Punk rock has been getting a lot of love recently. Johnny Rotten and Kim Gordon both have books coming out in 2015; Marky Ramone just released his autobiography; a DVD about Johnny Thunders hit shelves a few months ago and some old Clash footage has popped up on social media. So picking up a book by The Slits guitar player Viv Albertine is another candy in the jar if you love the music. Diving in with expectations of lurid tales of debauchery amongst the spitting, snarling purveyors of punk’s origins is only natural. And Albertine name drops just about everybody who was anybody during that time. But what may surprise you is how real her story ends up being. Once she takes herself out of the scene, her life becomes dramatically normal. And this is actually where you are pulled in the most.
Albertine is a woman of few words, not going off on tangents of massive detail. Much like her life during her early years, she just floats along on minimal verbiage, just being and not necessarily doing; although she does quite a bit. But from her telling of things, it’s almost as if she was simply there when things were happening. Not one to brag on herself for her accomplishments, there is no denying she’s had some really cool things in her life, pre-normality. She dated The Clash’s Mick Jones, she palled around with Sid Vicious, she played guitar in one of the seminal female punk bands, The Slits. She bought clothes at Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s shop Sex, was spit on, harassed and ridiculed by skinheads and normals in London, was broke more often than not, hungry and dirty; yet determined to be in the music world that called to every fiber in her body, especially after her father laughed off her young girl ambition that she was going to be a singer one day.
Home life was dramatic and bare. Her parents fought and her father could be violent towards her and her sister. They had to learn early on to not prick his nerves, although Albertine had just enough rebelliousness to ride that thin line between conformity and safety. “We have to forgive him,” Albertine writes at the beginning of her memoirs. “We’ve got to see him every day, life’s going to be even more uncomfortable if we don’t forgive him; it’s a matter of survival.”
She crushes heavily on John Lennon but admires Yoko Ono. Strong female role models will always be a part of Albertine’s psyche. She attends art college and meets Jones, a relationship that trips on being volatile at best. He helps her pick out a guitar and in her mind, never accomplishes being the guitar player she envisions herself to be, but she keeps strumming those strings. She forms a band with Vicious called the Flowers Of Romance but Sid eventually kicks her out. Johnny Thunders gives her her first shot of heroin after forewarning her of Sid’s sacking intentions. “I’ve been offered heroin before,” she pens of the 1977 episode. “I’ve never taken it. I’ve never had any intention of taking it – but today is the perfect day. Today I’m devastated.”
She joins The Slits and they tour with the Clash, where their lead singer Ari causes more mischief than anyone can take. A tour with Don Cherry is equally as stressful for Albertine, especially after she makes the comment “I hate junkies” to which a steel-eyed Cherry responds, “I hate hate.” They record a couple of albums and then the band splits. And this is where Albertine becomes human. She teaches aerobics, works behind the scenes in film, gives birth to a daughter, develops cancer. Her fight with the deadly disease are some of the most vivid scenes written. She doesn’t minimize or sugarcoat her body’s physical and mental traumas. She marries her daughter’s father, the man who stood lovingly alongside of her as life was taking her away. They move to the coast and fall into even more normalcy. But there are cracks in the seams of the marriage and Albertine eventually finds a guitar back in her hand. It is a long journey, this “Side Two” as she calls it. It’s spotted with things that those of us who know living a normal life can identify with: loneliness, motherhood, sickness, conforming to what is expected by others, living a life you no longer wish to be a part of. Albertine lays all this bare and naked in front of the reader, and whether or not it makes you squirm, it will make you think.
Albertine eventually divorces and continues playing her music, wearing her own style of clothes and living the way she wants to live, in privacy for the most part, away from the hustle and bustle of the past, but not without her wits. “Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a bit of both.”