With the return of Sleater Kinney and renewed interest in the Riot Grrrl movement it seems rather prescient that two of the major influences on the movement, Viv Albertine of the Slits and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth both have books out. I’ve not got round to Kim’s yet but having just finished Viv’s I feel like I’ve just emerged from a mosh pit, a big smile on my face at the sheer unabashed joyfulness of it all but also bruised, sweaty, scared and somewhat unsettled.
This is no vacuous ghost written PR pamphlet it’s Viv’s voice telling her own story from the birth of punk through to today and it’s a story that is raw, uncompromising, funny, courageous, visceral, shocking, unflinching, uplifting and inspirational. A bit like the music she played and the bands that reference her, The Slits and others of that ilk, the individual notes may jar at times and appear discordant but the overall sound and message is impossible to ignore.
Viv splits the book into two ‘sides’; Side 1 effectively charting her upbringing, discovery of music, youth, the punk movement, sex, fashion becoming part of The Slits and through to their break up. Side 2 takes you through more sex and fashion, marriage, illness, depression, blood, family, motherhood, career, middle age, and creative rebirth. It is not a comfortable ride, the stories and anecdotes assault you in rapid fire fashion sharply written with no punches pulled mirroring the songs of the movement that she was part of. The characters, music, clothes, boys swirl around in a dizzying kaleidoscope as Viv grows up in the white heat of the punk movement before settling into the seeming middle class rural idle of a designer house by the sea, but as the saying goes be careful what you wish for.
Viv’s writing is whip smart throughout and it’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that is so unflinchingly honest, she does not hide from her own mistakes but throughout you get a sense of a woman constantly grappling with who she is and what her place is. She is also laugh out loud funny and comes across as a warm person who you’d want to spend some time with.
A thought that remains with me after reading this book – what is punk ? and is it still relevant ? for me it’s not about what you wear, look or sound like, it’s about independence of thought the willingness to make your own mind up, go your own way and cut against the prevailing wind. Viv Albertine is the embodiment of this and this book is as punk a book as you could ever hope to read. However what do I know about what punk is ? Perhaps this extract from the book where Viv goes to see the Pistols and watches John Lydon gives the best interpretation of punk and it’s continuing relevance:
All the things I’m so embarrassed about, John’s made into virtues. He’s unapologetic about who his is and where he comes from. Proud of it even. He’s not taking the world’s lack of interest as confirmation that he’s wrong and worthless. I look up at him twisting and yowling and realise it’s everyone else who’s wrong, not him. How did he make that mental leap from musically untrained state school educated, council estate boy, to standing on stage in front of a band? I think he’s brave. A revolutionary. He’s sending a very powerful message, the most powerful message anyone can ever transmit. Be yourself.
For me Viv’s fight to be herself IS the story and in telling it she asks the most pertinent question of all – What does it mean to be an independent, creative, intelligent woman and what has changed in society from 1976 through to today ?