A Slit in Time

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. BY Viv Albertine. Faber and Faber. Paperback. .

In 1976, Viv Albertine was a twenty-two-year-old Brit punk looking to shock and awe the general populace: “I walk around in little girls’ party dresses, hems slashed and ragged, armholes torn open to make them bigger, the waistline up under my chest. . . . Pippi Longstocking meets Barbarella meets juvenile delinquent. Men look at me and they are confused, they don’t know whether they want to fuck me or kill me. This sartorial ensemble really messes with their heads. Good.”

A year earlier she had been just another halfway-disaffected girl in art school dreaming of a way out of an aimless, circumscribed existence, when a friend invited her to see a brand-new group called the Sex Pistols. The singer was a slouching revelation in street clothes, a “twisting and yowling” refusal of all the predictable looks, mannerisms, and attitudes. Albertine recognized in Johnny Rotten a breakthrough of underclass imagination: “All the things I’m so embarrassed about, John’s made into virtues. He’s unapologetic about who he is and where he comes from.” She was captivated and envious: “How did he make that mental leap from musically untrained, state-school-educated, council-estate boy, to standing on stage in front of a band?” Watching the Sex Pistols, she thought, “This is the first time I’ve seen a band and felt there are no barriers between me and them.” All the stray evidence and karmic debris that was floating around in her head—Lennon and Ono, the Kinks, Patti Smith, Emma Peel, the anarchic lot bashing away in front of her—coalesced into a recognition that she needn’t simply be a spectator of music and culture, that she could find her way into those precincts and make something happen.

Before that, there was a not-unrelated first love: A “flamboyant-looking beanpole” boy who was always on the college’s only pay phone trying to start a band or keep one together. He asked her out to The Battle of Algiers, the perfect date movie for a pair of bighearted troublemakers. The boy was Mick Jones, who shortly would cut his hair and get a band called the Clash going with a couple of guys named Strummer and Simonon. Something was bubbling up from underneath the decaying infrastructure of moldy old England and Ms. Albertine gravitated to it like a diviner looking for fresh water.

For latecomers, English punk would be largely defined by the grand-mal gestures, charismatic male snarls, and impassioned sociopolitical symbolism of the Pistols and the Clash. Beyond all that hot media mess—which launched a million deep thoughts on the history/mystery/prophecy behind every curse and expectoration—so much of the coolest, most astonishing stuff came from the kids on the dizzy margins, the early adopters and Do-It-Yerself innovators. Like X-Ray Spex, with the incomparable anarcho-feminist manifesto “Oh Bondage, Up Yours,” or the Mekons answering the Clash with the headily antiheroic “Never Been in a Riot.”

Albertine found her calling when she bought a guitar and joined (and got chucked out of) her pal Sid Vicious’s Flowers of Romance. In 1977 she hooked up with the Slits, and it can fairly be said that they were the truest punks of all—proto-–Riot Grrls, wearing outré gear and making a racket so joyously risky and untutored they made almost everyone else on the scene sound as slick as Bowie or the Carpenters. Featuring the teenage German singer-dervish who called herself Ari Up, the Slits were unpredictable and fearsome. Every performance was a stage dive into uncharted territories, and Ari wasn’t averse to hand-to-hand combat if it came to that.

Viv Albertine with Keith Levine and Mick Jones, 1975.

All of which amounts to merely the entry point of Albertine’s fabulous Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys (Thomas Dunne Books, $28), a profoundly unsparing and affectionate memoir: a tale of being present for punk’s foundation, falling out of music into middle-class oblivion, and finally coming back to performing in 2008 and to recording new music in 2010. I haven’t seen anything that captures the different sides of punk so well—the exuberance, cynicism, and naïveté of alienated youth, the stunning intelligence and casual stupidities, the deep friendships and petty rivalries, the utopian aspirations and boot-in-the-teeth realities. And then proceeds into the boondocks of invisibility: Going from being part of a life-altering movement to life as a working stiff (aerobics instructor, television director for hire), a wife and mother, and a cervical-cancer survivor.

If you’re looking for stories of what a dreamy-scary suitor New York Dolls and Heartbreakers guitarist Johnny Thunders could be, you’ve come to the right place: He brought over the allure of glamorous dissolution and the means of initiation into it—heroin. (He gives Albertine a bad shot, her arm turns black, and she never touches the stuff again.) If you want the perfect, matter-of-factly mortifying punk sex story, there’s the chapter “Blow Job,” about a fumbling attempt to perform one on Johnny “Bodies”Rotten, aborted with a curt “Stop it, Viv.” And then there is a truly shattering story in which Albertine and Ari wind up in a car with some sketchy blokes—Albertine extricates herself, but the stubborn fifteen-year-old Ari won’t leave, and she ends up getting raped.

Clothes is an exhilarating book but also a sobering one: a reminder that being a punk in mid-’70s London was hardly all fun and games. Dressing in bondage wear, “tits” T-shirts, and Vivienne Westwood accessories wasn’t simply making a fashion statement, it was making yourself a walking target. You took your life into your own hands, which increased the thrill of the music but meant running a gauntlet everywhere you went: “Being attacked, spat at, sworn at and laughed at is part of all our lives.” Nice girls would have to turn themselves into shock troops to survive; rough boys might be chewed up by the drugs and hangers-on before they even knew what hit them.

Here, Albertine’s portrait of her friend and sometime antagonist John Beverley, aka Sid Vicious, saves him from the clutches of the know-nothings who’ve sculpted his spiky-haired remains into a ghoulish posthumous symbol of cretinous cool. More than Patti Smith’s winningly egocentric memoir, this book conveys a “just kids” innocence amid the rubble and self-inflicted wounds. These were smart and blindly, tremendously ambitious people who could also be provincial and unworldly: Paul Simonon couldn’t pronounce the exotic name of Joe Strummer’s girlfriend (and future Slits drummer) Paloma, so he called her Palmolive and it stuck. Ari was a rich boarding-school girl whose heiress mum, Nora, married Johnny Rotten and made him the World’s Unlikeliest Stepdad.

There’s no sense of name-dropping in Albertine’s book, though. The nominally famous (or infamous) don’t count for more than any of her other mates, loved ones, or adversaries. This was the world she moved in, and when she ceases to be part of it, you feel no diminution in her commitment to apprehending the full meaning and desolation of her civilian life. The book is divided into “Side One” and “Side Two”; the second part is the story of a woman who wends her way through marriage and illness and motherhood and a vaguely bourgeois existence at the exurban edge of the world. As far as she strays from her roots, the sheer oddity of her life suggest that while you can take the woman out of the punk, you thankfully can’t take the punk out of the woman. Clothes recalls Edna O’Brien’s similar, though more serpentine and literary, journey in Country Girl. Albertine is an escape artist, one who managed to circumvent a boredom worse than death in her youth, found herself trapped in a life she couldn’t adjust to, and eventually, with great determination and grit, started over from scratch in music. Reinventing yourself at twenty-two is one thing; reestablishing yourself in middle age takes a special kind of kamikaze moxie.

In one of the oddest turns in a book full of them, Vincent Gallo materializes out of the blue to spur her comeback: a closet fanboy with a crush on a musical heroine! (You have to admire his impeccable taste even as you doubt his essential sanity: Life for him seems to be one long Vincent Gallo movie.) There is an enormous tenderness to Albertine’s memoir, doubtless amplified if you grew up with this music and can remember, say, the exact first time you heard the Slits. (Mine was Rodney Bingenheimer on his Sunday-night radio show.) That the book wraps up with moving elegies to Ari, Malcolm McLaren, and X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene only reinforces the melancholia of mortality that accrues to punk now that so many have died of natural causes. (Add Joe Strummer, Joey Ramone—make that all the original Ramones—et al.)

The abiding sense of Albertine’s book, and all her straight-shooting contradictions, is of the power and beauty of perseverance. The Slits never got their due, because by the time they finally made their first studio album, Cut (1979), their sound had morphed into an avant-pop-reggae mash-up: good, but not revolutionary. The radicalism of their early days only surfaced on record later, with an untitled official bootleg and the release of the less raw, live-in-studio Peel Sessions. Maybe what the nice, tame twenty-first century needs is a dose of the good old twentieth-century tribal-girl-gang magic of the Slits—a come-as-you-would-like-to-be party. Clothes is as great as the music was and deserves a place on the shelf beside London Calling, whose big hit (“Train in Vain”), after all, was written by Mick Jones about Albertine. Another besotted fanboy with good taste in the right stuff.

Howard Hampton first wrote for Bookforum in the Fall 1994 issue.