Johnny Rotten Tells All | Music Sidebar | Chicago Reader

Johnny Rotten Tells All 

John Lydon/You loved the debacle, now read the book!

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The Trib report on the closing of Maxwell Street ends with these words on a sign stuck up on the site:

No Future

No Future for You

No Future for Me

A new show on cable features a theme song that sounds familiar:

We're so pretty

Oh so pretty

Vacant!

Seventeen years ago those words were underground mantras, the chants and spells of a subculture that seemed ferocious and important, the epitome of extremity. Nothing was more uncompromising, nothing harsher. When a Sex Pistols song becomes a TV show theme, something has changed.

Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs is the severe, almost wholly unapologetic memoir from John Lydon, onetime Sex Pistol and more recently a fading modern-rock star. The book at once reanimates the band's concussive celebrity and also, almost accidentally, puts it in perspective. The Sex Pistols were a collection of not-so-petty thieves and incipient hoodlums--created through the incendiary alchemization of their grossly opportunistic but undeniably effective manager and a waspish, repellently charismatic singer--who, over the course of a nasty, brutish, and short career scandalized a nation and turned pop culture upside down. The band's story is a unique one; with Lydon's unbridled and vicious telling it makes for scorching reading. He settles scores with foes and friends, alive and dead--Sid ("He took it all too far, and boy, he couldn't play guitar. David Bowie reference"), Nancy ("She was so utterly fucked up and evil"), and Vivienne Westwood ("Silly bitch. She went nowhere fast after punk")--and delivers one of the least romantic images of rock 'n' roll ever enunciated: "I don't care how big-headed the lead singer is, it all comes down to the fact that he must eat shit in the rehearsal room. The histrionics of the lead guitar, the excesses of the drummer, and the stupidity of the bass player have to meet on equal footing."

Such personal observations are set against public ones (most jibing with Jon Savage's version of the Sex Pistols' career in his searching social history of the time, England's Dreaming). These generally involve a tiny group of malcontents, led by the Fagin-like Malcolm McLaren, all hopped up on the quaint notion that a social eruption could be accomplished by a rock band. The band members gamely contributed outrage after outrage; their indecencies, McLaren's organizational incompetence, and an unmatched collective sense of grandiosity culminated in perhaps the most wildly cockeyed tragicomic marketing plan in the history of entertainment: the Sex Pistols would conquer America--via a tour through the deep south. Instead the band collapsed in January 1978 and the players went their separate ways: Sid to hell, McLaren to marginality, Rotten to a rigid prison of hauteur and arrogance.

So who was the Sex Pistols? Lydon or McLaren? McLaren is a ridiculous figure today, and no ground breaker even at the time. But while he was not in uncharted waters, he was certainly some way out from shore, watching intently for the wave. Rotten, on the other hand, was an accident waiting to happen, and such was McLaren's eye and the chaos of pop culture that he happened not on a few innocent bystanders but on us. Each was an unusual person in his own right--but note that neither has done much of anything remotely approximating that initial bleat in the many years since. Who was the Sex Pistols? Neither. Both.

We should remember that of the two Lydon was the artist; he had a fabulous onstage talent for conveying disgust and a mystical fluency in a new telegrammatic language of buzzwords and contempt. He also had unquestionably bad leadership qualities. (He was conscripted, remember.) The rest of the band refused to turn up to the first rehearsal with Rotten, and relations deteriorated after that. He had one pyrrhic management triumph--edging out the doltish Glen Matlock in favor of his friend Simon Ritchie, who couldn't play bass but was working at coming by his stage name honestly, through a growing cauldron of recklessness and cruelty. "When I got Sid into the Pistols, my mum sighed. 'What kind of wicked reasons have you got behind that?'" Those wicked reasons tortured his bandmates and McLaren but killed Sid and scarred Lydon. In the book's most human moment, Lydon admits he wasn't the friend he should have been.

He ends the book with an account of the covert depositions in the Sex Pistols' suit against McLaren--which resulted in the band winning back the legal rights to their music--thus tacitly acknowledging that his solo career is not worth talking about. His composure is so complete that it must mask vast insecurities. Rotten's position is secure; the band has already provided us with disco and polka versions of its hits (on The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle). And if Rotten ever caves in to a Sex Pistols reunion, he'll no doubt trumpet his financial motivations. But he will always have the aura of a victim about him. He stands near the scene of the accident, dazed and bleeding, the wreckage still falling from the sky, and explains to all who will listen how pleased he is at his handiwork.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Natkin--Photo Reserve.

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