Punk, punk, memoir, memoir: Viv Albertine takes center stage

Randall Roberts
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
Viv Albertine recalls her punk life in 'Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.'

Clothes, music and boys are indeed explored throughout "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.," Viv Albertine's memoir of a life spent at the center of the British punk rock movement. But mounds of fabric, vinyl and flesh are hardly what makes "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes..." such a joy.

The lessons in proper spitting technique, taught to Albertine by her friend Sid Vicious, are essential to any self-respecting gutter punk. The long love affair between our heroine and Mick Jones, singer and guitarist for the Clash, delivers a bittersweet tone akin to "Train in Vain," the band's hit, written about Albertine. The safety-pinned recollections of time spent in fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and punk impresario Malcolm McLaren's boutique Sex add texture to the story of punk fashion's beginnings.

Most importantly, the birth and rise of the Slits, the influential female punky-reggae band that propelled guitarist Albertine, wildly charismatic teenage singer Ari Up, bassist Tessa Pollitt and drummer Palmolive (soon to join the Raincoats) to center stage in the late 1970s serves as a call to arms for any alienated girl looking for an excuse to abandon idol worship to start a band.

Through it all is a tight, bracingly honest story of Albertine's youth as a "feral little" girl in working-class Muswell Hill, ascent in punk-era London, artistic dormancy as a "bored Hastings housewife" and return to music with her first solo recordings starting in 2010.

A key if lesser known figure in the cultural upheaval that transformed music and fashion starting in the mid-1970s, Albertine first earned attention with the Slits, formed not long after the Sex Pistols helped spark a movement.

When Vicious kicked Albertine out of his pre-Sex Pistols band the Flowers of Romance because she couldn't play guitar, she was devastated but determined. After she hooked up with the all-female Slits, the band quickly rose to prominence, touring with the Clash and the Buzzcocks and eventually signing to Island Records to release debut album "Cut."

The Slits took punk's amateurism and do-it-yourself inspiration as gospel, questioning thematic assumptions, guitar tunings, rhythms and the whole idea of verse-chorus-verse structure. The result was a ball of glorious confusion. The remarkable cover of "Cut" showed Albertine, Ari Up and Pollitt clad only in loincloths, topless and slathered in mud. It was both a brushoff and a dare. The music was, and remains, mesmerizing.

As Albertine notes, though, before the Slits and other bands of the time such as the Raincoats and Siouxsie & the Banshees, punk was largely a boys club, just like the rock music that came before it.

Albertine, who was born in 1954 and had her musical mind blown first by the Beatles, eloquently documents her early years as a music fan.

"I studied record covers for the names of girlfriends and wives," she writes. "That's how I connected girls to the world I wanted to be in."

When, as an adolescent, she announced she wanted to be a pop star, her father replied, "You're not chic enough." The remark scarred Albertine, but Yoko Ono's example fueled her determination: "At last, a girl being interesting and brave," she writes.

Were this merely a memoir of punk culture and personal empowerment, "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes..." would be a nice snapshot. But halfway through, the Slits break up — and rather than the story petering out, the dissolution serves as the gateway to an inspired second half, dubbed "Side Two," that traces Albertine's far less glamorous adulthood.

It's here where the real work begins and where Albertine battles the realities of non-punk-rock living. Desperate for a child with her then husband, Albertine recalls years in her mid-30s spent in fertility clinics, of miscarriages and, ultimately, the birth of their daughter.

As she becomes a mother, though, the relief is eclipsed by marital problems and, quite abruptly, cervical cancer. The dueling dysfunctions threaten to cast a pall over the book. But Albertine's clarity of expression in these chapters makes them equally propellent: She writes of her middle age, "How does anyone make it through marriage and children and remain a whole person?"

A non-sequitur cameo from actor Vincent Gallo jump-starts Albertine's artistic renewal and helps her to answer that question. While returning to the guitar and working to polish her singing voice, she offers a refreshingly candid view of middle-aged desire, describing her crush on the actor as being "like trying on a couture dress you know you can't afford."

Crammed with wicked observations and keen memories — especially what and whom she was wearing throughout her fashion-obsessed life — Albertine's book is sharp and quick-witted. She knows her way around a sentence and exudes confidence. Like singer Marianne Faithfull's revelatory autobiography "Faithfull," which detailed her life as a '60s "It" girl, Rolling Stones muse, junkie and chanteuse, Albertine throughout the decades questions assumptions of femininity, propriety and creativity.

"It's amazing what your brain can do when all your senses are heightened," writes Albertine near the end, on performing in front of a crowd. "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes..." proves this over and over.

Twitter: @liledit

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.

Viv Albertine
Thomas Dunne/St. Martins Press: 432 pp., $27.99

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