This Is the Story of Johnny Rotten

To paraphrase Public Enemy, “The Sex Pistols were heroes to most, but they didn’t mean shit to me.” OK, I’m exaggerating, but it was a matter of bad timing. As recording artists, the band came and went while I was still in elementary school—a few years away from really caring about music. So while the iconic cover to Never Mind the Bollocks… was eventually seared into the brain of a young record-store rat like myself, and hearing “Anarchy in the U.K.” was undeniably thrilling, this was a band that existed only in the past. Plus they were scary-looking and too British. Whereas with the Clash and the Ramones, there were watered-down ’80s radio hits we could connect to; these bands were real.

Meanwhile, what of the Sex Pistols? There was a cheesy minor MTV hit about skipping rope by Malcolm McLaren, who we kind of knew had something to do with the band. Then there was Johnny Rotten’s band Public Image Limited, except he was John Lydon now, and the album was called Album and the cassette was called Cassette and that seemed really clever and cool, plus there was this video for the song “Rise” with swirling autumn leaves and Johnny/John shouting “Anger is an energy!” and that was fairly rousing to an angst-ridden suburban teenage boy. Even so, we knew nothing of PiL’s earlier, more essential recordings (“seminal,” as critics of the time liked to say), because those weren’t on the radio. Sure, the Sid and Nancy movie filled in some holes, but as the 1980s ended, the Sex Pistols meant much less to me than the Celibate Rifles did.

By March of 1994, I’d lived through years as a college DJ, was making my way through the grunge era, and finally had a full appreciation for the Pistols’ contributions to music and alternative culture. Perhaps to celebrate this hard-fought understanding, or maybe just because I’ve always been a bit of a starfucker, I went to a John Lydon book signing at the B. Dalton in Greenwich Village. His memoir Rotten had just come out. I was in great spirits, headed to my girlfriend’s place, and having just come from filling out the paperwork for my first Hoboken apartment. And I had what seemed like a brilliant idea: I’d get Lydon’s autograph on the photocopy of my lease! Johnny Rotten would be my landlord! Ooh, I couldn’t wait to get to the front of the line and share my stroke of genius. And there I was, face-to-face with Johhny Rotten. I pulled the copied sheets out of my backpack and sheepishly pointed to the blank line and explained how hilarious it would be…. Lydon nervously looked over at one of his handlers and I was told no, Mr. Lydon would not sign that. Murmured something about it being a legal document. I was too broke to buy the book, but he did sign the only other paper I had with me, the back of my business card.

But I was bummed. Felt like screaming “BELLBOY!” from the back of the store. (Quadrophenia, anyone? No?) That wasn’t punk rock at all. Rotten had sold out to the Man.

In 2000, I tuned in to the debut of Rotten TV on VH-1. It was unwatchable. Lydon was trying way too hard to be “contrary.” Instead, he just seemed old and irrelevant. OK, my opinion might’ve been slightly tainted by the fact that the show’s producer was the boyfriend of a girl I really, really liked, so much that I let her practice driving with my precious Corolla all the way from New York to D.C. (Baby, you can drive my car.) Suffice to say, I did not shed a tear when the program was cancelled after only three episodes.

Which brings us to March 2010. My current favorite radio personality, Nardwuar the Human Serviette from Vancouver, British Columbia, posted on Facebook that he’d be interviewing John Lydon. Did we have any questions we wanted Nardwuar to ask? I’d just been to the movies, so a question came quickly. I typed in the comments: “In the new movie The Runaways, we see Joan Jett making her own Sex Pistols t-shirt. What did you think about the Runaways?”

I didn’t give it much thought until March 30, when the Lydon interview aired on Jersey City’s own WFMU. Would my question be asked? It seemed unlikely, but didn’t really matter: Nardwuar, who always does his homework, was conducting an excellent interview with what seemed like a kinder, gentler John Lydon—more comfortable in his own skin. Then, at about the 43-minute mark…

NARDWUAR: In the new movie The Runaways, we see Joan Jett making her own Sex Pistols t-shirt…

JOHN LYDON: Oh you’ve seen that, now? Is it out?

N: Yes it is!

JL: Right. I’ve got a song in it.

N: What do you think about the Runaways? What did you think about the Runaways?

JL: They were a fun band at the time. And it was good to see from America the girls could take on the men. Although we were used to that in England through punk because there were many girl bands who held their own with men’s bands. We viewed each other as equals. Though it was kind of neat, the Americas were offering the same perspective. But it wasn’t really—it was still “girls’ day out.”

I was kind of giddy, and, even though Lydon didn’t know it was me asking the question, I felt like we’d buried the hatchet. That it happened so soon before the untimely passing of Malcolm McLaren adds some real poignance for me. (Ooh, I should’ve asked how McLaren’s relationship with the Pistols mirrored Kim Fowley’s with the Runaways. Now that would’ve got the old piss-and-vinegar flowing again.) May the road rise with you, Johnny Rotten.

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