Lester Bang’s ghost sat on the edge of my bed, looking young and fresh faced, a pen behind his ear and a tattered ink-splattered notebook in his left hand. In his right he held an eternal joint, that sent a trail of smoke up above his hunched over shoulders like some beat Quasimodo on the lash. “About that Johnny Rotten thing you are writing, that hook you are looking for, I have some ideas if you are interested?”
I looked around my room. Damnit, I thought, I must be dreaming. My Georgia O’Keefe poster had been replaced by a fetching picture of Sid and Nancy locked into an eternal damning kiss, and Alice in Wonderland was entertaining the Boys and Girls from The Mekons, offering them a puff off the caterpillar’s hippy-juice bubbler.
The television had gone, Lester never did like Television very much and had a seemingly very personal vendetta against Tom Verlaine for perceived crimes against Richard Hell of ripped tee-shirt fame. Personally I would stand on CBGB’s beer and vomit-slick bar in my combat boots and say that Marquee Moon is one of the best albums of the 1970s, but I think Steve Earle already did that, however I digress.
That Johnny Rotten Sex Pistols piece was giving me trouble and making me stay up late into the night listening to such charming audio-terrorism as the disturbingly true tale of mental illness and infanticide that is Bodies and the bile and revolution jive of Holidays in the Sun. I had a vague notion of wanting to write something about punk being a vehicle for social change and this new and shiny society where everyone has to be nice, everyone has to be kind, and no one can ever disagree with the glossy ‘starter pack’ of prescribed views was doomed to boring failure. The world now is left or right, democrat or republican, and no shades of grey. Punk exists in a grey sludge of outrage and fury, alongside a desire for meaningful social change, whilst current politics demands strict adherence to the status quo. Or something like that.
Lester leaned back, a bottle of Romilar by his tattered tennis shoes, and sucked on the end of his pen. “How about this: “Punk failed because it was phony: Johnny Rotten for President”…He eyed me with suspicion. “I mean it is better than that tired shite you are writing about the Sex Pistols being a better band than they are given credit for and that ass kissing bollocks you are spewing about Rotten being a socially aware lyrical genius.” Ye gads, the boy still had it, even if he was merely a figment of my subconscious at best. We all know Lester is in Rock and Roll heaven playing typewriter for Jimi Hendrix, or at least writing lyrics for Jim Morrison in an effort to make the Lizard King less irritating and clownishly sexy. So here, we go, listening to my subconscious again, which always gets me in trouble: Johnny Rotten for President. Vote Rotten!
Of course Johnny Rotten cannot actually stand for President, being a cheeky English bugger an’ all, but I don’t want to hear his protestations about being illegitimate. He made an entire fortune out of being an illegitimate unwanted sneering ragamuffin with a good sideline in rakish vocal affectations. Johnny is a good ole working class boy, who once insisted the Sex Pistols put on a Christmas party for the children of striking miners in some hellish town in the North East of England called Huddersfield. He grew up with poor Irish immigrant working parents, who had moved to Holloway, London, which existed in the shadow of a women’s prison. He grew up knowing the price of a bag of potatoes and the hopelessness of being poor. Jonny Rotten might have grown up a little twisted, but he was sharp as a whip with a razor-blade mind and a pool of burning disaffected anger. Johnny didn’t want to surf like the California beach boys. Johnny didn’t want to go work in a factory for pennies, working grueling hours for little pay and no fun and definitely no ‘Holidays in the Sun’. Johnny wanted to riot, at least back then when he was still young and hungry and madder than hell about it.
Johnny was the accidental antihero. He was not even meant to be the lead singer – it was a case of mistaken identity. Westwood had picked a different Johnny, but the sniveling impresario, Malcolm McLaren, who was the joint driving force behind the punk and bondage fashion boutique, Sex mistook Johnny for someone special. He needed a disaffected ‘every-punk’ and Rotten was good enoug, or at least bad enough… The look, the attitude, the sneer and the emaciated frame capable of showing off his and Viv’s clobber was more important than lyrics or music. Fortunately for us, Steve Jones and his boys were luckily talented. It isn’t as easy as it might first seem to be punk geniuses.
Malcolm might have been a terrible human being, a thief and a con man, but he also had a good eye for what worked, for what was stylish, and for what might kick off the anarchy he thought he wanted. Anarchy was cool. Anarchy was not what was being done, it was pushing a frontier, it was breaking boundaries. Anarchy was anti-establishment and Malc saw good money in rebellion. He was not wrong. He tried to rob the Sex Pistols blind, and succeeded until Rotten managed to organize that band of ne’er do wells into some kind of action and took the posh bastard to court and won.
I have a sneaking suspicion that for all his snarling facial tics, and cheeky language, for all that rage and righteous fury, that Johnny Rotten ain’t such a rotter after all. I mean no disrespect: he is the High Priest of Punk, a working class hero, he saw through banal bourgeoisie McLaren’s impresario bullshit and double talk and tried to save The Sex Pistols, and his motley band of misfits from financial stripping and becoming a vehicle for the Sex fashionista empire. Malc’s particular upper class entrepreneur pile it high, sell it cheap, disposable plastic social redemption was going to make him a very rich man indeed.
Johnny wrote the infamous words that set a fire under London: “I am an antichrist and I am an anarchist!” but now claims not to mean what he said, proving that all the Sex Pistols ever were politically, was a mouthpiece for rich arty rebels like Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. In his neat and well written Times Op Ed, Rotten walked back on his old “get pissed and destroy’ philosophy, saying that he is ‘not an anarchist’ and that ‘anarchy is a terrible idea’ and he had nothing against the Queen or Royal Family, just didn’t want his tax to fund their ‘ski trips’. Oh, edgy, Johnny, edgy! Rotten didn’t just sell out, he sold up, sold down and sold it all around the world. Punk was conceptualized as a style and a fashionable attitude for those who could afford to buy it in the Sex boutique. It never really moved much beyond that. Punk, in the final reckoning was mostly for show and not much for substance at least as far as the London scene went.
Johnny Rotten was even complaining a few years back that some homeless people had camped in front of his swanky Venice Beach home. He had no desire to walk past shit and used needles on the beach. He had made the ranks of the establishment and was determined to enjoy his success. The pose was everything. He made good noise and to be frank, was as much of a ‘simple song and dance man’ as Dylan claimed to be, and he sang just about as good as Dylan too.
After all the man who named his follow up band to the Sex Pistols, P.I.L (Public Image Limited), and didn’t say no to Jah Wobble who was featuring in the barnstorming track Fodderstompf declaring he was going to “show our frustration at society by picking up that fire extinguisher over there and spraying it at the mic” was all about putting on a good show. His friend Sid Vicious, infamously could not play the bass at all, but he looked the part, and looking the part was enough. Rotten has more talent than that, and can put together sounds and sights that people want to see and hear, but what callous, pale and speedy acne faced youth needs someone’s grandpa to tell ’em how to change society? In the end all this talk of anarchy and getting rid of the Queen was fake and meaningless, it was meant to piss off the old people and give the young an excuse to get high, drunk and party as if they had no future. Spend all yer hard earned wages today, because tomorrow you might overdose on punk branded junk. Incidentally Rotten wanted to call God Save the Queen, “No Future”, and was blindsided by McLaren and overruled because it was a shit idea. Rotten would have been nothing without Malc and his rebel rebel ideals that he imported from managing the New York Dolls who were more real and more talented than the Pistols could ever hope to be, and a lot more hardcore than any of those cartoon basketcases could ever dream of being.
Lydon was hungry for success, dissatisfied with his lot in life, but not dissatisfied to practice what he preached to the microphone stand. He was not dissatisfied enough to embrace the bauble of anarchy he sold to a disaffected youth. Not dissatisfied enough to show mercy on his homeless neighbors, not dissatisfied enough not to make money out of being a phony rebel who instead of campaigning for better harm reduction services bitched about needles on the beach. Johnny Lydon for President, he certainly is fake and phony enough for the job. He is good for a soundbite, for putting on the trappings of change and making money and whoopie out of his affectations. He is debauched and useless enough, privileged and hard working enough, successful enough for a career up on the Hill. Johnny Rotten is a valid option for political office. I’d vote Rotten if I had a vote, lets face, we already did. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, it doesn’t matter if you listen to James Taylor on weed and self-righteousness or the Sex Pistols on smack and outrage, it is all the same in the end: rotten self serving hedonism, rotten profit and vicious disappointment.
Johnny Rotten and the whole punk movement is as much a façade as Democrats pretending they give a flying fuck about undocumented youth, or access to abortion, or medical care, or anything else that the party which is meant to care should be doing and instead is drinking champagne while down here with the rest of us, people suffer, struggle and gradually realize that it doesn’t matter who you vote for, they are all as bad as each other. Heck, Friendship Park on the border has been closed since 2020, leaving families split by the border with no way to visit each other, and it has no plans to reopen. Meet the new boss, just like the old boss, proto-punks, The Who, sang in Won’t Get Fooled Again. The kids are not ‘alright’, and every time some funky looking dirty boys and grrrls turn up selling sanctuary from banality they buy it. Rebellion sells. Sex sells. The simplicity of fake mass youth rebellion sells, and anything that has a market will always be reinvented. So why is punk so dead?
Long live Johnny Rotten…I’m sure he will find something new to sell and then disown as being a bit shit really, but what could be more punk than that?
(Part 2 to follow)