SEX AND DYSFUNCTION AND ROCK 'N ROLL
A punk rocker tells his tale
By Don Stradley
I always figured the Sex Pistols could've made it in America based solely on Steve Jones' guitar. John Lydon's caterwauling vocals and Sid Vicious' goofy presence aside, it was Jones who might crack through America's thick, clannish wall. No one in the U.S. would care much about the band's reputation in England - we don't really get the whole business with the queen and the royals, and the whole punk fashion thing seemed silly to most of us who were still listening to Frampton, or our older brother's Zappa albums - but Jones' guitar could grab anybody by the ear. Though he was once planted at #99 on Rolling Stone's list of the top 100 rock guitar players of all time, he remains a largely unappreciated musician. I loved his style - it was raw, but smart - and his best riffs on Never Mind The Bollocks… have the feel of a man escaping down a clear road on a motorcycle, making hairpin turns and nearly cracking up. Listen to the crashing chord that introduces "Holidays in the Sun." A hundred guitarists using the same equipment in the same studio could hit the same chord, but none would sound like Jones. His way sounded like a call to arms, a warning shot announcing a street rumble where bones would be broken and souls trampled under jackboots.
Aside from his occasional reunions with the Sex Pistols, Jones has seemed content to forget those old riffs in favor of a variety of sounds, working with his own bands like The Professionals and Chequered Past, and serving as a gun for hire for everyone from Siousxie and the Banshees to Iggy Pop. For a while Jones wore his hair like Fabio and seemed to be deliberately removing himself from the Sex Pistols legacy. Still, when the band reunited in 1996 and sporadically during the 2000s, it was Jones' guitar that brought back the old chills. Are there really 98 guitar players better than Jones? There may be some technical wizards out there, some with a greater library of classic riffs, but I'll be damned if there are 98 who can make the hair on my neck stand up the way it does when I hear Jones, especially if I haven't heard him for a while.
There's always talk that The Sex Pistols could've been enormously successful had they stayed together beyond one album and one half-assed tour of America, that the success that came to U2 or The Police could've been theirs, but this isn't necessarily so. They were probably too abrasive for America, too strange, too unwilling to play the game. Plus, Jones didn't much care for Lydon's company. And if they'd managed to stay together and get rich, a heavy drug user like Jones might've followed Vicious into an early grave. Though kismet seemed to put them together - all were young guys hanging out at Malcolm McLaren's clothing shop when he was thinking about managing a rock group - you can't say luck was ever on their side. On their last tour in 2008, they came to the end without a profit, thanks to the economic crash. Lucky for Jones he's been able to pay the bills courtesy of his popular L.A. radio show, Jonesy's Jukebox. That particular job has kept him out of trouble for years. He interviews his friends, brings on musicians he admires, plays his favorite songs, and plays his guitar a bit, too. It was an unlikely, but safe, place for him to land.
These days he meditates. He took spin classes until he hurt his back. He makes amusing cameo appearances on shows like Portlandia - there he was on Craig Ferguson's farewell show, too, playing his scratchy power chords as Ferguson bellowed the lyrics of "Keep Banging On Your Drum" - but what's most interesting, along with the fact hat he can still play that damned guitar, is the way he looks now. He used to be such a boyish little guy - McLaren had originally thought of calling the band "Kutie Jones and his Sex Pistols," as if Jones was going to be the Shaun Cassidy of punk - but these days Jones is carrying some extra weight and looks like he could be a hitman in an old Michael Caine movie. No one would've guessed that this was what punk would look like in middle age. Then again, Jones is the first to tell you that he wasn't a punk, that he'd never really dressed the part and didn't have the hair for it. He's always been on his own, unpredictable path. To quote Chrissie Hynde, "no one could've predicted Jonesy."
Nor could anyone predict that his new memoir, Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol (Da Capo Press), would be such a frank confessional. Jones' book, which has its share of humor and rock 'n' roll moments, is a surprisingly insightful record of what can happen to a boy when he's victimized by sexual predators, as Jones was as a kid.
Throughout the memoir, Jones refers to himself as "damaged goods." At various times he's been an alcoholic, a junkie, a peeping Tom, a sex addict; he can't have normal relationships with women. Sex, which he begrudgingly accepts was one of his many addictions - though anyone reading the book could see it was obviously so - was just a distraction from his inner turmoil. He was a screwed up adult, and it's not surprising. He experienced some childhood incidents that would leave most people fairly well-scarred.
For a barely educated bloke, he's actually quite good at examining his behavior, especially his years as a kleptomaniac. There was nothing Jones wouldn't steal. Hell, he once stole a coat from Ron Wood, a guitar tuner from Roxy Music, and some sound equipment from David Bowie, including a microphone “that still had a smudge of Bowie’s lipstick on it.” The sense of excitement thrilled him, especially when his thefts made the news. In a rather brilliant aside, he says his thieving days help him understand mass murderers and arsonists.
“It’s that level of narcissism where you get excited because you’ve made your mark on the world and no one knows it’s you,” he says. “You’re so alienated from humanity that you don’t care how much damage you have to do to get that feeling.”
By turns cynical and self-deprecating, blunt and wickedly funny, Jones keeps the tale moving briskly. He tells it as he remembers it. Granted, he doesn’t always remember things vividly – he was too busy shagging birds in an alley while high on one drug or another – but since he was always the mystery man of the Sex Pistols, any small detail feels like a gold nugget. He admits to asking his friend and former Pistol Paul Cook for help with some of the blind spots in his memory, but he doesn’t seem too hell-bent on accuracy. He addresses a few misconceptions, and actually does a lot to restore the reputation of McLaren, long thought to be the devil incarnate who ruined the Pistols, and unleashes some telling snapshots of his old band mate, Lydon.
But Lonely Boy, written with an assist from Ben Thompson, is less a showbiz memoir than the story of a troubled man who happened to move in showbiz circles. It’s like a session of binge drinking with a jolly old uncle who tells a lot of risqué stories, and then shocks you with some intimate bits that you hadn’t expected to hear. Ultimately, it’s a moving story, told with as much candor as we can expect from a man who has spent a career relinquishing the spotlight to others.
Die-hard Pistols fans, however, will relish the discussions of Sid Vicious joining the band, and Lydon’s bizarre audition, and how the Pistols' sound was born. They may be shocked when Jones says he wishes he’d been in The Clash, or that he was secretly a fan of bands like Boston and Journey. But the story will be of interest even if you’ve never heard a single note of the Sex Pistols. It’s that well told.
If Jones’ guitar playing was deceptively complex, so is his style of storytelling. He sounds like he’s being matter of fact and humorous about everything, but there’s always a pinch of estrangement in each chapter. His joking manner is a kind of shorthand, but Jones, now 61, is still harboring hurts and insecurities.
He learned the guitar on his own, holed up in his childhood home in West London, scarfing pills to help his focus. It was a nice break from the perverts who stalked him under bridges, and the general sense of decay and corruption that made up the background of his life. “There were building sites and debris everywhere,” he writes. “It was like the whole place was falling down around us.” But he credits his atrocious childhood with the advent of the Pistols, adding, “It was my shit upbringing that got the ball rolling. That’s not me showing off, it’s just a fact.”
In this book we see Jones revealing different facets of his being. There’s the kid who loved nice clothes and shoes, the terrible student, the petty thief. He refers to himself at various times as a phantom, a werewolf, a daring burglar with a cloak of invisibility, and compares himself more than once to Alex of A Clockwork Orange. (Jones uses so much Brit slang in the book that you may think you're reading A Clockwork Orange!) Most winning of all, though, is the thieving kid who found unexpected comfort in music, loving everything from Rod Stewart to Jimi Hendrix, to Elvis, to prog rock. Hearing “Purple Haze” coming from a neighbor’s window was a special moment:
“There was a catchiness about it as well as the power, and I loved the syncopation, the way Hendrix’ guitar would kind of go ‘clunk’ and then ‘weeeoh!’”
And then later, the boy who never really had a proper mentor finds one in the most unlikely of people: Malcolm McLaren.
"He had his fucking issues, same as we all do, but I couldn't help but like him, and I got a lot out of our friendship - probably more than he knew."
Jones tells the story of the Sex Pistols and their crazy ride to fame like he’s describing a party gone dangerously out of control. It started out in a fun way, with him nicking equipment so the unpolished players would at least look professional, and the time spent songwriting and in the studio yielded magnificent results, even though the negative quickly outweighed the good: the absurdity of the U.K. media circus; the attacks in the street on Cook and Lydon; the rise and fall of Vicious; the phenomenon of fans spitting and hurling beer bottles.
Of the insidious presence of heroin in his life, Jones recalls that he never felt like he was the worst of junkies, though he once overdosed in a toilet stall at a sushi restaurant. He never took part in “shooting galleries,” which struck him as unclean. He was always sure to bring his own syringe, though he describes this as akin to bringing his own cue to a snooker hall. He maintains that he was an alcoholic who merely stumbled into heroin use. His addictive personality had a lot of moving parts, and heroin was just one aspect. Wandering through New York’s infamous Alphabet City in the 1980s hoping to score was one of the low points of his drug years. “It was scary, but I knew I had to do it. The thought of getting high was all that was keeping me going…being a junkie felt like a necessity after the Pistols ended.”
If the band had given him a sense of belonging, he never quite became friends with Lydon, AKA Johnny Rotten. Lydon comes off as a whining, immature character surrounded by yes-men. But, Jones reckons, Lydon’s snotty attitude, “was exactly what the Sex Pistols needed.”
He does praise Lydon for his vocals, and he’s particularly fond of Lydon for turning down the Sex Pistols’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Still, there is likely to always be friction between them. By the end of the 1996 reunion tour, Jones writes, “we were every bit as fucking sick of each other as we had been when the band first split up.”
Jones is equally direct with his impressions of other people in the music biz, including many that he’s met through his radio show. Brian Wilson, for instance, was “a complete cunt. Just because he’s supposedly a bit nuts, that’s no fucking excuse to not be a nice person.”
In the course of Lonely Boy, Jones discusses his tough years in 12-step programs, his difficulties in taking responsibility for his life, dealing with one of his childhood abusers, a sketchy relationship with his mother, and not learning how to read and write until he was grown. A meeting with his biological father goes reasonably well, but he knows going in that a real relationship with the guy, an ex-boxer named Don Jarvis, isn't likely. He just seems glad to finally meet him and learn he’s not a jerk. Music, though, remains a constant companion, if no one else will.
Jones manages to portray himself as a serious musician, not just a meathead who turned the volume up. There’s even gentleness in the way he discusses the guitar, like it’s a loyal dog he can always count on. Even during his darkest days, he was able to play, and be proud of what he did as a guitarist and a Sex Pistol. He’s never sentimental, though. “The Sex Pistols were born to crash and burn, and that’s exactly what they did.”
Yet, there are clues throughout the book that the band's sudden demise was something from which Jones never quite recovered. Bands are like marriages, and the breakup of a band, especially when it's the first time a guy feels like he's part of something, can be as devastating as any divorce. How can we read Jones' recollection of an early gig at St. Martin’s art college and think otherwise?
“I was thinking, ‘This, right now, is the best thing in the world.’ He (Lydon) was the singer and I loved playing in the band with him and the whole thing felt fucking great. Sadly, that feeling wouldn’t return too many times," Jones says. "But at least I’d always have the memory.”