BlackBook Interview: Tessa Pollitt on the Thrilling New Documentary ‘Here to be Heard: The Story of The Slits’

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One of the greatest, but perhaps least discussed legacies of punk, was that, despite its share of laddish louts, it was a startlingly gender-blind movement. Indeed, the likes of Deborah Harry, Siouxsie Sioux and Exene Cervenka were paid equal reverence to their male counterparts, while Chrissie Hynde and Joan Jett could be found veritably “reverse gender-bending.” It was, on so many levels, unbelievably exciting.

But perhaps the most revolutionary of those women, London’s The Slits, tragically never achieved the commercial success of the aforementioned, despite the universal adulation for their incredible debut album Cut. In the ensuing decades, however, their influence has grown exponentially, far outweighing their actual record sales. Indeed, it’s generally acknowledged that the explosive ’90s femme-punk movement Riot Grrrl drew its greatest inspiration from them.

Of course, The Slits lasted from only 1976 until 1982 – and were still just teens during most of that time. But amidst a wave of post-punk nostalgia, singer Ari Up and bassist Tessa Pollitt reformed the group in 2005, and carried on for five exhilarating years, even releasing an acclaimed new album, Trapped Animal – before Ari shockingly succumbed to cancer in 2010.

A thrilling new documentary, Here to be Heard (directed by William E. Badgley), at last tells the monumental story of The Slits, through interviews, archival footage, and explosive live performances. As it is currently touring the country (and is also streaming on Hulu), we caught up with Pollitt for an extensive discussion on the legacy of arguably the greatest female punk band ever.

 

 

Was there a sense in the beginning that The Slits were on not just a musical mission, but also an ideological one?

Yes! We had the freedom to make up our own rules, dress the way we chose, play and present ourselves in a female-unfettered way, with imagination and always a sense of humor. Our drums were to sound wild and tribal…the bass deep like rumbling thunder. Because of our naivety in so called musicianship we started from a blank canvas, which helped carve our sound into something new and fresh, very raw, and sometimes chaotic! Our lyrics were a social comment and also a reflection of our teenage female angst, aspirations and insecurities, striving to overcome injustice from our viewpoint. I feel we were quite animal-like and feral too, relying on our instinct and intuition.

Punk had a really strong feminist element – were you very much aware of that at the time, or was it just matter-of-fact?

I do not like the word feminist, it suggests rules to abide by and a de-masculanization of men. There was an element in punk that provided girls and women equal rights to get up on stage and express themselves – this was our future and we grabbed it! We were not pandering to the male dominated music industry, the corporate control we were so against. We were threatening and unfathomable, this was a powerful battle cry towards freedom of expression! The whole punk revolution helped us achieve this initially. Much thanks to the late great John Peel, who recorded three sessions with us before we had a recording contract; the other stations would not play us because our name was The Slits. How very shocking!

Was the resurrection of The Slits successful and satisfying?

It was a scary prospect for me, not having played for many years; but I have no regrets, as it gave me nearly five years to spend with Ari, not knowing she would be taken from us so suddenly. I am overall very happy to have done it and to reconnect with the bass; and I do love our album Trapped Animal, it still sounds Slitsy and has some new exciting talent on there.

 

 

What inspired the documentary?

The documentary really came about via Ari filming hours of footage on our 2006 reunion tour of the U.S.A. She was definitely on a mission to get our story told; in fact, in an interview in London she said “I am not here to be loved, I am here to be heard.” So that is where the title of the documentary comes from. Jennifer Shagawhat, our tour manager at the time (and musician) helped with the filming, constantly having the camera on her. When Ari passed away we decided something had to be done with this footage, as this was her wish. We decided we had to tell the whole Slits story from the beginning to her untimely death. Jennifer called upon William Badgley, the director, to help us complete this task, and he tirelessly worked on it for five years. So the inspiration was to achieve a sense of peace, as it really was traumatic losing her. We did not part on the best of terms, she was very angry as she got more ill and I realize now the cancer had spread to her liver – the seat of anger in the body. To me all is forgiven, but it was a most painful experience. I do still very much miss her – but know she is on a new journey now.

What are a couple of its highlights for you?

The highlight for me was reconnecting with [Slits member] Palmolive [Paloma], a most beautiful spirit. We are all the same people and still carry a fire in our bellies. Palmolive has proved to be a true friend that has lasted the test of time, a rare thing as you get older. Otherwise, looking at the archive footage has been a highlight for me…and it’s a miracle it exists, thanks to Don Letts and Christine Robertson, The Slits’ manager. Also seeing Ari in a healthy state throughout is a very comforting way to remember her.

What do you hope people take away from it?

I hope people take away a message of hope, freedom and bravery, and to never give up despite the hardships along this journey of life. When your heart is set on something worth saying, change can come about. With good intentions, great things will follow; though you may need to be a warrior and have a fighting spirit to achieve this.

 

 

What would you like to say about Ari Up?

Ari was a free spirit, with a rebel soul; she was a fearless warrior, and possessed of a highly unique talent musically…and also in the way she presented herself. She was both proud and dignified and had the wickedest sense of humor; she could travel anywhere in the world and cause great curiosity and awe, she retained her childlike quality, and was very wise too. She was an old soul indeed, we had deep conversations about previous lifetimes, premonitions and esoteric subjects. One of the last messages she sent to me, via text, when she was in the hospital in Santa Barbara, was, “Look For The Signs…” I always have and always will, even more so now. Ari had a generous spirit to those who knew her, but did not suffer fools gladly. The “Fury of Ari” could caste a spell on you!

Are you aware of the newest generation of female musicians looking up to The Slits?

I truly hope the Pussy Riot girls from Russia look up to us, as I have nothing but admiration for their bravery and shock value.

Do you think the feminist mission has succeeded in the overall? Or is it always steps forward, steps back?

I prefer female empowerment to “feminist.” Has it succeeded? It feels like we have come around some kind of cycle and things appear one step forward, two steps backwards – if I look worldwide I would say…no! There is a lot of female suffering and domestic abuse seems on the rise. I see and feel much divisiveness on many social and political gender levels. It feels time for a new revolution, I feel a change in the air!

Ultimately, what is The Slits’ legacy?

The Slits’ legacy is, follow your heart’s desire with good intention, do not allow negative comments to detract or deter you; if you have an important message keep on fighting until you get heard and achieve justice for the future generations. Strive for originality and be true to yourself at whatever personal cost. At all times keep a sense of humor and keep a check on your ego, it can negate any positive worldly ambitions. It is essential to retain personal integrity – the battle begins with yourself.