Event preview: Viv Albertine at Off The Shelf festival, Sheffield

Viv Albertine
Viv Albertine
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CAUSING a stir was perhaps not the first thing in Viv Albertine’s mind when it came to sitting down and writing her memoir, but frankness and fearlessness do seem to be embedded in her DNA.

Bandmates, boyfriends, acquaintances, her ex-husband, even Albertine’s battles with IVF and cancer herself are written about with searing honesty in her book Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys.

“I’ve always lived like that, really,” explains the former guitarist with all-female punk group The Slits. “It’s caused me great problems, but there are problems either way. I am pretty frank. I’m not fearless but I can be pretty brave. I don’t want life to slip away because I’m shy.”

She says she has been “surprised” that people have ben so generous about her book. “They don’t mind frankness and honesty. I thought they would hate me. Maybe if they don’t have to live with you they don’t mind it so much.”

She had considered leaving out some of the more visceral recollections “but once it was on the page I knew it would be less of a book”.

In the end she reasoned that she “could not bear to do anything that would not be the best I could do – that was how it came about to be frank and fearless”.

Albertine was there in punk’s infancy – she hung out at Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McClaren’s clothes shop Sex, was a member of Sid Vicious’ first band, the Flowers of Romance, while at arts school she dated Mick Jones of The Clash, and she went on to join the all-female punk group The Slits with Ari Up, Palmolive and Tessa Pollitt. Yet she says she did not want to write a book that was “particularly punk-based”; the readership she had in mind was girls of her daughter’s age – 15.

“We were the first generation of young women who had been able to live a more interesting life,” she says. “In the 60s no girls did anything interesting. I wanted to show girls all the pitfalls along the way so that if they encounter them they’d know that we did this and came through it. It was not setting the story straight. I could not remember anything about punk but the guitars. The punk thing was the last thing in my mind. It’s the whole journey of a woman, how many times I was put down along the way and how many times I got up.”

Many things led her to punk as it was formulating in London in the mid-1970s, including, she says, her mother. “She came from a generation that was very repressed. She was much smarter than my dad but he was the one who went out and did interesting things.” Many women of Albertine’s generation “did not look upon love and family as something to aspire to”.

“Now young girls can look at both [a career and raising children] but it shaped me and made me quite militant. I was a scared person. It was seeing my mother’s generation being squashed. They had had enough. We were the products of them, that dissatisfaction, that led to punk.”

She was “galvanised” by seeing Patti Smith and the androgynous Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. “Before that I had not really seen someone like me in a band. I thought I could be as daring as him.”

When Mick Jones chose Paul Simenon – “a bass player who could not play but looked good” – to be in The Clash, Albertine says: “I started to make links. What’s the difference between me and this guy? It was revolutionary really at that time to think that without much you could make something of yourself in music.”

The character of Sid Vicous that emerges from the book is rather different to the one of legend. “He liked to dress up a bit like Bowie and he was fashion mad,” Albertine explains. “I thought he was this iconoclast but he was enthralled by pop music and wanting to be famous. Like all the boys in that scene, they imagined themselves in a band. We were so different, not because we were girls; we had not thought of copying pop stars.”

That lust for fame was to be his downfall. “I thought he was this urchin off the street. When he chucked me out of the band I realised how careerist he was. He wanted to be famous. He was not what he seemed. He held a lot back. He was well read and intelligent but he decided to play a part and that eclipsed that. He dreamed of being a rock star and went at it with gusto. He became a cartoon character. It was his choice. He was not really interesting to me when he started on that trajectory.”

Mick Jones, on the other hand, she realised years later, is “one of the best people I’ve ever met”.

“He’s an interesting, thoughtful person with a heart of gold and a moral compass who has resonated much over the years.”

The Slits might have been short-lived – they made two albums before splitting up – but they were trailblazers. “We intended to make a classic album that stood the test of time,” Albertine says. “People had never seen a girl play guitar or drums. It was shocking to an audience of boys who’d been going to gigs for years. It was fascinating to them. At the end of the set we would jump into the audience and dance to the next band. The way we dressed nobody had seen before – I might wear a Brownie uniform with Dr Martens or a tutu with rubber stockings. We’d wear black round our eyes and have messy hair. We were girls who did not look like girls, in a way.

“Then there was our music – we decided carefully not to just copy 12-bar blues chord structures and write the same rubbishy lyrics. We were totally honest in our words – at the risk of being ridiculed or laughed at. We were left out of books and compilations but time has found our place.”

Beyond punk, Albertine recalls her battles with IVF and cancer and the break-up of her marriage.”That’s almost the most important part of the book,” she says. “I’ve done so many things so many ways, so much has gone wrong. To me, I felt to talk very honestly about that stuff would be helpful. I did not say to people [at the time that] I had cancer, the same with the IVF. I hope writing the book makes people feel less alone. That’s why I do the stuff I do, I know I am not alone. Men and women responded to it, which is good.”

Her decision to make music again after a 20-year break may have destroyed her marriage – “I picked up a guitar again and blew my life apart” – but, she says, “it had to be done”.

“I could still be sitting there by the sea, squabbling and bickering with a husband like many hundreds and thousands of people are. But I could not do it. You’ve got one life. It felt like an insult to nature to stay somewhere because you are scared. I understand if you’re afraid of being lonely why people stick it out. But I think everyone should be moving around when something is over.”

Her divorce coincided with the offer of a central role in the film Exhibition, directed by Joanna Hogg. Though not trained as actor, she took it.

“Lots of things resonated rather spookily, really. Moving out of the family home I’d been in for years, my relationship had broken down. There were so many parallels, it was spooky. We were able to improvise; I could not have done a script with lines.”

What she “did not expect”, she says, “was the emotional strain of acting this person for six weeks, trying to be strong when I was not really”.

“I would not do it again,” she adds, “it was hard going, but it was worth doing it once. I could not bear to live life portraying others but having to draw on your own life. I can’t understand how actors can compartmentalise. It took five to six months to get over that.”

Since her book was published to considerable acclaim, Albertine finds herself in demand to give talks. She says she has been making notes for another book “but we will see”.

“No one is clamouring for me to make another record,” she says wryly. “I might take the easier path for once, people are asking me to write another book. I don’t even know myself well enough. In six months I might move to a shed and not talk to anyone for years.”

Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys is published by Faber & Faber, priced £14.99. Viv Albertine will be talking at the Off The Shelf Festival on October 22. For tickets visit http://tickets.sheffieldstudentsunion.com/ents/event/6814/