In this series, we will be reviewing books across a wide range of genres, all related in some form to championing women.
Published in 2014, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. is the autobiography of punk icon Viv Albertine, charting the roots, reality, and consequences of her unprecedented importance to punk rock. ‘Book of the year’ for The Sunday Times, Rough Trade, and Mojo, it might strike you as something for those familiar with ’70s punk, but that’s not a prerequisite for enjoyment.
Writing an autobiography might sound like the least punk career decision you could make (in a world without those Johnny Rotten butter adverts, at least), and Albertine says as much in her first line: ‘Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a bit of both.’ Of course, it’s all about how you do it, and Albertine’s no-frills, no-pretension approach reconfigures the commercial aspect of the work, turning it into a woman telling her own fascinating story because she wants to.
In her introduction, Albertine lists the pages that reference sex, drugs, and punk rock, shrugging off the in-and-out tourists and leaving herself free to be totally honest. She writes in a simple, darting way, moving between issues across threads of importance that are more relevant to her than they may be to the reader. It works to everyone’s advantage since it leaves her as unconcerned with praise as she is with censure. This isn’t an autobiography that’s trying to win anybody over or stoke Albertine’s legend. Consequently, it does both.
The English press hated Yoko, but I was fascinated by her and so were my friends. We thought she was fantastic… I read her book, Grapefruit, she had ideas that I had never encountered before; her thoughts and her concepts were like mind-altering drugs to me… When John and Yoko took their clothes off for the Two Virgins picture, their sweet, normal bodies all naked and wobbly were shocking because they were so imperfect. It was an especially brave move for Yoko; her body was dissected and derided by the press. But I got it. At last, a girl being interesting and brave.
Beyond being eminently readable and utterly frank, it’s difficult to describe the narrative journey of Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Autobiographies, especially those by famous figures, tend to die around the middle when fame recedes and life sprawls out into something that defies narrative convention, but Albertine’s story only grows more interesting.
Diving into the punk scene as an unprecedented and not wholly welcome presence, she’s as much a brave adventurer entering unknown lands as any fantasy hero, and there are plenty of monsters lurking in the mist. The treasure Albertine finds is her redefinition of self, entering a landscape with no established place for her and carving out a legacy with pure will. ‘We see ourselves as warriors’ she says of The Slits, her short-lived but hugely influential band, and that’s how the reader sees them too.
I don’t take shit any more when I play. One night in front of a crowd of braying ponytailed old rockers I shout, ‘Anyone here ever taken heroin? Made a record?’ There’s a stunned silence. ‘Well I have, so shut the fuck up or go home and polish your guitar.’
At one point, talking about Patti Smith, she says, ‘I have never seen a girl who looks like this. She is my soul made visible, all the things I hide deep inside myself that can’t come out.’ It’s a beautiful sentiment, but one that gains in poignancy as she becomes exactly that for others, journeying from an abusive, illogical home life to a legacy of influence and possibility as a side-effect of pursuing what she wants. It’s a magic power earned with sweat and blood, and then she takes it elsewhere, chasing other treasure. Where is she now? If you don’t know, I’ll let you read about it.
Every cell in my body was steeped in music, but it never occurred to me that I could be in a band, not in a million years – why would it? Who’d done it before me? There was no one I could identify with. No girls played electric guitar. Especially not ordinary girls like me.
Music icons like Sid Vicious, Mick Jones, Johnny Rotten, and Ari Up drift by, but Albertine takes pains to express that she’s communicating her versions, and she actively works against selling the reader on any impression of objective fact. There are some harrowing stories that may shake the reader, at one point Albertine recalls multiple stabbings with brevity that borders on dismissiveness, and there’s worse to come, but they’re important details.
Fans of punk may or may not love this book, but it should be most strongly recommended to those with only a passing knowledge of the genre. Albertine’s drive to follow her calling is a thing of raw power, making its own case for the value and weight of what she achieved. You don’t have to know Albertine’s work, or value punk music, to value Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. It’ll drag you along for the ride regardless.
Pages: 421 pages
Time it took me to read it: 3 days
Why I picked up the book in the first place: It’s usually interesting to hear an insider’s account of an artistic and cultural moment, and the daringly unwieldy title was an accurate indicator of Albertine’s unique voice and disregard for convention.
Don’t judge a book by its cover: The title echoes the exasperated refrain of Albertine’s mother during her teenage years. While she tackles each topic at length, it’s always in reference to what they meant to her at a certain time – the insights into the economic and ideological reasoning behind punk fashion are particularly interesting.
Rating out of 5: 5/5
Where to get it cheapest: Amazon
The woman behind the book
Viv Albertine was the guitarist for feminist punk rock group The Slits and part of the ‘in’ crowd who have come to retrospectively define the genre. She remains a musician and filmmaker, having written and directed the short film Coping with Cupid, released her debut solo album The Vermilion Border, and opened for Siouxsie Sioux at the Royal Festival Hall in 2013.
Written by Robert Wood.
Rob is a freelance writer and editor. For more of his scribblings on gender in media, check out The 3 Golden Rules of Writing a Young Adult Novel, Why Authors Need to Take Care When Writing the Other Gender and How to Write a Damn Good Man.
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