The Sex Pistols kicked down rock music’s doors in 1977, which means most of us are old enough to remember the massive stir this band generated. The clothes, the hair, the attitude and the day-glo artwork of the band’s Never Mind the Bollocks longplayer are the stuff of legend or, if you’re one of the millions who prefer Lynyrd Skynyrd, the stuff punch lines are made of.
Being old isn’t the issue, though. These days, it’s being too young to remember anything at all about this band or its frontman, John Lydon, aka, “Johnny Rotten.” The greater problem, too, is that anyone writing a column about Lydon runs the risk of looking like an old fart, churning his thumbs about how “they don’t make music like they used to, son.”
As great as the Pistols’ music was, that’s not my point. Even if you’ve never heard a note Lydon “sang,” he and the Pistols will remain relevant on several counts. This will probably always be so, in my humble opinion, because so many people never understood, or wanted to understand, what Lydon was up to way back in the late 1970s.
By way of another example, let’s take Jackson Pollock. The old guard ridiculed his paintings. The children in their neighborhood could create similar masterpieces, they said. But, lo and behold, place Jack the Dripper’s work under spectral analysis for closer examination, and we’ll find that his brushwork was a complex ballet of pauses, splashes and mercurial gestures. Pollocks’ style was inimitable.
So it is with Lydon. His latest stand against the Pistols’ induction into Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame could have been forecast from miles away. Anyone who snubs his country’s royalty Ã¡ la “God Save the Queen” isn’t going to walk across the street to piss on a music award, even if, in a hand-written statement, Lydon called the Hall of Fame “urine in wine,” and slagged the hall’s 700-member voting board.
“If you voted for us, hope you noted your reasons,” Lydon sneered.
Rightly so. There’s plenty to take issue with where the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is concerned. Most of us would think twice about stepping inside an institution that hosts the Bee Gees, Jackson Browne and Billy Joel as members over Roxy Music, Brian Eno and the New York Dolls. Why induct the Eagles over Gram Parsons? Ever heard of Kraftwerk?
But even if that hallowed hall included those names, Lydon would no doubt still refuse the invitation. As anyone who’s ever read his autobiography Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs can tell you the man who helped save rock & roll by trying to destroy it never had time for idols or authoritative nonsense. At a time when pop stars make news after driving with children on their lap, that’s worth remembering. At a time when our leaders use the threat of terrorist attacks as a crutch not to question their authority, and rationalize the practice of torture on top of it, Lydon’s iconoclasm is especially relevant.
Accept for a moment that all you ever learned about “punk rock” via the media is absolutely false. Forget, especially, the movie SLC Punk, which sold it all as mindless loitering and beating up on cowboys.
Lydon wasn’t your run-of-the-mill, ironic vintage-clothes-indie-kid who thought it’d be fun to coast on the family trust fund while writing a few tunes and sleeping around. The son of Irish immigrants living in London, he grew up in poverty, survived a meningitis-induced coma, and worked a job killing rats atop a construction crane before he could afford to buy records.
“Easy workloads never appealed to me at all. I’ve always preferred everyday life bordering on the edge of disaster,” he wrote.
Performing with the Pistols, his favorite audiences were those that never clapped. He despised the hippies as “too organized.” He disliked the term “punkâ€'an American word for a male prostitute in prison'along with sexism, racism and homophobia. Anything that calcified into rigidity and tradition'be it a youth movement, political ideology, social clique, institution or religion'was something to avoid at all costs, something to blow up and rearrange. This wasn’t just lip service. He survived an attack by knife for one of his songs. Listen to “God Save the Queen” once more, or “Religionâ€'one of the best songs his second band, Public Image Ltd., ever produced. His conviction was sharp enough to draw blood.
Unlike a certain bloated rock band that preceded the Pistols, he valued the elderly. “Who created this nonsense of rebelling against your elders? This is what I said in the Pistols. I’ve learned everything from people older than me,” he wrote, “because I learned how not to do it. I learned by their mistakes.”
If it seems like I’m holding up Lydon as some sort of hero, an exercise he himself would find offensive, it’s only because he speaks to what’s best in me. In truth, his friend Sid Vicious created the unfortunate stereotype of the lazy, stupid, violent punk. Oddly, reading No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs is a lot like reading Dale Carnegie, sans the mindless optimism. Reject the idea of destiny, Lydon writes. Hang out only with those who challenge you. The truth? It’s almost always mediocre. Culture? It’s a “hokey fraud â€¦ Those things are so removed from real life. Modern man hasn’t accepted that culture moves on. Culture is merely rules, and it goes hand-in-toe with soppy religious stupidity.”
You can see how the man likes playing with fire. As for rock & roll itself, he felt it should relate to everybody, not just the cool people. Lydon’s ideal Pistols’ concert would have had the whole cross-section of humanity as an audience: young, old, rich, poor, gay and straight. Why? If you still have to ask, you just â€¦ don’t â€¦ get â€¦ it.