Friday, November 11, 2016
Book Review: Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. by Viv Albertine
There are rock star memoirs you read because you're such a huge fan that you want to learn the inside scoop, such as Peter Hook’s book on Joy Division. There are rock star memoirs you read because they are so famous and have had a monumental cultural impact, such as Keith Richards'. Guitarist Viv Albertine's book is neither of those. You don't have to worship her band the Slits to appreciate her bio, which is good since they played a marginal role in the London punk scene. But Albertine has so much insight to offer to make this book a valuable read.
Albertine was in the thick of it during the London punk explosion. She formed her first band with Sid Vicious before he joined the Sex Pistols, and Johnny Thunders tipped her off that Vicious was kicking her out of the band before they even played a gig. She hung out at Sex, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren's clothes shop. She dated Mick Jones for several years.
That insider's view is a strong start, but there's much more. She describes how the lack of female role models among musicians limited her early imagination of what she could possibly achieve before she decided to pick up a guitar. When she did finally buy an axe, she struggled to both master basic skills and to find her own style, not just bash out the same three chords that had already become a shorthand definition of punk. Her burning desire for creative expression came to fruition when she was asked to join the Slits, and the band's biggest challenge was manifesting their artistic ideas.
And that's just Side One. Albertine breaks the book into two sections modeled on an album sides. Side Two follows her life after leaving the Slits. It's not the stuff of standard rock memoirs, but her story and way of telling it are intriguing and inspiring. First she has to figure out what to do with her life, and she demonstrates the value of identifying concrete steps to achieve her goals. After several fizzled attempts at higher education in her youth, she makes it through film school and finds steady work as a commercial director. She overcomes her loneliness by agreeing with a friend to go on more dates, ask men out and include men in outings with her girlfriends, resulting in her meeting her husband.
Then things go south. She suffers a miscarriage with major complications, endures repeated rounds of IVF in a desperate attempt to eventually have a baby, then gets diagnosed with cervical cancer. As she slowly emerges from the fog of those lost years, she recognizes the void in her life, reduced to a stay-at-home suburban mom. So she takes it upon herself to get her groove back by returning to music. She had long since sold her guitars and lost her chops, but she obsessively rebuilds her skills, adding new ones as a singer, songwriter and solo performer. This is both the cause of and balm for the dissolution of her marriage, but she takes justifiable pride in her daughter's getting to see her as much more than a mom.
She readily admits to her ups and downs, giving the book real emotional heft. She describes when she felt invincible and when she was overcome with self doubt, when she wisely followed her instincts and one terrifying expample of when she ignored them with an abusive man. She was struck with sudden insight on a date with Vincent Gallo, making her realize why she'd never have an affair with him, and the same evening her confidence was bolstered by a Patti Smith sighting.
There is a refreshing lack of score-settling and dirt-dishing. Mick Jones remains mostly opaque, a supportive if imperfect boyfriend, but she freely admits that she wasn't interested in a serious relationship at the time. She never uses the cliched excuse of "artistic differences" to explain her departure from the New Slits, but she gives a good picture of what that truly looks like. While the expression is frequently a euphemism for personality clashes or bruised egos, she describes how it felt inauthentic to her to perform songs from her youth as she wrestled with the issues of middle age, and she holds no ill will towards her bandmates for continuing without her, especially since she enjoyed being back in their fold. She respects the privacy of her husband and daughter by never revealing their names. She finds kind words for Nancy Spungeon despite not particularly liking her. The juiciest tidbit she drops is that she and Johnny Thunders never consummated their romance between his heroin habit had rendered him impotent.
There’s always room for another “rock and roll with save your life” story, fiction or non-fiction. But those stories are is usually coming-of-age tales of young adults. Albertine crafts a unique perspective by recounting how rock and roll can save a middle-aged suburban mom’s life.