Alive at the core . . . Lydon's quite the humorist. . . . [Full of] cut marks of wit and ego.” The New Yorker
“A wrathful Irish poet . . . Lydon proves to have a keen wit and rare insight.” The Washington Post Book World
“A pavement philosopher whose Dickensian roots blossom with Joycean color.” Rolling Stone
“Invaluable . . . sheds welcome light on that short period of great music and spasmodic cultural change.” San Francisco Chronicle
"I have no time for lies and fantasy, and neither should you. Enjoy or die..." --John Lydon
Punk has been romanticized and embalmed in various media. An English class revolt that became a worldwide fashion statement, punk's idols were the Sex Pistols, and its sneering hero was Johnny Rotten.
Seventeen years later, John Lydon looks back at himself, the Sex Pistols, and the "no future" disaffection of the time. Much more than just a music book, Rotten is an oral history of punk: angry, witty, honest, poignant, crackling with energy. Malcolm McLaren, Sid Vicious, Chrissie Hynde, Billy Idol, London and England in the late 1970s, the Pistols' creation and collapse...all are here, in perhaps the best book ever written about music and youth culture, by one of its most notorious figures.
Alive at the core . . . Lydon's quite the humorist. . . . [Full of] cut marks of wit and ego.” The New Yorker
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No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs
By John Lydon, Keith Zimmerman, Kent Zimmerman
PicadorCopyright © 1994 John Lydon
All rights reserved.
NEVER MIND THE SITUATIONISTS; THIS WAS SITUATION COMEDY
THE MORNING AFTER WINTERLAND, SAN FRANCISCO, JANUARY 15, 1978
"Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" My famous last words on stage. The Sex Pistols ended the way they began — in utter disaster. Everything between was equally disastrous. That last Winterland gig was a failure, and I knew it more than anyone.
The night of the gig I didn't even have a hotel room. The morning after I still didn't have a hotel room, did I? At least not with the band. Malcolm McLaren said there wasn't any room left for me and Sidney. So Sid and I slept with the road crew in a motel in San Jose, fifty miles outside San Francisco.
One of the reasons I stayed with Sid Vicious on the bus during the American tour, driving, rather than flying, from state to state, gig to gig, was to keep him away from drugs. He had already developed a keen problem back in London. The idea was to keep him clean. That's what infuriated me so much. The minute we hit San Francisco, somehow or other, Sid managed to escape and get himself a whole parcel of heroin. Funny, that. Some would call that a coincidence. That buggered him up. Totally. As a result, dear reader, the Winterland show was a disaster.
We never had a decent sound on stage. I don't even remember the sound check. Winterland held about five thousand and was almost as big a hall as we had ever played. We were touted as the new Rolling Stones. It was horrible. Once anything got to a level of importance, the Pistols were let down — not by ourselves, but by the people who should have been looking out for us. I couldn't understand why on earth Boogie, our British road manager, was behind the PA desk mixing the sound. At a major gig like this one, we should have had a professional sound engineer. It was awful, wasn't it? It was worse where I was standing, center stage. You were lucky if you were in the audience; you didn't have to put up with the feedback on stage. I couldn't hear bugger all, except Steve's guitar, which was constantly out of tune. It's very hard when you can't hear what you're doing. You can't tell. No monitors on stage were working. They were all feeding back.
That kind of distraction would normally not get in the way, but it did that night in San Francisco. People expected too much from us. Bill Graham, the promoter, moved the gear off the stage and arranged a party afterward. I was told I wasn't allowed in. At my own gig! I was told to go away after the way I had behaved.
We hated each other at that point. I hated the whole scenario. It was a farce; I realized that from our first week of rehearsals as a band back in 1975. I must have left that band so many times. We all did. It was just nonstop. In and out. I walked off stage loads of times at gigs. The only one who really did go was Glen Matlock, our original bass player whom Sid replaced. But that made us all very happy. Things improved no end the minute he exited. Bringing Sid in brought a sense of chaos that I liked. Yes, Glen was responsible for a lot of the original tunes — if you want to call them that. He had a softening effect. Glen wanted to turn the whole thing into a sort of a Bay City Rollers scene and for us to look like some Soho poofs. Can you believe that? This was his image of the Sex Pistols: awful white plastic shoes, tight red pants. Really, really awful. Phony gay image.
Who put the Pistols together? Not Malcolm, really. Born out of a clothes store he owned? That's the pop myth. There were several people in the band before I came along. The first connection with the store, I suppose, was that Glen worked there. Whatever they were up to before, they were nothing like what they became once I joined up! They had no image. No point. No nothing. No purpose to it other than making really lousy Small Faces and imitation Who noises. It was vile. Really, really bad, but I liked it.
They all bitched at the first rehearsals about how I couldn't sing, which was true. I still can't, and I don't really want to. The kind of records they were playing — if they call that singing — were awful. The Faces must have been the worst band on the earth to model yourself after. Acting drunk. Teetering around the stage. That was the kind of thing Glen liked. He thought it was clever. I didn't. I thought it disgusting pub rock.
Quirky little pop songs is what they wanted. You should have seen their faces when I slapped the lyrics down to "Anarchy in the U.K." It was classic. I wish I had had a camera. "God Save the Queen" was the final reason Glen left; he couldn't handle those kinds of lyrics. He said it declared us fascists. I agreed with him. Just to get rid of him, I didn't deny it. I don't think being an anti-Royalist makes you a fascist. Quite the opposite. Silly ass. Isn't he?
There was no progress or advancement all the way through the Pistols. While we were touring America, there were large periods of not doing anything at all. However, I was constantly writing. Turns out I wrote a lot of songs for my next group, Public Image Limited, during that period. But I could not get the Pistols interested. They wanted to go back to that quirky little Who ditty thing. Songs about religion absolutely killed them. "You can't sing that! You'll get arrested!" Well, I fucking hoped so. That was the whole point.
The only violence about the Sex Pistols was the anger. Nothing else. We were not violent people. There was no death at our gigs. The one thing that used to piss me most about the Sex Pistols was our audience all turning up in identically cloned punk outfits. That really defeated the point. There was no way I was going to give them a good time for that, because it showed no sense of individuality or understanding of what we were doing. We weren't about uniformity.
Malcolm was a very destructive force on that American tour. He was totally negative, and I really couldn't see the point or purpose to it. We made our own scandal just by being ourselves. Maybe it was that he knew he was redundant, so he overcompensated. All the talk about the French Situationists being associated with punk is bollocks. It's nonsense! Now that really is coffee-table book stuff. The Paris riots and the Situationist movement of the sixties — it was all nonsense for arty French students. There's no master conspiracy in anything, not even in governments. Everything is just some kind of vaguely organized chaos.
Chaos was my philosophy. Oh, yeah. Have no rules. If people start to build fences around you, break out and do something else. You should never, ever be understood completely. That's like the kiss of death, isn't it? It's a full stop. I don't ever think you should put full stops on thoughts. They change.
I'm a spiteful bastard. I always have been. If I can make trouble, then that's perfect for me. My school reports show this thoroughly. Negative attitude. Well, of course.
* * *
The last gig in San Francisco was the ultimate, the full stop. We ended up getting paid $67 for that gig, so people had no right to moan at us.
The crew had to leave the morning after because the tour had folded. I had no hotel, no accommodations, so I went over to the Miyako Hotel, where Malcolm, Steve Jones, Jamie Reid, Bob Gruen, and Paul Cook were. I couldn't find Malcolm. I didn't know where he was, but I spoke to Paul and Steve. They were very distant and remote with me. Paul and Steve didn't seem to know what it was all about, and they didn't want to discuss it, either — other than the fact that I had ruined it for them. They wouldn't even explain what I had ruined.
I didn't know they were planning to go to Rio de Janeiro to record and shoot film footage with Ronald Biggs, the infamous great train robber from Britain. I found that out through Sophie Richmond, Malcolm's secretary. I thought it was a pretty shitty idea to support an aging tosspot robber like Ronald Biggs. It was appalling. I couldn't condone the idea of going down and celebrating someone who took part in a 1963 robbery that resulted in the bludgeoning of a train driver into brain-dead senility and the theft of what was basically working-class money. It wasn't as if they were robbing a bank. It was payroll from a mail train. Biggs never did any of the planning, he was just one of the people in on the robbery. His claim to fame was that he busted out of jail in England and escaped to Rio. I don't know how much his take was, but he couldn't have been rolling in it. I heard he was living in a shack on the beach in Brazil. That's hardly my idea of big-time success. It wasn't joyful, witty, or funny. It didn't have anything to do with what the Pistols were about before that. Instead, it seemed dour, malicious, and grim. There was no humor in it, and it just seemed like belligerence for its own sake. To this day I have never understood the ins and outs of the Rio project. Judging from the footage Malcolm shot, it was mostly just Steve, Paul, and Ronnie Biggs on the beach.
As far as I was concerned, the band had broken up. It had broken up when I had said what I said on stage. I felt cheated, and I wasn't going on with it any longer; it was a ridiculous farce. Sid was completely out of his brains — just a waste of space. The whole thing was a joke at that point. It was all very bitter and confusing at the Miyako Hotel. Sid and I weren't invited into that particular little enclave. The reason given was that we weren't booked into a room at the Miyako in the first place, and there were no rooms left. Malcolm didn't put the money up, and nobody booked the rooms. I ended up staying in an extra bed in Sophie's room. I was extremely tense, and I don't think I ever went to sleep that night. Malcolm wouldn't come out of his room, and I didn't understand what was going on. He wouldn't speak to me, even though several people — including Boogie and Sophie — tried to get him to come down and talk. He would not discuss anything with me. But then he would turn around and tell Paul and Steve that the tension was all my fault because I wouldn't agree to anything.
I had no money to speak of. I had twenty dollars on me. I tried ringing Warner Bros., the Sex Pistols' American record label, but they didn't believe it was me because they had been told I had left the country. I was stuck in America — no plane ticket, no money, nothing.
Malcolm could never have presented that Rio trip to me because he knew what my answer would be. I don't like breaking commitments, and for a band, touring is the most viable part of the process. There was another Sex Pistols tour lined up shortly after the American tour, starting in Stockholm. We had made a commitment to play the tour. People were already buying tickets, gigs were lined up. But for Malcolm to have taken us to Rio would have made that Swedish tour logistically difficult. Even though I thought the band was over, I still felt we had to finish the Scandinavian tour. Going to Rio was Malcolm's dream — so fuck the gig and the band, fuck everything. He was only thinking of himself again and titillating himself. By going to Rio, he canceled the tour and asserted his vision. It had become a boring rock band, so going to Rio, he thought, would open new avenues of excitement. Yet the commitments to Stockholm and others were already made. You couldn't just call it a day because Malcolm wanted to go to Rio. You needed to work with other people for things to succeed. Otherwise it was just a fantasy.
My relationship with Steve around the time of breaking up was absolutely awful, especially before they all went off to Rio. I sat down with Steve and Paul in San Francisco. They thought that I didn't want to be in the same hotel. I said it wasn't true, but they wouldn't listen. Didn't believe me.
The next day Paul and Steve left with Malcolm for Rio without me. I don't think they meant to be spiteful, but I think they just went where they thought the money was. It was the easier ride of the two — go with Malcolm or side with me and find out what was really going on. Joe Stevens shared a room with Malcolm on most of the tour. He was the one who lent me the money to get a plane ticket back to London. We went to New York that very evening. I would have been truly stranded without his help because I hadn't been given my ticket home. It was nice, since he was one of Malcolm's gang. I never got that kind of respect from the rest of them.
After stopping in New York, I returned to London. I went back to my house, the one I had cleverly insisted on buying in my name just before we left for America. It was in Gunter Grove. I remember that argument very well. Malcolm wanted to sign for it. I said, "Nope. Nope. Nope. You give me the money or that's it." None of the Pistols even had bank accounts at that time. Steve and Paul lived in a flat on Bell Street that was under Malcolm's name. So they had to sort of agree with whatever he said. Poxy scum.
* * *
The Sex Pistols just fizzled. There was no final band meeting when we dissolved in San Francisco. We had no big sit-down. There was no actual mass resignation. Looking back, I understand that Steve and Paul didn't want to carry on with the band. I didn't want to, either. None of us really wanted to do a tour of Scandinavia at that point. Sid was a complete disaster. I don't remember even seeing Sid after the San Francisco gig. He was so embarrassing that I kept as far away from him as I could. He became everything I didn't want a Sex Pistol to be: another worn-out druggie rock 'n' roller. It was a complete contradiction of everything we wanted to set up within the Sex Pistols.
Steve and Paul felt that way too at the time. They were against that kind of hard-drug use. Steve got into his drug problems a long time after; I think it was him trying to sort himself out. Paul never got into anything, but sometimes I think Paul doesn't need to know, he just accepts and carries on.
When Malcolm wanted to be spiteful, he sure knew how to be. That's why I pursued the court case — Lydon vs. Glitterbest — against him for so long. I was literally dropped like excess baggage. I wouldn't have minded so much if I had been given a ticket home. This is an elephant that never forgets. He tried to run off and even claimed he owned my name, Johnny Rotten. I wasn't allowed to use the name for years after until I took him to court and got it back.
Some twelve years later, when I finally did get to Rio with PiL, Ronnie Biggs wanted to come to one of the gigs. He left a message for me at the hotel saying Malcolm owed him some money, and could he collect from me? It had something to do with royalties from the record they did together. How was Ronnie Biggs ever going to collect on it? I don't think any money was withheld deliberately. It was because of Malcolm's inefficiency. Who was going to listen to Biggs bemoan his sorry lot?
In this respect, it's funny: Malcolm even stiffed the great train robber.CHAPTER 2
CHILD OF THE ASHES
It's amazing that even with security systems, you can't keep kids out. Kids find ways in. The more elaborate the security system or the bigger the guard dogs, the more determined kids are to get in. I was no exception. We used to do an awful lot of breaking into factories. That used to be hilarious good fun. Sewing machine factories, any place that was closed at night and on weekends. It was fun to run around inside. I was young, and there would be a gang of thirty or forty of us running around inside. It was a neighborhood gang thing in Finsbury Park, North London, in the early 1960s. Organized only in the sense that if kids from other neighborhoods tried to come in, there would be brick fights. You'd pile up as many bricks as you could and throw them. They'd be doing the same across the street until one lot ran off. That was it. What good fun.
The biggest joy was living on the edge of an industrial estate. It proved to be the best playground. We'd tamper with lathes and fiddle about with tools and stuff. I never had lots of toys when I was young. We never had the money, so we had just bits and pieces — not like the other kids. Some kids at school had these expensive, bleeding sets. It drove me crazy, but I figured, they don't do the things I can do.
Benwell Road and Holloway Road in Finsbury Park had a scruffy mob of kids of all ages. We were all led by a chap called [Smoothie], a particularly bad piece of work. He was a real problem to his family, but I used to think he was great. He was such total chaos, he wouldn't follow any rules and went in and out of Borstals. His parents sent Smoothie on all kinds of courses to try to rehabilitate him. He was English, so they had a little bit more money than us Irish, who lived across the street. His parents used to say that it was us Irish kids who made Smoothie misbehave. But I was six and Smoothie was twelve at the time. I liked the gang fights he started. Hilarious fiascoes, not at all like the knives and guns of today. The meanness wasn't there. It was more like yelling, shouting, throwing stones, and running away giggling. Maybe the reality was colored by my youth.
Excerpted from Rotten by John Lydon, Keith Zimmerman, Kent Zimmerman. Copyright © 1994 John Lydon. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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