Wednesday, July 8, 2015


I saw Public Image Ltd twice during the 1980s, both times at Boston’s Orpheum Theater. John Lydon, formerly Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, was an iconic figure of the punk era, and was now trying to establish himself as a “post-punk” figure, a phrase he’d probably hate. He fascinated me in those days.  The first show was better, more jagged. The second time PiL hit Boston was to promote Album, which  contained the masterful 'Rise', but if I could go back in time and experience either show again, I’d pick the first. I was young, and the time was right. I loved the 'no-frills' glumness of the event, so different from most concerts. I also liked the lineup of Jah Wobble on bass and Keith Levene on guitar. You know how it is – first is best.

Apparently, according to Lydon’s massive new memoir Anger is an Energy: My Life Uncensored, I’m wrong. Wobble was a rank amateur, writes Lydon, and Levene was just a temperamental junkie. “He was a cunt,” Lydon writes. “He played guitar good, but he was a cunt.” While such thunderbolts of judgment will be relished by a segment of Lydon’s fans, the book isn't just 500 pages of Lydon slagging his old mates. At times, particularly in the first section of the book, Lydon shines as a thoughtful and poignant memoirist.

Lydon's slummy childhood in the Holloway area of north London is like a Charles Dickens scenario shoved through a wood chipper, with sudden violence or illness lurking at every corner. Lydon was a bombsite kid, playing in the rusty remains of World War 2, spinning vinyl records at his parents’ house parties so the old folks could dance, sometimes with such gusto that their false teeth would fall out. He was a bright boy who loved to read, but a bout with spinal meningitis cost him his memory and his ability to speak at age seven.

“Meningitis came from the rats,” he recalls. “They were all over the place. They piss on the ground and, as rodents do, drag their bums leaving a urine trail. Meanwhile, I’d make paper boats and float them in the potholes in our backyard, so I’d touch the water, and then touch my mouth, and that’s how I got infected.” Nice and blunt, as we’d expect from the author of such songs as ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and ‘Bodies'.   

He recovered from meningitis, but painful spinal shots caused him to develop the bent posture that we know as the ‘Johnny Rotten stance’, hobbled over the microphone like Richard III. It took months for him to completely remember his parents, but life at the Lydons was never easy. He suspected “something very evil” had gone on there, with illegitimate children and hysterical grannies and lots of screaming and who knows what else. His early years were riddled with bad dreams and strange occurrences. Because he was the oldest of his siblings, he was often given very adult chores, such as dealing with his mum’s many miscarriages.

“It’s quite a thing to carry a bucket of miscarriage – and you can see little fingers and things in it – and have to flush it all down the outdoor toilet. There wasn’t a phone in the house, so I had to deal with all that first and then go to the doctor, which was a long walk.”

Somehow, this scrappy little boy grew to be a misfit teenager with bright green hair, and found his way into the strange world of Malcolm McLaren, a shifty megalomaniac who wanted to manage a rock band.  McLaren had guided The New York Dolls during the end of their career (he did them absolutely no good) and was trying to whip up a band of his own.  McLaren sensed a restlessness among London kids and wanted to cash in on it. At the very least, the band could serve as models to wear the latest bondage fashions dreamed up by McLaren and his paramour, Vivienne Westwood. Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Glen Matlock had been rehearsing for months but had no singer. Lydon was asked to audition. Hey son, you want to be a Sex Pistol? Again, like a Dickens character, young Lydon was plucked from obscurity and thrown into a new life. The difference was that Lydon wasn't rescued by a friendly rich benefactor, but by an egomaniac. The guys wanted to be a loud pub band. Lydon, with a golden opportunity dumped in his lap, felt they could be more. And out gushed the classics – ‘God Save The Queen’ ‘Pretty Vacant’ ‘Submission’…

“I wasn’t just throwing bricks through shop windows as a voice of rebellion,” he writes in the book’s preface. “I was throwing words where they really mattered. Words count.” What McLaren hadn't anticipated was Lydon’s love of music and experimentation. Lydon was already a serious music listener, gulping down everything from Bowie to Hawkwind, to the German group Can. McLaren had simply wanted a charismatic little grunter; he got a politically minded music buff. And Lydon’s caterwauling voice made for a perfect call to arms. 

Hiring Lydon for The Sex Pistols was kismet of the highest order, for there were plenty of other kids hanging out at McLaren’s shop who would’ve gladly fronted a band. But as Lydon makes clear in his book, the punk scene  was a noble endeavor but tended to attract knuckleheads and drug addicts, none of whom would've fit the role as Lydon did. Indeed, even the other Sex Pistols seem a bit thick in Lydon’s telling. Folks like Sid Vicious and The Clash make the expected cameos here, but there’s not much new to learn. Sid's story is still horrific, though, no matter how often it's told.

While the first half of the book is brilliant, the second half is less so. It’s mostly about Lydon’s constant battle with record companies, the occasional successes of PiL, and his stressful second go-around with the Pistols. In recent years he’s appeared on several UK TV programs, butter commercials, and a pair of nature documentaries where he spent time with sharks and gorillas. Some of his anecdotes are amusing, but much of the book's second half reads like a typical showbiz thingy. Aint I a riot? he seems to be saying. A monkey pissing down my back! It could only happen to me! 

Though he talks a lot about being “uncensored”, Lydon doesn’t treat us to anything controversial. Instead, we learn that he likes Tod Rundgren, and Robert Plant, and Boy George, and he felt a real affection for the late American TV host, Tom Snyder. Lydon also likes milk. He doesn’t drive a car, but he can drive a boat. He cries often. He’s slowly overcoming various insecurities. He's had his share of crazy fans, including some odd females who were quite adamant about becoming Mrs. Lydon. He wants to try acting, which has always been a problem for him. On it goes, this mishmash of a second half, made slightly annoying by Lydon constantly telling us about his integrity, and that ol’ Johnny does what he wants and can’t be pushed around. We get it, John. You don’t have to say it on every bloody page.

Lydon's ‘happily ever after’ has found him in Los Angeles, far away from his British past, and enjoying life. He’s deeply devoted to his wife Nora, but despite mentioning her often in the book, he's stingy with details. We gather that she's much older than Lydon, and that she once dragged him to a Beyonce concert. Other than that, his beloved Nora remains in the shadows. This, I imagine, is Lydon's way of being protective. 

What really hits us, though, is that Lydon's story is filled with pain. At one point his father playfully hits him with a shovel and accidently breaks Lydon’s ankle. Later, Lydon recounts a punishing bout of surgery on his famously rotten teeth.  Even one of his nature programs results in him being attacked by mosquitoes. Lydon is always shrugging off some sort of hurt. “I’m like an anvil,” he writes. Perhaps, but the pain seeps out now and then. He once hunted down a sad old British movie about a pregnant teen and watched it just so he could repeat the experience of weeping over it. Anger may be what drives him, but Lydon also hosts great springs of love and sadness. 

While reading this book, which is considerably less prickly than Lydon’s 1994 memoir, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs,   I was reminded of how much I miss Lydon’s music. I miss the thrill of hearing a new Lydon project for the first time. But just as Lydon says about England, there’s no real need to revisit it. It’s all still in me, and always will be.

 - Don Stradley

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