I came of age around the same time as Viv Albertine and I was drawn to punk, so this memoir was bound to resonate for me. Much as I appreciated punk’s exasperation with the state of both society and popular music, though, I was far too inhibited, and more to the point way too square, to be part of the scene.
Albertine was very much in the thick of it, however — friend and bandmate of Sid Vicious pre-Sex Pistols, close to both The Clash and The Pistols, and guitarist in the Slits.
Her hipness credentials are impeccable, and her account of those disorderly years is convincing. She creates a real sense of what it felt to live through it and what the celebrities it produced might actually have been like as people (far more normal than we’re used to thinking, of course).
Perhaps the most charming aspect of the book is the humility Albertine shows, seemingly without trying. Even though she was almost certainly the hippest person in the room on any number of occasions, nowhere in the book does she claim that status. In her memory she is always intimidated by the scene, never feeling she is as cool and self-assured and interesting as others are. The question she can’t quite answer is whether all cool people feel the same way, or are there pathological cases who inwardly think they’re exactly as hot as they seem outwardly?
Punk made Albertine famous, but it only makes up the first part of her book. Impressively, it remains equally interesting as she covers her life afterward, disappearing from public view while coping with health issues and a husband, and with raising a daughter. Her accounts of cervical cancer, in-vitro procedures, the isolation of suburban housewifery and her eventual return to music are just as compelling as the mid-seventies scene-making. There is real insight into all those struggles, and to the sexual politics throughout. The importance of women to punk did not appear to make it easy to be a woman in punk, and object lessons in the oppression of women did not end when she embraced family life.
It’s fitting that Albertine, who in classic punk fashion learned to play guitar only after she joined a band, does so well capturing the creative heart of music-making. Also noteworthy is her memory for fashion (throughout the book she provides attribution for what she wore over the years) and her honesty in keeping to a minimum the reproduction of verbatim dialogue from decades earlier.
Just as her work in the Slits proved influential for decades after the band’s brief initial incarnation, so this book promises to be a healthy influence on readers only now coming of age.