A review of some ace reads about women in music, in books.
First up Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys. Like most great reads, I was recommended this one. Like most recommends, who it was that recommended it is lost to the mists of time. But thank you. I loved this book. I had very little prior knowledge about who Viv was, what happened in punk in London during this period or what women in music were doing during this time. I accept this was poor scholarship on my part. I am duly now on the road to learning about all my foremothers of rock n roll. They paved the way. The struggle for acceptance was real. In this book we learn about Viv’s outsider beginnings that forged the need to find something of her own. Via art college was the usual route for British young people in the 1950s and 60s. The creative community from which her band The Slits sprung from was most interesting. As a musician myself, I have come to understand the community I have built in the years being a writer/ performer is the most special creation of all. Interesting, too, the off-road years. Women have always been the primary care givers in my lifetime. Viv took on that role for her own family, taking her away from more creative pursuits. Because, time. Time marches on and creative projects suck up loads of it. Hearing about her later gentle steps back to music was particularly relatable. Open mics are scary af. Especially if you want to perform your own work. Interesting too, the influence of a supportive friend. How priceless those are. Even if, as was in this case, those friendships are brief and intense. The wings it gave Viv to claim her musical life back show that without each other, humans have a life less sparkly.
Next I read Patti Smith Just Kids. Another great female artist who I only vaguely knew anything about. I have schooled myself in her work since reading the book. I have bought the follow up too (M Train) but haven’t read it yet. This happens to me a lot! I love books and I love reading about people I think are interesting for one reason or another but finding the time to sit and read without distraction literal or mental is a modern day challenge I’m sure you can relate to. Just Kids plots her way from small town to global poet. From a seedy 60s NYC life as wannabe beatnik, to actual writer/ artist and the long relationship she had with celebrated photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Best friends, lovers, muses. It’s a great read, really easy and as a creative person I was hungry to follow her path. From writer to sketcher, to poet/ musician. The love and pride (and jealousy) for Robert and his work. She tells a story about how she cut her own hair, inspired by Keith Richards’ shaggy look at the time, and the effect it had on her social standing. She was astounded how people talked to her differently on account of a few snipped strands! An early lesson on the power of personal style. And as someone who has managed a fringe during lockdown, we can all relate to the terror/ liberation of taking scissors to precious mane.
The latest lady rocker who has found her way to my never-ending bookshelf is Debbie Harry. Face It came out in 2018 and is dedicated to the girls of the underworld. I’m only a chapter in, but I was surprised by the pages of fan art included. To me this comes across as a generous collaborative gesture to her fans. She does directly say about these inclusions of artworks that “it’s the fans that make it happen”. Debbie is a great example of a woman in music who refuses to fade away, despite an industry that nearly demands it. I was looking at tickets to see Blondie on their next tour, but thanks to lockdown life that may not be possible, this year at least.
Also worth a look, and on my #nowreading list, is Typical Girls? The Story of The Slits, by rock n roll writer Zoe Howe (who has a wonderful back catalogue too), Dolly Parton’s Songteller MAHOOSIVE edition I am yet to delve into and The Importance of Music to Girls by Lavinia Greenlaw, recommended to me by friend and talented female singer songwriter, AnneMarie Allen. And next on my must-buy list is Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story, after watching the brilliant documentary Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche recently as part of Glasgow Film Festival. That I knew nothing about her outside of the hit single Oh Bondage! Up Yours! is ridiculous. I’ve since learned that Poly was a punk woman of colour who inspired so many other young British women to start making music. As you won’t be surprised to hear, there was little support and she walked away after just 3 years of chart success. I understand the film is now available to watch on Sky Arts.
As a music maker myself, I wish I’d heard more about some of these gals when I was younger. If I’d been in the company of music makers rather than taste makers (DJs, radio folks and record store owners) as a young woman, I am certain I would have picked up the songwriting bug earlier than I did in my 30s. C’est la vie. I certainly have it now. And I look forward to a day when I can reflect on my adventures in a book to share with other music lovers and gonnabe music makers.
SheBeat is a singer-songwriter based in Leith.