Viv Albertine, the guitarist for The Slits, was one of the core group of punks who helped create the original London scene. She was close friends with Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Mick Jones, Joe Strummer, Keith Levene, Palmolive, Ari Up, and so on. She hung around Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s SEX shop, played in the infamous Flowers Of Romance, and helped define the influential sound of The Slits. So you would think that her autobiography would provide rich insights into the people and events of that era. In fact, the media blurbs on the back of the book inform me that this is one of the greatest autobiographies from that scene. But it isn’t (Surprisingly, at least to me, John Lydon’s Rotten holds that honor).
To be fair, I need to point out that the book I read right before Albertine’s was Violence Girl by Alice Bag of the Bags. While both books have a lot in common—from detailing a woman’s struggle within a male-dominated subculture to their structure of short, two-to-five page chapters offering digestible narrative nuggets—there is a distinct difference regarding each book’s narrative voice. Within twenty pages of Violence Girl, I was totally smitten by Alice, thoroughly invested in the stories she was telling me. One hundred pages into CCCMMMBBB, I still couldn’t decide if I even liked Viv. I simply didn’t have a sense of who she was. The reason was that her presentation of what should have been completely engaging stories—such as her on-again/off-again romance with Mick Jones, her affair with Johnny Thunders and heroin, her troubled relationship with Ari Up and the rest of The Slits, her confusing friendship with Sid Vicious—are all presented rather superficially. As a result, I don’t understand what she is feeling at any given moment nor am I particularly invested in her life story. When she writes that she was devastated for years about the break up of The Slits, I just have to take her word for it. The breakup marks the end of “Side One” of the book, which covers her youth in punk and takes up around two-thirds of the book. But I’m starting not to care and beginning to look around the room for other books to distract me.
All of this changes in “Side Two.” In her post-Slits life, after marrying and settling down into domestic drudgery, Viv becomes obsessed with having a baby. But she suffers miscarriage after miscarriage and the obsession begins to turn into madness. Shortly after she finally succeeds in delivering a daughter, she is diagnosed with cervical cancer and the threads of her life fray even further. Suddenly, as a reader, I’m grabbed by a narrator whose intensity is profound. The seventy-five pages or so that cover her miscarriages and struggle with cancer are some of the most moving and engaging autobiographical passages I’ve ever read. Perhaps this helps explain why the first part of the book struck me as flat and superficial—that was an entirely different Viv Albertine living a completely differently life, inconsequential in comparison to the one she now finds herself in more than twenty-five years later.
The book continues with her rediscovery of empowerment through music, re-teaching herself how to play guitar, the slow, painful collapse of her marriage, her pondering an affair with Vincent Gallo (don’t do it, Viv!), and her eventual emergence as a solo performer with the release of The Vermilion Border (2012). While not as consistently brilliant as the superior Violence Girl, Albertine’s CCCMMMBBB is a remarkable read in places. While her portrayals of the 1970s and early 1980s are breezy and incomplete, be prepared to be gutted by the harrowing portrayal of her adult years. –Kevin Dunn (St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Ave., NY, NY10010)