By Amy Callaghan
Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys. According to Viv Albertine, guitarist of revolutionary all-girl punk band the Slits, this was a phrase expressed frequently to her by her mother during her childhood and adolescence, ‘Clothes, clothes, clothes, music, music, music, boys, boys, boys – that’s all you ever think about!’. On the surface, that’s what her autobiography appears to be about as well – Albertine’s memories and anecdotes are anchored in the clothes, music, and boys influencing her at the time. Yet her book is more than a whirlwind tale of the legendary punk scene, told through aesthetics only – it is an open and thought-provoking appraisal of Albertine’s entire life.
Albertine’s autobiography is, as punk fans would hope, an insight into what it was like on the inside of the punk scene in the 1960s and 70s, as well as what it was like to be a woman in such a world. However, this is not, in my opinion, the main reason why this book stands out as a radical piece of feminist literature. Rather, it is Albertine’s brutally honest assessment of her whole life, pieced together in an occasionally jarring order, which is the most striking and revelatory aspect of this book. From her childhood, raised by a single mother in North London, and her maintaining issues with her father until his death in 2009, to her battle with cancer, her desperation for a baby and her struggle to conceive, her time as a Hastings housewife, and how the deterioration of her marriage coincided with her increasing desperation to make music again, Albertine holds nothing back, and it is this (at times borderline alarming) determination to be completely truthful about her experiences as a woman throughout every stage of her life which makes this such an inspiring work.
Albertine’s completely frank writing is at times almost unnerving. She doesn’t care if the reader is made uncomfortable by what she has to say or how she says it – the entire book is like a declaration of ‘well, these are my experiences, I lived through this, and I’m certainly not going to sugar-coat it’. It doesn’t, however, read as intentionally playing on shock value. Above all, it is honest. It’s refreshing to hear directly from a woman on often taboo subjects such as menstruation, masturbation, crabs – Albertine refuses to fall into the cultural trap of preserving the modesty of a woman’s body, and writes about these experiences in the same reflective and honest way in which she confronts everything else. It is brilliant and defiant in its rationality.
She writes openly about an abortion she had in 1978 and about how she did not regret it until 20 years later, and has not stopped regretting it since. Still, however, she is emphatic in her support for the right for a woman to choose whether or not to have an abortion. This section of the book takes on a new significance when she writes, many chapters later, of her difficulties in conceiving, the babies she lost through miscarriages, the amount of money and effort poured into IVF, and her eventual success and joy in becoming a mother. Albertine’s writing here is emotive and powerful, and the reader cannot help but feel strongly for her life – for someone unfamiliar with Albertine’s personal life, one could almost begin to root for her as one does for a character in a fictional novel, were it not for her occasional italicised retrospective remarks from her current perspective.
Of course, Albertine’s experiences as a woman in the 1970s punk scene is a substantial section of the book, and incredibly revelatory in itself. The Slits were a defining band in post-punk, and a massive step forward for representation of women in punk as well as in the music industry as a whole. When she writes of the complete lack of representation of any women doing what she wanted to do in music – Albertine couldn’t see any female punk guitarists so firmly believed for a long time that her only access to that world was through the men she associated with – it hammers home the lack of representation women still face in the 21st century. The fact that a girl with no musical training was determined enough to pick up a guitar and play, particularly in such a trailblazing band as the Slits, is nothing short of inspiring.
In an interview with Paper magazine 6 months after the book’s UK release, Albertine expressed her surprise that anyone was inspired by the book. ‘I wanted to show the flipside of someone who looks like they’ve got their life together and what is really underneath it all, so I wrote all the downsides, and yet people found it very inspiring.’ she said. Yet it is difficult to see how Albertine’s book couldn’t be inspiring. Albertine’s experiences, while at points completely distinctive to her era and generation, will hold familiarity with women across every generation, and her publication of this honest confrontation and assessment of her life is an incredibly brave decision.
Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys was recommended to me as a feminist and music lover. But I would recommend it to anyone, regardless of their interest in music. Even if you’ve never heard of the Slits, never been into punk or any kind of subversive culture, there will be something in Albertine’s book that will resonate with you and your own experiences. And even if there isn’t – her life is bloody interesting enough to have you hooked regardless.