Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. by Viv Albertine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I really loved the start of this book:
Never did it. Never wanted to do it. There was no reason not to, no oppression, I wasn’t told it was wrong and I don’t think it’s wrong. I just didn’t think of it at all. I didn’t naturally want to do it, so I didn’t know it existed. By the time my hormones kicked in, at about thirteen years old, I was being felt-up by boys and that was enough for me. Bit by bit the experimentation went further until I first had sex with my regular boyfriend when I was fifteen. We were together for three years and are still friends now, which I think is nice. In all the time since my first sexual experience I haven’t masturbated, although I did try once after being nagged by friends when I complained I was lonely. But to me, masturbating when lonely is like drinking alcohol when you’re sad: it exacerbates the pain. It’s not that I don’t touch my breasts (they’re much nicer now I’ve put on a little weight) or touch between my legs or smell my fingers, I do all that, I like doing that, tucked up all warm and cosy in bed at night. But it never leads on to masturbation. Can’t be bothered. I don’t have fantasies much either – except once when I was pregnant and all hormoned up. I felt very aroused and had a violent fantasy about being fucked by a pack of rabid, wild dogs in the front garden. I later miscarried – that’ll teach me. This fantasy didn’t make me want to masturbate, I ran the scenario through my head a couple of times, wrote it down and never had a thought like it again. Honest.
Well. It opened up the book to me, and I’m not a prude. At least, that’s not what I see myself as. The book is open-hearted in the sense that Albertine seems to write from the heart. She’s not usually a writer, except for writing scripts and songs, but this book has content that makes up for the lack of stringency and solidity; somehow, that’s what musical autobiographies often lack.
The book, as a whole, is really good because I feel that Albertine is as all people should be: not afraid of one’s sexuality and searching for herself. This makes for a very interesting teenage experience, partly as she grows up during the advent of punk, and also as she tells of many interesting persons, e.g. John Beverley (Sid Vicious), whom she was very close to, Mick Jones of The Clash (whom she loved romantically), not to mention the person she later married, Malcolm McClaren and Vivianne Westwood and Don Letts.
I love how she wrote about discovering music, and art in relation to music:
When John and Yoko took their clothes off for the Two Virgins picture, their sweet, normal bodies all naked and wobbly were shocking because they were so imperfect. It was an especially brave move for Yoko; her body was dissected and derided by the press. But I got it. At last, a girl being interesting and brave.
She also writes about what is often left in the dark for us born without a uterus: the period. On it starting:
My period started the day before my thirteenth birthday. I went ballistic. I howled like a banshee, I shouted, I slammed doors – I was furious, crazed, ranting and murderous for days. This thing that had happened to me was totally unacceptable. I hated it, I didn’t want it, but I had no control over it. I couldn’t bear to live if it meant going through life bleeding every month and being weak and compromised. It was so unfair.
And on sexual beginnings:
Once when me and Nic were kissing and touching each other on a bed in someone’s house, he put his hand inside my knickers and I orgasmed immediately just from the newness of the experience. Well, I think it was an orgasm, it felt like a big twitch and then I wasn’t interested in being touched any more.
On loving music, especially certain albums, passionately:
The first album I bought when I got back from Amsterdam was an Island sampler, Nice Enough to Eat. I only had about four records because they were so expensive, but samplers were much cheaper than a normal LP, only fourteen shillings so lots of people bought them, they were important. I listened very hard to all the tracks, I never skipped songs that weren’t immediately appealing to me because I wanted to make the experience of having a new record last as long as possible. This is when I became aware of a label as a stable of artists. I trusted Island’s taste. I saw Nice Enough to Eat in an Oxfam shop the other day, it made my heart skip a beat, like I’d unexpectedly come across a very old and dear friend that I hadn’t seen for thirty years. Someone I’d told all my secrets to. The blue cover with the jumbled-up sweets spelling the bands’ names was so familiar, it meant more to me than seeing a family photograph. I bought the record again of course. Couldn’t leave it sitting there.
On getting her first STD; the story of this is testament to how honest Albertine seems and comes across:
I look into my knickers and see there is a little black dot at the base of a pubic hair. Then I realise with horror there’s a little black dot at the base of every pubic hair. I try and pick one off. It doesn’t come easily, the little bugger. I hold the speck in the palm of my hand. Phew, false alarm, it’s just a tiny pale brown scab. The squat was so dirty I must have got scabs from scratching myself all the time. But as I peer at it, the little scab grows legs and scuttles off sideways. I scream. Not an ‘Oh help I’ve seen a spider’ scream, but an ‘I am the host of living creatures! Evil parasites are burrowing into my flesh and sucking my blood!’ type of scream. A very serious and loud scream. A ‘Kill me now, I can’t bear to be conscious for one more second’ scream.
…and on having said crabs removed:
The next day, Mum sends me to the clap clinic in Praed Street, Paddington. (‘It only takes a minute at the Praed Street clinic’, ‘Rabies (from the Dogs of Love)’, the 101ers.) A nice nurse gives me a blue cotton gown and shows me where to hang my clothes, then she tells me to lie on the bed, which has a piece of white paper stretched over it. I lie down and look at the polystyrene tiles on the ceiling, daydreaming. The nurse explains patiently that I must slide my bum down the bed and put my feet through the stirrups. I start to do it, but realise this means I’ll be lying on my back with my knees bent up to my chest and my legs wide open. I look at her for reassurance, Is this really what I’m supposed to do? She nods. I wriggle my feet through the stirrups and rest my ankles on the black nylon-webbing straps. The soles of my feet are filthy, luckily they face away from the nurse. My legs are held really wide open by the stirrups, my vagina is pointing to the door. I feel as if I’m strapped to a raft on a linoleum ocean, my ankles tied to the sides. ‘Here comes the doctor,’ says the nurse as the door opens. I feel so exposed, it’s unbearable, I’m horrified, ashamed. I’ve never had my legs so wide open before, not even during sex. I’ve never been looked at down there before, never shown anyone, never even looked at it myself. The doctor appears. A man. He’s young and handsome. Why is a young handsome man a gynaecologist? He must be a pervert. I want to die. This is the most humiliating and terrible thing that has ever happened to me (ever happened to you so far). I burst into tears.
On discovering Patti Smith:
Every week I buy the NME. I find it difficult to read because the writers use such long words, but it’s not a chore because I’m interested in what they’re saying. One day I read a small piece about a singer called Patti Smith. There’s a picture. It’s the cover of Horses, her forthcoming album, a black-and-white photograph taken by Robert Mapplethorpe. I have never seen a girl who looks like this. She is my soul made visible, all the things I hide deep inside myself that can’t come out. She looks natural, confident, sexy and an individual. I don’t want to dress like her or copy her style; she gives me the confidence to express myself in my own way. On the day the album’s released – I half dread it in case the music doesn’t live up to the promise of that bold cover – I don’t go into college, I get the bus to HMV Records in Oxford Street instead. I’m so excited I feel sick. When I arrive, I see Mick Jones loitering outside the record shop. ‘What are you doing here?’ I ask. ‘Getting the Patti Smith record.’ I rush home and put the record on. It hurls through stream of consciousness, careers into poetry and dissolves into sex.
The structure of the songs is unique to her, not copies of old song structures, they’re a mixture of improvisation, landscapes, grooves, verses and choruses. She’s a private person who dares to let go in front of everyone, puts herself out there and risks falling flat on her face. Up until now girls have been so controlled and restrained. Patti Smith is abandoned. Her record translates into sound, parts of myself that I could not access, could not verbalise, could not visualise, until this moment. Listening to Horses unlocks an idea for me – girls’ sexuality can be on their own terms, for their own pleasure or creative work, not just for exploitation or to get a man. I’ve never heard a girl breathing heavily, or making noises like she’s fucking in music before (except ‘Je t’aime’ by Jane Birkin, and that record didn’t resonate with me). Hearing Patti Smith be sexual, building to an orgasmic crescendo, whilst leading a band, is so exciting. It’s emancipating. If I can take a quarter or even an eighth of what she has and not give a shit about making a fool of myself, maybe I still can do something with my life.
I love this line of hers on Mick Jones:
I can be myself with him and am loved for it, not in spite of it.
On using “shock”:
Sid is into subverting signs and people’s expectations too, which is why he wears a leather jacket with a swastika marked out in studs. He isn’t so stupid as to think that persecuting Jewish people is a good idea, but he does want to upset and enrage everyone and question what they’re reacting to: the symbol, or the deed? Once we hailed a cab and the driver said he wouldn’t take us because he was Jewish and offended by the swastika on Sid’s jacket. As the cabbie drove away, Sid said to me, ‘The cunt should’ve taken us and overcharged, that would’ve been a cleverer thing to do.’
My attraction to shocking goes back to the sixties: hippies and Yippies used it a lot, comic artists like Robert Crumb, the underground magazine Oz, Lenny Bruce, Andy Warhol. I also studied history of art at school, and learnt how Surrealists and Dadaists used shock and irrational juxtaposition. All this influences my work and I try to shock in all areas of my life, especially in my drawings and clothes. Referencing sex is an easy way to shock. 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. My bleached blonde hair is not seductive and smooth, but matted and wild, my eyes smudged with black eyeliner. I finish it all off with fishnet tights and shocking pink patent boots from the shop Sex. I’ve crossed the line from ‘sexy wild girl just fallen out of bed’ to ‘unpredictable, dangerous, unstable girl’. Not so appealing. 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.
On Vivienne Westwood:
Vivienne’s scary, for the reason any truthful, plain-talking person is scary – she exposes you. If you haven’t been honest with yourself, this makes you feel extremely uncomfortable, and if you are a con merchant the game is up. She’s uncompromising in every way: what she says, what she stands for, what she expects from you and how she dresses. She’s direct and judgemental with a strong northern accent that accentuates her sincerity. She has a confidence I haven’t seen in any other woman. She’s strong, opinionated and very smart. She can’t bear complacency. She’s the most inspiring person I’ve ever met. Sid told me, ‘Vivienne says you’re talented but lazy.’ I’ve worked at everything twice as hard since he said that.
Getting kicked out of her band by Sid Vicious, this happened:
I hear a phone ringing through the thick fuzzy air. It’s Thunders, asking me to join the Heartbreakers. He says to come over to the rehearsal studios right now. I’m scared, but I go anyway. That should be written on my gravestone. She was scared. But she went anyway.
Once again, it seems that Paul Weller’s been an arse – apart from the mention in Zoë Howe’s “Barbed Wire Kisses: The Jesus and Mary Chain Story“:
I want boys to come and see us play and think I want to be part of that. Not They’re pretty or I want to fuck them but I want to be in that gang, in that band. I want boys to want to be us, not have the usual response like that one at the party in Islington the other night, he told me he played guitar. ‘I play guitar too,’ I said. ‘Great! We could do with some crumpet in our band.’ His name was Paul Weller. Mick wanted to have a go at him when I mentioned it but I thought that would make me look weak so I stopped him.
On Ari Up, when starting The Slits:
There’s another trait that adds to Ari’s liberation: she doesn’t care about being attractive to boys. She’s not bothered about looking pretty or moving seductively for them, she only does that for her own pleasure. She doesn’t see her body as a vehicle for attracting a mate, and she doesn’t squash bits of her personality to avoid overshadowing boys. I realise I’m learning a lot from her, and it would be foolish of me to dismiss her because she’s young. Since knowing Ari, I’ve become more aware of how uptight I am about my body, bodily functions, smells and nudity. Ari moves her body with the unselfconsciousness of a child, and I don’t see any reason why I can’t reclaim that feeling, even though I’m older. I’m constantly questioning stereotyping through my work but I’m still enslaved by the stereotype of femininity in my mind. (‘It’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head’ – Sally Kempton.) Ari has no such hang-ups. When we played the Music Machine in Mornington Crescent, halfway through the set she was dying for a piss, she didn’t want to leave the stage and couldn’t bear to be uncomfortable, so she just pulled down her leggings and knickers and pissed on the stage – all over the next band’s guitarist’s pedals as it happened – I was so impressed. No girl had pissed on stage before, but Ari didn’t do it to be a rebel or to shock, it was much more subversive than that: she just needed a piss. In these times when girls are so uptight and secretive about their bodies and desperately trying to be ‘feminine’, she is a revolutionary.
On when you’re ready for divorce:
Married women tell me I’m making the worst mistake of my life and this is a terrible age to be divorcing: ‘You’ll never get another man.’ A very sophisticated, honey-highlighted blonde divorced mother from my daughter’s school confides in me outside the swimming pool: ‘When you’d rather live in a tent in a field than in your nice house with your husband, that’s when you’re ready for divorce.’
The first part of the book, as it’s divided into “side one” and “side two”, is my favourite by a long shot; the second part is interesting, but to me, Albertine’s thoughts on pregnancy, miscarriage, starting up her musical life again aren’t as interesting or lasting as her words on her relationship with her husband and her self-doubt.
All in all, this is one of the more individual autobiographies by a musician that I’ve read. I’m quite sure that Albertine has put her own words to right here, and not relied on an (eventual) editor to mould her words into shape, as everything feels home made, in a good way; it reflects the music she made as part of The Slits. This book is recommendable even to people who have never heard of The Slits, and to people who dislike autobiographies by musicians. There isn’t any trying-to-be-clever here, it’s life.
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