'Rotten' memoir is Lydon's volley at the Sex Pistols

June 02, 1994|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

It would probably be overstating things to suggest that revenge was the main thing John Lydon had in mind when he wrote his memoir of the Sex Pistols -- but not by much.

After all, the Sex Pistols' saga has been hashed over from every imaginable angle. There have been music histories, such as Jon Savage's award-winning "England's Dreaming," cultural analyses along the lines of Greil Marcus' wide-ranging and impenetrable "Lipstick Traces," even a few films, like Alex Cox's "Sid & Nancy." But none of them, in Lydon's view, came close to getting the story straight.

"It's terrible that my own life has been taken away from me in that respect, and re-written for me, without me supposed to have a word to say about it," he says, over the phone from Los Angeles. So Lydon (or Johnny Rotten) decided to do something about it, and wrote his own book: "Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs," a 329-page memoir that traces his path from the slums of London to the height of pop culture infamy.

It's a fascinating book, and not just because it tells about the original Sid Vicious (a "soppy white hamster that used to live in a cage on the corner table in my parents' living room") or what Lydon's audition with the Sex Pistols was like ("No, I will not mime to 'Maggie May' "). What Lydon offers is a warts-and-all view of what was then the world's most-feared rock band, one that balances his own recollections with sometimes contradictory comments from others who were part of that scene.

It's not the most flattering way to assemble an autobiography, but then, Lydon wasn't interested in feeding the Sex Pistols myth. "People seem to thrive on fantasy," he complains. "It's a shame, because I think the truth is far more interesting and certainly more useful. Reality at least you can learn something from.

"Even at the utmost worst, you learn not to do that again," he laughs. "But mythology is an awful, hideous thing."

That's not to say Lydon's memories aren't occasionally shaded to his own benefit. Just ask Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde, who knew Lydon even before the Sex Pistols started to pop.

"That back-stabbing [expletive]!" she says. Hynde is apparently miffed about an interview Lydon did with the English music magazine Q, in which he dismisses the story that he was once to have married Hynde so she could have stayed in England.

"He says, 'Oh, I wouldn't have married Chrissie Hynde, that would have been a lifelong commitment,' " she huffs. "Which was the last thing any of us was thinking about at the time.

"He never mentions in his book that he got married to a woman who was a multi-millionaire, and who was just about to inherit a great deal of money. He doesn't really talk about a lot of the stuff that I could have talked about! But he turns around and trashes me the minute the book comes out.

"I still love him," she adds. "I mean, we all know he's a back-stabber. Everyone knows that."

He's also more than happy to own up to contradictions like that one. "Rotten," to its credit, does include a lengthy interview segment in which Hynde gives her side of the muddled matrimony story -- as well as similar bits drawing upon the memories of scenesters like Billy Idol, Julien Temple and Macro Pirroni, plus fellow Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones.

Why the interviews? "As the book slowly but surely started to come together, I wanted to introduce other voices," Lydon explains. "And have you ever tried interviewing your own father? Well, it doesn't work. So I got Keith and Kent [Zimmerman] in to help me on things like that. Because it became impossible for me to do it any more on my own."

Writing "Rotten," he adds, "wasn't no flippin' thing. It was five years, all in all: Two years planning, three years putting together."

Most of the book was done on tape, with Lydon dictating. "I tried writing it originally, but I found that I became too self-indulgent, and I fell in love with sentence structure rather than content," he says. "So I stopped that, and I went back to tape. Which is, indeed, how I write songs. Because I find that my mind can work much quicker than my hand.

"I did practice for another year until I got that perfect," he adds. "Because song writing and book writing, it's two different things. If I'd have known how much work was involved originally, I don't think I would have started it."

Well, maybe. Or maybe it's like Lydon's insistence that, by writing "Rotten," he can finally put the whole Sex Pistols era behind him. On the one hand, it's easy to believe him when he says there will never be a Sex Pistols reunion (he's too

happy with his own music, particularly the solo album he's working on); on the other hand, it's hard to imagine him passing up the opportunity to wax sarcastic on his old band's legacy.

Take, for example, the Sex Pistols' impact on today's bands: "I'm sure there are some who genuinely do appreciate us for what we were," he says. "But I'm mystified as to what element they get from it. They can imitate the music, but that's where they stop. They don't seem to be dealing with serious problems. They shy away from them, in fact. I find that rather sad."

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