Sunday, November 15, 2015

Punk rock reading

(Me, as a 19-year-old university student in my dorm room, going to a punk rock social (dance), February 1980, and trying to look appropriately sullen & smouldering, lol. You can't see it, but I'm wearing safety pins in my ears -- carefully sterilized in rubbing alcohol (I wasn't THAT much of a punk...!) -- instead of earrings. My sister was visiting for the weekend & took this photo with her new Nikon SLR camera, & there must have been some static on the lens, because there is this cool lightning burst effect happening all around me -- which seemed kind of appropriate in the context of the event, lol.  Photo & caption previously used in this post from June 24, 2009: "Pat Benatar, I wasn't.")

Around the time I was in high school in the late 1970s, with my boy-band phase on the wane, we started hearing about a strange new movement in the British music and fashion world called punk rock. I asked my British penpal about it, and she obliged by sending me a tape with the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant" on it.

"Is this a joke?" I remember one of my friends saying at the time. It didn't sound much like music to us. It was raw and angry and dischordant. (Of course, we'd been listening to Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles and Steely Dan (not to mention the aforementioned boy bands, lol)... the Sex Pistols were like a bucket of cold water in the face, by comparison.)  The musicians and their followers LOOKED angry, with their spiky hairdos and spiky jewelry, smudged makeup and torn clothing held together with safety pins. It was scary -- but fascinating at the same time, particularly to us teenagers from conformist smalltown Prairie Canada. (How conformist, you ask?  As an example: it was a Very Big Deal to wear anything other than jeans to school or one of our school dances. "Dressing up" meant wearing your corduroy pants ("cords") instead of denim -- and you'd only do it if at least two of your friends agreed to do it too, lol.) 

Needless to say, the Sex Pistols never got much airplay on the radio stations I listened to. By the time I graduated from high school & entered university, though, I was enjoying, if not hard core punk rock, then its slightly more palatable cousin, New Wave. Among the bands I listened to at that time -- late 1970s/early 1980s -- was the Pretenders, fronted by a girl (!!) -- a tough looking chick named Chrissie Hynde.  I assumed she was British, but it turned out she was American -- from Ohio (as in "My City Was Gone" -- "Ay, oh, way to go, Ohio..."). 

Now in her early 60s, Hynde has written a memoir, "Reckless," which I snapped up on sale the week it came out in September.

Hynde grew up in post-WWII Akron, Ohio, and vividly describes her childhood there. She fell in love with rock & roll at an early age -- her first kiss came from Jackie Wilson at one of his concerts. Mitch Ryder, David Bowie, Jeff Beck, Paul Butterfield and Iggy Pop were among her musical heroes.

After high school, she went to Kent State University, ostensibly to study art, but mostly to party. (Yes, THAT Kent State -- and she was there on May 4, 1970, when the National Guard opened fire on a protest gathering, killing four students.)  Hynde had no ambitions and no idea what she wanted from life, except to have a good time.

While there's some sex in the book (including a violent encounter with a group of bikers that's become the source of much controversy, not only for what she's written about it but her subsequent comments and media reaction) -- and certainly rock & roll -- the one thing the book has in spades is drugs. Lots and lots of drugs, including copious amounts of alcohol. (Hynde admits she waited until both her parents were dead before writing a memoir, because she didn't want them reading the truth about what she had been doing.)  There are some colourful stories about her drug-fuelled escapades, but it does get kind of monotonous after a while. Different times...!

For me, the best part of the book began once Hynde moved to England in 1973, became part of the fledgling punk scene and, eventually, formed and found success with The Pretenders. It's fun reading her observations about the differences between American & British culture, and her encounters with punk rockers like The Clash and The Sex Pistols. (There's an amusing story about how she almost married first Johnny Rotten and then Sid Vicious, primarily as a way of solving her visa problems.) 

Unfortunately, she doesn't get to England until about 3/4 of the way through the book. The story of the all-too-brief rise and fall of The Pretenders rushes by all too quickly, and the book ends abruptly after the drug-related deaths of band members James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon (with whom Hynde was once romantically involved).

Bizarrely, I felt torn between feeling glad that I'd finally come to the end of a very long, convoluted, meandering journey, and wanting to read more. It's a flawed book, but still an interesting read, and I don't regret having spent the time on reading it. In retrospect, though, I probably could have waited for the paperback. ;)

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A few chapters into "Reckless," I had a pedicure appointment. I didn't want to lug a heavy hardcover along with me, so I slipped my Kobo e-reader into my purse & selected a book that someone had recommended to me as a memoir that included some ALI themes -- "Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys" by Viv Albertine.  (And I never noticed until I added in the photos of both book covers how similar the poses are!!)

Can I say I had absolutely no idea who Viv Albertine was? None. Nada. (How about you?) From the blurb on the back of the paperbook version I saw at the bookstore, I gathered she had been involved with the punk movement in Britain in the late 1970s in some way. Sounded good to me (and anyways, the title was irresistible). 

(There are some books that I feel compelled to buy simply because of the title alone. One of my favourite novel titles (I bought the book but have yet to read it) is "Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons."  Isn't that great??)

Turns out Albertine's book was a good companion volume to Chrissie Hynde's (and, actually, a better book overall).  The two women knew each other in London in the '70s and hung out with many of the same people. Hynde turns up in Albertine's book and vice versa (although the appearances in each other's stories are strictly small cameos).

As a teenager in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Albertine was a fan of John Lennon & The Beatles, The Kinks, and later David Bowie, Marc Bolan and, later still, Patti Smith. At art school (because -- like Hynde -- she had no other ideas about what she wanted to do with her life), she met Mick Jones, who later became part of The Clash and wrote "Train in Vain" about their relationship. Like Chrissie Hynde, she was close to Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, and knew many other key figures of the period, including Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, whose shop, Sex, was the source of many key pieces in the trend-setting outfits Albertine describes in loving detail  (the "Clothes" part of the title).

Hanging around musicians so much, it was probably inevitable that she would eventually become one herself -- even though there were very few women rockers as role models in those days, let alone punk rockers. "For the first time, I felt like myself," she writes about lugging her newly purchased electric guitar home on the bus. Never mind that she couldn't play a note at first, although she eventually developed her own unique style. Initially, she joined a band called The Flowers of Romance (with Sid Vicious, pre-Sex Pistols);  later, she became lead guitarist of an influential all-girl punk band called The Slits.

After The Slits disbanded in 1982, Albertine went to film school, wrote and directed TV shows and movies, and created sculptures. She met and married a man she refers to as The Biker (and later The Husband) and went to live with him in the country. In her late 30s and desperate to have a child, she sold most of her keepsakes from the punk era (including letters and other things Sid Vicious had given her) to pay for IVF treatments. Eventually, she did have a daughter, but not before enduring a great deal of loss and heartbreak.

Sample passage about loss & infertility (from a chapter titled "Hell"):
I am wildly, insanely bug-eyed crazy with grief. I don't want to live. I think of ways to kill myself. Throw myself under this passing car? Jump off Chelsea Bridge and drown in the Thames? Or just lie face down in this puddle and stop breathing? Poor, poor Hubby, he is hitched to a raving lunatic. But he is my rock, solid, grounded, steady. I love him so much that life is just about still worth living. If it's just going to be me and him, so be it. 
We keep on going to the Lister [clinic]. I keep on trying to get pregnant, months turn into years, fail after fail after fail. I am not a person. I'm a shadow, creeping along walls, quivering along pavements, my body itching, my mind wild, my patience stretched tight, ready to snap at the slightest provocation. I can't stand to look at pregnant women. I hate them. I can't even bear pregnant friends -- I stop seeing them. If anyone walks too close to me in the street or at a bus stop, I want to kill them...  
Lying on the doctor's table, week after week, my feet hoisted up in stirrups, I transport my mind outside of my body: I'm not here, it's the woman who is longing for a baby who's lying down there, legs wide apart with a man she's never met before sticking his arm right up inside her.
(Is that not one of the most completely raw, honest descriptions you've ever read of infertility & loss and what it can do to you? And that's just a sample.)

By midlife, numbed by the turmoil she had lived through and the minutae of suburban domesticity, her marriage falling apart, she entered into an emotional, long-distance quasi-affair with the actor Vincent Gallo. The relationship ended badly, but it reignited her creative spirit and gave her new courage to begin to write and play music again, both in a reunited version of the Slits as well as a solo artist. Would you have the courage to not only pick up the guitar again in your 50s, after 25 years away from it, and sing your own compositions at open mic nights at local bars??

Albertine, now 60, has led a rather messy life, and her book includes graphic descriptions, not only of her pregnancy losses, infertility treatments, abortion and struggle with cervical cancer, but also fellatio, crabs, her periods and other bodily functions. There were passages in this brutally honest book where I winced or cringed. But the more I read, the more I grew to admire this woman for her everything she has endured and survived, and I very much enjoyed the book overall. It's not just about being a punk rocker;  it's about growing up & being a woman in the latter half of the 20th century. "Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys" won several awards in the U.K. and was nominated for more, and deservedly so, in my opinion.

After reading this, I looked up some YouTube videos, both of The Slits (interesting & energetic, but dated) as well as Albertine's more recent solo stuff, which I quite liked, and also some interviews. Check out "Confessions of a MILF," below (her old love, Mick Jones, plays guitar on the track, although he's not in the video):

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Speaking of Patti Smith, her latest book, "M Train," was released while I was reading these two books. Like Chrissie Hynde's book, it was on sale for $25, and like Chrissie Hynde's book, I couldn't resist, lol.  I read & reviewed Smith's first memoir, "Just Kids," here.

And then a week later, Elvis Costello's memoir appeared on the bookstore shelves -- "Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink," which is getting rave reviews. So I have plenty of reading material to last me for quite a while to come (as if I didn't already, lol). 

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These were books #23 & #24 that I've read to date in 2015.


  1. Safety pins in the ears?! You're my new hero!

    Seriously though, mentioning all of these bands brought back some really fun memories of childhood! My parents were never the lullaby type, but I was quite well versed in Sex Pistols, The Clash, Depeche Mode, Devo, Cyndi Lauper (my favorite to this day!), Pat Benetar, Talking Heads, Def Leopard, etc. :)

  2. You do need to read Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons. I loved it!