It’s funny, I happened to read Viv Albertine of The Slits’ book (released 2014) right after I read Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth’s book, Girl in a Band (released 2015). Purely coincidence, but actually they make great comparison pieces if not companion pieces. Both books are about clothes, music and boys.
Kim Gordon is now 65, Viv is 64. Kim was hugely important in the New York no wave scene in the 80s and 90s, Viv of the London punk scene that preceded it in the 70s. There is not a lot of overlap. While Viv was just a teenager when she started running around with the punks who would become the The Clash and Sex Pistols, and her band The Slits had split up by 1982; Sonic Youth formed in 1981 and had a long and influential career until 2011.
In one or two places, however, their stories do intersect. Johnny Thunders is one. Kim Gordon is underwhelmed when she meets Thunders in the early 80s, describing him as a ‘tired junkie’ and a ‘rock n roll burnout’. When Thunders makes an appearance in Viv’s London of 1976 they have an instant chemistry – she’s much more impressed by him than Kim is. She’s also suspicious, he is a junky after all.
They also both admire Karen Carpenter.
The other overlap comes much more recently – when Viv rediscovers her love of music in 2010 and Thurston Moore (Kim Gordon’s ex husband and ex bandmate) released her first EP Flesh on his record label Ecstatic Peace. It makes sense, since Thurston is now London-based like Viv, but I kinda wished it was Kim and Viv that intersected instead.
So. Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.
Firstly, Viv Albertine is extraordinary. She doesn’t know it but she’s my best friend now. I just feel like she, Caitlin Moran and I would have a wonderful time down the pub. I’ll be honest and say I didn’t actually know who she was until now. I’ve seen her book in some record and book stores and got curious and looked her up. I’d vaguely heard of the The Slits, definitely heard of Ari Up, knew they were important but didn’t really know their music or their place in punk rock history.
Well, shit. Her book is utterly amazing. The Slits were amazing. She reports on her life, without trying to make comments or judgements or big philosophical pronouncements about it, even though the very ordinary sounding things she describes are basically the birth of punk (or British punk as we know it, anyhow). You get a sense of who she is from her actions more than her reflections; this is a book full of conversations and characters and actions. And brilliant clothes.
The first half of the book (called Side One, of course) is very much about punk, and basically her youth. The group she is hanging around with are all just mates, some more talented than others, some more ambitious than others. Johnny Rotton, Sid Vicious, Mick Jones, Keith Levene, Chrissy Hynde, Siouxsie Sioux, Don Letts. You really get a sense of a bunch of young kids just feeling their way through things – it’s only through the lens of history that this time period is imbued with such incredible significance. Unbelievable significance – I didn’t want it to end. Vivienne Westwood, Neneh Cherry, Malcolm Maclaren, John Peel – they’re all in there, but they’re quite often making cups of tea or saying silly things while the revolution they’ve started gains momentum.
And then suddenly, it’s 1982 and it’s all over. The Slits have split up. Thatcherism is in full swing. Viv is heartbroken, she quits music altogether.
Yet, after all that life she’d already lived, she manages to fit in several dozen more lives.
It’s difficult to imagine anything she has not been through. Poverty, domestic abuse, drugs, miscarriage, IVF, an ectopic pregnancy, divorce, cancer, depression. And that’s just the bad stuff; she’s also had stints as a mother, a punk rocker, a muse, an aerobics teacher, a BBC editor, a filmmaker, an actress, a sculptor, a singer-songwriter.
She’s had a truly interesting life and even if you’re not into punk rock (WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU) there are so many parts of this book that are so inspiring and relatable that at times it’s almost like a self help book. She’s an incredible survivor. The main takeaway is an age-old one: you can do anything you put your mind to. Whether that’s beating cancer, getting over heartbreak, wearing a transparent t-shirt with no bra, learning how to play guitar or creating a cultural movement. Everyone should read this book, especially women.
Here are a few choice quotes:
On fear: ‘I’m scared, but I go anyway. That should be written on my gravestone. ‘She was scared. But she went anyway‘.’
On The Slits: ‘I want boys to come and see us play and think I want to be part of that. Not They’re pretty or I want to fuck them but I want to be in that gang, in that band.’
On recording their Peel session, and sisterhood: ‘I can tell immediately by their expressions that the studio engineer and producer are not happy to be doing this session. They keep telling us we can’t do this and we can’t do that. The same obstructive attitude and closed-mindedness we encounter wherever we go. If we didn’t have each other, we would’ve been crushed by guys like these ages ago.’
On domesticity: ‘I think there’s something very healthy about keeping your own cave clean. It is a good barometer of how your life is going, the state of your home. If it’s a complete tip, you’re taking on too much or depressed; if someone else has to keep it clean for you, it’s too big or you’re too busy.’
On marriage: ‘How does anyone make it though a marriage and children and remain a whole person? Perhaps it’s unavoidable that the individual has to be sacrificed for the unit……All I know is I wasn’t brought up for this. I was brought up a feminist, a rebel, a creative person. Not a cook, a cleaner, pacifier and compromiser.’
On love: ‘Have I ever been able to truly love a man? Has a man ever loved me? Fuck love. I don’t believe in it any more. Look at most of the couples I know, they’re not in love, they’re scared of being alone, financially entwined or hanging on to a partner to try and convince the world they’re acceptable human beings. I can’t think of one couple I’m envious of. When a woman comes up to me and says, ‘I’m so sorry to hear about your marriage,’ I think No, I’m so sorry to hear about yours. At least I had the courage to get out.’
On relationships: ‘I’m invited to lunch with two French women, they’re ten or fifteen years older than me. One is in a relationship, the other is alone. One is annoyed by and resentful of her partner and embarrassed to be seen with him, the other comes and goes when she pleases. Here it is, laid out in front of me, the two options: with someone and irritated by them (I think most people in long marriages have a touch of Stockholm Syndrome) or alone and free. Neither appeals. There’s got to be a third way.’
So now. Girl in a Band.
Girl in a Band was written not long after the dissolution of Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore’s 30 year marriage. And, of course, The Band. It reads like it was written by a person in shock. Someone who is reeling from what has happened and has not had the time or space to make sense of it. Kim even sort of says it herself:
‘Writing about New York is hard. Not because memories intersect and overlap, because of course they do. Not because incidents and times mix with others, because that happens too. Not because I didn’t fall in love with New York, because even though I was lonely and poor no place had ever made me feel more at home. It is because knowing what I know now, it’s hard to write about a love story with a broken heart.’
This is probably why the passages where she writes about California, a place that exists very separately to her life with Thurston and Sonic Youth, have the most warmth and color to them. Also the passages where she talk about her art – she is after all a visual artist, art critic, clothing label owner and actress, as well as being Kim Fucking Gordon.
She lists off the facts of her divorce to Thurston Moore, too many facts for some people’s tastes, almost robotically. Though she is not overly cruel about him, crediting him for being an amazing musician and father, Thurston still comes across like a ego-driven man-child. Sigh. You really get the sense that even though she is really really gutted, that she is going to be better off for it.
You can’t help but think, she’s going to regret this. Though it’s a real snapshot of a time, she will hardly want this to be THE snapshot of that time will she? Either way, her honesty is commendable.
So much criticism of the book focused on her supposed “name dropping” which I think is just absurd; she is Kim FUCKING Gordon! She was there, she was integral to the whole thing – just like Viv Albertine was in London. If anything I find the book surprising for it’s lack of bravado, of sureness. She says she’s never really considered herself a proper musician, never had confidence in her looks. You get the feeling that she really has no idea of just how amazing she is. She doesn’t talk so much explicitly about the shit she had to put up with for being “the girl in the…” but you can kind of feel it, there’s a lack of connection and a withholding of pride, a sadness. She doesn’t have the “fuck you” attitude it takes to be one of the lads, so she’s always a little left out.
One thing that is really striking is the lack of sense of humour in this book. Maybe not that surprising if you know Sonic Youth’s music, and perhaps one of the reasons why I’ve never been a massive fan of it. I know they are really important and I do love some of their songs, I have just never really connected with them like so many people do.
Well, I lie. Once I connected with them. At the ATP Festival (the greatest festival in the world), in 2006, I wandered into a room they were playing in – as I mentioned, not a huge fan so I didn’t make a point of catching their set. Kim Gordon was singing ‘Shaking Hell’ and it was captivating, powerful, brilliant. She sucked up all the energy in the room and I knew I was in the presence of something special. It was very impressive, I didn’t expect to be so moved by Sonic Youth. Reading Kim articulate the feminist angst behind the song in her book makes it all the more poignant:
‘On a more personal level, ‘Shaking Hell’ mirrors my struggle with my own identity and the anger I felt at who I was. Every woman knows what I’m talking about when I say girls grow up with a desire to please, to cede their power to other people. At the same time everyone knows about the sometimes aggressive and manipulative ways men often exert power in the world, and by how using the word empowered to describe women, men are simply maintaining their own power and control.’
Something that connects Viv and Kim, more than specific people and places, are their life trajectories. They are parallel in a way, even though Kim stuck with music all along while Viv took a long detour. They both have one daughter, and they both moved with their husbands (at the time) to the suburbs to try and give their kids a stable and “normal” upbringing. They tried to fit in, to suppress and sacrifice their true selves for the sake of their children.
In both cases, that idea fell apart. For Viv it involved a creative/sexual awakening spurred on by Vincent Gallo (yes, really) and for Kim it involved a woman called Eva Prinz who her husband fell in love with. Both marriages ended. Both women moved away, back to the city, with their daughters, rebuilt themselves and found their creative groove again. And by the end of their books, despite everything, they both just about believe in love again.
I think that’s pretty punk rock.