Monday, 21 July 2014

Four Book Rockaria Part 1 - Viv and Buffy

I've been on a bit of a rock book treadmill for the last month or so reading books I've collected over the last year about rock and pop stars and great heroes. They've lain in a pile in my living room waiting to be opened and the impetus was Viv Albertine's memoir. After that I devoured the others. Reading on the tube and train isn't terribly satisfying so I inevitably started reading during the week on the tube and then curled up on the sofa at the weekend and finished all in a single reading. And I do mean all.

Viv Albertine's book, 'Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boys Boys' is named after a phrase her mother uttered to the teenage Viv about all she was interested in. Although the book is dedicated to Viv's daughter the title is from her Mum who died the evening of the book launch show in London. That's rather poignant. I was at the book launch and blogged about it here. I hope there will be more promotional events for the book in London and I'll be there.

Every review of the book you'll see talks about its brutal honesty, the pints of blood she's lost over the years and the punk years. But this is a memoir of a woman in the late 20th century who has, in a sense, several lives and Viv talks about them very candidly. It's almost like listening to Viv chat over a cup of tea, talking in the present tense and then quipping about 'well, I'd learn about what that was about later'. It's a very immediate style of writing and very powerful.

Viv was one of the first punks who saw the Sex Pistols in their early days and, using Johnny Rotten as her model, decided she could be in a band as well. And she formed the Flowers of Romance with Sid Vicious before he threw her out of the band (and that led to her letting Johnny Thunder inject her with heroin). All the name-dropping you could possibly want is in this book from the early 70s when Viv was a music fan and followed Marc Bolan and T.Rex to being at the centre of the punk revolution - Viv was at the centre of so much. And she pulls no punches.

The Slits, of course, feature large in the book, telling the tale of getting together, going on tour with the Clash, making records and touring. There's a lovely chapter about making 'Cut' with Dennis Bovell and how they didn't really know what they were doing but were passionate about what the outcome should be. Viv comes across as being passionate about everything she does even though she's not terribly confident.

The book is in two parts - Side 1 takes us up to the implosion of the Slits and Side 2 takes us from the early 80s to last year. Viv grows up, she lives a full life, she marries and goes through IVF to have a baby and then has cancer. A slow recovery in the wilds of Hastings leads to Viv rediscovering her art and her need to create, the marriage collapsing and Viv going forward with her daughter alone. Throughout the book - and her life - the problem is confidence and men. Even last year while she was writing the book her manager calls her to tell her he's found the perfect ghost writer for her and when she says she wants to write it herself his response is 'so what's my role then?'. Exactly.

This is an excellent book, not just for old punks to relive the glory days but to understand what it was like being in that scene and what happened afterwards. Who would have thought of Viv as an aerobics teacher? or a film director? or as a housewife in Hastings. Viv is all those and so much more. This is an excellent read and I'd recommend the book to anyone, whether you want the punk tales or simply read about the life of a woman in the latter part of the 20th century.

I can't help but think about the later lines from Viv's song, 'Confessions of a MILF' which go:

'I chose being an artist over being a wife, now I'm going to lead a very lonely life
I chose being an artist over being a wife, now I'm going to lead a very lovely life'

You are a very brave woman, Viv, so thank you for sharing and I hope your life is as lovely as it can be.

One of Viv's favourite songs in the late '60s when she was in the Woodcraft Folk was 'Welcome Welcome Emigrante' by Buffy Sainte-Marie so I had to read the biography of Buffy by Blaire Stonechild that I got on import from Canada. Oddly, 'Buffy Sainte-Marie: It's my Way' is the only book about Buffy which I always think is rather strange given her influence on music (and, of course 'It's My Way' is the title of her first album).

The Buffy book is as far away from Viv's book as it's possible to get. It's rather dry and academic with every quote footnoted and referenced, almost like a thesis without the full academic rigour. Indeed, the 'acknowledgements' section thanks the Canada Council of the Arts for a writing grant and other bodies for helping with 'research expenses'. That doesn't mean it's a bad book by any means, it just means it's in a different place to Viv's book.

It's a fascinating read, from Buffy's early years in New England to discovering her roots as part of the Cree nation, travelling the world singing her songs of love and compassion, her hits and songs being recorded by everyone you can name, having too much money so starting an educational charity. It's all there. And Buffy comes across as being a lovely and politically committed person despite making mistakes along the way.

My only problem with this book is that it seems to be based on existing articles and interviews so little of it is new. It's a collection of Buffy statements over the years so it's good to have them in one place but it doesn't offer any real enlightenment about Buffy or her songs. That was a bit disappointing but I'm pleased to have the book that pulls everything together.

Now, I'm just waiting for Buffy's next album. According to twitter and Facebook she's auditioning producers at the moment so it's almost there. Maybe next year?

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