Viv Albertine’s Got Something to Say

For her second memoir, the irreverent punk icon mixes a bit of vulnerability with a lot of grit.

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“Too much throwing liquid.” Thus opined an early reader of the middle-aged Englishwoman/punk-rock avenger Viv Albertine’s memoir To Throw Away Unopened, commenting (Albertine tells us) on the second scene in the book in which the author douses men with beer. The first time, it’s at a solo gig—intimate, low volume—and the men in question won’t stop blabbering and laughing. She steps offstage to confront them: “Do you know how the way you’re behaving makes me feel?” Fatuous lack of response. So, “I picked up the fullest pint glass on the table and, starting at the bloke on my right, swept the beer in an amber arc across the four blank faces,” she writes. “Triumph surged up through my body and went right to my head. I lifted another glass from the table and drenched them again, this time in Guinness.”

The second time, she’s in the pub with one of the blurry, low-performance characters she keeps dating and he says something terrible. “I detected a splinter of pleasure in his eyes, as if he enjoyed the pain he was inflicting.” That’s it. Vodka and cranberry juice (hers) over the head, followed by a pint of beer (his) into the crotch. Then, for emphasis—or perhaps artistry—she rips his shirt in half.

Too much? Indeed not. The point about throwing beer on terrible men is that you have to keep doing it—until the beer’s gone, or the men are gone, or the terribleness is gone. Besides, the volatility of Albertine has been her guiding spirit, her daemon. From 1976 to 1982 she played guitar in the Slits, the all-female punky reggae rockers who came out of the same London scene as the Sex Pistols and the Clash, but whose weaponized amateurism and romping, gyno-riotous presentation put them deeper into the unknown than any of their male counterparts. “The repression your female ancestors suffered,” she writes, “accumulates over the generations, resentment building in daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter like hair clogging a washing-machine filter, until along comes a child who is so pumped full of fury that she kicks all obstructions out of the way.”

This is a theme of To Throw Away Unopened: the transmission of anger, from generation to generation, through the sinews of the body and the psyche. Albertine got her anger twofold—from her odd, obstinate, shouty French father with his unfashionable head of Beatle-style hair, and from her shrewd, acerbic London mum, who got it from her mum, who got it from her mum. The book’s other themes include Albertine’s bowels, the lie that is romance, and the battle against body hair. “I dream about hair every night. Eyebrow hair, face hair, underarm hair, arse hair, pubic hair. I dream the hair on my legs is as long, straight, black and shiny as liquorice bootlaces, and the bootlaces trail out of the bottom of my jeans, dragging along the ground as I walk down the street.”

Albertine’s father, long estranged from his children, dies, and in his stuffy apartment in France, Albertine finds a self-pitying diary that he wrote when he and her mum were separating. As she reads it, the first bubbles of empathy travel her system—she begins, uncertainly, to feel for this man. Her mother dies, and in her London flat on top of her wardrobe, Albertine finds an Aer Lingus flight bag with the legend written on in Wite-Out: “To Throw Away—UNOPENED. More papers, more revelations. “Another dead parent,” she writes, “another empty flat, another dodgy bag.”

If you can manage it, somewhere during your reading of To Throw Away Unopened, squeeze in a viewing of the new documentary Here To Be Heard: The Story of The Slits. “Here’s a slit for ya,” said the man with the knife, coming up behind the front woman Ari Up and slashing at her through her coat and through the back of her jeans. (The Slits bassist Tessa Pollitt tells that story.) The Sex Pistols could make society cower; the Clash, dizzy utopians, whipped the blood through your veins; but the Slits alone met the stare of a bared-teeth misogyny, and kept on having their fun. Slits music (could be a nice German word: Slitzmusik) was an eccentric, choppy, danceable racket and a homemade deprogramming machine—a tool for winkling the patriarchy out of their brains.

“They found a way to destroy rock and roll,” as somebody puts it in Here To Be Heard. Slits music wanted to grow, to transcend the mongrel agitations of its punk-rock origins; it wanted to be capacious and bass-y and borderless and all-mothering, but it never quite got the chance, and the original band members separated after two albums. “Did they win?” asks the veteran journalist Vivien Goldman, late in the documentary. And then she sighs, and her eyes fill with tears. “At the time it didn’t seem like they did, because they were so firmly stomped from history.”

Albertine already wrote a book, a very good book, about her time as a punk rocker—2014’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. It had a drifting, mellifluous style quite unlike the nervy and interrogative noises of her Slits-era guitar-playing. To Throw Away Unopened is closer, in this sense, to actual punk-rock Viv; it feels hastier, less processed, more urgent, as if she was hurt or stung into writing it. (There are still some lovely lines, though. Receiving a hug from a matronly schoolteacher, the young Viv is unsettled: “I wasn’t used to the feeling of a soft, warm, bosomy body. She wasn’t like my bony, smoke-infused mother.”)

“Truth is splintered,” writes Albertine on the last page; and the narrative is splintered, too—digressive, jagged, interior, conversational, bouncing between epochs, the pressure rising unevenly until, in a shattering scene at her mother’s deathbed, everything goes bonkers. And with that, a stomped-from-history guitarist becomes an author who has clawed her way into your memory, not to be dislodged.