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Book review: Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 February, 2015, 10:48pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 February, 2015, 10:48pm
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Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys
by Viv Albertine
Thomas Dunne Books

There's a moment towards the end of this book when Viv Albertine - guitarist and songwriter for 1970s British punk band the Slits - confronts an audience in 2008 she feels has not been giving her enough attention or respect.

Almost utterly without confidence in her own abilities and, in her 50s, constantly mistaken for a folk singer when she gets on stage, she is sustained later by kind words from people who say her songs have touched them and finally manages to get her mojo back.

"I don't take s*** any more when I play. One night in front of a crowd of braying ponytailed old rockers I shout, 'Anyone here ever taken heroin? Made a record?' There's a stunned silence. 'Well I have, so shut the f*** up or go home and polish your guitar'."

At this point, I had been rooting for the author for 353 pages, so this moment - so cathartic, so gutsy and, from a narrative point of view, so exquisitely timed - reduced me to tears. It packed the emotional punch that certain films try to achieve, a sentimental pride in someone else's achievement; and just because it's sentimental doesn't mean that it's not sincere.

Sincerity is the keynote of Clothes, Clothes, Clothes…, just as it was of the musical movement Albertine had such a big hand in. "'Punk' was the only time I fitted in. Just one tiny sliver of time where it was acceptable to say what you thought." Amen, I say, and can still remember the impact of the Slits' first album, Cut. On its cover the bare-breasted band members, all women, defied the ogle and, on record, made strange new noises that were by turns hilarious, mordant, unarguable and wise. That album probably inoculated many young men against sexism. Although I might not have consciously formulated it, there was always a thought at the back of my mind, even as a 16-year-old: "Would my behaviour p*** the Slits off?" I can't have been the only one.

However, this is not just a musical memoir. True, early on, Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious stroll through the pages: but when they do, one marvels at the way they are presented without clouds of glory being trailed about them. They are just her mates.

But mostly it's the tone and technique of Albertine's writing. It's simple, so it works. When she first meets Rotten, she doesn't know yet that he's going to change the course of popular music, and so she doesn't describe him as if he has. It's eye-opening, and serves her well later, as she recounts, with absolute clarity, her post-Slits life of doomed relationships, motherhood, cancer and the death of friends.

Guardian News & Media