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Viv Albertine, co-founder of the female punk pioneer band The Slits, has finally told her story in her new memoir, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. (Nov. 25, Thomas Dunne).
Greil Marcus, the dean of rock critics, says, “Not only [is it] the best book about punk but one of the best books of any kind I’ve read in five years.” The reviews in England, where the book came out earlier this year, were raves.
Albertine brings a female perspective to the rise of punk, writing about her romance with The Clash’s Mick Jones, her friendships with Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer, and her role in The Slits. She also tells about her struggles with conceiving, her failed marriage and divorce, and her battle with cancer.
In this excerpt, which takes place in London in 1976, she paints an extraordinary portrait of her friendship with the young Sid Vicious and her admiration for fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, who was defining punk style with her shop Sex. — Andy Lewis
It’s a boiling hot Saturday afternoon, Mick and I are walking down Portobello Road, coming towards us is John Rotten, with another guy. I drop Mick’s hand immediately — don’t want to look like a drip — and we stop to have a chat. John’s hair is blond and spiky and his friend’s is black and spiky. They’re both tall and thin, they look like a couple of handsome bookends. During the conversation, I mention I’ve bought a guitar and am going to start a band. To my amazement John’s friend says, ‘I’ll be in a band with you.’
This is an extraordinary thing for a guy to say because there are hardly any boys and girls in bands together. Mick looks uncomfortable: he likes me having a guitar but he hadn’t envisaged anything like this. If I form a band with this bloke, I’ll be in the enemy camp. The idea of us two playing together makes even the Pistols seem a bit old-fashioned. A group made up of boys and girls playing instruments is something new. I ask John’s friend what he plays. He says, ‘Saxophone.’ I arrange to meet him at Davis Road tomorrow.
As we walk away I ask Mick, ‘Who was that?’
‘What’s he like?’
‘Mate of John’s. You don’t want to get mixed up with him.’
In five minutes everything’s changed. I’m in a band with someone who looks great. I wonder why Sid wants to be in a band with me — maybe he wants to shag me, but I didn’t get that impression from him. Sid saw an opportunity and went for it. And then the rest of us thought, ‘Of course, why not?’
Sid is into subverting signs and people’s expectations too, which is why he wears a leather jacket with a swastika marked out in studs. He isn’t so stupid as to think that persecuting Jewish people is a good idea, but he does want to upset and enrage everyone and question what they’re reacting to: the symbol, or the deed? Once we hailed a cab and the driver said he wouldn’t take us because he was Jewish and offended by the swastika on Sid’s jacket. As the cabbie drove away, Sid said to me, ‘The cunt should’ve taken us and overcharged, that would’ve been a cleverer thing to do.’
At our first band meeting, Sid told me that his name is John Beverley but everyone calls him Sid Vicious because he’s got into a few fights. He tried spelling his name with a y (copying Syd Barrett) for a bit, but nobody took any notice and now he just writes it as ‘Sid’.
Sid’s demeanor is sheepish and bashful; he stands with his shoulders hunched — like people who are embarrassed about their height, as if he wants to minimize his presence in a room. He talks like that too — although he has a deep masculine voice, he mumbles shyly, he’s almost coquettish. He acts the clown, the village idiot, like Ollie in Laurel and Hardy: he’s no fool so he must want people to underestimate him. Maybe he thinks it gives him an advantage. Sid’s whole persona is a mask, which is weird because he despises fakery and bullshit. He makes me think of that Jamaican expression, ‘Play fool, get wise.’ He’s watching everything and listening to everyone, but tries not to let on how clever he is.
…He never laughs out loud, just smiles or smirks. He doesn’t give away much about himself and he’s never completely relaxed; consequently I don’t feel relaxed when I’m with him, even though he’s always very polite to me. We go everywhere together but it’s a bit strained between us, overly respectful, and I always have a little knot of tension and anxiety in my chest. The conversation between us doesn’t flow, he isn’t a flowy sort of guy, he’s stilted and monosyllabic and seems to relish the awkward atmosphere. There’s a physical attraction between us but we never talk about it or act on it.
One day we’re bored and Sid has the idea that we should handcuff ourselves together. ‘For a laugh,’ he says. Everything is ‘for a laugh’. It’s the only reasonable justification for doing anything. Any other reason is pretentious. It’s a good idea but I feel sick at the thought of it. I can’t be seen to be scared of anything, or worse still, embarrassed, so I agree. Now we have a mission, something to occupy us for the day. We travel to the depths of South London, to Queenstown Road, where there’s a hardcore gay sex shop called the London Leatherman. (There are rumors that this is where the Cambridge rapist bought his leather facemask.) We stand outside on the busy main road, lorries thundering past, honking their horns at us because we’re dressed in black leather with studs with spiky hair. Sid raps on the heavy wooden door. It looks like the door to a castle or a dungeon. It’s a door to keep people out. A little hatch slides open and a guy looks at us. He flicks his eyes up and down, giving us the once-over, then slides the hatch shut and unbolts the door. The guys in the shop look puzzled. They’re not very friendly but they tolerate us because we’re obviously outsiders too.
We buy a set of handcuffs. Sid can’t wait to get outside so we can chain ourselves together. There’s a bit of a tussle between us on the pavement about who gets to hold the key. I insist it’s me but as he’s stronger, he wins the fight; he’s very smug about that. Once we’re chained together, we realize we haven’t got anything to do, nowhere to go, so we just get on and off buses, pulling each other up and down the stairs to the top deck, ignoring people who stare at us. We decide to go round Barry’s house (Barry Black, big record collector and runs the Roxy club) and sit there for a while listening to records. Sid drinks tea. I refuse the tea, I haven’t eaten or drunk anything all day because I’m very shy about bodily functions and would rather die than go to the bathroom in front of Sid, which is of course what he’s hoping for and smirking about. He loves to make people feel uncomfortable. He yanks me off to the bog and pisses in front of me. I stand half out of the room and don’t watch, I think he gets off on doing it, he doesn’t wash his hands afterwards. I’m so happy when the day is over. Life is a series of excruciating tests for me, and Sid enjoys putting me through them.
Getting a minicab to the Speakeasy club in Soho one night, we are just about to leave my place when Sid goes, ‘Can I wear your jeans?’ My heart sinks; those jeans have an old period stain that I can’t get out, I didn’t wash them soon enough after it happened. I can’t possibly let Sid see that, he’ll never let me forget it. ‘You look good as you are. Anyway, they’ll be too short for you,’ I say. ‘Yeah,’ he says. Phew. We get into the cab but just as the driver is pulling away Sid says, ‘I’ve forgotten something.’ He nips out and runs back into the house. He comes out a minute later, grinning all over his face, wearing my jeans. I could kill him. Now he knows why I didn’t want him to wear them. I stare out of the window for the whole car journey. He chats away, knowing he’s winding me up. He doesn’t tease me about the bloodstain, that’s left unsaid.
Sid hasn’t got many clothes, none of us have much that is acceptable to be seen in, no shops sell what we like except Sex, and it’s so expensive we only have one or two things from there. Sid has two pairs of trousers: holey, faded jeans and a pair of red pegs — they’re wool and have a little silver thread running through them, zoot-suitish, pleated at the waist, wide-legged, tapering in quite narrow at the bottom. He wears them with brothel creepers, a bit David Bowie and a bit 1950s. Some of the boys still have this look, Malcolm McLaren and John Rotten wear it sometimes too — it’s left over from Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die, the teddy-boy shop Malcolm and Vivienne Westwood had before Sex. I never went there, didn’t know about it.
One day Sid turns up in the peg trousers and they’re in ribbons. He’d sliced them up with a razor blade because he hated them so much but he couldn’t find his jeans so when he wanted to go out he had to stick them back together. He joined the rips with loads of safety pins, all the way down his legs, hundreds of them. That’s how the ‘loads of safety pins’ thing started amongst people in clubs: they copied it, but he only did it because he couldn’t be bothered to sew his trousers up.
A while later Sid came round to Davis Road in a new pair of black bondage trousers, said he’d gone into Sex and Vivienne told him she couldn’t bear looking at him in those disgusting trousers a minute longer, she made him take them off, gave him a pair of bondage trousers for free and threw the red ones away. I’m really jealous, Vivienne must really like him to do that. She doesn’t usually give stuff away.
Vivienne’s scary, for the reason any truthful, plain-talking person is scary — she exposes you. If you haven’t been honest with yourself, this makes you feel extremely uncomfortable, and if you are a con merchant the game is up. She’s uncompromising in every way: what she says, what she stands for, what she expects from you and how she dresses. She’s direct and judgmental with a strong northern accent that accentuates her sincerity. She has a confidence I haven’t seen in any other woman. She’s strong, opinionated and very smart. She can’t bear complacency. She’s the most inspiring person I’ve ever met. Sid told me, ‘Vivienne says you’re talented but lazy.’ I’ve worked at everything twice as hard since he said that.
I’m very influenced by how Vivienne looks. She gets it just right. Black lines drawn around her eyes, dark lipstick, pale face. Her hair is dyed white blonde, with an inch of dark roots showing and clumpy spikes sticking out in all directions. I’ve no idea where she got the look from, it doesn’t reference anything I’m aware of, no films or art. I think she’s very feminine in her own way. I do my version of Vivienne but it comes out a bit different and looks like my own style. I love changing my hair, you can’t get hair wrong, I’ve spent money on it from a young age. I stopped going to hairdressers after I copied Vivienne though, they didn’t get it. Keith Levene hacks at it and dyes it for me now.
Vivienne has a good figure, she can carry off anything, usually she wears a rubber knee-length skirt and calf-length black boots, not sexy boots, they’re flat, slightly baggy, or a see-through rubber top with bondage trousers and lots of tartan. She makes everyone else on the street look irrelevant. Although the clothes she wears are daring, there’s something about her that’s quite puritan and austere. She’s also very private. There are rumors that she has a child but I’ve never seen one or heard her mention it. Vivienne’s a vegetarian and very strict about it, she gives anyone who eats meat a hard time. One day Chrissie Hynde — who’s also a vegetarian — saw Vivienne backstage at the Roundhouse eating a ham sandwich. Chrissie confronted Vivienne about it and Vivienne replied, ‘Well, it’s dead now.’ (Once when Vivienne asked Chrissie a question, Chrissie replied, ‘Oh, I just go with the flow.’ Vivienne thought that was unacceptable and wouldn’t speak to her again for a year.) We’re all very judgmental about everything, including each other, but if you state your position boldly enough, or just don’t give a shit, you can do what the hell you want. In some ways to be too passionate or attached to anything is considered weak; you don’t stick to things just for the sake of it or on a matter of principle, that’s rigid behavior.
Excerpted and abridged from Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine. Copyright 2014 Viv Albertine. Reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
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