Punk Icon And Memoirist Viv Albertine On A Lifetime Of Fighting The Patriarchy | Connecticut Public Radio
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Punk Icon And Memoirist Viv Albertine On A Lifetime Of Fighting The Patriarchy

Nov 1, 2019
Originally published on November 5, 2019 1:19 pm

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. One of the first women bands to play punk, defying the preconceptions about how women should look and sound, was the British band The Slits. Our next guest, Viv Albertine, was the guitarist and lyricist. Their 1979 album "Cut" was in Rolling Stone's list of the 40 greatest punk albums of all time. The Slits were described as, quote, "following Patti Smith in defining punk as feminist, implicitly and explicitly. And like their U.K. comrades The Raincoats, they did it not merely by forming an all-women band, itself a radical move, but with music owing little to punk dude dogma," unquote.

Albertine says that after the band split up in the 80s, she quit making music and living in squats and tried to stop being an angry young woman. She went to film school and became a TV director. She got married, was diagnosed with cancer three months after their daughter was born and nearly died. Now she's divorced. Her daughter is in college. And Albertine has become a writer, a really good one.

Her first memoir, 2014's "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys" was described by our rock critic Ken Tucker as one of the best books he'd ever read about punk. Her new memoir is titled "To Throw Away Unopened." It's now out in paperback. Terry spoke to her last year when her latest memoir was first published.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Viv Albertine, welcome to FRESH AIR. So you have two great memoirs. I'm going to ask you to start with a reading from the first one, "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys."

VIV ALBERTINE: Yeah. (Reading) I studied record covers for the names of girlfriends and wives. That's how I connected girls to the world I wanted to be in. I scanned the whole of the thank-you's and the lyrics looking for girls' names, especially if I fancied the musician. What are these girls like who go out with poets and singers? What have they got that I haven't? I read the book "Groupie" by Jenny Fabian. And I'm ashamed to say that I thought it sounded OK being a groupie. But I knew I wasn't witty, worldly or beautiful enough to even be that. The only other way left for a girl to get into rock 'n' roll was to be a backing singer. And I couldn't sing. Every cell in my body was steeped in music, but it never occurred to me that I could be in a band - not in a million years.

GROSS: When you'd studied record covers looking for the names of girlfriends and wives, was that your goal - to become the girlfriend or wife of a musician?

ALBERTINE: Sadly, it was my goal to become a girlfriend or a wife of a musician. I honestly couldn't conceive of any other way of being amongst creative, musical people - men, if I didn't know women could be part of that group. So, you know, it's sad looking back. But I'm just so glad that I, with other people, formed something that was then later called punk, where there was a door for young women.

And, of course, the young women, especially us, The Slits, who were drawn to being in a band couldn't play because we'd never had role models and never occurred to sit in our bedrooms playing electric guitar. And, actually, that turned out to be a real bonus, I think, because the music The Slits made was so intuitive and self-taught. There's such a sort of authenticity and the truthfulness to it.

We weren't attempting to copy boys' music. We were very deliberately not playing 12-bar structures, blues structures, which, you know, rock musicians had turned into such cliche, and normal chord progressions. We tried to literally go inside our bodies and listen to the rhythms within ourselves and take the normal words we used every day in our normal thoughts, which girls hadn't written about before.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear a track from The Slits' first album? And this is a song that you initiated, that you brought to the band. And then the members of the band expanded the song. And it's called "So Tough." So I'm going to play the 2009 remastered version - I think it's from 2009 - of the song 'cause it sounds clearer. And the original version of this was recorded in the late '70s. So here's The Slits' "So Tough."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO TOUGH")

THE SLITS: (Singing) Don't take it serious. So tough. You can't take anymore. Now you're getting weak. So tough. Don't start playing hide and seek. So hard. Why do you think he got like that? So hard. Don't think about it much 'cause it's just a rut. You had fun experience. Nothing he does ever makes sense. He is only curious. Don't take it serious. Don't take it serious. Don't take it serious. They say you're acting like a star. So strong. They say not everything's wonderbar. Too long. You want money, girls urgently. Too long. Too much, too soon. You wait and see. Too much. You hang around her 'cause she's a good mate.

GROSS: That's The Slits performing "So Tough" - my guest Viv Albertine on guitar. And she's written two great memoirs. The first one, about her early years and getting into music, is called "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys." And the new one, which picks up after that - way after that, actually - covers a lot of her life. But she's writing it from the vantage point of looking back on her life from ages 59 and 60. And that one's called "To Throw Away Unopened."

So what was it like to actually be on stage with The Slits? You wanted for so long to be in music, to have the power of, like, being the guitarist on stage. Did it feel like you wanted it to feel?

ALBERTINE: Well, don't forget I hadn't wanted it for so long. You know, I...

GROSS: Oh, that's true. You didn't think you were capable of doing it. That's true.

ALBERTINE: No, I didn't think girls did that.

GROSS: That's right. Right.

ALBERTINE: So I'd yearned to be amongst musicians and be part of an artistic circle. So within sort of moments of me having the thought that I can pick up a guitar, which is - came to me when I saw the Sex Pistols play live in about '76 - the next day I was going out to buy one. So I was, you know, very aware of breaking down the sort of tropes of being a musician and wanting to go against them, not wanting to fall into old male habits. But at the same time, I didn't know what to replace it with.

So The Slits took a lot of time out of our rehearsal periods, which were in old squats, old broken-down houses around London, talking about, how should we stand? What position should we put our legs in? Does it look odd to have my skirt this short with a guitar, or should I have it a bit longer so it sticks out the bottom?

You know, people say, oh, why haven't women done this more or that more? But it takes so much longer to get to the stage where a man is because all the bands in punk that I knew or beginning to form had all spent years and years practicing with a hairbrush in front of a mirror, with a tennis racket, you know, looking at pictures of other guys they want you to be.

They skipped all that. We could've skipped it if we just copied them. And girl bands still do just copy the way men move on stage. To me, that is so backwards, so unradical. So we took a lot of time thinking about how we were going to stand, what we would wear to make the proportions of the guitar and the dress look good or look crazy. We didn't care either way.

Thinking about the chord progressions we'd use, the the timbre of voice we sang in because most girls at that time - and women - unless they were sort of Dionne Warwick or Dusty Springfield, someone really amazing - sang in high, breathy, girly voices. You know, the pop singers, we didn't want to sing in those voices. I used to say to the girls, sing in the same register of voice that you would use if you were shouting across a playground at school to someone right on the other side of the playground. And it's not that different to the register of a male voice.

GROSS: It seems like you consciously decided not to sexualize yourselves on stage, to dress, you know, in clothes that would be considered, like, really sexy and arousing.

ALBERTINE: Well, the most wonderful and refreshing thing about what we conjured up between us and between Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren and the other young girls and boys who hung out at the shop was that we weren't going to try and be this constructed ideal of femininity - or masculinity, come to that - that had been put upon us for not just decades but centuries, you know, to be sort of tittering, sort of giggling, smiley, appeasing. You know, young women who wore clothes to emphasize our figures and attract male attention, the male gaze - we absolutely, you know, weren't going to do that.

And therefore the clothes we wore were, again, very considered but also lots of humor in it. So we would jumble up something like, you know, S&M dog collars with rubber stockings, mixed with a little girl's tutu, mixed with men's construction boots you'd wear on a construction site, hair matted, black eye makeup. It was all thrown together, all parodying all the clothes and the symbols you were supposed to wear as a woman and then mixing things that weren't meant to go with it at all.

And we just stopped people in their tracks as they walked down the road. They couldn't believe it. A lot of the response from men, straight men especially, in the streets was, if you're not going to look like a woman and play the game and act like a woman as we've prescribed, we're not going to treat you as women. And we're going to beat the hell out of you, abuse you, spit at you.

We were assaulted everywhere we went. We had to go everywhere in a band, four stride, sleep on the floor of each other's flats at night. Otherwise we wouldn't - we're not safe on the streets. I mean, our singer, who was 14, 15 when we first got together was stabbed twice in front of me by men - stabbed for looking like she looked.

GROSS: What did this do to your feelings about men?

ALBERTINE: Well, I was raised to have very, very little respect for men by my mother. That was before I had a say in, you know, in how I was raised. She did indoctrinate me against men - well, against patriarchy, to be fair.

GROSS: And against your father, who left you both when you were a child and abused - beat you with a belt and abused your mother, too.

ALBERTINE: Yeah. So she was not cool with men and not for no reason. She had not only been stymied in her work - you know, put down, not promoted, et cetera, not even got jobs. I mean, after the war - I was born nine years after the war - you couldn't get a job if you were married.

I mean, women used to take off their wedding rings and have to pretend they weren't married to even get any little job. It was part of a government drive to make sure men coming back from the war had work. I mean, it made sense. But women had tasted freedom because they'd worked during the war, you know, building the planes, doing the rivets, you know, whatever. And then it had been taken away from them.

So, you know, there were many resentments in women of my mother's generation. And I think they brought up their daughters to be quite militant and to carry the resentment of their mother's generation within them. And I think that's why we had such a strong feminist surge.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about your life. If you're just joining us, my guest is Viv Albertine, who first became known as a member of the girl punk rock band The Slits. And that was in the late '70s. She's written two memoirs, and her new one has just been published. It's called "To Throw Away Unopened." Her first one was called "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Viv Albertine, who became known in the late '70s as a member of the band The Slits, one of the very first punk bands of women musicians. And now she's becoming known as a great writer.

She has two memoirs. The first is called "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys." The second is written from her perspective of the second half of her life from the vantage point of being 59 and 60. And that new one is called "To Throw Away Unopened."

You were married for a bunch of years, I forget how many. You had a daughter.

ALBERTINE: Seventeen.

GROSS: Seventeen years. You had a daughter together, divorced when she was 8. At some point your husband said to you, either give up music or it's over. I'm leaving. And considering the feminist statements you were making with your music and with your life, what was it like to hear that from your husband? And when was this in terms of the place that music had in your life? Was this, like, long after The Slits?

ALBERTINE: So when my husband and I got together, I had - I was a filmmaker then or a director. He liked that very much about me. I was earning good money. He was 10 years younger than me. He'd been a fan of The Slits, had a poster of us on the wall. So he was kind of excited. He was going out with - dating, you know, the guitarist from The Slits. But at the same time, he was very pleased I'd put it behind me. I didn't know why until 20 years later when I picked up the guitar again and said I'm going to start playing again and realized that he was frightened of losing me.

There was this whole concoction in his head of a young woman or a woman on stage is just attracting male glances, you know, wants to sleep with them, will have loads of groupies. For someone younger than me and an illustrator and a surfer, it was very, very reactionary. And I was incredibly shocked.

And you never know a person. You know, we'd been through my cancer together. We'd been through years and years of infertility. We'd had a daughter. We'd stood up to all those things.

But me picking up a Telecaster broke down our marriage, and that's what made me walk away from the marriage. And I was very sorry to do that because I wanted my daughter to have a steady family, the one I didn't have. So it was not an easy decision.

GROSS: Well, a lot of your new memoir, "To Throw Away Unopened," is about your relationship with your mother, which was a very complex relationship. You were very close also. And I'm going to ask you to read a section that's titled Do Not Resuscitate. And this is about what you were thinking as your mother was dying.

ALBERTINE: (Reading) I never asked mom what she was thinking during her last few months in hospital. I didn't want to stir up thoughts of death in her, not when it was so imminent, in case she was frightened. We'd talked about her dying in the past. But when the looks between us signaled that death was getting close, I didn't want to appear too interested in the actual process and treat her like a specimen to be analyzed. But what was she thinking? I was surprised that she kept ordering books from the hospital's mobile library. Why did she still want to read and increase her knowledge? She only had a few days left, as far as she knew. What did she care about the Second World War or the history of slavery in the southern U.S.A? Although I've got 30 years left if I'm lucky, and the thing I most look forward to is all the books I can read in that time.

GROSS: I think it's so interesting that your mother was still reading at the very end of her life. And I think it's interesting that you wanted to know why, why did she still want to learn? It's a very existential question. I mean, 'cause we're all going to die (laughter). You know what I mean? So at what point does - do things like that lose their meaning, if ever? Is there anything else you want to say about that? I think it's just such an interesting thing to think about.

ALBERTINE: It was just so extraordinary to watch her because she loved the radio, listened to the radio. And I would have thought, naturally, you could still lie in bed and listen to the radio as you passed. But to keep soaking up knowledge because where were you going to take that knowledge? There was nowhere like - you know, she was still putting in her brain, knowing she had hours or days left. And where was she going to take that knowledge about slavery or the Second World War? It's still mind-boggling to me.

GROSS: Do you have - you know, in that passage you say that you didn't want to actually ask her about the process of dying, even though you really wanted to know what she was experiencing because you didn't want to scare her or turn her into, like, an anthropology project, a specimen. Do you think you did the right thing? Do you have any regrets about not having talked to her about it?

ALBERTINE: No, I don't. I mean, I think it was sensitive. There's plenty I do regret that I didn't say to her more. I should have said to her - they always say, say everything. I wish I'd thanked her more. At one point, she said to me, what do you remember about all the things I've told you, all the advice I've given you? And she wanted me to tell her back, you know, all the things she told me.

My mind went blank, absolutely blank. I just stared at her open-mouthed. I had nothing. You know, so there are moments I regret - but not that one. I'm glad I didn't probe too much into what it felt like to die. I mean, you know, she was my mom and my best friend. And there's only so far you can take that.

GROSS: My guest is Viv Albertine. She was the guitarist and lyricist in the all-women British punk band The Slits. Her new memoir is called "To Throw Away Unopened." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Viv Albertine. She was the guitarist and lyricist for the all-women British punk band The Slits. Now she's a writer and has just written her second memoir, called "To Throw Away Unopened." Albertine is in her 60s now. When we left off, we were talking about her mother's death.

After her death, you found one of her airline bags that she'd saved, on which she'd written, to throw away unopened, which, of course, became the title of your new memoir. How did you decide whether to open that bag or throw it away as directed?

ALBERTINE: There was absolutely no decision. Of course I was going to open that bag. My mother knew I would open that bag. She knew me. She knew how inquisitive I am, that I don't do what I'm told. It was a provocation, and I think in a way, she did that to absolve herself of responsibility for what was inside the bag because in the ether, she could always call back to me, I told you not to open it. But, of course, I did.

GROSS: What was in the bag?

ALBERTINE: Diaries of the last two years of her marriage because in those days, you kept a day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of every moment of your day when you were getting divorced because a divorce wasn't easy to come by, and that became part of the court process. And it was very painful to read because of course I recognized it. I was about 11 years old at the time, and it was very fraught and very violent and emotionally violent.

And my mother was actually, even though I didn't really realize it at the time - not consciously - she was incredibly cruel to me particularly, more than my younger sister. And that was incredibly painful, but it made sense of the fact that from the moment my mother died, I didn't feel grief. I felt fury with her. It's as if your body stores emotions that you can't consciously cope with, and they came flooding out and overwhelmed me, this anger and fury with my mother. And I didn't know where it came from.

GROSS: How many years ago did she die?

ALBERTINE: Four.

GROSS: How do you feel about her now?

ALBERTINE: Well, because I delved like a detective through her past papers, through her life, through the environment, through the divorce laws, through her secrets, I've completely pieced together what made her that person, what made her react like that to me at that time. It makes perfect sense. It doesn't mean it hasn't had its effect, but there's certainly no anger left towards my mother, my father, my sister, you know, anymore because of writing the book.

GROSS: The book ends with you deciding that you're going to burn your mother's diaries that were in that bag that was marked to throw away unopened because you didn't want to leave your daughter with them. Did you actually follow through on that and burn them?

ALBERTINE: No. I can't do it. It's terrible. And on top of that, the two books I've written is me, in a way, leaving two more bombs for my daughter.

GROSS: Yes. She's thinking that, too.

ALBERTINE: She can't read the books. She finds them too upsetting. She's tried a couple of paragraphs of each one and has ended up in tears. So, you know, me thinking I'll be the bigger person, I'm going to throw away my mother's and father's diaries - first of all, I haven't done that, and secondly, I've left two more - so yeah, not good.

GROSS: So since your music in The Slits was in part a way of expressing your anger and your new memoir is in part about trying to understand the source of your anger - how it's affected your life, how you've dealt with it over the years, how you deal with it now - what did you try to teach your daughter about how to deal with anger?

ALBERTINE: Well, the interesting thing is my daughter doesn't have that anger. She has a different personality to me - much more grounded - but also different times. The fights for her are different. She doesn't have to literally kick down doors, which I have done in the past in my Dr. Martens boots to get heard. There are other parts of society and the world who do still have to do that, women and men. But for a young white woman in London, it isn't so hard as it was for me, so I don't think she has the same level of anger.

She may feel it on behalf of other people, and I think a lot of young people do feel anger on behalf of other people in the world. And I hope that generation, in a way - and I think they will, a lot of them - become sort of enablers to sort of - rather than being the people who jump up on stage and show off, that they'll actually help people less advantaged have a voice or even just step back and let someone else talk and sing and paint whose culture hasn't been heard, you know, in the sort of dominant world.

GROSS: It has been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

ALBERTINE: Thanks, Terry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TYPICAL GIRLS")

THE SLITS: (Singing) Typical girls get upset too quickly. Typical girls can't control themselves. Typical girls are so confusing. Typical girls, you can always tell. Typical girls don't think too clearly. Typical girls are unpredictable, predictable. Typical girls try to be typical girls very well. Typical girls try to be typical girls very well. Typical girls are looking for something.

BIANCULLI: Viv Albertine spoke to Terry Gross last year. Albertine's latest memoir "To Throw Away Unopened" is now out in paperback.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

On Monday's show, our guest will be Allison Moorer. The country music singer has a new album and a new memoir that's about coming to terms with the murder-suicide of her parents in 1986, when she and her sister, singer Shelby Lynne, were teenagers. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAL")

ALLISON MOORER: (Singing) No matter how I try, I end up on the ground, another orphan waiting in the lost and found. Over and over, I take it on the chin, fists up to the world, fighting a fight I cannot win. Help me lay my weapons down. Help me give the love I feel. Help me hold myself with kindness. Help me heal. Remove all of the faults. Show me what is real. Oh, Lord. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.