Caught by the River

An interview with Viv Albertine

Emma Warren | 19th June 2014

Viv Albertine 1 (Credit - Carolina Ambida) (1)Photograph by Carolina Ambida

Emma Warren meets Viv Albertine to talk Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Boys, boys, Boys, Music, Music, Music:

The opening chapter of your book is titled ‘Masturbation’. I heard there was some resistance to this as an opening. Why did you want to start there?

Didn’t fit anywhere else! Because of my daughter, I have read a lot of very good teenage fiction and felt it was important to engage young readers, all readers, immediately. It’s like the first track of an album, not necessarily your best track but sets out your stall.

I love the flat, no messing tone that you’ve got in the book. Was that intentional, or just how you sound?

It’s my ‘voice’ it’s a confessional book in a way, and honest, so of course it had to have my authentic tone. It took a while to find the way to write my speaking voice, not until I started writing in the present tense did I really hit upon it and then I was off and flying.

You talk about hearing ‘You Can’t Do That’ for the first time – and it’s a real epiphany. What was it about that song that had such a big effect on you?

It turned me on. I don’t know why I responded so emphatically to the emotion of jealousy. I found it exciting and sexy. Maybe it’s all linked up with power. Because Lennon’s voice was so accessible and intimate, I felt like he was talking to me and only me and that I had had this effect on him.

How did Woodcraft Folk lead you to Captain Beefheart? And did you get anything else out of Woodcraft Folk?

I loved Woodcraft Folk. I learnt a few practical things like how to pack a rucksack and what to do in emergencies in the woods! Quite good survival stuff. But mainly it was the way we were treated that transformed me. The ‘leaders’ treated us like adults. We were allowed to call them by their first names, unheard of at the time. We also went on lots of camps and were allowed to run wild and snog and sing around camp fires. It was a lovely wild time for a city kid.

Did you always feel like you heard music differently to most other people around you?

I wouldn’t put it like that, more that I responded to music, became obsessed by it and consumed by it more than anyone else I knew. It was very unusual at the time and at that age (about 9) and for a girl.

You first met Ari Up through her mum. What was Nora like?

Nora seemed very sophisticated to me. She wore pale 1940’s suits and was tall and blonde and elegant. Had this athletic Germanic figure. She was older and had seen the world. Also she was self-sufficient financially, had her own house and her freedom. I had never seen that before. She offered me a vision of another way a woman could live her life. That it needn’t be dull work, marriage and loss of freedom.

It was her that connected you with Island Records, right?

No, she made the call but The Slits had their hearts set on Island Records from the start. Because they were the only ‘indie’ type label we were aware of at the time and they had a great stable of artists. I fell in love with Island Records when I discovered Jess Roden at 17 years old.

There’s a great section where you talk about recording with Dennis Bovell. What was it like to revisit that time? And did you remember anything you’d forgotten?

Yes as I wrote things popped into my mind that I’d forgotten about all the time. Not all it made it into the book as I had to keep the flow going and not keep digressing. I’m still in touch with Dennis we are very fond of each other I think he’s one of the best people and the best producer I’ve ever met.

The book is great on the whole Slits era, and the whole punk era and how interlinked everyone was. How did you decide what you’d talk about and what you’d leave out?

I only wrote about moments I could still remember, things that wouldn’t go away from my brain as they’d been so upsetting or memorable. And then I pared it down even more, because a thread began to emerge through the book of my drive and survival through difficult times, so I had to serve the book, not the anecdotes. It shaped itself, I just had to listen and be strict with myself, not indulge in pettiness or wallow in glory. Not that there is much glory!

There are so many good stories in the book. Which is the one that people have been repeating back to you most – the one that you think has stuck hardest?

Every person seems to read the book differently. Someone said it was very spiritual and full of watery metaphors. Another was intrigued by all the ins and outs of the relationships. A young girl thought it was positive and inspiring, and older guy thought it was sad. I can tell a lot about a person now by how they interpret the book.

One thing that really comes through is the level of violence you all attracted in the ‘70s – Ari being stabbed twice, being attacked, spat on. Is that how it was?

Yes the ‘70s were a very violent time for everyone. But it was terrible for us as the way we dressed wound everyone up. Skinheads, teds, men, boys, women and girls. We were hated.

I heard an interesting theory that England got a lot less violent when they took lead out of petrol…

Haha. I thought it was the drugs.

The book is about your whole life, not just The Slits. You talk about starting your periods, boys you slept with, then post-slits about IVF, cancer and your marriage disintegrating. What makes you want to be so brutally, brilliantly, honest?

I like to make work that helps people feel less alone. I feel alone a lot. It wasn’t a choice it’s just how I am. I think its interesting how shocking people find the truth is.

How did you find writing about the post-Slits era?

Bit sad. I was lost then. Had no direction.

You talk about the open mic shows you did when you started making music again. What did they give you?

They gave me resilience and a hard skin, very necessary in music. But the best thing was they made me better at what I was doing. I went from absolutely terrible, but passionate, to coherent and passionate. Also I met a lot of musicians who were very supportive and built up a network from scratch.

I don’t know if you read reviews or not but most of the reviews I’ve read have been by women. Is there a difference between the way men have responded to the book to the way women have?

No I’m thankful to say that men have responded very sensitively to the book. They’ve not been put off by the squeamish bits or felt victimized by my recounting of the bad experiences I’ve had with men. They’ve responded to the honesty. Maybe they like the straight talking style too.

To quote you in the book: ‘if you write an autobiography you’re either a twat or broke.’ Do you still think that?

It’s the first line of the book and the next line is ‘I’m a bit of both’. It made me laugh but I think its a bit true. I love reading biographies and autobiographies but about a third in you start getting the feeling that this person is actually a bit of a twat. No matter how great you thought they were before you started reading. Also its an egocentric thing to do and presumptuous. So I thought I’d admit to it up front. And I wanted to set the tone, I didn’t write this book to be liked, I threw that concept out before I even started. A very difficult thing for a woman to do. We want to be liked, we’re brought up to smile and be liked. Well, my generation was.

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music,Boys, Boys, Boys, by Viv Albertine, is published by Faber & Faber and out now.

Viv and Emma will be among our guests at both Port Eliot Festival and Festival No 6 this summer.