viv felt if he’d been given licence to get on stage, so could she.

At the time Viv encountered the Sex Pistols, she was at art school and, “hanging out with Mick Jones [later of the Clash], who was trying to get a band together. I saw nothing but him being rejected and dropped from bands all the time, so I didn’t think it was something glamorous.”

Nonetheless, Viv adds, “I think whenever you have a sort of lightbulb moment it’s often a lot of threads coming together – it’s not just one minute you’re switched on. It’s years of looking for female heroines, listening to music, going to concerts, reading NME, hanging out with Mick or whatever…he was just an art school kid then. It was hundreds of things that came together, that’s what I was looking for.”

“I love the guitar, I love what it symbolises – a woman of my age standing on stage with a guitar…I love that”

As for punk itself: “That little crack only opened up in the music industry for almost 18 months [when] you could go in, before it slammed shut behind you.”

She adds, “I am an opportunist. I can see an opportunity and I’ll go for it, which, you know, you have to be. ‘Cos not many girls in Britain picked up a guitar, did they? In retrospect, I kept thinking, ‘how many girls must have been having music lessons at school?’ The middle class girls who were playing violin and everything.”

There were, she says, “Amazingly few [girls] when really anyone could have a go, that was the whole point. But then, you know, news travelled very slowly in Britain then. You went to Manchester or Edinburgh…they were different countries. None of the shops were the same, the accents, they didn’t watch the same TV…”

As for The Slits, the intuitive wild girls of UK punk, Viv has had a realisation in recent months: “Not one of us had a father present in our lives. Not one of us. I don’t think any of us, at that young age, in those very, very restricting times, could have been as wild as we were if we’d had a father. You know, no man would have put up with…it would have been hell.”

She explains “Me, Palmolive and Ari’s fathers were divorced and not in the country, and Tessa’s was divorced and not very present. We – none of us – had that man saying ‘You’re not going out like that, you’re not doing that’ you know, or even in the back of your head thinking ‘Christ, I’ll get in trouble’. None of us thought we were gonna get in trouble.”

Similarly, “Mine and Ari’s mum’s were both very forward thinking, and we were the main team, the writers and everything. Tessa’s mum was quite estranged as well, and Palmolive’s mum was in Spain. Maybe that’s part of why us four [worked together as a band]. Because I often think we were so disparate as people but we were so right together.”

When the Slits reformed in 2009, Viv was not a part of it, though she did play two gigs with the new line-up. At the time, she’d spent 18 months performing at open mic nights, playing and honing her own, new material, and didn’t want to play the old Slits material.

“And I – especially having had the cancer [Viv was diagnosed with cervical cancer shortly after giving birth to her daughter in 1999] – I could not put myself through another situation which was emotionally gonna pull me apart. I didn’t mind putting myself through very difficult situations which felt true to me, you know, the work, but not emotional. Didn’t have the strength. And the divorce and everything…”

Following the release of Viv’s solo album The Vermillion Border in 2012, she began work on her memoir.

“The whole life around playing [music] is fucking agony. It’s – again – the collaborative thing. So, trying to get four people to a rehearsal room at a certain time, finding the money to pay for a rehearsal room, lugging your gear there. Paying for them, for taxis to get their gear home, going to the gig, waiting around for hours, sound check, wait around for hours, half an hour on stage…”

She adds, “I love the guitar, I love what it symbolises – a woman of my age standing on stage with a guitar…I love that. But the shit that goes round it, and the people around it, and everything…sometimes you’ve got to make a choice [as to] where you’re going to put your energies.”

Following the success of Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, now out in paperback under the less rhythmic, chanty title Clothes, Music, Boys, Viv is working on a second book:

“What was I saying to a friend? ‘No sex and no famous blokes in it. Will I still be able to write a good book?’ I hope I will because at least I’ll know from writing the first one that it’s a matter of persevering. Although people have said it [the book] is well written, it’s so many drafts, there’s so many re-writes, that that’s what makes something look like it’s well written. Because although it’s got that conversational air about it, it took so much work to get that right.”

The first image at the top of the page shows the front cover of Viv’s book Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys. It shows a young Viv sitting facing the camera, with her legs apart and clasping her hands in front of her.

The second image is a photograph of Viv performing at Hebden Bridge Trades Club in September 2011. The picture is black and white and shows a happy-looking Viv wearing a guitar and minidress. Image by Phil King, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Clothes, Music, Boys is out now in paperback.