John Lydon re-examines his Rotten life

May 16, 1994|By Jim Sullivan | Jim Sullivan,Boston Globe

John Lydon came to fame 18 years ago as Johnny Rotten: he who would destroy. Or at least incite and entertain. Rotten sang and wrote lyrics for the Sex Pistols, England's most notorious punk band, the ragtag band that took on the queen ("She ain't no human being!"), danced on England's economic grave ("No future!"), rejoiced in life on the dole ("I'm a lazy sod!") and sought to change the sound and shape of rock 'n' roll. That is, to rip it from the hands of the stodgy, old-time music biz veterans, infuse it with wit, spark and danger. To make a big mess and roll around in it.

After the Sex Pistols crashed in early 1978, Rotten distanced himself from the Pistols as much as possible. He reverted back to Lydon and formed the band Public Image, Ltd. He resisted attempts to dredge up the past. When Spin magazine named the Sex Pistols one of the best seven bands of all time, he told a Boston Globe writer: "I think it's very wanky of them to go backwards rather than forwards. Who takes these things seriously? Not me."

Now, evidently, Mr. Lydon, 37, feels sufficient distance to look back; and he feels enough anger at the way others have portrayed the era in which he played a part. "Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs" is, not surprisingly, a highly opinionated, contentious book, in which Mr. Lydon tackles not just posthumous Sex Pistols myth-making but contemporary codes of conformity.

"People invent new prejudices, and the prejudices we face are substantially different," he writes. "Our modern-day prejudices are, like, 'You're in Greenpeace or you don't exist.' . . . It's a whole new bunch of authoritarianisms, but the same rules apply. They must be rebelled against because they're not sensible. They're based on sloganeering."

That is one thing Mr. Lydon never liked about the punk bandwagon -- the myriad fans and bands who just copped a style and a sound. His attitude made sense then; it makes sense now. Mr. Lydon, who terms the Pistols "evil burlesque," was at the center of a chaotic time.

"Booze was cheap," he writes, "so was amphetamine sulfate. There was always a lot of speed and booze about. It was a nice marriage at the time. You would be up and down -- in a deep state of confusion about everything. I suppose that was the best way to enjoy a punk festival. But that's when the imitation bands would start to throw glasses, overdo it, and try to out-Pistol the Pistols. Fans let you down. They don't get it. Sid really let us down, too. He didn't get it, either."

Sid, of course, is Vicious, Mr. Lydon's hapless pal-turned-replacement bassist, and he paints him primarily as a pathetic dupe; Vicious' girlfriend Nancy Spungen gets more of Mr. Lydon's ire -- "I was absolutely convinced this girl was on a slow suicide mission, as indeed most heroin addicts are. Only she didn't want to go alone. She wanted to take Sid with her."

Grim stuff, to be sure, and yet there's a nasty vicarious pleasure found in reading about it. A concomitant part of the pleasure is the humor in this book -- just as there was humor in the Sex Pistols and in punk the first time around. Dark humor, to be sure, but if you missed the glee inherent in the rebellion, you missed a good part of the point. Same here. Mr. Lydon gets up your nose and makes you smile.

A strength of "No Irish" is the way Mr. Lydon cedes the narrative to other key players -- the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, writer Caroline Coon, filmmaker Julien Temple, pseudopunk Billy Idol -- and they aren't always favorable to Rotten.

Mr. Lydon on what it all meant: "A lot of people feel the Sex Pistols were just negative. I agree, and what the [expletive] is wrong with that? Sometimes the absolute most positive thing you can be in a boring society is completely negative. It helps. If you're not, you show weakness and you must never do that! . . .

"I think there's something basically wrong with the general public that they need their icons. I'm an icon breaker, therefore that makes me unbearable. . . . I always hoped I made it completely clear that I was as deeply confused as the next person. If I had all the answers I wouldn't be involved in something like this at all."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs"

Author: John Lydon with Keith and Kent Zimmerman

Publisher: St. Martin's Press

Length, price: 329 pages, $22.95

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