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The Slits Viv Albertine talks feminism, drugs, the death of music, and fighting spirit


“But if they start a rumble/ We’ll rumble ‘em right”, chant the Jets in Westside Story and, on August 12th, there’s a rumble of a rather unique variety going down in East London’s iconic York Hall.

Book Slam– the literary club night founded by the musical flaneur and writer, Ben Watt, and author, Patrick Neate– is (for better or worse) bringing together, for one night only: an ex-convict turned writer, a punk legend, the man behind ‘Trainspotting’, a storytelling rapper and a world champion boxer. With accolades as numerous as their misdemeanours, it’s sure to be an evening of electric literary sparring.

Taking her chances in the ring will be Viv Albertine, a lady whose fearless career epitomises the energy and boundary pushing nature of Book Slam. Originally from Australia, her family moved to North London aged four and, as punk began she was dating Mick Jones when he formed The Clash. Her name is still most famously associated as lead guitarist of the anarchic female trio The Slits, whose unique blending of punk with reggae, jazz and soul influences; along with their devil may care attitude, saw them loved and hated in equal measure.

The Slits were over by 1981, though their influence on the evolution of the industry is boundless. It was not until 2012, however, that Albertine’s first solo album ‘The Vermilion Hue’ was released– after 25 years filled with a haunting personal gauntlet of illness and emotional battles. The fact that she dared to pick up a guitar once more and, now in her late fifties, has recently both made her acting debut in ‘Exhibition’, the third film by the critically acclaimed British auteur-director Joanna Hogg and, published her memoir ‘Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys’– a frank, female perspective on the punk era– speaks of her steely determination to continue to push new creative ground. Both ventures see Albertine utterly exposed both physically, in front of the camera, and in every endearingly honest phrase that spills out of her fervent pen.

She’s certainly a worthy opponent for the likes of Irvine Welsh and Bill Hillmann and, Run Riot couldn’t wait to put her through her paces prior to the event. Here we talk to her about feminism, ‘druggy stories’, why music has had its day and the need to keep fighting.

RR: You’re perhaps most famous as, the ‘Queen of Punk’ and guitarist of your all female band ‘The Slits’ which, embodied the era’s principles of self-expression and creating something new.
Your latest album ‘The Vermilion Border’ has come after a 25 year break from the industry and has been followed this year by your simultaneously raw, emotional, spiritual and witty memoir, ‘Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys’.
Is this dovetailing of music and writing something that has felt like a natural move forward, rather than nostalgic?

VA: I despise nostalgia.  It doesn’t move the world forward.  I like to learn from the past, I read books and look at work by writers and artists from the past, but I try very hard not to be simply derivative or regurgitate.  

My favourite things when I was younger were English, music and art. Why shouldn’t they be put together in life without being called nostalgic? I wrote a lot as a child and as a teenager– poems and thoughts. It’s what girls did then as there were no female role models for us to be inspired by - it never even occurred to us we could be in bands.

I also think as women generally have multi faceted brains: multi-tasking, anticipatory, emotionally developed - it is a much more natural course for us to take, to try different things, and succeed in many different disciplines.  It is only looked upon as a negative to mix disciplines because we are used to a society where those in powerful and successful positions usually do one thing at a time. (Hey guys :) )

So, Yes it felt natural.

RR: You have a wonderful way with words and your lyrics range from hilarious and playful to raw introspection via clever insights into the human condition. The opening of 'Hookup Girl' with: 'In another town You would be a whore, But in North London You are just a bore'; particularly springs to mind.
Do you write differently for work that is to be performed and that which is to be read? Is there a different mindset that you have for composing each?

VA: I have the same approach to any discipline I work in.  I attempt to portray uncomfortable truths in an accessible format.  It interests me that my book has reached and resonated with many more people than my music, yet I feel they both do and say the same thing - they are honest, about real life, straightforward and written in my speaking voice.  I think it may be because listening to words and music together, an audience has to like the music, whereas just the words on their own, leaves no room for the work to be dismissed due to the element of ‘taste’.

RR: Book Slam is the first ‘club night’ that brings together top writers, performers and musicians for evenings of sparkling, energetic debate and entertainment. With your cross-disciplinary practice what do you have planned?

VA: Swear words, tales of failed sex, druggy stories, mistakes, humour.  No music.

RR: Do you think in general that a more performative, interactive approach to literature is important?

VA: I think it’s good for the writer and good for the reader. As a writer it is so interesting to be able to see and hear the response of an audience.  It is such a lonely thing to do, write a book, and there we’re many times over the three years I wrote mine that I was in despair and scared.  I exposed myself so completely.  
As for the audience, I think it fleshes the work out even more– to be able to see the writer, hear their voice ‘off the page’ and know that you have been moved by a genuine person who is passionate about their work.
RR: The Slits tore up the male dominated punk scene with a casual casting off of gender stereotypes that proved that rock ‘n’ roll was not just for the boys. This boldness met with as much hatred as support and, in your book, we are confronted with a more sinister backdrop of violence, and sexual menace to the hedonism.
Patti Smith, whose ‘Horses’ you cite as a major influence on your life, is still a major campaigner for sexual equality and the cessation for violence against women– most recently taking part, along with yourself, last year in Yoko Ono’s distinctly feminist flavoured Meltdown Festival last year. How much do you see your book as a vehicle for current protest, as well as a memoir?

VA: Yoko’s Meltdown was fantastic.

The theme of the book evolved more and more as I re-wrote drafts. The thread began to reveal itself as the journey of a woman, any woman, any person, and the struggle to be a creative person in those decades.  I surprised myself when I saw it all written down, how tenacious I was. But one thing I did know right from the start, was that I wanted young women to read the book and I wanted them to feel empowered and reassured by the many failures and mistakes it took me to produce a few pieces of work.  Like any relevant creative work, I wanted the reader to know they weren’t alone.

RR: Your personal lack of inhibition, unique style and life story have a great influence on a lot of female artists– Lady Gaga and Madonna being the star studded tip of the iceberg– and you write about life as a girl at the height of punk and an unscripted life, before and beyond the break-up of The Slits in 1982, with a great emotional bravery.
Did you always know that this level of intimate frankness– the period stained jeans, the crabs and the embarrassing blowjobs– would come out in the book?

VA: I knew I was going to be honest, it is how I always work. I didn’t know that I would have the courage to go as far as I did.  Easy to do in fiction, but not when you are exposing yourself. Often I would sit down to write and not feel very motivated so to get myself going I’d write about something ‘taboo’.  I’d shock myself or make myself laugh and then I’d think, ‘Oh well, I can take it out later’ but of course once a chapter like this was down on the page, and was compelling, I couldn’t possibly remove it.  It would have made for a lesser book.  As Stephen King says, ‘the book is the boss’. I served the book, not my ego.  I threw away any hope of being liked.

RR: Obviously the titles of the chapters ‘Masturbation’, ‘Shit and Blood’ and ‘Blow Job’ have the tone that is synonymous with your individual style- unique, uninhibited, and very much ‘yourself’. Yet your words also seem to resonate with a whole movement - and beyond. Do you have plans to write more, outside of autobiography?

VA: I can’t wait to write another book.  I am making notes and I am excited.  A second book, like a second album is a challenge.  I like a challenge.  Well it scares me, but I’ll go for it anyway.

RR: Book Slam promises verbal sparring and you’re up against some big literary heavyweights of the likes of Irvine Welsh. Is there a combative element to the process of writing too?

VA: Yes in a way, I wanted to be the best I could be as the writer of my experiences.  I wanted the form of the writing, the tone, the shape of the chapters, every single element to be true to my creative principles, which haven’t changed much since ‘punk’.  I compete with myself, I fight myself, I am spurred on by other people's success.

RR: One of the central themes of the latter half of the book is the impact of illness and of marriage upon creativity. What is the relationship that writing had with this, was writing a means of healing or a product of it? Do you find complexities such as these easier to express via performance?

VA: My solo album, ‘The Vermilion Border’, (which also took three years to make) was an expression of pain and frustration after the end of a marriage, towards the roles foisted on me by society and the elation at rediscovering myself.  I think the book is more economical in a way as the element of sound is removed. It’s also purer, as there are no other musicians, no instruments, therefore less interference and influences to water down the ‘voice’.

RR: There’s a defiant declaration of ‘I still believe in love’, which is the sound of a survivor with a new voyage to embark upon. Your new album too, is less angry and more an expression of the right to live one’s life as one chooses (which, was really what The Slits were all about).
Do you think that creativity itself is now the rebellion and, has anything changed for you since putting pen to paper?

VA: I am so much more confident now than I was six months ago. To make a piece of work - in any medium - and for it to resonate with so many people is unbelievable.  I’ve never managed that before. It’s especially satisfying as it was an uncompromising piece of writing. I am not expecting to automatically be able to achieve this again, but just once in a lifetime is good and made me feel less isolated.  

RR: There’s a lot of current female writers such as Caitlin Moran (a Book Slam alumnus) Laurie Penny and Lena Dunham who use writing and performance as means of exploring what female desire would be if it were better expressed culturally. In your ceramics and writing there is a brutal honesty about the body. Do you think that there is a way in which words and music not only express but actually influence and create identity?

VA: Yes the Slits did that but, there’s not so much of it in music at the moment.  Most music had slipped into the arena of ‘entertainment’.  Even so-called ‘shocking’ or radical bands are derivative and rehashing the past.  It’s been done before and done better.  I hear the same old musical clichés being churned out at all the festivals I go to.  It isn’t radical to just be a girl on stage playing an instrument any more.  You have got to be musically radical and live a radical life.  And as for the boys…please, give it a rest.

RR: Speaking of new voices, you’ll be performing alongside acclaimed performance poet and playwright Kate Tempest at Book Slam. Through a refreshing genre-skipping mix of storytelling and rap, Kate tells of the drug deals and despair of inner-city life growing up in South East London, whilst always maintaining a grasp on a broader social commentary. Likewise, in your lyrics and writing you conjure the dreariness and poverty that many experienced in the city during the 70s.
Do you think that writing and music, which (in Kate’s words) ‘is a long way from poetry’ is the authentic voice of ‘London writing’.
VA: I think music has become a bit of a sop for the young.  I also think that London writing needs a few more fictional female heroes.  I am very strict.  I knew and was heavily influenced by Vivienne Westwood for god’s sake.  She didn’t let you get away with being woolly about anything.  If I was looking to rebel and change the world as a young person now, I wouldn’t be looking to musicians, I’d be looking to activists, artists, programmers, bloggers, writers and lawyers. Music has had it’s day– for now.

RR: You talk a lot about different coincidences that have had effects upon your life. What has been the most important coincidence and what would you hope to gain most from the impromptu meetings that Book Slam might bring about?
VA: To benefit from any coincidence, you have to be mentally, emotionally and physically fit.  You have to be primed and ready to spring when it crosses your path.  You have to know what your priorities are so that if you have to let something in your life go to move forward, the coincidence doesn’t slip away whilst you’re faffing about trying to decide which way to go.

From Book Slam I hope to learn something new and be inspired and nick something that I can use later without anyone realising where it came from.

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