TALES FROM THE ROAD: The Story of the Slits, part 1


Making my first feature length documentary film was definitely the hardest thing I’d ever done by far. The years I spent playing in a touring band, however, had oddly prepared me for it in ways I could have never fully understood at the time. Not the least of which was mentally preparing for an endeavor and a responsibility that don’t neatly clock in and out on a pre-arranged schedule, but continue on to all hours of the day and night until the project is finished.  And, last but not least of course was the ability to travel on a modest budget.

Jennifer and Tessa (bottom) and Jeni Cook and Bill (above). COURTESY PHOTOS

Jennifer and Tessa (bottom) and Jeni Cook and Bill (above). COURTESY PHOTOS

In early December of last year it was decided that it was time to head back to Europe to gather what my partner Jennifer Shagawat and I thought would be the majority of the remainder of the interviews needed to complete the second film, a feature length documentary about first wave British rockers, first all girl punk band, and the godmothers of Punky Reggae, The Slits.

We were a year in on the project at the time and all projects of this nature take a certain amount of bull headed determination and soul-searching stubbornness in order to complete and it was beyond question, even at the time, that this final 3-week filming trip crossing 2 continents, 3 countries, 6 cities, and two languages on a unquestionably small budget was going to be no exception.MM SD Jennifer & Tessa

Funding passion projects such as this one are difficult and weathering the amount of time they take to complete is even harder, especially with rock docs, since we’re typically working with musicians who are used to seeing a project completed in a few months. In documentary there is such a vast amount of work to be done in order just to do the work, i.e. editing, that as an investor you spend the first year paying in and not really seeing much and this can be quite difficult for all parties involved.

So as we prepared for the trip, the expenses were piling up with no visible dawn on the horizon, just a hard black line where you imagine the immerging sun might one day be.

The first thing was painfully obvious: there wasn’t going to be any cab rides on this trip, which might not sound like much, but when you’re looking at filming 2-3 interviews a day in cities, countries, and languages you are unfamiliar with and equipment that is usually packed into two large Pelican cases you can’t carry by yourself it makes all the difference.

So gulp down it goes and I set about packing the approximately 50 lbs worth of bulky equipment into three bags so I could stay mobile.

Of course it’s exciting too, since on this trip we had arranged to meet and interview with members of bands such as The Sex Pistols, The Raincoats, Siouxie and The Banshees, Sonic Youth, a back up singer for The Culture Club, professors and authors aside from our usual pals The Slits themselves.

First thing was to get to SEATAC for a 7am departure to London Heathrow, which involved a midnight cab and a shuttle, prior to the initial flight and a layover somewhere I don’t even remember anymore. When I arrived at 6:50AM local time I had already been up for nearly 24 hours. One thing I had learned, from previous trips, was to fight my urge to book any filming on the first day of an international filming trip so all I had to do was make it Tessa’s house, bass player of The Slits, and make sure none of the equipment was broken, well I had to wait for her to wake up first.

I’ve found the time difference with international travel is a lot easier to deal with in a band since you have so much more opportunity to sleep, or at least lay around, waiting for the 40 minute to an hour long window when you actually have to play, but the filming trips are nasty since you’re traveling all night to arrive at a series of 10 hour work days where your mental awareness and ability to negotiate social situations will make or break the day.

Tess is a wonderful person and this trip marks the second time she’s opened up her home to us, without her graciousness the film would hardly be possibly. She also breaks down a lot of doors for us, calling and emailing folks who have been dealing with the press one way or another for as long as I’ve been alive and whom have of course had experiences both positive and negative, Tess calls them up and lets them know we’re ok, makes a huge difference.

So once we’ve had a chance to catch up, Tess and I, I unpack the gear, make sure nothing is broken, eat, and try to stay up as long as I can to try to get on a UK sleeping schedule as quickly as possible. That first night is a tricky one too ‘cause you’re usually so exhausted you sleep the whole first night and think you’re switched over, but you’re not, as you usually find out on the second night, third night, and so on.

First day we take the tube to Northern London to interview Helen Reddington, the author of Women in Rock which has got Tess on the cover. Helen is an awesome lady and it’s easy to imagine her as a young rebellious teen in the initial “so called punk scene,” which seems to be what most of the first wave people I meet refer to it as. She tells us funny stories about Boy George and about how The Slits changed the landscape for female musicians at the time. Then we’re off to interview Jeni Cook, wife of Sex Pistol Paul Cook, mother of future Slit Hollie Cook, and former backup singer for The Culture Club.

It’s funny with Jeni because obviously we’d like to interview her husband Paul as well, but when we have asked about the possibility before she’s been fairly non committal. The Sex Pistols are pretty much royalty in London which I don’t think you’ll find too hard too imagine so I decide it’s fairly wise not to press the issue. Jeni is a tall, striking, incredibly well dressed, and exceedingly friendly women although it’s clear, at least initially she’s a bit nervous about being interviewed, her arms are folded over herself and her sentences are very short, I think to myself “This is going to be a tough one.”

I try not to let her jitters become my jitters and head as fearlessly as possible into the interview to try to put her at ease as much as I can. Little by little she starts to warm up… she unfolds her arms, her sentences get longer, her laughing gets louder and her posture becomes free until by the end of the interview she has clearly had a good time and is quite comfortable. As we’re packing up she says, “You guys have to talk to Paul! Let’s get Paul on the line.” as she whips out her phone.

I don’t think that it was conscious vetting done on her part, but I do think that there are enough weirdos around that you can never be sure who you’re dealing with and it was safer to meet us first, see what we’re about, before getting the whole family involved.

First day, two interviews down and we’re off to Rough Trade East to film with Slits guitarist Viv Albertine and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth.

For more information, see www.slitsdoc.com and www.molassesmanifesto.com.