I’ve hardly been keeping count but John Lydon appears to have been in eight zillion and twenty-three radio studios this month. Publicising that most modern of phenomenon – the second autobiography. Given the erm difficulties re confronting the perennially inflammatory Gooner, has anybody dared ask him about Second Autobio Syndrome, I wonder? That might stoke the always-spookily-close-to-the-surface fury, eh? Having failed to opt for pod-cast mode during these fests-du-bonhomie, can I ask if the hosts wore shin-pads, as well as the obligatory ear-defenders?
The two Johns – Lydon and @Harumphrys – was surely a good match; have yet to check it. But the singer-songwriter’s (huh? Well… yeh!) also appeared with Simon Mayo and on Beeb Six… and now with Polly Toynbee for The Guardian.
This extraordinary volume of coverage speaks to the BIGNESS of the Lydon/Rotten phenomenon as well (of course) the nature of publishing and appetites of The Biz/Media. It’s been a punky mohair blanket-of-a-thing; were you hiding, cringing, tutting or chortling? I smiled at the deconstruction of our friend Russell Brand, I must admit.
‘Cos when Lydon spouts – and he does, right? – everything’s an opinion. Everything’s loaded with a challenge – even when it’s a plea for common decency. It’s remarkable. I could fully understand how many might think the (let’s be honest?) faintly ludicrously still-mohicanned one a total, total bore. I tend not to. I kinda forgive him, some of it. Just possibly not that barnet.
Look the essence of Rottenness is mischief. To say he plays up to that is both an insult and insultingly obvious. But it’s also inadequate because he’s a complex man and broadly significantly too bright (and too principled? Discuss!) to merely pedal anything. I think there’s an argument, even amidst this dubious schmoozling, that John Lydon has and does and continues to stand for something. Something inevitably compromised yes, but to do with old-fashioned rightness. Whether he does that gracefully or appallingly is debatable but Lydon has always railed against wrongs.
Inevitably we only hear him get interviewed and this is very different from being in his company, having penetrated the protective mesh. For one thing, there’s no relaxing. For anybody. Lydon responds almost uniformly stridently, rarely either confining himself to the question or answering it. He holds court, being occasionally genuinely funny but mostly actually just being prickly – being Johnnie Rotten. What we are left with is chiefly the sense of the absurdity of the game.
Which is why I go back to the music, not the construct. ‘Careering’ or ‘Poptones’ or ‘Rise’ rather than the blowtorch that is his ‘honesty’. I go back there because there was – is? – a real subversive majesty to some of that stuff. The Pil appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, where Lydon/Wobble/Levene simply disembowel seventies traditions for rawk moosic is in itself sufficient to cut Johnnie Johnnie a lifetime of slack. ‘Metal Box’ is in itself one of the greatest ever slabs of anything to be committed (and I mean committed) to vinyl. Lydon was the voice of and for this revolution, in which the Pil Army waded in against banality/capitalism(!)/drudgery and our addiction to sweet melody.
It’s raining across the border
The pride of history
The same as murder
Is this living?
We’ve been careering.
It’s only Johnnie who noticed – who protested – our dumb appeasement to careering like this. He (only) railed against it, with a poet’s vision and a lion’s heart… and that unholy delivery. OK – maybe only him and (more surreally) Mark E Smith. Late seventies early eighties it was perfectly acceptable to love Cure and JD and Bunnymen and Talking Heads and Television but only he – only Pistols and then particularly Pil – challenged the fraud that is Our Working Lives. He exposed the murderous anti-love at its core; he rose against its cruel unjustness, most magnificently in ‘Metal Box’. It’s there in ‘Poptones’, where we – our souls, us the suckers, the minions, the mindlessly seduced – are being murdered in a forest to the soundtrack of vapid music.
Drive to the forest in a Japanese car
The smell of rubber on country tar
Hindsight does me no good
Standing naked in this back of the woods
The cassette played… poptones.
These two songs, both featured in that OGWT (CAREERING IS HERE – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7rtwiMFDWa0 ) might be the spiritual and political source for everything brilliant from Occupy to Uncut. Or they might just be the greatest (radical?) noises ever recorded by humans. Either way they simply utterly vindicate Lydon and they changed my life.
On every level they are… whatever the next strata up from ‘seminal’ is. They are fluid and mercurial and bewitching and yet caustic – razor-like. The lyrics are sensational in every way. Levene’s guitar is from another, more atmospheric planet. In the same way that Jackson Pollock produced creepily species-enlarging chunks of expressive art, Pil did too. That famous quote (James Blood Ulmer – ‘they went right past music’) applies. Plus – is it just me? – there is something undeniably beautiful about Lydon’s poise, his control of the (quiet?) whirlwind around him. It’s inviolably, unsurpassably magnificent music.
Not the case though, that this euphoric peak was flukily ascended in some transcendentally inspired recording session. ‘Rise’ is palpably also a truly great noise, as were Pretty Vacant and God Save the Queen from the Pistols days. Sure all that is mired in doubts over fashion/puppetry/simply playing The Complex but them were reet powerful toons too.
If a guitar sound can be said to unpeel the corners of the Establishment postcard then the raw, raking racket emerging from The Pistols stacks was it. A personal favourite for me – partly because of that signature mix of moralistic fire and spittliferous attack was I Did You No Wrong. For all that Rotten, Vicious et al were postcards (or cardboard cut-outs) themselves, unsettlingly magic product was the result of the MacClaren/Lydon/Kings Road adventure.
So for all the hot air, Lydon has produced. He is bona-fide. Whether this entitles him to be a bore is another matter. Whether it’s embarrassing or inspiring to see a worryingly inflated version onstage at Glasto is clearly dependent upon whether you remain either a fan or not. Personally, despite being conversant with the ageism is an nrg debate, I find it (how shall I say?) unnecessary to go see Pil now. I can still love the old bastard.
Few music icons retain their fire in the way that Lydon appears to have done. But anyway, that back catalogue, those performances, they are enough.