A Punk Memoir That Makes The Ordinary Seem Transcendent
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Our rock critic Ken Tucker says one of the best books he's ever read about punk rock is a new memoir by Viv Albertine, one of the founding members of the British punk rock band The Slits. The book, titled "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys," chronicles Albertine's life with punk legends such as Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols and Mick Jones of The Clash, on through her subsequent careers as a film director and mother. Here's Ken's review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
VIV ALBERTINE: (Singing) (Unintelligible). I lost myself through (unintelligible) mystery. I went up and down like a dementia train...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The modesty and informality that frames Viv Albertine's autobiography is typified by its title, "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys." But as you read the book, its title also begins to suggest how much it's going to transcend every other book about the punk era. There's been a lot of excellent writing about British punk in the '70s. I'm not just thinking about Jon Savage's great history book, "England's Dreaming." But also the journalism of Caroline Coon, Nick Kent and Julie Bushell. Albertine gives us a different perspective, however. She is the articulate fan, the active participant, the girl who grew into womanhood while making her mark during a remarkable time. Unlike the standard punk rock narrative, Albertine's doesn't reject pre-punk music, but places it in a new perspective.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU CAN'T DO THAT")
THE BEATLES: (Singing) I got something to say that might cause you pain if I catch you talking to that boy again. I'm going to let you down and leave you flat. Because I told you before, oh, you can't do that. Well, it's the second time I caught you talking to him, so I have to tell you one more time I think it's a sin. I think I'll let you down and leave you flat. (Gonna let you down and leave you flat). Because I told you before, oh, you can't do that. Everybody's green.
TUCKER: As a young girl growing up in the Muswell Hills suburb of London, Albertine writes of the impact of hearing John Lennon sing "You Can't Do That" with The Beatles in 1964. (Reading) This song pierces my heart, and I don't think it will ever heal. John Lennon's voice is so close, so real, it's like he's in the room. He has a normal boy's voice, no highfalutin warbling or smoothed out creamy harmonies like the stuff mum and dad listened to. He uses everyday language to tell me, his girlfriend, to stop messing around.
Viv Albertine, a teenager imagining John Lennon as her boyfriend, gets right to the importance of Beatle music. And her use of the present tense, recounting her history in short, precise chapters, is a perfect way to tell her bold, blunt, yet infinitely subtle story. While she's lucky enough to fall into a crowd that includes Mick Jones, who later formed The Clash, and Vivienne Westwood, who altered the fashion world after outfitting the Sex Pistols, Albertine relies on more than luck to proceed as a musician herself. Instinctively feminist, she has excellent taste in role models.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAND")
PATTI SMITH: (Singing) Suddenly, Johnny gets the feeling he's being surrounded by horses, horses, horses, horses coming in in all directions. White, shining, silver-studded with their nose in flames. He saw horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses, horses. Do you know how to pony like bony maroney? Do you know how to twist? Well, it goes like this. It goes like this. Baby, mash potato. Do the alligator. Do the alligator. And you twist the twister like your baby sister. I want your baby sister. Give me your baby sister. I dig your baby sister. Rise up on your knees.
TUCKER: She is my soulmate visible, Albertine writes of the Robert Mapplethorpe portrait of Patti Smith that adorns the cover of Smith's debut album "Horses." Pretty soon, she is learning to play the guitar and connecting with other young women to form The Slits, making tough, rhythmic music that will help transform everyone's idea of what a rockstar can or should be.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TYPICAL GIRLS")
THE SLITS: (Singing) Typical girls get upset too quickly. Typical girls can't control themselves. Typical girls are so confusing. Typical girls - you can always tell. Typical girls don't think too clearly. Typical girls are unpredictable (predictable). Typical girls try to be. Typical girls very well. Typical girls try to be. Typical girls very well.
TUCKER: Albertine remembers it all - the thrill and the tedium of being part of the punk movement when it was both a promise of freedom and a target for contempt from the media. The tone of her writing is so reportorial, and yet so interpretive of her state of mind, that stuff that could come across as scandalous or gossipy - dating Mick Jones, doing drugs with Johnny Thunders of The Heartbreakers - instead strikes the reader as it struck her - something to be experienced and then to move on from, into the future. For Albertine, that future comprises the second half of this book, when she leaves punk mostly behind her to be a filmmaker, an artist, a wife and mother. That second half is every bit as compelling as the first because in "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys," Viv Albertine has pulled off the artful trick of all great memoirs. She has made the supposedly ordinary seem transcendent and transcendent's something any of us could achieve if only we approach our lives as honestly as Albertine does her own.
DAVIES: Rock critic Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed "Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys" by Viv Albertine. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the Australian horror film "The Babadook." This is FRESH AIR.
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