The Golden Age of Punk Memoirs by K A Laity

We’re in something of a golden age for memoirs from the women who rode the waves of punk and so-called New Wave or post-punk or whatever. Women who rock; women who rule. I think maybe I first caught that wave with Viv Albertine’s Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys. A founding member of the Slits, Albertine threw herself into the mad world of music with boundless energy and enthusiasm. She was there where it all began (in the London scene anyway) and helped forge a revolutionary sound. Then she went on and became a filmmaker and a potter and survived cancer—and then picked up a guitar and did it all over again.

Then there’s the unsinkable Brix Smith Start whose memoir The Rise and Fall and Rise demonstrates the power of the creative impulse—and the need to roll with the punches that life offers. From the first surreal chapter which retells a recurring dream of Disney’s Dream Debased, you know you’re in for a wild rise. Like Albertine, Smith Start goes all out for the ‘warts and all’ truth-telling which makes for uncomfortable reading at times (and wow, make sure you get your song credits!). Brutally honest, even when she’s gone from headline tours to living in a garage and waiting tables, she rises again—reinventing herself as a fashionista and then once more (after a lag of many years) exploding again on the music scene with Brix and the Extricated. Battle scars make a good uniform if you where them with aplomb.

Memoirs by ex-Fall members have become a bit of a cottage industry, but I want to highlight a really special one. Una Baines wrote I’ll Be Your Mirror and Keith McDougall drew the art for this comix memoir. The first issue was funded by fans who wanted to read it and it’s fantastic. A vivid slice of Manchester in the 70s right up to the genesis of the band—literally! The issue ends with Mark E. Smith picking up a microphone for the first time. Una gives a lively picture of her rebellious youth, throwing aside the religion taught in school for the new faith of rock-n-roll. Tantalising: I want a lot more. She’s one of the founding members of the Fall, then goes on to Blue Orchids and Poppycock—and then there’s the time she toured with Nico. More issues please!

A labour of love from a daughter and a journalist with heart, the story of Poly Styrene was just bursting to be told. Dayglo: The Poly Styrene Story is equal parts biography and art. Celeste Bell and Zoë Howe (known for her several biographies of rock stars including her dad) crowdfunded the book (yes, I was a contributor) and the forthcoming movie Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché will add to the story of the teen who became a sensation then turned her back on the world of music to seek spiritual satisfaction. The book is gorgeous: can’t wait to see the film. 

Cosey Fanni Tutti’s Art Sex Music (I keep trying to change the latter into Magic, but it’s there too) begins with a deceptively homey sense of place in a northern city. There’s a funny overlap in the feel of it with Nick Triplow’s Getting Carter, with kids playing wild in the post-war wreckage of the north. For those wild children it was all a big adventure. Tutti carried that free spirit over into the worlds of music and art, as well as making sex a part of it all. Fearless doesn’t begin to cover it. From early performance art actions with COUM to the better known Throbbing Gristle years, innovation and curiosity drove her to experiment and provoke audiences. She’s always been willing to frustrate their expectations: never be boring.

Just out this week is Amy Rigby’s Girl to City. She’s on a reading tour promoting it, so check for dates near you. Here’s the blurb:

Set in a ramshackle twentieth century New York world of homemade clubs and bands, through love affairs, temp jobs and motherhood, GIRL TO CITY describes the screw-ups and charmed moments it took for a girl in the crowd at CBGB to pick up a guitar and sing her truth on stage, creating an identity as an artist back when female musician role models were still rare. For anyone who ever imagined trying to make a life out of what they love.

Can’t wait!

Bio: K. A. Laity is the award-winning author of White RabbitA Cut-Throat BusinessLush SituationOwl Stretching, Unquiet DreamsÀ la Mort SubiteThe Claddagh IconChastity FlamePelzmantel and Other Medieval Tales of Magic and Unikirja, as well as editor of Weird NoirNoir Carnival and the forthcoming Drag Noir. With cartoonist Elena Steier she created the occult detective comic Jane Quiet. Her bibliography is chock full of short stories, humor pieces, plays and essays, both scholarly and popular. She spent the 2011-2012 academic year in Galway, Ireland where she was a Fulbright Fellow in digital humanities at NUIG. Dr. Laity has written on popular culture and social media for Ms., The Spectator and BitchBuzz, and teaches medieval literature, film, gender studies, New Media and popular culture at the College of Saint Rose. She divides her time between upstate New York and Dundee.

girl to city