Viv Albertine comes to Portsmouth Bookfest to talk on punk and her life beyond music

Viv Albertine. Photo by Chris Power
Viv Albertine. Photo by Chris Power
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Anyone who picks up Viv Albertine’s autobiography Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys expecting a rehash of the glory days of punk is in for a rude awakening.

As the guitarist in the seminal all-female punk band The Slits and as part of the clique that made up the original scene – she went out with Mick Jones of The Clash and was in a band with Sid Vicious before he joined The Sex Pistols – few would be better qualified to tell those stories.

But the book goes way beyond that short, wild time, as Viv reveals essentially, what happened next – including her harrowing battle with cancer and struggle to get pregnant through numerous IVF cycles, as well as the breakdown of her marriage.

And now, as part of Portsmouth Bookfest, she will be talking about the book, her life and all things music at Pie & Vinyl on Tuesday.

Talking to WOW247, she reveals how the idea of writing a book had been bounced around for years, but she hadn’t been interested.

‘I was very much: “Oh God, no”, I can’t think of anything worse – it didn’t interest me, and punk didn’t have the interest that it does now.

You start getting called a legend because of something you did for 18 months, and I thought, no, I’m going to rip apart this idea, and show all the boring bits, all the dull bits, all the mistakes, all the failures

Viv Albertine

‘I’m very against sentimentality and nostalgia, so it was: no way.’

It was only when she returned to music in the last few years that the idea began to make sense.

‘Once I picked up my guitar again in my late 40s/early 50s, I began to encounter exactly the same attitudes that I did when I first picked up the guitar as a young girl: oh you can’t do it, you can’t sing, you can’t play, you’re making a total fool of yourself, and now added to that was: you’re too old.

‘It was a feeling of it all happening again, and because I’ve been to film school and taught how to think in patterns and narrative arcs, I thought now this would make an interesting story – the whole deja vu of it all.’

After meeting with publishers Faber and overcoming any doubts about her writing ability – she was adamant it wouldn’t be ghostwritten – Albertine turned over her completed manuscript. And what she’d written had left her surprised.

‘I knew I would be open because that’s how I am and that was my training with punk, and that’s never gone away – the ethos resonated with me, and I’m a horribly truthful person, but what I didn’t know as I sat and wrote, the things that I would write about. Bodily functions and blowjobs, some of these things I wrote to cheer myself up and thought they wouldn’t be in the final book, but once I had they so jumped off the page, you become a slave to the book in a way, and you’re not in control – the book has to come first before your ego and before your embarrassment.

‘I intended to be honest, but I didn’t intend to share some of those things. Once I had written it and handed it over to my publishers I was so worried I almost had a breakdown.

‘I didn’t want people to read it and read those things – I thought people would hate me.

‘I thought I would be vilified, trolled, and critics would laugh at me.

‘I was writing alone for two years and you’ve got no idea how it’s going to be received.’

Although the subject matter couldn’t be more personal, Albertine is careful in the way she talks about others – her ex-husband is never named – a move she says is largely for her now 17-year-old daughter’s sake, as well as for his privacy – he’s not a public figure.

And her daughter has yet to read the full book: ‘I think she’s quite wary of it. She read some bits which she found quite upsetting, like all the cancer stuff – I’ve never gone into great detail with her before.’

With the book divided into Side 1 and Side 2, it is the second, post-punk half that has drawn most praise (and critics have been glowing in their praise for the book).

‘It’s funny because I don’t think the publishers thought they wanted the second half particularly, but for me, it didn’t make sense without it.

‘Life didn’t stop with punk. It was very much about tearing down things.

‘I wanted to show the other side. You start getting called a legend because of something you did for 18 months, and I thought, no, I’m going to rip apart this idea of being a legend, and show all the boring bits, all the dull bits, all the mistakes, all the failures that go into that so-called: “Viv Albertine, legendary punk guitarist”.

‘It’s rubbish, I wanted to deconstruct all that, and say this is real life, this the real me.

‘We’ve all got this going on, but not all of us are truthful about it.’

One thread that runs through her writing is how Albertine veers from an apparently iron-clad self-belief to doubts and vulnerability, sometimes on the same page.

‘To me that’s honest as well, especially from someone who performs – you see them on stage and they’re totally confident, you almost have a persona that you can slip into.

‘I did play the role of a confident person quite a lot, but underneath it all I had quite an awkward upbringing, not a very happy childhood, and I think a hero or heroine of a fiction book isn’t one or the other either, let alone a real person.

‘A real person putting their life on the page, we all swing backwards and forwards, if we’re honest about it. But that’s the truth of it, One minute I might feel quite bolshy, but I’m quite a shy person and I’ve had to be quite over the top to overcome it sometimes.’

Viv only began performing music as a solo artist in 2009, having put music aside to pursue a career in TV and film production. In The Slits charismatic wild-child singer Ari Up provided the focal point on stage. Taking centre stage for the first time was something Viv struggled with.

‘It was a very difficult transition. I felt I was a bit of a fake, a usurper.

‘It’s whole different bag being a frontperson – terrifying, but it was a matter of necessity if I wanted to get the songs out there.

‘I couldn’t sing, still can’t sing for toffee, but it was beyond logic and beyond sensibility, I had to do it. It was like this huge instinctive drive took over and the only other time I’ve felt like that before was when I had to have a child.

‘All through the IVF, I was absolutely mad that I had to have a child, and it was like that again, completely beyond, outside, this huge push, I had to get these songs out, even though I was going to disgrace myself and embarrass myself. Even though I couldn’t sing, and I didn’t want to be at the front, I had to do it.’

The result was an EP called Flesh in 2010 and an album, The Vermilion Border, in 2012. The sound may no longer be the caustic punk of yore, but the lyrical content is often raw and needling.

‘I surprised myself,’ she says of the album’s creation. ‘I don’t know where that came from or why. But it’s gone now.

‘I can’t imagine it coming back, but I couldn’t imagine it coming in he first place, so I don’t know if there will be any more music. I feel I got it out, that album, I had so much I had to say, but now I feel that way about writing, so I’m writing another book.

‘It’s non-fiction again. I did try writing fiction, but I hated making up these stupid scenarios with these twists and turns, and it just wasn’t me.

‘I like to read a good fiction book, but I deal in reality and truth, so gradually the book morphed into real life again.

‘I’m not going to go into it too much, as talking about it kills an idea.’

Pie & Vinyl, Southsea

Tuesday, March 1