EARTHBEAT: IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS RHYTHM
"I had only picked up the bass two weeks before. I wasn't a musician. I was terrified, but you know I was just 17, and at that age you have so much energy and excitement in you, it carries you. We were all playing a different song from each other! But we got away with so much, and the audience didn't care. The energy was what mattered. We were playing from our heart. Literally. With spirit. Our spirit was there."
Gregory Mario Whitfield interviews Tessa Pollitt of The Slits
COPYRIGHT © 2003, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
A chance link up with Richard Dudanski, ex Public Image and 101'ers drummer had in turn, connected me to Tessa Pollitt, ex Slits bass player. I knew that Richard Dudanski was close to members of The Slits and I was keen to be introduced. Though The Slits have rarely been as high profile as The Sex Pistols or The Clash, they were undeniably right there at the outset of punk music in London, back in 1976, and an integral part of that unfolding culture. If anyone is in a position to speak informatively about the conditions that created punk and the intensity of those years, Tessa Pollitt and other members of The Slits are.
The Slits photographed by Ray Stephenson
The heat is quite intense, even though it's late September, as I make my way through Ladbroke Grove on the way to ex Slits bassist Tessa Pollitt's house.
Her road is busy: People argue, bargain, and exchange gossip on a Sunday afternoon. There is noise -- the bustle of restaurants, street vendors, market people; different accents and languages collide with a collage of musical vibes. Moroccan music, Indian music, r'n'b, hard spiritual dubwise tunes, ragga, all fused into a tower of Babel of different sound and impressions.
This is Ladbroke Grove, with its characteristically dichotomous moods: inspiring, yet simultaneously chaotic. It's a busy day. The tail end of a hot summer.
I knock on Tessa's door and am met by a calm and unassuming lady, with what can only be described as a truly gentle and gracious manner. I enter her basement flat, stepping into the lounge. Hanging from the ceiling is a large punch bag. An array of martial arts weaponry adorns the walls or is arranged neatly on the floor and stacked in the corners of the room.
Propped against the wall is a battered and much played bass and amp. There is also a piano and pages and pages of sheet music. Stacked in piles and arranged in shelves are row upon row of old sound system dub tapes and piles of worn records and books, mostly about art, music and Oriental medicine, a subject Tessa has studied closely for many years now.
Adorning the walls are some elaborate and intriguing paintings: Some done by her daughter (from her relationship with punk funk bassist and early Rip Rig and Panic and early ONU Sound contributor, Sean Oliver), some by Tessa herself. Bold and disorienting spirals of black paint and 3 d creations of huge eyed naïve faces peer out from the walls, impressionistic and powerful.
Tessa seems tranquil, with an almost otherworldly detachment, lack of guile and front. No subterfuge and assumed self importance. (A similar mood and impression I received from her long-term friend Don Letts when I had interviewed him exactly one year before.) No ego at work here. No ugly self-important personality. Relaxed and comfortable with herself, she makes me feel at ease.
Drawing by Tessa Pollitt
Tessa's daughter (who has all the fine-boned handsomeness of her father, the aforementioned Antiguan British dub funk punk bassist Sean Oliver) takes her leave and we begin talking. Tessa shows me piles of mid 70s sound system flyers she has collected over the years: "Jah Shaka, Zulu Warrior plays for all Kings and Princesses in Stamford Hill", "Fatman inna sound clash with the legendary Coxsonne Sound", "Ray Symbolic plays for all conscious people" exclaim the flyers. She tells me stories of the years between 1975 to 1979: The flux of change, the heat, the focused intensity, the chaos and creation vibration principle that inspired her to pick up her instrument and get involved. Her road from the garage punk of the early Slits' raw nerve euphoric music to the resonant dread basslines she played for Adrian Sherwood and Dennis Bovell:
Shaka wiring up his sound system
TP: Everything that went before our time, we just threw out the window. It wasn't good enough for us. We were so disappointed in what went before. We weren't from hippie stock. We hadn't come up from that, had nothing to do with that. Our parents were from the post-war time. My parents separated when I was very young. I lived with my Mum in the city, but also spent some time with my Dad in the country. I grew up with that duality, close to nature yet being comfortable with the city.
3AM: What drew you to music in 1975/1976? Clearly, the path you and The Sex Pistols et al took was an unusual and extreme route to follow back then, except for those who didn't fit into accepted structures.
TP: was always attracted to music. And painting: my grandfather had worked as a restorer for Holman Hunt, the Pre-Raphaelite artist. When Holman Hunt got older, his sight began to fade, and my grandfather acted as his restorer. All this influenced me as I was growing up, the duality of nature and the inner city and a constant backdrop of art and music.
3AM: Can you tell us about the early music you were listening to before you played with The Slits, and about how The Slits ultimately got together?
TP: I was 17 when I joined The Slits. Before I got into to early dub and sound system music, I listened to Lou Reed, Velvet Underground, Nico, other stuff I heard from my sister too. But even before joining The Slits, I had the rough beginning of a punk band together: we had a band called The Castrators, but even before we'd played any gigs, we had the News of The World knocking on our door! It was ridiculous, they were so keen to get the inside story on this all-girl punk group! We had barely played together! It was soon after that I met the rest of The Slits: Viv Albertine had already been hanging around with Keith Levene, Sid Vicious and the Flowers of Romance, and then we met up with Ari and Palmolive. Keith Levene is someone Viv Albertine knew very well, and they were very close. I really respected Keith Levene as a musician, and to be honest, in a way he made me feel inadequate because of his ability as a musician, his musicianship: Keith could really play. He used to play guitar a lot with Viv Albertine, and he played live with The Slits on a couple of occasions, guesting on guitar on tracks like "Man Next Door".
From left to right: Viv Albertine, Sid Vicious and Siouxsie
(Recounting her early experiences with The Flowers of Romance to Jon Savage in England's Dreaming, Viv Albertine, The Slits' guitarist, remembers it this way: "Keith Levene and I used to work on a lot of sounds. We used to talk about guitars all the time. We had this thing called guitar depression. It was about being depressed from learning to play your instrument: how you try to feed your personality through it. This sound we got was quite trebly, like a buzz saw crossed with a wasp. It was just a matter of whacking all the treble up and distorting it. You had to be strict: there was no sign of a twelve bar in anything you did, except The Pistols. . . ." She goes on to say that The Flowers of Romance (who included Keith Levene, Sid Vicious and Viv Albertine) were "a bunch of interesting looking people so we'd get interviewed and we'd never done anything and could hardly play.")
3AM: Can you tell us about your first concert together?
TP: There were so few female role models for us, and we felt that really, there was just something we had to do. There were so many limitations on women musicians that had to be broken. We didn't want to be labelled or categorised at all. People like to label and categorise: it makes things so much easier for people doesn't it? But we weren't having any of it. A lot of people were disturbed or unsettled by us. We were too unpredictable, explosive even. But you know I wouldn't like to say I was even a musician at that time. The first Slits gig we played, we played with The Clash. It was in Harlesden. I had only picked up the bass two weeks before. I wasn't a musician. I was terrified, but you know I was just 17, and at that age you have so much energy and excitement in you, it carries you. I remember at one point onstage, me and Palmolive (The Slits' drummer, now a member of a reclusive Christian sect) looked at each other in amazement as if to say "What the fuck are you doing?" We were all playing a different song from each other! But we got away with so much, and the audience didn't care. The energy was what mattered. We were playing from our heart. Literally. With spirit. Our spirit was there.
From left to right: Marco Pirroni, Viv Albertine, Sid Vicious, Siouxsie and Steve Severin).
Sniffin' Glue, the up and coming fanzine of the time remembers it this way: "The Slits played their first gig at The Harlesden Coliseum supporting The Clash in March. . . . Their set was mad, noisy, chaotic, brilliant. . . . They were inspired but totally unrehearsed. . . . Bassist Tessa knew very few of the songs while the singer Ari Up, danced around screamin . . . like a wailing banshee. I've got to admit, they scared the shit out of me."
3AM: Can you tell us about the infamous White Riot tour with The Clash?
TP: The White Riot tour with The Clash was the next major thing for The Slits: It was fantastic, and more than anything else, a lot of fun. Paul Simonon, Joe (Strummer) and Mick (Jones) were really a lot of fun to be with. But we were thrown out of so many places, different hotels. Even having The Slits spray painted on my bass guitar case meant we weren't allowed into a lot of hotels. They just presumed we were going to smash the place up. It was madness. The Slits, Don Letts, The Clash -- they just thought we were a whole heap of trouble. Don Letts was our manager at that time, as well as playing his roots and culture dub sounds before us and The Clash played our sets.
A very early Slits rehearsal
3AM: The early days of The Slits have a reputation for an atmosphere of fun, but also a mood of random chaos: How much of that reputation is accurate?
TP: Sometimes things got really intense: people ask if we were ever subjected to violence? Let me tell you, please document how many times we were harassed by people. It's hard to count how many times. I remember one time, the Pistols were playing at The Screen on The Green, Islington. In the foyer, this guy came up to us, came up behind Ari Up and said, "So you're The Slits? Well, Here's a slit for you" and he just shoved a knife into her backside. Sliced her butt, quite literally, right there. Luckily for Ari, she was wearing so many layers of clothes, the damage was limited. It just seemed to others that we were asking for it. The vibe towards us was, "know your place woman"! It seemed that we couldn't go anywhere without getting a reaction from people. The attitude was that we were asking for it, but we certainly weren't asking anyone to come up behind us with a knife. Another time we went to a sound system blues dance as we did so often at that time, but on this one particular occasion I remember, someone took offence at what we were, how we looked, and chose to push a huge bass speaker stack right onto us. We just got out of the way in time. Women looking like we did, walking in with the rebel dread Don Letts, sometimes people just couldn't accept it. You see, one thing I'd like to stress is, The Slits always had a sense of humour, a sense of the ridiculous, and some people just did not get it. They took it so seriously, and we got it in the neck.
The early Slits concerts have always been remembered as explosive events. Jon Savage recounts the following memory in England's Dreaming: "Hostilities broke out . . . a concert played by Throbbing Gristle at The London Film Co-Op . . . ended in a pitched battle between the groups on stage and several members of The Slits and The Raincoats . . . the nihilist techniques of the age, whether inside Punk or out, fed back." Nils Stevenson in his diaries of 1976 to 1979 (now published as Vacant: A Diary of The Punk Years) wrote this entry on 1st April 1977: "Nora's daughter, the fourteen year old singer with The Slits, Ari Up, is a live one. Last night at the Roxy she attacked Paul Cook . . . (destroying) the jacket he had stolen from Malcolm. But I love the racket The Slits make . . . their gigs are as unpredictable as Ari's mood swings . . . Don Letts is filming everything."
3AM: Tessa, do these quotations from Nils Stevenson's and John Savage's books bring back any memories?
TP: Yes they do bring back memories. But Nils Stevensons' memory is a little inaccurate! It was me who attacked Paul Cook, not Ari. I don't know why, it was a kind of irrational act, and I attacked Paul Cook. I ruined his jacket! Cut a hole right through the back of it. Why did I do it? I don't know. I was only seventeen. I didn't realise he'd just stolen it from Malcolm McLaren that very day. (Laughs.)
3AM: Tell us more about touring and the audience response in those days.
TP: We toured a lot: in Italy the audiences threw roses at us in stage! Compare that with the early days in London when the spit from the audiences just rained on us. We were spat on from head to toe! My hair, the bass would be covered in it. I don't know how that started. I think it was the early Pistols audiences who initiated it, but all of us hated it. It was disgusting, but the audiences thought that was what we wanted. It was their sign of appreciation! You couldn't escape it. Sometimes we just walked off stage. I remember when we did the White Riot tour with The Clash, Joe Strummer caught hepatitis. I remember visiting poor old Joe in hospital.
3AM: How do you look back on those very early days of punk? Do you think history has reassessed or reinterpreted the reality of what happened to serve various people's personal agendas?
TP: Punk to me wasn't an American thing at all, it was a very British thing. According to so many people, it all started off when Malcolm McLaren went over to America and linked up with the New York Dolls, but punk is just a word. Punk would've happened anyway, whatever else you want to call it, whatever else it would have been called, it was inevitable. Malcolm McLaren has taken far too much credit for it. Punk would've happened anyway, there was a whole undercurrent going on, and something was about to explode back in 76. Something just had to explode. Punk is just another label, and I'd rather not be labelled with that name. It's just another label. But as I said before, people like a label don't they?
3AM: Which bands and personalities from that time really stand out for you?
TP: The only two bands who really stand out for me from that time were The Pistols and Subway Sect. I loved The Ramones too. It's sad some of them have died now. I hear Dee Dee Ramone was an artist too. John Lydon used to draw too. Did you know that? I thought he was brilliant. He drew strange distorted faces, distorted images. I often wonder if he still paints. I admired John Lydon for his wit. Viv Albertine, and Ari (Up) were very close to Sid and The Pistols. As you know Ari Up is John Lydon's stepdaughter, because he ended up marrying Nora, Ari's mum.
3AM: What are your personal memories of Sid Vicious? How do you see what happened to him in retrospect?
TP: I feel upset when I read all the nonsense people write about Sid now. Sid was always one of my favourite people, always my favourite, and he was a gentle soul. Him and John just really complemented each other. I think of Sid as very gentle, and now I see he was a victim, a victim of Malcolm McLaren, a victim of Nancy Spungen too. Nancy travelled around with us on one of our tours. I just can't put it into words what I think about Nancy! Sid was gentle, you know, and he was just used up in the end. To me he epitomised the spirit of what punk was, and he had a lot of humour! I'm always looking for humour in people, and looking into their intention. He was hilarious, like a kid, like a cartoon figure. He also had a vulnerability and naivety that I look for in people, something pure. He had that purity. Definitely. I think it deeply affected John to lose Sid as a friend. I'm sure of it.
A rare picture of Sid Vicious in his pre-Pistols days drumming for the Banshees at the 1976 100 Club Punk Festival
In conversation with Julian Temple in the film/diary The Filth and The Fury John Lydon speaks of his closeness to Sid: "I feel guilty about Sid: I wish I could have told him more about what to expect. . . . Sid was my mate. A very very close mate. He just used to laugh at everything; a genius in that way. We did lots of mad things together. We used to busk together. Me with a violin, Sid with a tambourine, maybe a broken guitar!" Speaking of Sid's demise on the American tour, Lydon stated, again to Julian Temple: "Steve Jones and Paul Cook flew around America with Malcolm McLaren. They didn't want to be on the tour bus, cos they said they were bored with all the reggae I was playing. . . . The point is, Sid is my mate and I didn't want him to be a junkie, this is why we travelled on the tour bus together, this is why Sid was to stick with me. He was far too young for that shit. . . . I feel nothing but grief, sorrow and sadness for Sid, to the point that if I really talk about it, I just burst into tears. He was someone I really cared for. I can't be more honest than that. I've lost my friend. I couldn't have changed it. I was too young. God, I wish I was smarter. You can look back on it and think, 'I could have done something'. He died for fuck's sake! And they just turned it into making money. How hilarious for them. Fucking cheek. I'll hate them forever for doing that. You can't get more evil than that, can you, you know? No respect. . . . Vicious? Poor sod!".
3AM: What other types of music were you listening to at that time? Which other sounds influenced you?
TP: I was also listening to a lot of hard dub music, sound system music. Stereograph Sound System (U- Roy's Sound System) were a huge influence. We used to go to the Bali High club in Streatham. Burning Spear were a very strong influence too. Augustus Pablo made music which is just timeless.. I loved Pharaoh Sanders, Charlie Mingus and Roland Kirk too. I remember being interested, because Roland Kirk could play two wind instruments at the same time! Don Letts had a massive selection of important sound system tapes from the mid to late 70's which he used to give us. Don Letts introduced a whole new dimension to the early punk scene, and he influenced all of us. We owe him a lot. It wouldn't have been very exciting at all if we'd only had those very early punk records to listen to. Don played us a lot of dub music down at The Roxy. We all used to go to sound system dances together all the time. Jah Shaka was an incredible experience. Live in session. We used to go to a lot of shebeens, blues parties: people used to take over an old house for the night, and just hold sound system dances all night. I really miss that in Ladbroke Grove. Play all night. Sound system. At night time now, it's dead in comparison. Everything just goes dead, with security cameras everywhere. Everything feels like there is so much less soul in life now. There's not the edge to life, the sense of risk and adventure. I listened to Big Youth and Keith Hudson's music too: Intense music. Jamaica was, and still is a nucleus of so much talent, so much sheer poetry.
Tessa Pollitt with daughter Phoebe in Ladbroke Grove, London
Speaking of this period to Kent Zimmermann in Lydon's autobiography, No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, Don Letts recounts the story from his perspective: "I thought the punks were just a bunch of crazy white people. I didn't really tune into it. When I became the DJ (at The Roxy) and started meeting them, I picked up on what they were doing. . . . They liked me because I gave them access to Jamaican culture, and they turned me on to a culture that didn't fucking exist before they came along. . . . John Lydon was a serious dude because there were very few people around during those times who gave off that aura. . . . I started taking him to reggae clubs. We went to a place called The Four Aces in Dalston, which is the heaviest reggae club in London. No white people went in there. The only white person in there was John, because I took him. Everybody left John alone. We black people had a respect for him because he came across as a real dude. He wasn't created by the media. . . . He could walk into places white people could never go with total immunity. . . . We all felt like society's outlaws. . . . John used to visit me in Forest Hill. . . . Jeannette (Lee), John, The Slits . . . Keith Levene, sitting around the apartment listening to reggae and burning spliffs."
Lydon in turn, remembers meeting Don Letts for the first time: "Don and I first said hello and hung out after a Pistols gig at The Nashville. We went back to Forest Hill and spent the whole night rapping on about reggae….Don didn't know, but it was the night I was frustrated and getting ready to quit the Pistols. Going to those reggae clubs gave me a lift".
3AM: Did you ever play any unusual venues?
TP: We were always looking for weird offbeat places to play too: we wanted to play in prisons. We didn't want to play ordinary venues. We played a kids' school once! 5 pence entrance. The kids threw all kinds of things at us, gave us a hard time. We gave as good as we got though! (Laughs.) Don filmed it all on grainy rough super 8 film.
3AM: What was your relationship with the press and journalists at that time?
TP: Terrible. Absolutely terrible. The Slits always had a bad time with journalists because they all seemed boring, arrogant or ill at ease with us. We seemed to make them feel uncomfortable, and they asked us really boring questions. In the end, we just used to take the piss out of them, try to annoy them or wind them up. What else could we do when they seemed so poorly prepared, ill informed and nervous? If they hadn't been so banal, we could have communicated with them, but they just used to ask us the most mundane questions like: "Oh, how long have you played together?" or something equally uninspiring. We were four crazy young girls, and of all the interesting questions they could have asked us, that's the kind of thing they used to come up with!
The Slits in New York, 1980
3AM: You were obviously heavily influenced by other musical forms such as dub, and had no interest in standing still musically and in your attitudes to sound: how did The Slits link up with Adrian Sherwood's ONU Sounds and Don Cherry?
TP: Later, we toured with Creation Rebel, Prince Hamme and Don Cherry. It was exciting and fresh to be working with those artists, and it really worked well. We all inspired each other,deeply. Neneh Cherry joined us before she joined Rip Rig and Panic (who were named after a Roland Kirk song). As for Bim Sherman, I loved what he was doing with Adrian Sherwood. I used to listen to him again and again and again. Tracks like "My Whole World", "Love Forever" and "Revolution/World Of Dispensation": I listened to the purity of that music all the time, or more specifically, what attracted me was the purity which was so evident in Bim Sherman's voice.
3AM: Can you tell us more about the atmosphere, playing with ONU Sounds and Don Cherry?
TP: The concerts were fantastic, and that tour brought together so many different musical strands: punk, dub, avant garde jazz. Don't forget, so many music forms were brought together out of that punk period. Reggae music just exploded in the late 70s. Big Youth, The Spear, it was incredible, all came forward at the time of punk. The concerts themselves were phenomenal on that Creation Rebel tour, and the audience could really feel something special was going on here, something fresh.
Adrian ONU Sherwood remembers that tour with fondness and humour, as is clear from his account in Beat Records: "Creation Rebel and Prince Hammer were invited to join The Slits on tour . . . also on the bill was jazz legend Don Cherry and his fifteen year old daughter Neneh. . . . During the tour, friendships were made (but) . . . the tour was crazy: Style Scott (Creation Rebel/Roots Radics/Dub Syndicate drummer) was rushed to hospital for acute appendicitis and missed the London show where Crucial Tony (Creation Rebel, now Ruff Cutt guitarist) tried to play drums in front of a sell out crowd at The Rainbow. It was truly anarchic. . . . (It was around this time) I played Ari Up "Fade Away" by Junior Byles and "Love Forever" by Bim Sherman, and she said, "Let's record some tracks and call them New Age Steppers". . . . When we started work in the studio, we had reggae, UK funk, free jazz musicians and an all round original cast in the studio".
3AM: Tell us more about Don Cherry. He is such a legendary figure in avant-garde jazz circles due to his work with Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, but it isn't common to read personal reminiscences about him and his character. It would be good to hear more about him from those that knew him and worked with him as you did.
TP: Playing with Don Cherry was an experience I won't forget. It's so sad he is dead now. I remember, the last time I saw him: we went to stay with him and Neneh in Spain. We all had so much regard for him because he came from that whole powerful jazz tradition. We went to see a flamenco performance. It was near a lake. It was just a small village. Neneh looked after him until his death. Don Cherry is the sort of person who would just say something so briefly and simply, but it would be so profound with insight and depth that it was something extraordinary. You would think about it for the rest of the week! Don Cherry had something of the eternal about him: it was like he would never grow old. He told us so much, so many stories. He told us stories about his closeness to Billie Holiday. Some not so good, or not so romantic: he used to score heroin for Billie.
Don Cherry touched many people throughout his life I think, and it shouldn't be forgotten. Neneh was the link for us to connect to that whole tradition. Bruce Smith, her first husband played with us as a drummer, then Rip Rig and Panic, then he went on to work with John Lydon in PIL. The father of my daughter, Sean Oliver, also played with Rip Rig and Panic as well as working with Adrian Sherwood on some of the early ONU Sound recordings. He died of sickle cell anaemia about 12 years ago.
At this point of the interview Tessa becomes withdrawn, palpably introspective and sad: Private memories, and it is clear it is time to change the topic.
3AM: Tell us about The Slits' work with Dennis Bovell, UK dub innovator.
TP: Working with Dennis Bovell was really a lot of fun! I think he had the same sense of humour as us. I think he just thought it was really fun to be playing with three crazy girls, and one guy, Budgie, who was playing drums with us at the time.
3AM: The Dennis Bovell tunes have a thundering bass resonance and percussive spaciousness and brightness which wasn't present in The Slits' sound before then. Which tracks stand out for you? The bass drop as it kicks in from the emptiness in the intro of "Grapevine" is phenomenal.
TP: On the album Cut, I love the groove and the bass line to "New Town" and our cover version of "I Heard it Through the Grapevine". We wanted the bass to echo the melody of the tunes -- as it did in the earlier Slits track "FM" -- which for us was a hallmark of The Slits approach. Besides that, we all loved hypnotic dub bass lines. Dennis devised all kinds of dub sounds for those sessions: spoons dropping, glass shattering, matches shaking and being lit on "New Town" (sounds symbolic of drugs paraphanalia). I'd LOVE to work with Dennis Bovell again. He is a very talented artist. Every drummer we worked with was so powerful, from Palmolive (who was a real key part of what The Slits were all about) to Bruce Smith to Budgie. I hate the lack of soul and the rigidity of drum machines; the coldness and mechanical perfection of the sound. I love the qualities of roughness in music, a rawness which doesn't seem present in a lot of music now.
3AM: Tell us about working with Adrian Sherwood and linking up with ONU Sound.
TP: "Man Next Door" with Adrian ONU Sound Sherwood was another good groove: Adrian brought one of the ONU Sound family to the recording session for the drum tracks, a guy called Cecil. I can't remember which band he played with: Creation Rebel perhaps? I must stress one thing though: I've heard a rumour that some people think Creation Rebel played the rhythms on that track in its entirety: wrong! I can assure you, that track was played by me, Ari, Viv and Cecil, ok? No more rumours and inaccuracies! That song was played by The Slits, except for the drums! I have a lot of regard for Adrian Sherwood; the early stuff he did with The Slits as well as the Sean Oliver tracks. He gelled with us really well.
From left to right: Viv Albertine, Tessa Pollitt and Ari Up
3AM: Tell us which bass styles attract you, and what vibrations feel natural for you as a bassist. Also, how did you decide which songs you were going to cover?
TP: I naturally have a dub groove to what I play -- I seem to sit into the reggae off beat. I only like music that comes from the soul as opposed to manufactured business product that dares to call itself music. Popular pap: where is the message in that? Elastoplast for your soul. Constipated emotions spat out on the pavement. With "Man Next Door", it was a tune I had loved for a long time, and we wanted to honour our influences. I don't remember who chose it to cover or why, but it is a timeless classic tune that has been covered abundantly. There are so many versions of that song, from Dennis Brown to John Holt. The most recent one I recall is by Massive Attack with Horace Andy. (Huge respect to Massive Attack and Horace Andy!) We followed the Jamaican ethic of playing version, or even going back to an earlier jazz tradition where some melody from another person's composition would come into your own song.
3AM: Can you talk to me about the later days of The Slits, and what happened when you parted ways?
TP: Well, there was never any significant internal struggle within The Slits. We all still get on very well. But, when The Slits were shutting down, I had a problem with heroin, and I have theories about it: it seems to me that London was flooded with heroin around the time punk was losing direction, and it seems to me to be too much of a coincidence. It almost felt to me as if there was a conspiracy to sedate people. London was just flooded with it, and a lot of us were affected by it. I've said this before, and I'll say it again. It's just something that I feel. The tail end of punk saw the market swamped. Governments have done it in the past to quiet things down. Shove a load of drugs in, shut people up. I noticed so many people affected by it. Sid Vicious was affected by it, he died because of it. You have to be careful talking about heroin and the punk era. People romanticise it. There is nothing whatsoever that is romantic about heroin: it is medicine for those suffering a painful death. It has a history of sedative control in warfare too. A later manifestation of that government control would be the acid and ecstacy scene in the 80's which left me cold, spooked me out, gave me a chill, and it was around that time that I lost interest in what was going on in London musically.
From left to right: Viv Albertine, Tessa Pollitt and Ari Up
(Remembering his own struggle with addiction, Sid Vicious recounted his painful experience to Julian Temple on film, the rough footage now released in The Filth and The Fury: "The others just didn't understand you know, they thought, 'Oh, you can handle it!' But dope sickness isn't like that -- it's not just something you can just blow away. Dope sickness is the worst sickness you can ever imagine: You can't get comfortable and you sweat. You're boiling hot and you pour with sweat. Then all of a sudden you get the colds and the sweat turns to fucking ice on you. . . . You just can't win. You lie down, that's not comfortable. You sit up and that's not comfortable: it drives you insane. . . . I don't want to be a junkie for the rest of my life. I don't want to be a junkie at all.")
3AM: How did you overcome your addiction?
TP: I had to get through it, and look for my positive solution, my own way out. Martial arts really helped me. That's what I do. I trained twice a week for years. I needed help, and a friend. Lloyd guided me to the martial arts club and it cured me due to the physical, mental and spiritual demands; the testing discipline of training. I still train all the time. I'm a black belt now, but a belt is just a mental block if one becomes attached to it as an ego attainment: I'm really just beginning. It took me seven years to get there, and It's a lifetime commitment. In my mind, it's a rhythm, it's so connected to the physicality of music. I train with weaponry too, like swords, which means you have to be fully aware, because these are sharp instruments. You have to be fully aware. Music helped me too. When The Slits shut down, I went to Sudan: Khartoum and up to Ethiopia. Right after The Slits split up. When I came back from the deserts of Africa and back to the UK, I just started drawing, drawing a lot. I found there was so much that I wanted to express. Intense things I had experienced and seen.
(At this point of the interview, Tessa shows me her art works: dark, and undeniably powerful line drawings with an edge of folk art naivety of style. Almost like a strange and brooding combination of Dadaist cynic George Grosz, the comic art of Robert Crumb, and the sleeve designs of Fela Kuti.)
TP: I remember when The Slits toured in America; we hung out in Death Valley. We spent the night there. It was so silent, in the vastness of the desert. We hooked up with a Vietnam Vet. He just hung out with us. That was helter skelter territory, Charles Manson territory. I was always fascinated by the emptiness of the desert, the sense of space, the expanse. Deserts are otherworldly. That was what led me to Sudan after The Slits split up. Those days were so intense, so exciting. I think that, in a way, that was what led me to heroin too: to have so much excitement from such an early age (remember I started playing with The Slits when I was only seventeen) then suddenly, it's all gone, and you are left with emptiness.
3AM: Can you tell me what else in your life has been a major influence on you as a person, has influenced what you are, and what you have become?
TP: Life itself has been an ongoing influence. Everything in life: nature, city nature, the sounds of trains; they're all a movement, a rhythm, an intensity. Every noise. It's part of our brain. Rhythm in the underground, rhythm when we walk. Animals influence me a lot too, the way they move, their behaviour. This takes me back to the unity of martial arts. Everything links up ultimately, and that's the beauty of it. It cuts through all the other mundane bullshit you see and hear around you. There is rhythm in everything.
TV is bullshit. I never watch it. It's mentally and physically draining. Watching TV just makes me think, from what is broadcast to us, how much is actually true? Ultimately, I'd rather not hear all the nonsense. I prefer the silence. I read a lot too, when I get the time: Miyamoto Musashi, The Book of Five Rings has always been one of my favourite books. I also study human anatomy and reflexology. I adore the photography of Diane Arbus and Irving Penn. I love The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein.The distorted skull as a reminder of mortality in the foreground of the picture is extraordinary when you see the original painting.
3AM: You play piano now as well as bass?
TP: I've been enjoying playing classical piano music quite a lot for the last few years. Listening to Jacques Loussier playing Bach, backed by a double bass and a snare, is pretty amazing. I listen to Keith Jarrett and Erik Satie as well. I express myself a lot in writing too.
3AM: How does it feel to know now, in 2003, that you have influenced people: influenced what they grew up listening to, and knowing that for many people, bands like The Slits, Public Image and early ONU Sound led them from raw punk onto the path of dub, funk and avant-garde jazz? That was a major musical bridging point for many, many people, and The Slits were undeniably a part of that: when I interviewed Adrian Sherwood and explained to him that part of my musical journey from punk and onto other forms of music such as dub and jazz, was The Slits' "Typical Girls", "Man Next Door", PIL's Metal Box and very early ONU music, he replied with some conviction: "The tunes you mention are a really good lineage, a good pedigree, a good background to come up from." It was clear to me from what he said (and the manner in which he said it) that his experiences and friendship with The Slits, and Lydon, Wobble and Levene's Public Image were formative experiences for him, personally and musically.
TP: The Slits and the people we grew up with, it's like we are all one extended family in a way. We are all part of one another's history. All of us: Don Cherry is "related" to us through Neneh Cherry, our bond and our touring and work together. Adrian ONU Sound Sherwood is "related" to us through the music we produced together, and our tour with Creation Rebel. Whoever we are related to and for whatever reason, music is our common ground; music is a flight of the spirit, communicating through time and boundaries.
3AM: Any closing thoughts Tessa?
TP: Punk was about doing your thing, creating your own thing. It wasn't about being a follower; it certainly wasn't about being some kind of punk stereotype. It was about creating your own thing. When all the followers and cliched bands started, I just thought, "What the fuck are you doing? This isn't what it's about". The Slits were never a punk band in the "follower" sense of the word. We always carved out our own path, strove for something fresh and new.
My thanks to Tessa Pollitt for telling it as it was, as it really happened, for recording reality as it was, recording reality as it is, for not distorting or projecting anything.
From Greg: Thanks to Jah Warrior for the Jah Shaka photo. Respect to The Disciples. Thanks to Inner Wisdom and Knowledge ("Knowledge is found in the sacred place of the most high") Adrian ONU Sound, Don Letts, the Rebel Dread and all the www.reggaenews.co.uk family. Highest dedications to the memory of the pure muse, beauty still revealing, Bim Sherman.
From Tessa: Remembering Stanley Pollitt 1930-1979, Sean Oliver and Don Cherry (Spirits still present). Phoebe Oliver for inspiration, Lloyd for guidance.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Greg Whitfield writes about music and art, and has produced work for the BBC and a number of art journals. He also writes promotional press releases and publicity copy for various London-based record companies.