“You, you’re a careerist generation basically. Always want an answer and a goal,” insists Viv Albertine, the punk musician turned writer. “I grew up without any goals, which may be terrifying or unusual for people today. That film came along, that book I had to write, that album I had to make: if I’m going to go through another fallow period, so be it. I’m not just going to churn out creative work to keep myself in the public eye, or to earn a few hundred quid, or for ego reasons. If I’m not passionate, then I won’t do it. I don’t give a fuck what does or doesn’t come next.”
Despite the message, it doesn’t come across at all anachronistic, heavy-handed, or preachy. In fact, as far as accusations go, I can’t help but feel swayed. Now 59, Albertine has carved out her entire life from a fierce, yet wholehearted independence: from her days as a teenager, haphazardly venturing off to Amsterdam with a mere five pounds, her significant role in the formation of punk with her band The Slits, to vetoing the suggestion of having her recently-released autobiography ghostwritten. Even today, she refused to give up on our interview. “I shifted and became the rock,” she tells me serenely. “My husband was my rock until then, but when I had a daughter, I became the strong one.”
The day before we were originally scheduled to speak – and the evening of her book launch – Albertine’s mother passed away. A flurry of overwhelming admin meant a second date was cancelled, while on the day itself even her venue of choice was closed. Undeterred, we amble across to Hackney Picturehouse and take up residence in the cafe.
Albertine was actually born in Sydney. Her parents had moved to Australia because “in the 50s there was this thing where people could move there for 10 shillings”. When she was four, the family took a boat back to England, and set anchor at a North London council estate. “Muswell Hill wasn’t as cool as it is now,” she explains. “But at the time, young Communist families lived there – there were a lot of very forward thinking people and their children in the area.” Albertine was fortunate enough to attend one of the first comprehensive schools in Britain, with other sonic luminaries such as Rod Stewart and the Kinks her fellow alumni.
It was while studying fashion and textile design at the Chelsea School of Art that she met Mick Jones, who went on to form The Clash. As punk began, the art connection proved fertile: “Art schools back then used to put on brilliant bands – Bowie was first put on by art schools, Roxy music and Pink Floyd too,” says Albertine, between sips of steaming green tea. “Don’t forget that punk didn’t exist. I was the scene, I was part of making it. Through Mick I met John Rotten, he was just a kid in a band, and Mick knew Malcolm [McLaren]. It was just people who knew each other around the same time. By the time it was called punk, it was already dead – it only lasted 18 months.”
In her autobiography, Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, Albertine writes candidly, almost brazenly, about the scene at the time. Johnny Rotten supposedly complained that she was “trying too hard” when attempting to fellate him, while Sid Vicious apparently was still a bedwetter despite his hardman persona. As a devotee of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s fetish-influenced clothing, she claims many guys at the time “didn’t know whether they wanted to kill us or fuck us”. Her bandmate Ari Up, the 15-year-old singer of The Slits, was stabbed twice by strangers on the street within a single year.
In 1978, Albertine became pregnant by Mick Jones, and decided to have an abortion to continue with the band. It’s a decision that haunts her to this day. “I didn’t regret it for 20 years,” she writes. “But eventually I did. It’s hard to live with.” She explains on the day: “Up till I was in my mid-30s, I couldn’t bear the thought of being a mother. It absolutely revolted me. It made me feel nauseous to see someone pushing a pram, because to me it represented the end of all opportunities. Then, when I fell in love, whether it was biology or age catching up to me, I had to have a daughter.”
What followed was “seven years of absolute madness”: attempts to get pregnant via IVF, diagnosis with cervical cancer six weeks after the birth of her daughter and an ill-fated attempt to become an obliging housewife. Albertine became so ashamed that her daughter initially grew up unaware that her mum had been in a band, but she eventually resolved to be honest. “I decided to let her know who I am, and trust that she will love me anyway,” Albertine enunciates in her lingering North London drawl. “I was a very natural mother. It surprised me. I knew what to do. That may be a legacy from my own mum, who was a very strong woman.”
Since The Slits disbanded in 1981, Albertine has variously been an aerobics instructor, a filmmaker, a ceramicist, a solo artist and the co-star of Joanna Hogg’s art-house movie, Exhibition. Now, she lives in an artist community in Hackney, and in a way, there’s a sense of completion. “I’ve lived in North, South, and West London, but never ever East. But a year ago, I had to move, with my divorce and all that, and I just got absolutely drawn here. It’s so funny, but now I actually feel like I’ve come home.”
Albertine is one of several music icons now residing in the borough, alongside the likes of Thurston Moore, whose label released her EP Flesh. “I absolutely adore it. I love getting the bus home, and I start hitting East London. I love the old warehouses, and the higgledy piggledy.”
The title of the autobiography actually comes from her mother, who once said that clothes, music and boys was all her daughter was interested in. What advice would she give herself as a young girl, I ask. “You’ve got to live your life as if you’re not going to have a tomorrow. Of course I’m still scared and feel like a twit, and know I can’t play very well, but I’m going to live my life how I want live it, because when I go, no one’s going to give a shit that I’ve made a fool of myself here, there or anywhere.”
Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys is published by Faber & Faber. RRP: £14.99 ISBN: 9780571297757