Your first autobiography Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys was published in 2014. Then, you have written a second one To Throw Away Unopened, released in April 2018. I guess that the death of your mother, and the finding of the bag containing her diaries, have been too deeply touching events for you to be silenced. You have chosen to use words to express yourself, and not music. Do you find it easier now for you to express yourself through literature than through music?
Ever since the Slits disbanded in 1981 I’ve found it difficult to listen to music. The experience we had was difficult and violent and I saw behind the scenes of an industry that was bullying and mysogynist. .
Until I was the guitarist in the Slits, music was my religion and my saviour, it was the only thing on Earth I believed in, I think that’s why I expected so much of it and why I was so disappointed when I saw what really went on behind the songs. In 2012 I felt compelled to make music again, I had to get some songs out , I felt I had something to say and I made the album The Vermilion Border but once it was recorded and I’d toured that was enough. I don’t believe in music as a career, to keep churning out records just to keep yourself in the public eye. Same with all the arts, if you’ve got nothing new to add, keep quiet.
The long form of writing excites me. To have the time and space to stretch out and go deeply into a subject is what intrigues me at the moment and I’ll do it until I don’t feel I have any more to say or until the medium doesn’t suit me anymore.
Clothes, Clothes was written in present tense, as if you were immersed, and the reader with you, in the head of the girl you were. To Throw Away Unopened is written in past tense, whereas you talk about more recent events. Why have you chosen these different forms?
The use of the present tense in the first book came to me after I’d written a couple of chapters and as soon as I did it I knew that it was right for the book. The narrative follows me through my life and all the mistakes, obstacles and loneliness along the way. I didn’t want to use a clever narrator’s voice – me now I’d grown up – who always knew what was coming next and would give the reader warnings and pointers along the way. I wanted the reader to blunder along with me, right in the moment, not knowing if what I was doing was going to go horribly wrong or work out ok. Just like I didn’t know when I made those decisions.
I didn’t feel the present tense was right for the second book as I was looking back through my life like a detective trying to discover where my – still active – anger came from and why I so bold as to pick up an electric guitar in my early 20s when I was poor, working class, badly educated, couldn’t sing in tune and had never had a music lesson or played an instrument before. This story needed circumspection , that’s why I used the past tense. It was more of a challenge to make the prose jump off the page but I got there in the end.
The titles of your two books are both words from your mother. Did you want to pay tribute to her or was it obvious because she was the person who knew you best?
It wasn’t a conscious decision that both my book titles were expressions from my mother, but that just shows how deep mothers are in your psyche. One of my favourite books is Why be Happy When You Can be Normal by Jeanette Winterson, which is also a phrase from her mother. I think there’s probably a whole genre out there of titles that are the author’s mother’s expressions!
The lyrics of the Slits, and those of your album The Border Vermilion (2012), were very realistic, inspired by the events you were living. Were they a kind of writing experience which has led to your decision to write your autobiographies, realistic books? Are lyrics and books very different writing experiences? Do you think that you are going to write fiction, one day?
My book writing is definitely influenced by my lyric writing, which was very rigorous. Those of us involved in the so-called ‘punk’ times were always discussing songwriting. The general consensus was that the lyrics should be honest and reflect your own experience – especially as British music had become very flamboyant and Americanised in the 70s – that they should be direct and to the point, have something to say, not perpetuate conformist mores, and be succinct. I keep to this ethos in book writing. The differences between lyric and book writing are many, but what I am enjoying most is the long-form of book writing, being able to really explore an idea and let it unfold in my mind and on the page into a much deeper experience.
You write about your mother: « She raised me to be a punk ». And in the anecdote where stupid men bother you during a gig, you write: « It comes back to you, your punk attitude, when you need it ». How would you define being a punk? Is anger an energy?
I don’t like to define myself as being a ‘punk’ as it was a word and concept invented by the media at in the 1970s and we resisted that label. The attitude I had back then is irrelevant today, we are living in such different times. Not easier times but subtler times. Punk wasn’t subtle.
About your father, you write: “If he’d been around, I wouldn’t have had the confidence or been allowed to pick up an electric guitar for a start. It wasn’t just me; none of the Slits had a father.” A father would have prevented you from doing what you wanted. Do you consider that mothers only can teach how to be punks to their daughters? Do you think you have transmitted the punk spirit to Vida?
A father in those days would have prevented us from being what we were, from being wild. It was a very strict patriarchal society back then. So even if we had fathers we loved we would have wanted to please them and that would have been constricting too. I’m not sure it is possible for a father or a man to ever really understand what a girl has to deal with and overcome physically, mentally and emotionally, to be a rebel; centuries of conditioning and her own compulsion to fit-in and be loved to start with. You have to go against yourself, it is very difficult and very uncomfortable. That’s why most women (or men) don’t choose that path.
Your mother, even if she knew you were making mistakes, always accepted your choices. She was very permissive. Are you doing the same with your daughter?
I am more cautious with my daughter than my mother was with me. My mother let me run wild and get into very dangerous situations, some of which have had a lasting, negative impact on me. I feel I have made lots of mistakes that my daughter doesn’t have to make because she is living in slightly more liberated times. But I do encourage her confidence, individuality of thought, and to trust her own judgement. The main thing I wanted for her that I didn’t have, was a good education, Once that is achieved, I’ll feel my job is done and she can do whatever she likes, because she will always have that to come back to. My mother used to say to me ‘They can do whatever they want to you, but they can never take away your education.’ (‘They’ was the establishment). I didn’t listen to her, but I am making sure my daughter does.
The Slits refused to be reduced to a girls’ band. You wanted to be considered the same as boys and you refuted the fact of being feminists. Nevertheless you have been models to so many women, who have seen that it was possible to be on stage. You have become a feminist icon, even if you didn’t want too. Isn’t it nice to inspire other women, like The Riot Grrrls, and Carrie Brownstein, the former guitarist of Sleater-Kinney, for instance?
I am suddenly being asked all the time about why the Slits said they were not feminists, which is annoying as this is being taken out of context when it was said 40 years ago. The cheap newspapers at the time couldn’t understand what we were. They had never seen anything like us. They hated and feared us. They wanted to ruin us. They wanted to ridicule us and shut us down. They would follow us in the street and ask, are you boys? are you lesbians? are you punks? what are you? are you feminists? we said no to everything, because we knew that as soon as they had a label for us they would box us up and that would be it, we would no longer be interesting to them or anyone else. These were very old fashioned times. Nowadays, the fact that we said no to the feminist question (which was one of many labels thrown at us) is being thrown back in our faces but we said no to everything. We were trying to avoid being labelled by an extremely hostile press. I was extremely feminist and very well read and informed and militant about feminism.
had enough of Slits questions…
What do you think of the female icons nowadays? Do you think that women are better represented and understood in the rock scene, for instance?
I don’t know anything about rock anymore, I don’t consider it a radical medium so I’m not interested in it.
In To Throw Away, your chapters begin with quotations from female artists, scientists, writers… Did you want to rehabilitate their language, their thoughts?
The quotes from women throughout the book and the way they positioned and their prominent position in the text, is like a sub-strata, an undertow running through the narrative illustrating my influences and acting as a foundation to the work. I collect quotes from books I’ve read or women I’ve spoken to, they give me confidence and strength, and help me feel less alone. I have credited famous authors, my friends, my mother and grandmother, all with the same amount of reverence. I think it is important to acknowledge where your ideas came from and as so much of female knowledge is passed on aurally I gave them all equal importance. I also credited the authors and women who led me to other books and artists.
You describe the way women behave everyday, everywhere, not to be assaulted by men. “The dark. Footsteps. Not making eye contact. What shoes am I wearing ? Can I run ? Means of escape, street lighting, any other pedestrians ? Everything registered, recorded, exhausting (…) For 60 years I’ve been shaped by men’s point of view on every aspect of my life, from history, politics, music and art to my mind and my body (…) I see male dominance everywhere (…) I am saturated with their opinions. I can think and see like a straight white man (…) I can think like a rapist for fuck’s sake.’ Do you think that the punk movement has lost the game about women’s rights, that nothing has changed, and that it is an obligation to be a feminist today?
In the 1970s I thought I was part of an ongoing upwards improvement and advancement in women’s equality. Since then I’ve realised that liberation doesn’t just keep on getting better, it happens in cycles and can even go backwards for decades. This realisation shocked me but it comes to everyone who learns about history or lives past 50 years of age.
Being a feminist is the same as being a humanist, belief in fairness and equality for every human being. Therefore every human being should be a feminist, but that’s not how people work. There are men and women out there who believe women are inferior to men and who believe that certain races are inferior to others. It’s a fucked-up world and always will be. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep fighting for it to be a fairer place though.
Do you think the Harvey Weinstein scandal will lead to a lasting improvement on the status of women?
No – see above
Your books are so sincere. And they are often very funny. You don’t hesitate to talk very honestly about sex, shit, hair, bad relationships… Don’t you have any taboo? Is laughing at yourself a way to move forward?
It really helps to heal and to keep your mental health to laugh at the things that most torment you. I found it difficult to write about the subjects that I am ashamed of, from my rage to my body hair, but the process of writing and talking openly about them have made these fears shrink in size. It’s also enlightening to discover where these embarrassments stemmed from, that they’re not natural but ‘man-made’. When you trace and understand the origins of your fears you stop hating and blaming yourself and become more militant. Although most personal problems are attributed to people’s parents, parents are shaped by restrictive, oppressive and prescriptive societies.
If you could change something in your life, would you?
I’m too lazy to think about what I could have done differently so, no.
Interview published in New Noise n°45 – September-October 2018