It’s just been reported that Slits’ frontwoman Ari Up died today following sustained ailing health. I literally gasped upon hearing this news and am tearing up a bit as I type this. For me, Ari Up’s legacy can’t be overstated, nor can the influence of her pioneering all-female punk-reggae band. The first song my college station played in its inaugural broadcast was “FM.” Here’s what she gave me.
The cover for the Slits’ debut record, Cut, which floored me the first time I saw it. I’ve refrained from writing a post on it because of its iconic status. But it always gets reactions when it’s brought up in the Girls Rock Camp Austin music history workshops I co-teach. Incidentally, I’m about to leave for a girls studies conference in New York where I’m co-moderating a panel on GRC, so this news has an additional layer of resonance.
The electricity of politically charged lyrics, cheek, and amateurish musicianship that’s all over her band’s early output. Why not start a band at fourteen even if we can’t play? Why not sing about shoplifting? Why not cover “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”? Why not piss on stage in the middle of a performance? Why not drop some dub in the tracks? British punk and post-punk took itself quite seriously, but the Slits always made rebellion look like fun. When I finally bought this album on vinyl in my early twenties after years of it being in and out of print and listening to other people’s copies and shitty mp3s, it was a damn miracle.
Her band’s cameo in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee shows them destroying a car. Far more interesting and cool than Malcolm McLaren’s idea to feature them as sex slaves in his idea for the female version of The Great Rock N’ Roll Swindle that thankfully wasn’t made.
Let’s not forget Return of the Giant Slits either, as Everett True hasn’t. It featured “In the Beginning There Was Rhythm,” which I think was their best single. It was released as a split single with the Pop Group’s “Where There’s a Will.” I love the Pop Group as much as Lavinia Greenlaw. Up and the Pop Group’s Mark Stewart were later in the New Age Steppers. They were good too. And I certainly don’t think we’d get M.I.A. without them.
Ari Up introduced me to Sister Nancy. While I should probably call Ari on her bullshit as a German-British ex-pat Rastafarian who fetishizes the primitive to offset her publishing heiress roots, I think she believed in reggae and the guiding principles of her adopted ideology. She also never obscured her origins, but reconciled them with her mother’s bohemian tendencies and her need to keep herself open to embrace possibilities and conflicting impulses. Plus, few people could claim John Lydon as their stepfather without it seeming weird.
She was a hell of an interview. She may not have had much use for brevity, but her words were teeming with wit and brilliance. And if she was self-aggrandizing, well, I’d prefer my epic musical personae to acknowledge their own greatness than shrug it off.
Let’s not overlook 2006’s Revenge of the Killer Slits and their follow-up Trapped Animal either. I actually got to see a reunited version of the Slits that fall (sans Viv Albertine, who I’ve since caught as a solo act). I’ll always remember how energetic she was. She was also tremendously available. Even when she admonished a party girl fashionista who rushed the stage during “Typical Girls” for not getting its message, it was just gentle ribbing. And while the band got sharper, particularly bassist Tessa Pollitt and recruited drummer Anna Schultze, Up’s gleeful anarchic spirit remained at the center.
You were a strange, funny, brave, and inspired lady, Ari Up. You’ll be missed.
Last week, I was bestowed with a treasure. My friend Curran made me a two-volume mix CD, one of my favorite things to give and receive. I especially love Internal/External’s “Stepping Up to the Mic,” Yoko Ono and Cat Power’s “Revelations,” and Takaka Minekawa’s “Fantastic Cat,” which he selected specifically for my cat, Kozy. And he also reminded me that I should have been listening to Crass this whole time.
His mix came with a 20-page set of liner notes with lyrics, observations, and personal meanings for each song. Curran is a very thorough, thoughtful person who values homemade things and resistive, non-normative modes of expression. I had a dream that he wrote a 30-page essay on Shonen Knife for this blog’s “Records That Made Me a Feminist” section and have no doubt that he might. You should read it.
The week before that, I was bestowed with another treasure. My neighbor-friend Rosa-María left a clipping from Entertainment Weekly in my door, with the blurb for Lavinia Greenlaw’s The Importance of Music to Girls circled. So I picked up a copy (actually, Kristen got me a copy from the UT Library, as I hadn’t replaced my UT student ID yet). I had never heard of the author before and know very little about who she is as an author or what she means to her native England (I guess she’s a writer and teaches writing classes at the university level; thanks, Wikipedia). I wasn’t even sure what era this book was going to cover (luckily for me, she comes of age during the 1970s, a very interesting time for England and to me). Just as you do with a mix CD, you take your friend’s recommendations on faith and dive in.
Let me share with you now one of the best quotes I’ve ever read on the power of making mixes for people. Greenlaw’s words:
The greatest act of love was to make a tape for someone. It was the only way we could share music and it was also a way of advertising yourself. Selection, order, the lettering you used for the track list, how much technical detail you went into, whether or not you added artwork and no tracklist at all, these choices were as codified as a Victorian bouquet.
Yes, exactly. This quote has new resonance for me after making mix CDs for 50 GRCA campers. I hope they take the blank, one-color paper sleeves and make something completely their own out of them.
Now, the task of writing a review for the book poses a challenge. Its use-value is a little hard to determine. It’s a memoir. So, if you know about Greenlaw and care about her artfully written recollections of coming of age, then this is a good book. But if you don’t know Greenlaw, or have much invested in the place and time in which she comes of age, you might feel like you’re grasping for straws.
But I appreciated Greenlaw’s willingness to recollect events, political movements, personal activities, rituals, and practices as means of identification. She erects collages clipped and ripped and taped and pasted from magazines that constantly shift and mutate her bedroom’s landscape. She laquers her flipped hair and eyelids and straps on platform shoes to go to discos with girlfriends. She recounts the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the Sex Pistols antics from the safe distance of her neighborhood and television. She starts listening to “hippie” records (ex: Santana, Genesis) because of a boy, who later accidentally leaves a crate of records for her on the tube when they meet up again as adults (with her partner and child in tow). She goes to concerts with friends. She visits a friend in the hospital after a suicide attempt. She makes and unmakes girl friendships. She renounces punk for new wave because she thinks the subgenre mirrors her affinity for Russian literature and Gauloises. She loves reading and writing, but hates school. She roadtrips to Ohio because she loves Devo. She thinks about Thatcherism and the National Front alongside the Pop Group’s second album, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?, though didn’t put them together at the time (which, seriously, a book that reminds me to throw that record on is a good book by my definition). She cuts her girlfriend’s hair at a party. She constantly dyes and cuts and grows out and re-dyes her own hair.
In short, she constantly changes and renegotiates who she is, configuring herself always in a state of becoming, even after she’s transitioned out of her teenage years.
Putting all of this into a broader context, she’s very easily the type of girl British cultural theorists like Angela McRobbie were later devoting books and articles to, helping to build girls studies programs in the process. McRobbie’s girls tended to be bookish, middle-class in an increasingly impoverished country, rebellious but well-behaved, mercurial and fidgety and looking for their place in music culture and their piece of the street. But this girl, Lavinia, wasn’t theoretical. She was real, and, as an adult, created a document as filled with history and reference and memory and meaning as any good homemade mix. Her book is worth a look and a listen.