DISCoveries, September 1994
© 1994 Ralph Heibutzk
NEVER MIND THE BOLLOCKS, HERE'S THE NITTY-GRITTY: A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN LYDON
by Ralph Heibutzki
"Ever get the feeling
you've been cheated?" In just seven corrosive words,
the once and future Johnny Rotten – later reborn as John Lydon
of Public Image Limited (PiL) – pulled the plug on the Sex
Pistols, the entity that had dominated his professional life for
However, history has a funny way of playing the joker. Now approaching his second decade under the PiL banner, Lydon has finally told his own story in a new book, No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs (St. Martin's Press) with Keith and Kent Zimmerman, which lays open his opinions of the Pistols' experiences for the first time.
All in all, Rotten is a remarkable and welcome event, especially when other major players – original bassist Glen Matlock, and [manager Malcolm] McLaren himself – have either written their own accounts, or been prominently featured elsewhere. While Lydon's persona has never lent itself to easy analysis, its fleeting appearance in secondhand accounts seemed unfair, reducing the once and future Johnny Rotten to a spectator in his own history.
So how's the book being received, and why do it now?
"It's received incredibly well," Lydon says, beaming. "I'm surprised...because of people talking shit for so long, that I thought nobody had any time for reality. I found that to be really wrong."
Is he surprised that his longtime sparring partners at New Musical Express (NME) dismissed the book as so much sour grapes – when this guy had been stranded in America without money, or means of transport?
"Thank you for observing that," Lydon says with a shrug, "but they fail to notice these things. In fact, I doubt if they read the book, actually." (Later he makes his opinion clear in a rhetorical question: "What would the NME be without their advertising? All those rock publications should be viewed for what they really are...as a collection of adverts with a few bitchy remarks in between, and possibly a chart compilation at the end, and that's about all you get.")
By Lydon's account, the birth of Rotten was hardly easy: "It came about slowly but surely over a three-year period. Originally, I sat down and literally wrote it, but I had just trashed it all of it because it ended up as pontification. I just found it much easier to talk into a tape recorder and type out what was said as it was said. It's not the written word; it's the spoken word, as people really are."
Was it difficult to win his father's cooperation?
"First, he was totally against doing anything, but he came around. Then
I found that I couldn't actually interview him. Hence, Keith
and Kent Zimmerman. They did a lot of those little situations
because I couldn't interview my own father! It just doesn't work."
Doesn't feel natural, does it?
"No, it doesn't," Lydon says, laughing, "because he's a smart bastard, and he plays games with me, has all his life, and it wasn't working."
Did talking into that tape recorder help him come to terms with the past?
"Probably so," allows Lydon. "I'd never reviewed myself quite that thoroughly. I don't think anybody else really does."
MEET THE PISTOLS
As Rotten's chief protagonist makes clear, music was definitely a marriage made in heaven, but not a planned one. Lydon's audition for the Pistols consisted of bopping up and down madly in a pub, miming to an Alice Cooper single.
When did being in a band start to feel natural?
"It never did, ever," Lydon declares. "I was totally unprepared for it, and it just seemed to get more chaotic, and worse, and worse, and worse. The backstabbing and bitching sessions that were going on were just childish, really. It's amazing that you think you're growing up, but you're not! You get more and more puerile as the years go by...a minute felt like a year. It was an intensely lived period."
As the public pressure grew tighter, it became physically difficult for any of the Pistols to go out socially – the price of growing up in public?
"Yeah, and I'd go unprotected," says Lydon. "To feel that constantly exposed – and indeed, physically threatened all the time – it was just a bit much for any person. I don't think, really, ever, in the history of popular music, has a band been so roundly hated!"
By his own account, the Pistols' working atmosphere was a chaotic one, marked by great teamwork, and great conflict. Does he hold any regrets about how the conflict overwhelmed the teamwork?
"Well, the conflict is always useful," says Lydon. "It's a useful tool. It does make people work better – and I will say that, in retrospect, we did put together some excellent songs. For instance, Glen Matlock – I mean, I don't like the guy at all, but I work really well with him."
Even Matlock's book, I Was A Teenage Sex Pistol, grudgingly admits that.
"Well, I think his (book) is more of a pamphlet!" Lydon laughs.
By the way, if the man has an all-time favorite Sex Pistols song, he's not naming it here; surely, the Book Of Lists compilers will be annoyed?
"You can't pin it down to one word," he responds. "You can pin it down to one album, 'cause that's all we ever made!"
KINGS OF PUNK?
At what point did the promise of punk evaporate?
"It never had a promise," barks Lydon. "I've never accepted the term 'punk.' It was given to us by Caroline Coon (whose comments also appear in Rotten), of all people, in a Melody Maker article. She called me 'the king of punk,' which I took to be offensive. I mean, it was! It certainly had nothing to do with me. I never ran around calling myself a punk."
And, in Lydon's view, the numerous bands who accepted that "p" word to describe their music didn't help matters.
"I think there was the Sex Pistols, and then a whole bunch of copyists," he says. "They were the punks. Before us, really, we didn't have anything to model on, nothing, 'cause everything was so awful. None of it worked, all that horrible hippiedom, and spoiled rich kids..."
Not to mention Eddie & The Hot Rods, who bounced the Pistols from one of their gigs in the early days?
"Yeah, well, that was pub rock – that was another thing that was even worse," says Lydon. "They were all so much older than us. We were just practically tiny tots. The only comparison around our age group would be the Bay City Rollers, and they were old men to us! I do think at the time, we were judged very, very unfairly and weren't given any credit for the sheer audacity to jump on a stage in the first place, let alone attempt to write songs and perform them."
However, whether it's then, or now, Lydon acknowledges that he has learned to live with unfavorable opinions.
"The narrow-minded – they will always wear blinkers, and they will only see what they want to see," he says. "And indeed that refers directly to the NME to this very day."
While the Pistols got there first, they didn't stay lonely for long. By July 1976, their major rivals had emerged.
"The Clash introduced the competitive element that dragged everything
down a little," Lydon writes in Rotten. "It
was never about that for us."
So what made him dislike the Clash? "Not as people, ever," he says. "But the political ranting and sloganeering, I just found offensively dull. It's no use to anybody in this world to be yapping on about Karl Marx, and just taking quotes completely out of context and wrapping songs around them. There's nothing to be learned from all that bollocks!"
On the other hand, it was the Clash's manager, Bernie Rhodes, who spotted Lydon in the first place and encouraged him to audition for the Sex Pistols. Potential inconsistency of thought?
"Uh, I like Bernie, but if left up to his own manipulations, you end up with things like the Clash," Lydon says, laughing, "a band that took themselves far too serious. They were completely humorless and really just a pop band after all. And if you're going to deal with politics, I think at that age, you should be dealing with personal politics. 'Sten guns in Knightsbridge' (a key lyric from the Clash's "1977"), and all the rest of that crap...oh, it's just so childish."
OF SID AND NANCY
In March 1977, Matlock either handed in his cards or got his walking papers, depending on the account – an event that cleared the way for Lydon's college friend, John Beverly, to join the group. The world would come to know him as Sid Vicious, whose public persona first assumed one of a happy-go-lucky loose cannon – until his American girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, entered the scene.
Could anything have been done for Sid?
"Not really. Not that I'm aware of," says Lydon. "I've thought a lot about this. I just don't see what I could have done. But it still doesn't take away that feeling of guilt that you have. It's like a cloud – I can't see through it."
From all indications, Sid was extremely likable, when he wasn't on substances, but once he got on them, he was impossible to deal with.
"Uh, yeah, he'd become extremely arrogant, and extremely irritating," says Lydon. "Sid's problem was, he always wanted to be made a fuss over. He loved to be the center of attention, and the drugs helped that. They petrified the darker recesses of his mind, I'm afraid."
And once Nancy Spungen got him in her clutches, that was it?
"Oh, yeah, she seen it in him right away," Lydon sighs. "That
wasn't a human being, that was a vampire. She was quite prepared
to take as many people down with her as she could on a very, very,
slow, deadly, spiteful death wish. Horrible person."
Mention the book written by Spungen's mother, And I Don't Want To Live This Life, and Lydon audibly recoils. Having read the book, he doesn't put much stock in its accuracy.
"I thought, 'What a bitch!'" says Lydon. "It's not really Nancy's fault at all for being so despicable, but she really worked had at eliminating any redeeming qualities whatsoever. She perfected the art that her mother had institutionalized her with, and I think that's the correct term."
Alex Cox's 1986 film Sid & Nancy still visibly rankles Lydon; the film caused controversy for its decided looseness with key facts in the Pistols' story and reportedly gave the singer cause for a possible legal action.
Adding insult to injury, Lydon recalls, Cox actually did contact him – after the film had been completed.
"Out of the goodness of my ego," he sneers, "I attended the meeting and was appalled by what I found out. I think it's very, very disgusting that people can inflict their opinions on your life that way and be arrogant enough to think that you don't have a say in it."
Lydon confirms that he found
Cox's actions infuriating enough to risk a lawsuit. However, he adds, the idea foundered, for a rather
basic reason: "I'd have to have raised an awful lot of money,
and that's really been a side of my life that pisses me off. People
seem to be able to stop me on a whim, and I'm constantly in and out
of courts, arguing and fighting these stupid pie fights with people. But
it doesn't seem to work in my favor at all, and it's all down to money,
really. I mean, I live on shoestrings."
So how do [drummer Paul] Cook and [guitarist Steve] Jones view their respective positions in the band? "You'd have to ask them, really. I mean, I gave them the opportunity in the book, and they seem to be wanting to talk about other things!" Lydon chuckles.
Such tendencies seem in keeping with their nature.
"It certainly is," says Lydon. "I mean, in a second flat, I think both of them would reform the Sex Pistols, which to me is an awful idea."
But how awful would such a prospect be? Cook was last spotted drumming for Bananarama; Jones has grown a truly awesome set of long hair, and hangs around with [Guns 'N' Roses vocalist] Axl Rose; Matlock's last major project lay in a mysterious 12-inch in 1990, with input and backing from Bernie Rhodes. Just how terrible would a reformation be?
"You can't repeat it," he says. "It would be really, really fake, phony. It would be embarrassing – a bunch of 40-somethings pretending to be 18 again! I mean, the chants of 'wheelchair, wheelchair' would be deafening!"
When the mutual laughter subsides, Lydon turns a tad more serious in pursuing his point: "I don't think you should repeat. You should move on. I mean, you could do the occasional song and throw it in for a laugh, but don't reform and go out and fake it all because it would be so clearly cynical. It would be dead set against what we were doing in the first place."
Lydon has never had much luck with movies – whether it was Cox's Sid & Nancy, or The Great Rock N' Roll Swindle (1980), whose muddled creation became one of the final wedges between Lydon and McLaren.
Originally intended as a definitive account of the group, McLaren soon wrestled control of Swindle, running through roughly half a dozen directors before Julien Temple helped oversee its completion.
Some 250 hours of Swindle outtakes still languish in the vaults, but Lydon has no plans to reedit the movie.
Lydon reacts with mock horror upon being told that a similar effort by the Rolling Stones, 25 x 5, runs nearly three hours.
"Oh, no, God, never! Never! The idea of putting together things that long, I think, is awful," he snorts. "Short, sharp and sweet, and to the point, thank you."
Well, how about a 90-minute release, then?
"If! If! There's no point in being tedious," says Lydon. "You don't want to depress an audience, and that's what happens when you go on and on and on. It becomes filler, where you think every precious second has to be immortalized. Piss off!"
HE DIDN'T GET IT
The self-serving, contradictory nature of Malcolm McLaren runs like a red thread though Rotten, whose prime voice issues a strong indictment against the group's manager as a person who started out with subversive ideas, only to fall victim to the twin vices of greed and ego.
Exhibit A: Lydon's January 12, 1977 bust for speed, an offense for which McLaren actually fronts the bail initially. On hearing that his charge would have to pay a 40-pound fine, McLaren claimed he didn't have the money, then returned barely 10 minutes before the courts closed to pay it, sparing Lydon the possibility of having his conviction upgraded, and being returned to jail.
After anecdotes like those, how can he expect readers to believe that he holds no animosity against Malcolm? Isn't that stretching things a bit?
"No, I merely tell it as it is," he says. "There's a big difference between just being malicious and being accurate. He was one of the key players in that situation, and I think that was in definite need of contradiction – because, for too long now, he's had his say, and now it's my turn. That's all it is. There's nothing personal in there."
Going back to that final fateful tour: Why did McLaren get so fixated on Ronnie Biggs, who hadn't even helped to plan The Great Train Robbery Of 1963, and didn't appear to be rolling in the money – he was living on a shack in the Brazilian beaches?
"No idea. All of that was nothing to do with me, nothing at all," says Lydon.
Fair enough. The notion of "Ronnie Rotten" was absurd, at best, anyhow. But couldn't there have been some way of pulling the situation together?
"Yes, if we'd have done what should have been done," says Lydon, "go straight to Sweden to finish a tour we'd obligated ourselves to complete."
He remains doubtful if another tour would have bonded the Pistols together again, but adds that a long break after its completion might have been a good idea – especially when he made it clear that McLaren shouldn't continue managing them.
"I had no communication with Steve and Paul at all," says Lydon, "and Sid was out of his face on drugs. To get him out of America as quickly as possible would have been very wise. But nothing seemed to have happened. Paul didn't want to listen, because McLaren's putting them up in very nice hotels, while I was basically in motels with the road crew."
The trouble with Cook and Jones then, adds Lydon, was their willingness to accept McLaren's dictates – so long as he kept giving the red carpet treatment.
"I mean, everybody really, really disliked Malcolm by that point," he says, "even Steve and Paul – but Malcolm was flashing money, of course, they're absolute whores for that stuff. If there's an opening of a wallet, at that time, both of them would have been in full attendance."
It took them awhile to come around, but their decision to abandon McLaren and back Lydon's legal argument proved key in resolving the eight-year "pie fight."
"Yeah, but I don't think they really understood was going on," says Lydon. "'Malcolm's our friend, he wouldn't do that!' But, as I say in the book, I really got the vibe from Malcolm that he just wanted to destroy it all. Or, at the very least, get rid of me."
For those reasons, Lydon dismisses Swindle, and the book England's Dreaming, by Jon Savage, to which he similarly gives short shrift.
The Pistols' collapse, Lydon says, "didn't stop him (McLaren) from grabbing the glory and waving the flag and saying it was all him. And I see, quite clearly, the contradictions there, but others don't. And that's the difference, let's say, between England's Dreaming, and my book. You've got to bear in mind that Jon Savage and Malcolm are very close friends, and that's what you get."
NEVER TRUST A HIPPIE
As Rotten winds up discussing that final American tour and allows its readers a brief look into Lydon's opinions about the current music scene, it's obvious the man who altered the popular landscape so irrevocably in 1976 is anything but pleased.
"After the '60s," Lydon writes, "some took the attitude that nothing could surprise them any longer. They were very wrong. But the current crop of bands, particularly from England, have no bollocks. No guts. They're all young, bored, and fed up with their lives. But they don't sing about it!'
Sadder still, perhaps, is the current major rock 'n 'roll landscape, whose primary forces have never seemed more arid. Pink Floyd tour on the strength of dazzling special effects, despite the absence of primary concept guru Roger Waters, while the reunited Eagles rake in $100 per ticket without complaint. There's even a regrouped Fleetwood Mac trundling the circuit; surely such events are cause for despair. The '70s are back!
If that's the case, though, Lydon doesn't mind: "Personally, I wasn't out to destroy them (the 'dinosaurs') – merely not to be told that's all there was, and enjoy. I wanted an alternative, that's all. I mean, they can trundle on relentlessly; it doesn't bother me. Not one bit. If that's what people want, then that's what people deserve. I just come from a different point of view. I've met some of Pink Floyd; they're very nice chaps. I just don't like what they do musically, that's all."
He seems to say that about a lot of people.
"Well, I think that's important," he responds. "But the trouble is that most people in this industry take it all so damn personally. It really doesn't matter at the end of the day – people are people, and you should separate them from the job. Or at least be able to separate yourself from it."
So what did the Sex Pistols accomplish? What's it all add up to, some 16 years later?
"I've no idea. We opened the door a crack, and everybody slammed it in our face, says Lydon. "I think that's the reality. You offer people a bit of hope, and they don't want it.
"At the moment, it's all bands posturing, whether it's Nirvana, or Guns 'N Roses – but, for saying that, people will say that I'm not entitled to that opinion. And it's that posturing which creates that attitude in people."
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