The majority of musician memoirs are akin to high-calorie junk food: substantial in the moment, but rarely fulfilling. When musicians take up the pen to write their story, for the most part, these musicians are a few decades away from the height of their career and positioned on the backend of relevancy and/or coinciding with some sort of deluxe repackaging/remastering of their seminal album(s). Most the stories they have to offer are passable in terms of enjoyment, but often consist of much of the same elements: band in-fighting, hectic recording sessions, record label woes, memorable live performances, injection of too many substances both legal and illegal, etc.
In that respect, Viv Albertine’s memoir, Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys (the title is taken from a quip her mother told her is all she ever talks about), doesn’t stray too far from this perfunctory formula. Albertine even adds a variation of this stock disclaimer in the Introduction: “Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a bit of both.” But what is different, and therefore elevates Albertine’s memoir levels above the pack, is her presence. Or, to put a fine point on it, it’s about damn time we heard from some more women who suffered through the male-dominated rock and punk scenes of the ’70s.
Albertine is one of the most prominent members of the all-girl English punk band, the Slits. Though not necessarily a “founding” member, she nonetheless (in her retelling) was responsible for much of the direction of the band, and acted as the main organizer to the chaotic revelry of the Slits. And when I use the term “suffered”, as above, I mean it in the literal sense. Albertine suffered through plenty of misfortunes, personal and professional.
Yet her tone isn’t one of victimization; rather, it’s a plaintive retelling of events with a lot more humanity than most musicians can muster in their music. And she adds a technique to the text that enmeshes the narrative of the past with the immediacy of the present. Albertine frankly discusses her abortion—the child of the Clash member Mick Jones, with whom Albertine held an on/off romance for many years—with lucid detail, leaving out the sensational parts: “I can’t sleep. I think about the terrifying power that women and mothers have. We don’t need to fight in wars. We have nothing to prove. We have the power to kill and lots of us have used it.” Then, as if jerking us forward into present day, Albertine drops this addendum:
I didn’t regret the abortion for twenty years. But eventually I did and I still regret it now. I wish I’d kept the baby whatever the cost… But I still defend a woman’s right to choose. To have control over her own body and life. That cannot and must not ever be taken away from us.
Her recollection is terrifyingly real and holds even more weight once you’ve made it to the second half of Albertine’s story. (Side Two, as she calls it.) The second half of Albertine’s story, post-Slits, is concerned with the strictures of marital strife and Albertine’s years-long struggle to conceive a child. Not to mention her intense battle with cervical cancer. There’s a litany of abuse stories, hospital visits, failed attempts at conception, and ultimately, something that resembles a conclusion, if not a happy ending. Albertine’s personal life holds more strife that the whole combination of English rock groups combined, but Clothes Clothes Clothes is unflinchingly honest and brave, making no apologies for the grotesqueness of the situations she confronts.
It seems that Albertine can see herself clearly in the rearview mirror of her own life now. She was headstrong and determined from an early age, and her intense desire to be creative, and push her creativity through music, knocks down barriers that otherwise would have kept other (male) counterparts at bay. Of course, Clothes Clothes Clothes is propelled along by Albertine’s troupe of then-famous friends: Mick Jones, Sid Vicious, Jon Cherry, Johnny Thunders.
Wherever Albertine and her bandmates go, they are constantly surrounded by some of the key icons of the late ’70s English punk/rasta/jazz scene. They barge into Island Records and ask for a record deal (because that was their favorite record label), they cut a John Peel session for the BBC, all while sneering back at the male engineers who turn their noses up at their inability to play (or even tune) their instruments, and they recruit free jazz and reggae artists to go on tour with them, using their record label advance, because they want to see their favorite musicians play. The Slits’ attitude was very “damn the torpedoes”, and manages to give them success on several key levels—all while blazing a trail for female musicians the world over.
Albertine is frank and unblinking about her sexuality, her bodily discharges (including STDs), her infrequent drug use, various sexual assaults, and her general lack of concern for having to be a proper musician. There’s a lot of blood on the pages; Albertine mixes it into the ink generously. Her all-consuming concern with how the Slits’ are portrayed onstage and in the press, as well as on record, eventually takes a toll on her health.
But again, Albertine isn’t a victim in her story; in the first half of her memoir, she’s a women in her mid-20s living the dream she always thought possible. And where much of Clothes Clothes Clothes is devoted to the subjects in her book’s title (there are a few nearly dull chapters on her favorite clothes shop and the look she strives for in her personal style), there are subjects in her memoir that haven’t, and can’t be, as deftly explained by a male musician as Albertine does.
Clothes Clothes Clothes is a slow beast to start up and a brutal slog to get through at times, but once you travel into the thick of it with Albertine as your guide, you’ll read an entirely new perspective of a seemingly familiar scene.