Viv Albertine’s “Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys” Reviewed
Viv Albertine was the lower middle class (read: poor) girl from London, who got involved with punk, played guitar with the Slits,dropped out of the music business for motherhood, survived cancer, rebuilt her career and wrote a memoir , “Clothes, Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys”, a brutally honest look at a life in progress which will be of interest to anyone obsessed with UK punk… and mothers.
At the age of five, Albertine moved from Sydney to London to a council estate (what we call a project here) where her family had no money and then her dad left the family and they had even less money. Viv’s late Mom (she died last year),is the sung but not entirely hero of Viv’s story: raising two daughters by herself (don’t try this at home folks), she perhaps was less the doting and careful Mom she might have been yet even so a great mother. On the one hand, she let her teen daughter hitchhike to Amsterdam, on the other hand, when she came back with crabs, shaved her and cleaned her.
Indeed, there is a lot of blood and other bodily functions in the memoir, too many though I realize Viv isn’t writing it for me. She told Mojo: “I really had young people in the back of my mind when I wrote the book. I was writing a letter to myself in a way. Girls were nothing in the ’70s. If you hadn’t been born into a decent family and had a decent education as a girl you were fuck all. There were no role models. On a class level it was just awful – nothing was expected of you. It’s a wonder more girls weren’t delinquent in the ’70s but we didn’t even have that! We didn’t have that drive, that energy to be bad.” So written to herself? Maybe written to her teenage daughter? All teenage girls. Whatever, not written for a middle age man and it doesn’t read for a middle aged man, but, and I don’t know if this is self-evident, but it is more exotic for a middle aged man. All the stuff about her years and years of attempting to have a child are so, I guess, other, it is like reading about aborigines or something.
Viv was a music fanatic with a serious John Lennon jones in the middle of the 1960s. She went to Hyde Park and caught the Stones Brian Jones memorial, hung out at clubs, went to Chelsea School of Art where she met and fell in love with a pre-Clash Mick Jones, who was constantly trying to form a rock band. Through her relationship with Jones she became a part of the nascent punk rock scene. Though here, and perhaps it is the only time you feel she is being delusional, she doesn’t quite see how her being extremely attractive worked for her. Mick Jones is portrayed with immense affection throughout the memoir but especially in the early parts.
So is Sid Vicious. It took Viv forever to learn how to play guitar -while living in a squat, and a chance run in with Vicious and Rotten lead Sid to invite Viv to play in his band the Flowers Of Romance. Viv saves Sid from the slagheap of history, resurrects him as a smart, artistic but difficult man. Their friendship is superbly rendered. Johnny Thunders, Steve Jones and others make appearances. There are a lot of star cameos as the memoir continues to the present, and Viv writing about the Slits (an excellent rock band, I saw Sleater Kinney last Thursday, and they sound like the Slits without the dub and without Ari, in other words the guitars owe a huge debt to Albertine) is interesting simply in a this is how bands do it, anthropological way. Though Ari is portrayed with such enormous affection, the late lead singer wasn’t misunderstood the way Sid was but even so, it is tender, moving and kind without being the slightest bit sentimental.
The level of honesty and complete lack of manipulation in Viv’s memoir is one of its great graces. She never molds her story or us, it speaks for itself always. There is a scene late in the story where Viv, a cancer survivor, touches a lump in Ari’s breast and tells her to get to a doctor right away. Filled with foreboding, it is heartwrenching but not written that way. This is at the heart of Albertine’s writing style: she doesn’t NOT write description, metaphor, coloration and shading, but she does so only under duress. More often her writing style is crystal clear: you are never lost, never at sea, you are always in specific time and places in her story. Much has been written about her use of the first person singular, how she doesn’t empower herself with foresight, but she also doesn’t empower herself with a time space continuum, she can’t connect the dots through flash forwards and back, it remains in a forever now. She loses a novelists grasp on the material, she loses hindsight, but she gains a narrative which accumulates itself as it goes forward. We see her grow and change.
After the other Slits bail on her, Viv quits the band and immigrates back to her Mom’s sofa. I don’t think you can say enough about the mother in this book, she is like the story under the story (even “Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys” is something her Mom tells hers). Late in the book, Viv tells of seeing her daughter in the front row of one of her gigs, and the look of adoration on her daughters face, but it also works backwards as well: that look on her daughter must be Viv’s look at her mother, as she returns home again and again to a place where she is safe and loved. Over everything else, this is a generational love story. It is a feminism men can’t grasp, fathers and sons is not the same, fathers and daughters is not the same, it is like a true centrifugal force of nature; by the way, that’s the sort of thing Albertine wouldn’t write.
Post-Slits is where the writing becomes even more important, without the celebrity skindom aspect, all Viv has is her life and her life ends up being a marriage and a year after year after year of fighting to have a baby. One of my closest friends went through the same thing and I don’t understand it at all myself. My friend almost killed herself trying to have a baby and Viv is gallons of blood, suffering and a steadfast husband (I was hoping they’d stay married but…). Viv has a baby girl and six weeks later nearly hemorrhaged to death: cervical cancer.
All in all it took Viv seven years to get back on her feet.
A disaffection for her life as a housewife comes to a head when actor director Vincent Gallo starts up a correspondence and leads the ever stubborn Viv to pick up a guitar again and learn to sing. She gets divorced, sells her home, takes her child, records an excellent album The Vermillion Border. Her father, a hermetic French headcase, dies, as does Ari, Poly Styrene, Malcolm McLaren and others (her Mom died after the book was completed).
And so here is “Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys”.
Among the many many things I admire about the book is just how unsentimental it is, how to the point, how it doesn’t deal in life in abstraction but rather it deals in life as flesh and blood. There is a stubborn resilience to it. Over and above the fun of reading about people you know is the fun of reading about a world you have no clue about. Viv sees life in a very certain way and she is stubborn in her pursuit of it.Oddly, I didn’t come out particularly liking her but I came out imagining a way to like her. But admire her? Very much so.