This is the story of Johnny Rotten.
It has to be tough to be John Lydon. Reading Rotten, the combination memoir/oral history of his time in the Sex Pistols when he was known around the world as the dreaded Johnny Rotten, the reader is struck by several things: 1) Lydon can be very, very funny; 2) Lydon can be very, very arrogant; 3) Lydon is cynical to the core.
The Sex Pistols really were a shot heard ’round the world. It’s easy to forget all these years later what a profound impact the Pistols had, especially in England where they were condemned by decent people everywhere (including on the floor of Parliament) and championed by the disaffected, unemployed youth who saw England collapsing under a Labour government that promised them the world and delivered a massive decline in the economy and in international prestige. Look at what London was like in 1976 and it’s so very easy to see that for the youth of a nation there really was the possibility of there being “no future.” More than any other band from that era, the Pistols articulated this through the words of Johnny Rotten.“We’re the flowers in your dustbin,” yelled Rotten. “There’s no future in England’s dreaming.”
These two lines from “God Save The Queen,” the Pistols’ wicked broadside at the English monarchy, are probably the two best lyrics that ever emerged from punk rock. They capture the zeitgeist of mid-70s London in 17 syllables.
England, especially London, was being ripped apart. On one side was the national pride of an older generation that had defeated those filthy Huns (twice!), a monarchy that had grown ever more detached from every day life, and a government that was mired in scandal and crony politics. The rock stars of the day had left the streets and were flying in private jets, snorting the best cocaine money could buy, and writing ever more pompous and self-indulgent music. They no longer spoke to the kids who were buying the records.
On the other side of this divide were the scabs of a nation driven insane, the youth crippled by high unemployment and filthy living conditions, disenfranchised from society, with no future. Enter The Sex Pistols.
Partially the creation of a self-described anarchist Malcolm McLaren, the Pistols were always much more than some angry version of The Monkees. They wrote their own songs, played their own instruments, and channeled their own voices. They were thieves and delinquents and, in John Lydon, they found an unlikely poet.
Bassist Glen Matlock may have had a strong hand in making the music of the Pistols as good as it was but the power of the band, the reason they are still talked about today, rested entirely in Johnny Rotten. Of the punk rock movement, he was the King, with guitarist Steve Jones, Matlock, and drummer Paul Cook his loyal court and Sid Vicious (who replaced Matlock on bass before their first—and only—album) his sad court jester.
Anyone interested in the band needs to read Jon Savage’s extraordinary book England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock & Beyond. The book provides a truly exhaustive bio of the Sex Pistols while also taking time to survey the rest of the English punk scene: the Clash, Buzzcocks, X-Ray Spex, Adverts, etc. The story is largely the same in Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs but while Savage’s book is a model of a survey biography, Lydon’s book is both helped and hindered by the fact that it’s so personal.
John Lydon is an acquired taste, both as a singer and as a personality. He’s maddening, enlightening, insufferable, enjoyable, arrogant, humble. Rotten is a good book if you like the subject (and I do). It’s also very rambling as events are presented in only the loosest chronological order. Amid Lydon’s recollections you also get his opinions on everything from older rock and roll (hated almost all of it except the Doors and Alice Cooper), his punk rock peers (hated all of them except the Buzzcocks), religion (hates it), politics (hates it), his fans (hates a lot of them), his bandmates (hated them), conformity (hates it), and everything else in between (hates it). The book would be a drag to read if Lydon weren’t so damn entertaining. Yes, he hates almost everything that isn’t him or created by him, but he vents his spleen in a way that’s almost charming, and often funny. He deflects charges of arrogance and cynicism by retreating into a “What do I know? I’m just a working class lad?” schtick, but the reader will definitely walk away thinking that ego is in no short supply in the Lydon household. Even the many quotes sprinkled throughout the book from Billy Idol, Chrissie Hynde, and others, including entire chapters written by other people, are of the “John was a great guy and a genius” sort.
The big problem with all of this, to me, is that like most cynics, Lydon is far more content to destroy than he is to propose acutal working solutions to problems. All too often these days, sarcasm is mistaken for a quick wit. It’s not. A quick wit can playfully nip with pointed teeth or eviscerate with a scalpel’s blade, but sarcasm is incapable of doing anything but bludgeoning and tearing. Wit is subtle, sarcasm is not. It is designed to belittle and disarm. Sarcasm is the hallmark of a cynical soul, and there’s precious little wit but plenty of sarcasm evident in Rotten. Aside from some non-formed treacle about how everybody needs to just be themselves and not part of a herd mentality, Lydon never actually says what he is for. Parts of the book reads as if he were a political conservative. Other parts read as if he were a socialist. All of it reads like someone who’s still locked in an inchoate, adolescent, rebellious phase.
Lydon slams the fans who showed up to concerts dressed like him because they were just copying someone and not thinking for themselves. He lambastes other, older bands for not being different enough. He never considers that maybe the hippies he mocks for their group mentality and similar ways of dressing were trying just as hard as he was to be different and individual and that this movement for individuality was co-opted, much like the punk scene. He tears down his peers and never once gives them the benefit of a doubt that they may have been just as sincere in their sound and beliefs as he was. He reminds me of Holden Caulfield, the snotty adolescent protagonist of The Catcher In The Rye, passing judgment on the “phonies” he sees all around him and Lydon, like Caulfield, thinks almost everyone else is a phony.
Rotten is a good book. It’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse into a fascinating chapter in rock music history, and Lydon’s sense of humor and storytelling ability are excellent. But the reader is left with one of two possible conclusions: either “Johnny Rotten” is a put-on, a character played by John Lydon, or John Lydon is a deeply cynical man whose relentless sarcasm could suck the life out of a room the size of Madison Square Garden. If the former, then Lydon is even more of a phony than those he chastises for their lack of authenticity. If the latter, well, it has to be tough to be John Lydon.
Is this the story of Johnny Rotten? Only he knows for sure.