Sunday, September 14, 2014

Viv's Sliterary Debut

I blasted through Viv Albertine's memoir CLOTHES CLOTHES CLOTHES MUSIC MUSIC MUSIC BOYS BOYS BOYS like a box set of my favorite teleseries. The chapters are short (short enough for the reader to keep thinking, "I can read another and THEN go to sleep" until the sun comes up) but profound nonetheless, piling up into a potent, endearingly candid overview of a life in search of its own meaning.

The book is divided into two "sides," like an album, each side documenting the slow and sometimes grueling climb toward an achievement of artistic expression which for that period redefined Viv - namely, the short reign of the Slits and her decision, after sixteen years of marriage to a not entirely supportive husband, to reclaim her identity as a musician - which she in fact improved upon, reinventing herself as a fairly unique (and still musically innovative) minstrel of the joys, sorrows, ironies and bitter absurdities of female middle age experience. Much of the book also details her quest for love, which - unusually for any book on the subject - differentiates between her experiences of men who generated in her feelings of sexual attraction, intoxication and/or tension; it also includes some heartbreaking descriptions of her debasement at the hands of men who abused her physically or emotionally (my characterization, not necessarily hers), beginning with an abusive father who may have predisposed her psychologically to be attracted to disrespectful men and outright nutters (ditto). Yet the book's most personal and powerful episodes are those about her determination to overcome terrible, graphically described physical ordeals to become a mother.

I've known women with similar backgrounds and must consider this book an absolute success because I closed it feeling as though I'd known Viv her whole life - as a child, as an idealistic and adventuring teenager, as an earnest guitar student and ever-striving recording artist with the Slits, as a dreamer, as a woman, wife and mother, and as the reborn artist - body and soul, partly because her writing is so acute and her self-exploration so thorough and unsparing, that she takes one not only into her confidence but into her self. Her documentation of what she experienced emotionally as the female lead in the film EXHIBITION is the most honest description of the acting process I've read by a contemporary actress. As for her coverage of the Slits, it's everything I wanted from the TYPICAL GIRLS biography (which I didn't feel fully delivered, though it covered more ground), though it does skimp a bit on Budgie's contribution/departure and the second album - which Viv describes as being an advance on the first in some ways, something I would have liked to hear more about.

In fact, if this book is lacking anything, it is descriptive appreciation of the music that inspired Viv and made her want to become a musician, and specifically a guitarist - and its value to her is made more mysterious when she claims that she didn't listen to music for 25 years after leaving the Slits. (Her husband preferred that she leave music behind, to focus on family, and she also says it reminded her too much of her foiled ambitions.) Perhaps her muse was more environmental than musical, aroused in her by a desire to make sense of the clothes and boys that attracted her in the first place, to belong to the excitement they generated in her, but Viv was certainly in the right place and in the right company to seize the opportunity and she used it to make a contribution that was significant then and continues to be.

Above all, CLOTHES/MUSIC/BOYS is a human document about a talented but unsure woman struggling with the voices and forces in her life that would prefer that she conform to them, rather than address (much less fulfill) her own potential, and finally finding the center of strength and larger network of support that begins to make this possible. In its telling, it exposes so much below the author's steely but tender surface as to expose most other musical autobiographies as so much show business.

Out now in the UK, with a US edition coming in November.

1 comment:

  1. Very proud to append Viv's response here, via Twitter:


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