An Interview with Viv Albertine
Before any movement hardens into history, there's a moment when the sacred flies are still wriggling in the mess that will eventually (too soon!) entomb them. It's a biblical moment -- a cacophonous Garden-of-Eden-time before a thing has a name. This is the era from which Viv Albertine sprang: The heartbeat before punk was Punk and all anyone knew was that they were young and needed to make a new sound -- something reflecting their experience.
Albertine was simultaneously in both the right and wrong places at the right and wrong times. She was in an extraordinary place in terms of social and creative ferment, and at the right place, too, to meet and collaborate with the women and men who would inform her creative development, and to go on to make one of the more distinctive albums of her decade. But it was the wrong place because, for the band she joined and became essential to, the designator "punk" was less a useful section in which to search for them at the record store than a misleading ghetto. The Slits, including Albertine's lyrics and guitar sound, have less in common with Punk than with Outsider Art: Their accomplished and singular style was a product as much of a refusal to be told as a refusal to quit. The Slits weren't about Punk nihilism, but instead about a determination to write lyrics and make sounds that had something new to say. The result is a slim (arguably) three-record oeuvre that is still one of a kind. In their most functional incarnation, The Slits were not so much Punk as utterly unfamiliar, not so much "DIY" as frustrated, resourceful, and self-determined. The band was fatally radio-unfriendly (in a way that the Sex Pistols and Clash have proved not to be) but also catchy in a wriggle-under-the-skin way that still sounds interesting and even avant-garde at the end of 2014. And Viv Albertine? In Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, she describes being right at the heart not so much of a scene or a historical moment, as of her own quite extraordinary life.
You can read the twin hammers of Patriarchy and Capitalism into this story if you like, but it might be more useful to read the straightforward voice of Albertine as an artist. We may have lost sight of The Slits under an avalanche of Punk sentimentalism, but all this time Albertine has been there quietly doing what she must to get by, and having repeatedly to figure out how to do it from scratch. This is a narrative about Albertine's insistence on her own innate capability despite assurances that she was so talentless her refusal to hire a ghostwriter would cost her agent his job. It's a tale about claiming the right to pursue the life of an artist even when the determination and self-discipline of a return to songwriting was called domestic abandonment.
Viv Albertine. She's been called talentless, deluded, and self-involved. Try, instead, "iconoclastic."
It's hard to start talking with you about this book because it's so brutally honest! I'm going to begin on easy territory with your writing process.
You relate late in the book that after an incredibly offensive remark from your (then) agent Pete Panini, you had to screw up the courage to call Faber and ask if they would still consider publishing if you, rather than a ghostwriter, actually wrote the book. That seems like a wonderfully ballsy thing to do given that you hadn't written anything like this before. It's absurd that you should have been put in that situation, but given that you had never undertaken a project like this, and were under pressure to perform, how did you approach the project? How did you figure out how to write?
In the past friends often suggested I write a book about being in a band, but this didn't excite me. When I came back to music around 2010, the idea of a book was mentioned again, and this time I thought it would be more interesting for me to write and for people to read as I could see a shape to my experiences. I had come full circle, returning to music at a time when the DIY approach was possible again (like it was in the late '70s) due to the Internet. I was also experiencing negative remarks because I was a woman, older, and couldn't play or sing very well. It all felt so horribly familiar, just like the first time I picked up a guitar, but the difference was that this time I had hindsight and I knew that if I felt it was possible, I could do it. Even if my situation didn't fit any normal paradigm or trajectory.
I also knew I could only bear to write a book that would take a couple of years out of my life if I made it fun for myself, so my first idea was to structure my journey through life via all the boys and men I had known starting with my father and moving on to kissing, sex, boys I'd gone out with because I wanted to learn from them or be like them, and eventually becoming a whole person who didn't need to be in a couple to feel whole. The writing and the arc of my journey took over after a while and that structure fell away but it was a good place to start. Eventually the real thrust of the book emerged, it was the journey of a girl who was fairly uneducated, poor and born into times that were very patriarchal but on the cusp of change and all the obstacles and journeys and knockbacks that trying to be a creative woman in those times threw at her. I don't know where I got the strength from, but I didn't let those obstacles beat me, not in the end.
I was very aware that the quality of the writing had to be good, I don't do anything without wanting it to be very good. As I had no real experience of prose writing, I looked to my maxim for creating anything, "tell the truth as clearly as possible," and I just sat down and started. I also made a pact with myself before I wrote one word, that I would not in any way, at any point, write to be liked. I almost wrote as if I was a fictional character. I knew the result would be false if I tried to sneak little bits into the narrative or slant a story in my favor. This was often agony as I felt like such a fool or unlikeable and I had to constantly battle with my ego throughout the writing.
You mention working with an editor; did that influence the shape of the writing? Things like the structure of the story or the development of your "voice"?
The publisher, Faber, very kindly left me to it. I did show my chapters to a friend who is an editor -- she didn't make any suggestions regarding the shape of the book but she did encourage me to experiment more with description, as I was determined the writing would be very straightforward and unflowery... but I took it too far when I started, and the first chapters felt cold. Everything changed for me about five chapters into the writing when I switched into the present tense. My writing came alive and I was able to get my speaking voice onto the page. It was very exciting. Capturing a readable "speaking voice" is not as simple as just writing the actual words you would say down on the page. It's a bit like writing dialogue, it has to "sound" real but it is an artifice. Lots of editing and rewriting helps, as does listening. I like listening to people, especially overhearing speech.
I did about ten full edits of the book on my own and Faber did two, which concentrated on punctuation, verb tenses. Faber didn't change the content, but suggested I cut the book by a third, which was painful, but it read better afterward. I especially had to edit out lots of passive words like maybe, possibly, I think, actually, repetitions (which work in spoken word but not so much on the page), and unanswered questions. I don't know if it's a female thing but I kept wanting to qualify my thoughts or hedge them. The book was so much more positive and authoritative when all that was gone but it was scary to do.
You mention that you were hesitant to meet with ZoŽ Street when she was writing Typical Girls?: The Story of the Slits in case she turned out to be a "an ageing goth with holey fishnet tights, pink hair and a ring through her nose," and I can understand having some serious hesitations about aligning yourself creatively with "punk," which was so famously co-opted at the moment it was in any way coherent. But then the exchange seems to have proved fruitful. Did working with ZoŽ on her biography of The Slits have any relationship with you beginning your own memoir?
When I met ZoŽ I was at the very beginning of my creative "reawakening" and not for one moment did I think I would ever write a book, that I was capable of writing a book or that anyone would be in the least bit interested in anything I had to say. At that point in time, I had no confidence, I hadn't even picked up a guitar yet. I just wanted the Slits' story to be documented for posterity.
Did you work from journals or letters when you were writing?
I never kept journals or wrote about what was happening to me throughout my life. I live life to the full, I immerse myself in it (or I go to ground). I am not objective about myself. I can't do anything if I am not completely absorbed in it, which can come across as being lazy if I am in a time of not being moved by anything. I have periods of years when I go dormant creatively (I wish other "artists" would do that more). In both phases I lie in bed a lot and look out of the window a lot and take long bus journeys.
I did not want to write a book full of facts and figures, "this kind of guitar," "that venue on that date." I hoped I could write a serious book from my emotional memories. I didn't know if it would work, if people, maybe men, might find the book fluffy because it wasn't full of facts. I only wrote what I remembered, sometimes that was something trivial, like a kiss or a cake (I kept thinking of Proust's madeleines), and sometimes it was something more "serious," like cancer and death. I took lots of risks with my writing, I didn't know if I could write, let alone walk the fine line between truth and readability, being emotional without being maudlin and make depressing subjects like cancer, IVF, and miscarriage jump off the page and grab readers of any age and either gender.
I love that moment when you lose your temper on the guitar at the breakfast table and your daughter responds to that beautifully, saying, "Mummy, you were born to play guitar." Do you feel as though when you write music now you're working along the same continuum from which you began?
Honestly, I'm not so fired up about music and songwriting as I was then. I felt as if my life depended on those songs when I wrote The Vermilion Border. I was possessed. That's how I like to be when I create. I wrote the book with the same fire inside. Writing down my life showed me that the way I work, sporadic, passionate, multi-disciplined -- which I had always thought of as invalid, not serious -- is just my way of working. I'd rather make three or four impactful pieces in my life than be prolific, churning out ill-conceived work just to keep myself in the public eye.
Much has been said about the unusual phrasing and time signatures in your early music originating from having been a largely self-taught musician, which in retrospect seems largely to be regarded as a strength than a flaw -- the beginning of a unique sound. Now you've come to writing prose, how do you feel about the process of figuring out writing versus music? Are they similar in any way or very different? Does the way you write music influence how you thought about memoir?
I kept mentally referring to music as I wrote the book. I didn't listen to music, I can't have another rhythm playing as I'm writing a rhythm, but I was very much informed by the process of songwriting and listening to records. I thought about the structure of songs, of repetition (the title is like a chorus or a chant), the structure of LPs, something that was very important in music when I was younger, how the first song may not be the band's best track but it would set out their stall and make you want to keep playing the album. There may be a very short track or an experimental track about three quarters through, the end of the songs or the album may trail off with an "interesting fade" (proper technical term!) or be abrupt and definite. I also thought of films, European films, especially directors like Godard and Truffaut or Polanski. I kept lightly holding those other art forms in my mind as I structured and worked on the rhythm of the sentences, the chapters and the book.
Writing, both music and prose, can be such a solitary, internal pursuit, while recording and playing with a group is almost the essence of a social enterprise, and then working with clay is another, altogether distinct type of making. Do you find one way of working more rewarding or enjoyable than the other?
I find it all lonely.
Is the relationship between working with an editor and with a producer similar?
Not really, a producer is more creative, will actually add ideas to your work, is more collaborative. I like an editor to be strict, factual, well educated and literate in the technicalities of grammar and punctuation. I felt that as I was writing a very subjective book, it had to be very clean and precise grammatically -- whereas with music, although a producer may simplify and take away like an editor does, they will add their own ideas. I definitely don't want that from an editor.
As much as the eponymous clothes, music, and boys, there's a thread of real physicality that seems to have run through your life: Running, aerobics, even actually physically figuring out how to play the guitar (twice!) and then practicing with total commitment. There's a great tradition of literature about this kind of physicality: Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, for example. But there seems to be ambivalence about this side of your life in your writing. Is that part of your story -- the aerobics teaching and running -- included in your sense of yourself as a creative person?
I hate physicality, really. I am very reluctant to do anything physical, a bit like eating fish and vegetables, I do it because it's good for me or it's a means to an end. I have very little confidence in my physical abilities, that my fingers can do what they need to do to make a chord, that my right hand can keep a steady rhythm to strum, that my legs and my lungs have the capacity -- or my mind has the will -- to propel me around a park. I don't like being in water. Heights, skiing, jumping out of planes, and potholing or deep sea diving feel totally alien to me, I don't think humans were meant to do it (except the pearl fishers). My body is extremely sensitive to speed. Even sex intrigues me intellectually more than physically. On the other hand, I will take massive risks emotionally and creatively, go on stage in front of thousands of people even though I can't play or sing, fall in love with difficult people, keep trying to make relationships work, spend years alone making a small piece of work. Those are the areas in which I push myself, I just do the physical stuff to stay alive or as a conduit to get a thought out there. The effort it took for me to start and continue running or playing guitar was huge and alien to me, but paid off massively.
You describe a brutal journey from the time the band ended until you began to record your latest album -- the death and near-death of loved ones, loneliness and uncertainty after such communal living, serious illness, miscarriage, a really difficult experience of IVF, the madness and death of your father, your own depression, and finally, treatment for cervical cancer and divorce -- the book reads like a survivor story and I was reminded often of Joseph Campbell's "hero's journey" -- that sense of the blessed and cursed protagonist going down into the dark and being remade. There were times when I felt as though the book was a way of reconciling and owning your story. Was the memoir a part of a process of coming to terms?
It didn't start out that way. It certainly wasn't an intention. I hoped my many mistakes and adventures written down would be a useful learning tool for others. The "going down into the dark and being remade" was something that revealed itself to me as I wrote and edited. I hadn't realised that I was a survivor, and therefore a success, until about the eighth or ninth edit. I kept reshaping the book, rearranging the chapters, rewriting sentences so that they said what I meant as clearly as possible, and, much to my surprise, my journey and my personality bobbed up to the surface. The book reflected back to me my own inner strength, which I had no idea I possessed. Now when I am faced with difficult times, I have more faith in my ability to come through them.
You come across in the book as a fiercely independent young woman, and then later in your life seem to have grabbed hold of that deep paradigm of family -- of connectedness and motherhood. What's it like bringing up your own daughter now -- watching another young woman go out into the world to figure out her own way through those tensions between independence and the need for stability? That's a real time of character formation...
Witnessing my daughter forming is a beautiful and humbling experience. She has taught me how to love. And to love difference. Your children are very different from you, yet if you are close to them, sometimes you can inhabit their minds for little snatches of time and see how they think and feel without condemning them or being fearful of their separateness or opposition to you. Real love. Much harder to do with a partner or other people. I respect her. I hope I've facilitated and enabled her to develop her difference, her own path and not fucked her up too much. I am strong for her most of the time, I hope she feels safer and stronger with me on her side. I am also firm about unpleasant things like homework and manners, but never without explaining why they are important. I've always treated her with respect and explained the context of seemingly mundane or irritating tasks, and I encourage her to use her mind, intuition, and judgement as often as possible -- better she develops those skills now whilst she is at home. She is the best thing that's ever happened to me, and yet every day I know she is moving further away from me. The more successful I am as a parent, the less she will need me.
And finally, any plans for more writing projects?