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Sex Pistol John Lydon is 'Rotten' again

November 19, 2008 |  5:14 pm

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Why should you listen to Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten, a.k.a. John Lydon? Because he's punker than you, he always was and he always will be. And he's not afraid to say so. He says this and much, much more in "Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs," just reissued by Picador. "I have no time for lies or fantasy and neither should you," he writes by way of introduction. "Enjoy or die."

But he does have time for contradiction, which makes this memoir interesting. It's an oral history told mostly by Lydon, but also by old friends (and enemies), including Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook; Billy Idol; Steve Severin, guitarist of Siouxsie and the Banshees; filmmaker Julien Temple; and Chrissie Hynde, who, pre-Pretenders, was in the thick of things in London in the mid-1970s. It's a shifting collage of voices. Add to that Lydon's quick intellect, which can grab an idea and turn it inside-out in the space of a sentence, and you've got a messy punk rock patchwork, as true in its contractions and omissions as a more concrete version would be.

Lydon's Irish immigrant family barely scraped out a poverty-ridden existence in England, despite his father's constant labors. They moved a lot. When he was a child, Lydon was struck with meningitis, and after a year in the hospital had lost language; his mother retaught him to speak. His father may have been more tough than nurturing (he says in the book that he should have named Johnny "Sue") but his parents always stood by him. Even so, Rotten was squatting with other roughnecks by the time he was 17. 

I'm going to let him tell you the rest. What follows are quotes from John Lydon, about the state of being Johnny Rotten, ordered, mostly, chronologically:

I like crazy people, especially those who don't see the risk.

Lydon on art and writing and sex -- and rock and roll, of course -- after the jump.

I was artistic. I'd draw anything. I loved geometry, but not the math side of it. I loved history because I don't believe any of it.

I studied English literature and art, I liked poetry and the writings of Ted Hughes. We were supposed to study Keats, but I found him too tweedy for my liking. That's when I got into Oscar Wilde. I thought his stuff was ... brilliant. What an attitude to life!... No Baudelaire or Rimbaud for me. It... didn't fool me for a second. But Oscar Wilde, there was a writer.

It's no accident that the Irish invented stream-of-consciousness literature. It was of absolute necessity. Poverty and the deprivation of their own language made this very important. Hence long-term memory, which is a Celtic thing.

For a kid, sex can be messy, horrible, embarrassing and third-rate. "See you later," as you run off into the bushes with a smirk on your face.

I used to have terrible trouble rehearsing because I was so ... shy about it. I always wanted to be brilliant, excellent, loved, and adored right from the start. When I finally finished the words [to "Anarchy in the U.K."], Glen [Matlock, who played bass in the Pistols before Sid Vicious] was furious. He thought it was appalling and a silly idea for a song. I proved him right.

When you don't know who you are, it takes a lot to get to the point where you throw yourself into the fire in front of other people.

I like crazy people, especially those who don't see the risk.

I think there's something basically wrong with the general public that they do 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.

[On Bob Regher, of Warner Brothers America] He had the perception and was the only one with the real rock-n-roll sense. He was always laughing....When I was being moody, a typical Johnny Rotten stance -- he'd just burst out laughing. Oh, I'll have to change the rules of this game. Here was the only one who understood.

I really do think the crown and glory of the Sex Pistols is that we've always managed to disappoint on big occasions. When the chips were down, we never came through. We were so bad, it was gloriously awful, as it should have been.

That last moment on stage in San Francisco was the truth. I had felt cheated. I felt that my life had been stolen from me by lesser beings. Our inabilities ruined something truly excellent. I'm sure history will bear me out on that.... I'm no saint. I'm as wrong as everyone else and as right as most.
     I know there's a certain aspect in my character where I actually enjoy things falling apart, where the chaos becomes far more enjoyable than the commitment. it will always be there, my impetuosity.
     So I am not without guilt.

It is impossible in 2008 to hear the Sex Pistols music and imagine what it was like to hear that music before there was a Sex Pistols, before the legions of other bands followed them. (This isn't unique to the Sex Pistols, but it is an absolute rule. There have been legions of bands that sound like the Sex Pistols since the Sex Pistols, but before them, there weren't). Watching the band on film, like in Temple's excellent "The Filth and the Fury," brings some of the electricity and chaos of the moment alive. But in this book, you crawl inside the mind of Johnny Lydon, and learn, in some small, contradictory, and undoubtedly full of bollocks ways, what it was like to be a Sex Pistol; cheated or not, it's worth it.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo by Hervé Jodoin via Flickr

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