Sounds, March 11th, 1978
Transcribed by Karsten Roekens
© 1978 Sounds
JOHN IN JAMAICA PART TWO
"MAN A WARRIOR"
Words by VIVIEN GOLDMAN Pix by DENNIS MORRIS
Cynics among the SOUNDS readership may have been wondering why/how our Johnny Rotten underwent such a speedy transformation into this new-fangled character called 'Johnny Cool', as revealed in last week's ish.
All very simply, really.
"They thought I was cool because I always had an answer for everything, no matter how stoned I was."
I first became aware of John's new moniker one night, when he returned from an outing to a transcendentally lovely (by the sound of it) Jamaican nook - a cave with a still, bottomless lake inside, square and highly mysterious. The Congos had led photographer Dennis Morris there for a photo session, and John went along for the ride. No room in the wheels for the journalist - so it goes...
When the party got back to the Sheraton Hotel (listen, those people should really give me a free suite for the amount of free plugs they're getting), the inevitable struck - a power cut. Seemed like they were happening every night. When a power cut strikes, you've got a head start in Jamaica even if it's the middle of winter, because it's always warm enough to sit outside and do what you have to do by the light of the moon and the stars (they're much, much brighter when they don't have to fight through a wall of pollution, too).
So it happened that it was fruit punches by moonlight, and John and The Congos, being in an elevated mood on account of nature's bounty - the cave, and other things - were in prime meditative position. Cedric was regaling us with stories of his past, when a loud buzzing noise intruded on the conversation. Coupled with a strange red glow from overhead. Look up, and what do you see? - a helicopter whirring through the Kingston skies, looking both out of place and rather too militantly low-flying for comfort.
"What's that for?" snapped John. "There could be a war going on down here, and no one would be able to see it. It's just to annoy, like a mosquito. Make people paranoid, scared. Keep the population down."
Roy and Cedric (The Congos) looked at one another.
"Johnny knows," sighed Cedric.
"Johnny's seen great heights," Roy affirmed solemnly. "Johnny Cool, y'know?"
No teasing, The Congos obviously meant it as a serious thing. The name was confirmed in my head when I'd heard just about every reggae musician John was introduced to and had any serious conversation with come up with the same unprompted and unsolicited verdict. The initial reaction was always the same - nobody had heard the Sex Pistols, their records aren't released in Jamaica, but Robbie Shakespeare summed up the general response to the Pistols thus:
"They have a hit album 'pon the charts for a long time, don't they? And they have a tune called 'God Save The Queen', don't they? And that song, it no defend the Queen?"
Well, not exactly...
Robbie weighed up the two apparently contradictory facts in his head. An appealing package for the average Jamaican dreadlocks musician, automatic rebels with a cause, who rarely get to see their music hit high on the British charts, and know that part of the reason is that their lyrics are too threatening by virtue of their insistence on political action via religious (Rasta) beliefs. A brief conversation with John affirmed there was a brain behind the image, and a straightforward thinker/doer lurking beneath the unfamiliar garb, close-cropped spiky haircut.
Before Robbie walked out the door, he gave John a big grin, slapped him firmly on the shoulder and said affectionately: "Johnny Cool!" I knew I wasn't hallucinating.
The fact that John had reaped the rewards of society (i.e. a number one hit album) while criticising its basic structure, much as many reggae songs do, impressed John's Jamaican music colleagues no end.
But success is never a jar of cookies without any soggy ones, and the soggy one in this instance was an emissary from England, designed to blight all our spirits.
The days usually began much as they continued, in a leisurely kind of way. You'd wake up, around 8.00 - the sun would be shining then, and you don't want to sleep in, when there's sun going on - and stagger towards the pool, where breakfast would be absorbed into the system around the swimming pool, while the 'No Swimming' sign was taken from the pool and the day's influx of keen red-eyed reggae artists would begin to jostle for position at the poolside bar (see last week's episode).
The usual scenario would be Donovan Letts, John and myself, and the usual chow would be ackee and saltfish (an excellent Jamaican national dish that tragically can't be re-created here - ackee is a fruit that bursts out of red pods on the trees, and cooked resembles a heap of scrambled eggs that have paired up with some succulent custard and curdled deliciously, saltfish is tiny flakes of salty fish that mix in with the smooth textured ackee and zap the taste buds heavenwards).
Anyway, one a.m. this protein-packed feast was attended by another white person, who wasn't with Virgin Records and wasn't with a rival paper. And I observed that the temperature appeared to drop a few degrees.
"This is Boogie," John announced ominously, as the newcomer smiled, looked slightly strained, and shifted his classy-looking camera from one hand to the other.
Boogie is an employee of Malcolm McLaren's Glitterbest organisation. John's managers-but-not-for-long. It transpires that Boogie had been sent out to make a film, not entirely unconnected with the fact that McLaren's still sitting on a whole heap of money, given to him by Warner Bros. to make the notorious 'Who Killed Bambi' film project. A stipulation of the money was that it had to be used for film purposes only, or be returned. As relations are, to say the least, strained between John and Glitterbest, John had insisted on not being filmed. Malcolm apparently didn't want to return the money. Hence Boogie's unwanted arrival, plus Perry Henzell's film crew. Footage of John had to be supplied somehow, with or without John's consent.
The project was unsuccessful. Boogie soon realised that John certainly wasn't about to work with him, and started playing detective games. He'd look round from a discussion from a table and realise that Boogie was lurking in the shade of a banana tree, focussing his camera. So he'd move. It got to a constant paranoiac undercurrent, Boogie pit-pattering around, plus camera, a hundred yards behind, trying to get something, anything, in focus. Boogie loitering oh-so-casually beneath the balcony, when John was in mid-conversation. Boogie, would you believe, hiding in the bushes in the hope of preserving some visual record of John's trip to Jamaica.
I got the impression that it was a few sharp, well-chosen words from Virgin boss Richard Branson that finally got Boogie on his way.
"He's a typical example of the Glitterbest organisation," John commented grimly. "The film crew left, you know, when they found out what he was up to."
Turned out that when he'd given up hope of getting any cooperation from John, Boogie had employed another tactic, asking reggae musicians or anyone round Kingston that had happened to meet John, if they wanted to be filmed for a Sex Pistols movie. Considering how desperate JA musicians are for publicity, you wouldn't catch them turning it down till they got official permission...
"They got very frightened," John continued, "because you can't mess about with these people. Or me. Glitterbest tells me they don't need me, then they send people out to hide in bushes with cameras. Think about it."
Boogie was not the only source of paranoia. Other alarms and excursions were: roadblocks, as immortalised in Marley's '3 O'Clock Roadblock' song. What the police, who are invariably armed with fearsome-looking equipment, are looking for is guns. Until the recent peace treaty was signed in Kingston, the majority of teenage kids and upwards in the ghetto areas of Tivoli, Rema and Trenchtown carried arms quite casually. The grim compound of the Gun Court you pass on the way to the airport is the place that people carrying guns were thrown into, without a hearing, and detained indefinitely. We never carried guns of course, but still, it isn't nice to have your taxi flagged down in the middle of the night, and be hauled out and lined up against the wall, hands in the air, and searched. It happened four times in three weeks.
Don Letts, typically, filmed wherever he went. That includes heart-of-the-ghetto footage, at home with the gunmen, some of whom didn't take kindly to the microphone that extended from his camera. They took the lethal-looking strip of metal with its grey foamtip as being some kind of extra-dread artillery they hadn't even heard of.
But no pitched battles took place. Actually, the only battle fought was John's battle with the sun. What started out as a quite sensible fear of sunburn - after all, this was John's first time in a really hot climate - seemed to develop into an epic battle, like Canute and the waves. Every day every inch of oh-so-white flesh had to be shrouded, and that means hats and long-sleeve jackets and everything but for a balaclava helmet or woolly gloves. It got to be a standing joke, and of course the sun won in the end. By the time we hit England again, John had a rosy glow he'd never seen before, even if it wasn't an out-and-out suntan.
Aside from these little traumas, which as I'm sure you noted are listed in descending order of importance, the two-week stay extended painlessly into a third. John was absorbing too much too quickly, and having too good a time to want to leave on schedule. That indefinable Jamaican malaise/virtue called "soon come", that means everything moves that much slower than you'd planned in London, soon took hold as the days established a rhythm of checking music and musicians downtown and eating.
Work involved nice times, too: interviews, photo sessions, and musical discussions all benefited from being conducted on the cliffs of local beauty spot Hellshire Beach, with sea thundering over the old ruins of army jetties overgrown with greenery. Whatever pressures there were, at least they were different pressures, John relaxed, mellowed-out, and then blissed-out. Being warm in the winter was a new experience and unmitigated sensual delight.
After our return, pressure dropped on John's head from a great height. The day I met up with him to do an interview, which I'd planned to base on JA nostalgia and conclusions, I found an exceedingly irate ex-Sex Pistol who'd just got off the phone to Los Angeles, home of the Sex Pistols American label Warner Bros., boiling over with the need to communicate the latest events.
Lydon: "Right. McLaren! He's been trying to fuck me up with Warner Bros. He did his utmost to ensure that he would hold the contract, and I would be eliminated from it. I hope I still have a contract with Warners. I see no reason to part from them, they haven't done us bad so far. We sold three times more than the Ramones, that can't be a bad future. That's in their own country, over here we beat them ten times over."
Goldman: "So what's he actually doing?"
Lydon: "Look, I want to terminate my contract with him. Why isn't he here? He's pissarsing about in L.A., trying to sort something out with WB, trying to sell them a film they don't want to know about. I didn't want any part to do with a film that Malcolm had anything to do with. Originally I had trusted his ideas film-wise, but then I read the script and found that we as a band were eliminated from anything to do with that side of things, we were pushed into positions that we had to accept."
Goldman: "What kind of role did you have?"
Lydon: "The dumb idiot, you know, Cliff Richard's early type of film." (breaks into raucous song) "'We're all going on a summer holiday', that kind of rubbish. We had nothing to say, nothing to do, just spin out roles to fulfill the producer's and the director's needs. I didn't want anything to do with that. That was the original disintegration of 'McLaren meets Rotten'. When the band broke up and it was all over, I heard vague rumours that Malcolm wanted to film me in London. I told his lackeys at Glitterbest Ltd. to drop dead, 'cause I didn't want to be filmed. I made that very clear. When I found them hiding behind bushes in Jamaica I was quite disgusted. I thought that was the most basic piece of evil I'd ever seen. The crew don't know how close they come to having the camera pushed straight through the back of their brains!"
Goldman: "If you feel like that about Glitterbest, why did you stay so long with them?"
Lydon: "I've always been separate. Always. I don't like Glitterbest at all. It's a bunch of yes-men for a dictator, who's so full of himself he doesn't know that other people exist. If you don't go along with him and his opinions you're a nobody in their book, 'cause you don't see their way of thinking. They're like the worst element of communism. And that means they're all bourgeois. How come McLaren and Westwood left it so late to change the world? How comes they've suddenly become" (spits out the words) "fashionable anarchists? They're both over thirty, Vivienne's probably over fifty, I wouldn't put it past her. She, that preaches anarchy but sells ya trousers at £40! Now what anarchist can afford £40 for a pair of fashionable pants?"
Goldman: "Will you be able to release any music till you're free of your contract with Glitterbest?"
Lydon: "Music-wise I cannot release anything yet, until I've eliminated them from my life, 'cause I don't want them to collect money from what I've been doing since. Let's be reasonable, that's what would happen."
"I know that in part one of this story I talked about them criticising my choice of friends. It's hard to explain that, because it's hard to explain how people can be so basically against you being yourself. I'd assumed that they knew what I was when they signed me up in the first place, they've only recently decided that it isn't what they wanted. That's just too bad now, isn't it?"
"Just go to her shop" (Seditionaries, in the Kings Road) "now if you don't believe me, read what she wrote on the window about my connections with being Irish. Sorry Vivienne, you know, I was brought up a Catholic, I can't help that!" (utmost sarcasm here) "I don't claim to be one, but at the same time I don't expect to be knocked by a fascist. Look, for a start, she says Haile Selassie" (spiritual leader of Rastafari) "was a Catholic. What's that supposed to mean? Please! Is that not the most ignorant statement you ever read in your life? I can't believe that people can be that pathetic. And she wrote something about 'John's gone away to the sun to Jamaica to grow his cock.' That gives you some idea of the Malcolm and Vivienne connection and what I had to put up with. Absolutely pathetic!"
"When it came down to reality, all they wanted was an image clothes-wise, they don't want no reality behind it. Those are circles I don't deal with. I don't care what anybody wears, I care about what they feel. What they think, feel and live, that's all. I don't want lies."
Goldman: "Have Virgin been on your side with this?"
Lydon: "There's absolutely nothing wrong with Virgin. I think they're fine. I've still got a contract with them. I'd like to keep all my contracts, but it doesn't look that way with McLaren's interference."
Goldman: "Can he come between you and Warner Bros., if they want to deal with you?"
Lydon: "When I've spoken with Warners, I'll know for sure. I hope they're not stupid. They signed up the band for what we stood for. I wrote and sang everything we stood for. The fact that the backing band have changed, 'cause that's what it amounts to right now, is irrelevant. So I get three more."
Goldman: "People always claimed that Glen Matlock wrote and was responsible for the sound."
Lydon: "That was absolute bullshit! Let's be honest. Let's look at the Rich Kids and think practically. Look at what they stand for."
Goldman: "Power pop?"
Lydon: "Is that what they call it? The Shit Kids? Now, interview this question from me: why has Malcolm not approached me since we have terminated, not legally but verbally, the contract? What is the reason why he's in L.A.? He's desperate, that's the reason why he's in L.A.! He's desperate, that's the reason! He's trying to pick up the pieces."
Goldman: "Is he trying to get Warners to take the rest of the band as the Sex Pistols?"
Lydon: "That's a possibility that cannot be eliminated. I cannot state definite facts, but it's more than likely."
The phone rang, and John became engrossed in a conversation with a long-lost mate from his schooldays. When we reconvened, the news was that John had heard yet more of alleged attempts to sabotage his future with Warner Bros. and was planning direct action by flying to L.A. this week, for face to face confrontation with the record company. We started off talking about the four roadblocks John had been involved in during his four weeks in Jamaica.
Lydon: "That's not a lot by Jamaican standards. We were very lucky. The only common factor each time was that we were in a car with a driver and four wheels, and there were a lot of police with guns..."
"I don't want to talk so much about Jamaica, because it sounds so patronising. 'Oh yes, cruel world...'" (mock tragic accent) "Jamaica was lovely! I'd feel like that fool from the Jamaica Tourist Board, who wanted punks to go to Jamaica for a holiday. They've got enough problems already!" (laughs)
Goldman: "What did you think of the way sessions were run out here?"
Lydon: "You know, they're very different. It couldn't work here. The cheaper things are in England, the worse business-wise for the companies, who control just about everything."
Goldman: "You mean that all the budgets here are designed for wasted studio time? But those session musicians there are so slick, they lay down about three brilliant rhythms an hour."
Goldman: "Don't you think it's inspirational for a British musician starting out to know that Scratch can get his sound on a 4-track TEAC?"
Lydon: "Yes, but you should hear the sounds I can get on a washboard."
Goldman: "What do you think of thiose rumours in 'Ritz' that you're forming a reggae band?"
Lydon: "How can anyone be so presumptuous? Nobody ever tells me what I'm doing, and I don't deal in gossip circles. I think it's very funny." (sarcasm again) "But far be it from me to put the gossip columns out. Say, I'm forming an Irish Cajun disco Afro rock band with Moog synthesizers, that'd be amazing!"
Goldman: "Then they'll be springing up all over the place!"
Lydon: "I know! That's the fun of it! People are that gullible..."
Goldman: "The 'Confidential' fanzine is talking about your 'reggae clique'..."
Lydon: "It's preposterous to assume that I'm gonna form a reggae band. I like the music, but not enough to tamper with it to be self-indulgent."
Goldman: "Is that part of the reason why you didn't record in Jamaica?"
Lydon: "Who says I didn't? Actually, I heard that Lee Perry had got The Upsetters to cut a reggae version of a track from the album - we gave him a cassette - but I never sang on it or anything."
Goldman: "If you had recorded, who would you have liked to work with?"
Lydon: "Russ Conway. But he wasn't there."
Goldman: "Wouldn't you be interested to hear your voice with a reggae production?"
Lydon: (laughs) "It's always interesting to hear my voice! I was just thinking - there's now gonna be half a million people going around, thinking that Russ Conway is an underground reggae artist!" (creases up giggling)
Goldman: "It's simply that people want to know what kind of music you're gonna make next."
Lydon: "I don't care what people want to know. No one's got that kind of right. I do what I do, and when I decide to release it, that's a different story, but till then I prefer to keep quiet about it. No point in glorifying things that might never come about."
Goldman: "That's what you get for having people love you and respect you - they want to know what you're doing."
Lydon: "I doubt if many people love me, and respect - let's face it, I'm not very respectable."
Goldman: "You know that's not true. Your records have been very successful despite attempts from all sides to make them unhearable."
Lydon: "Most of the people that bought those records never understood them and probably never will. To them they're ditties. I suppose a few people are aware, but they don't make themselves very clear."
Goldman: "Didn't you start out thinking your music would make people more aware?"
Lydon: "That's always been my sole intention. Not aware of what I'm doing, but of what they'd want to do. Music is just a catalyst. When people buy records, they interpret them in different ways, which is fine."
Goldman: "Do you feel you've seen any changes resulting from your music?"
Lydon: "How could I? How could I be such a prima donna, so selfish? I don't know what I believe in, it changes every day."
Goldman: "Are you still writing a song a day?"
Goldman: "Would you give them to other people to do?"
Lydon: "For sure. I don't have anybody in mind, I'm not a manipulator, it's not like draughts or chess. To me that would be the wrong approach. I just want to get on with it myself and do my bit. My plans are changing all the time. I don't see why I shouldn't go to L.A., I'm not paying, after all." (a brief pause, then John bursts out angry) "Oh, I'm so sick of the music business! There's so many crooks in it, I just feel like giving up. But I can't! I won't. It might mean I'll end up looking like some prize arsehole, but that's just the fun of it. I know my weaknesses. I couldn't be bothered to play those business games, too much bullshit."
"I'm not interested in huge amounts of money, what I'm interested in is that other cunts don't make huge amounts of money out of me. There is a difference, and lining my own pockets doesn't appeal to me. I haven't met a rich person who's happy. Then again, I haven't met many rich people, because I don't hang around in those circles."
Goldman: "They certainly seem interested in hanging out with you!"
Lydon: "That's because they're arseholes, money and no brains, just trying to..."
Goldman: "...rediscover what they started out with, perhaps?"
Lydon: "Yeah. That's something they should have worked out for themselves. Don't look to me for help! I'm very interested in forming my own band now. And I mean a band who's willing to take as much of the work as me. In fact" (lofty) "more at times, if I get lazy!" (John jumps up from the couch and lounges in front of the mirror, preening) "Oh, beeyootiful me!"
Goldman: "Why do you always stand in front of the mirror saying things like that?"
Lydon: "Because I truly believe that I'm wondrous!"
Goldman: "It just leads amateur psychiatrists like me to believe you're insecure."
Lydon: "Oh no, that's not insecure. I'd say the exact opposite!" (bursts into delighted laughter) "I don't see why people shouldn't be proud of themselves. I'm wondrous from head to toe. Truly a work of God!" (makes extraordinary flatulent popping sound, as he admires his blue suede brothel creeper shoes in their red-green-gold striped football socks)
Goldman: "Getting serious, have you thought of any musicians you'd like to be in a band with you?"
Lydon: "I can't think of any, not one. I'm in a serious predicament, because I've got two choices now. That's session musicians, to be able to continue immediately, which I don't want, because that's emotionless and a waste of effort and time - just listen to Iggy's last couple of albums to understand that. Or people that just want to be in a band with me, because it's a way to make a fast buck. There's practically no musicians with my musical tastes. This means: oh cruel savage world, if there's any oafs going round out there, who dare to consider themselves acceptable, let me know!"
"And I don't mean mugs and prats and tits and liggers and wankers and madmen with pea-brained ideas about changing the musical course of history, because we all know that that's impossible."
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