By Bill Wyman
A new show on cable features a theme song that sounds familiar:
Seventeen years ago, those words were underground mantras, the chants and spells of a subculture that seemed ferocious and important, the epitome of extremity. Nothing was more uncompromising, nothing harsher. That's all still true; but when a Sex Pistols song becomes a TV show theme, something has changed.
Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs is the severe, almost wholly unapologetic memoir from John Lydon, onetime Sex Pistol and more recently a fading modern-rock star. The book at once re-animates the extremity of the time and also, almost accidentally, puts it in perspective. The Sex Pistols were a collection of not so petty thieves and incipient hoodlums who - having been created through the incendiary alchemization of their grossly opportunistic but undeniably effective manager, and a waspish, repellently charismatic singer (over the course of a nasty, brutish, and short career) - scandalized a nation and turned pop culture upside down. The band's story is a unique one; the mixture of this and Lydon's unbridled and vicious telling makes for scorching reading. He settles scores with foes and friends, alive and dead - Sid ("He took it all too far, and boy, he couldn't play guitar. David Bowie reference"), Nancy ("She was so utterly fucked up and evil") and Vivienne Westwood ("Silly bitch. She went nowhere fast after punk") - and delivers one of the least romantic images of rock 'n' roll ever enunciated: "I don't care how big-headed the lead singer is, it all comes down to the fact that he must eat shit in the rehearsal room. The histrionics of the lead guitar, the excesses of the drummer, and the stupidity of the bass player have to meet on equal footing."
Such personal memoirs are set against the public ones (most jibing with the version in Jon Savage's searching social history of the time, England's Dreaming ). A tiny group of malcontents, led by the Fagin-like McLaren, all hopped up on the quaint notion that a social eruption could be accomplished by a rock band. The band members gamely contributed outrage after outrage. Their indecencies, McLaren's organizational incompetence, and an unmatched collective sense of grandiosity culminated in perhaps the most wildly cockeyed tragi-comedic marketing plan in the history of entertainment: the Sex Pistol would conquer America - via a tour through the deep south. The band collapsed and the players went their separate ways: Sid to hell, McLaren to marginality, Rotten to a rigid prison of hauteur and arrogance.
So who was the Sex Pistols? Lydon or McLaren? McLaren is a ridiculous figure today, and no ground-breaker even at the time. But what can be said certainly about him is while he was not in uncharted waters he was some ways out from shore, watching intently for the wave. What can be said about Rotten is that he was an accident waiting to happen. Such was McLaren's eye and the chaos of pop culture that he happened not on a few innocent bystanders but on us. Both were unusual people in their own right - but note that neither has done much of anything remotely approximating the initial bleat in the many years since. Who was the Sex Pistols? Neither. Both.
But we should remember that, of the two, Lydon was the artist; he had a fabulous ability to convey disgust, and a mystically immediate ability to craft lyrics in a new telegrammatic language of buzzwords and contempt. But among leaders of great rock bands, he had unquestionably the worst leadership qualities. (He was conscripted, remember.) The rest of the band refused to turn up to the first rehearsal with Rotten, and relations deteriorated after that. He had one pyrrhic management triumph - edging out the doltish Glen Matlock in favor of his friend Simon Ritchie, who couldn't play bass but was working at coming by his stage name honestly, through a growing cauldron of recklessness and cruelty. "When I got Sid into the Pistols, my mum sighed, 'What kind of wicked reasons have you got behind that?' " Those wicked reasons tortured his bandmates and McLaren but killed Sid and scarred Lydon. In the book's most human moment he admits he wasn't the friend he should have been.
Rotten ends the book with the trial depositions and the victory of the Sex Pistols in their suit against McLaren, tacitly acknowledging that his career since is not worth talking about. His composure is so complete that it must mask vast insecurities. But Rotten's position is secure. The band has already provided us with disco and polka versions of their hits (On The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle.) And if he ever caves into the rewards of a Sex Pistols reunion he will trumpet his financial motivations. But he will always have the aura of a victim about him. He stands near the scene of the accident, dazed and bleeding, the wreckage still falling from the sky, and explains to all who will listen how pleased he is at his handiwork.
Gearhead is the very fab print materialization of the inside of publisher/editor Mike LaVella's mind. Issue #2 is dedicated to Francis Vincent Zappa, so right off you know LaVella knows what's up. In LaVella's head, cars, rock-and-roll, noir cinema, alcoholic beverages, and cool comix can be found out in the Gearhead garage, manifestations of a culture he truly loves. This issue, with great cover art by P. Bagge, includes: "Gearhead Rates The Biker Flicks," "I Survived the Tenderloin Bar Crawl," "The Mike Curb Connection" and "Dick Dale: God of Thunder." A must read. If you can't find it on the racks, write P. O. Box 421219, San Francisco, CA 94142-1219 for info. -- Michael Goldberg