When Punk magazine writer, Mary Harron, went to England to interview Johnny Rotten in the autumn of 1976, she returned to New York infected with Sex Pistols Fever, convinced that she had seen the future.
Before she went, Mary was also quite certain of the validity of the New York Punk scene, and was very generous with her praises of it– but still, it was nothing compared to her adoration of Rotten and the Pistols when she returned, which made me sit up and take notice.
“Johnny Rotten’s somebody who has a vision,” Mary told me, “And for whatever reason, he’s absolutely the center of this spinning, chaotic world—and he really does see it– because he embodies the thing that he is representing– that he is the spokesman for– and there was no bullshit. Johnny was the thing he was representing.
“He gave really clear and quite profound answers,” Mary claimed, “He’s very smart, very confident, very funny, very young and he absolutely knows what’s going on. I remember thinking while I was interviewing him, how incredibly smart he is. Johnny Rotten is one of the smartest people I have ever met.”
In order not to hurt my feelings, Mary added, “And I’m sorry it’s not you, Legs, I know how much it means to you to be thought of as the World’s Biggest Little Monster.”
At that point I put Mary in a headlock.
But, before she found herself, Mary was a bit of a snob– Oxford-educated, theatre critic for The Observer, step-daughter of internationally famed author Stephen Vinvintzy (In Praise of Older Women), step-daughter of Stanly Kubrick actress, Virginia Leith (A Kiss Before Dying), and daughter of famed Canadian comic, Don Harron (Hee-Haw). If that isn’t confusing enough, one of Mary’s stepmom’s went on to marry playwright Harold Pinter.
While I always thought it might have been John Holmstrom’s sick sense of humor that sent Mary to interview Rotten, I must confess that I agreed with her take on Johnny.
“I was very scared when I went to interview him,” Mary Harron confessed to me several years later, “Because I was easily intimidated, and, after all– it was Johnny Rotten. The two scariest people I’ve interviewed were Lou Reed and Johnny Rotten. But actually, Johnny was wonderful and very nice to me that night. He protected me from the others– Steve Jones and Glen Matlock— were kind of drunk and making rude remarks to me. Johnny told them, `She’s alright, let it go, she’s alright.’
Mary: “What goes through your head when you’re singing? What do you feel?”
Johnny: “It’s like—[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Makes a face]
Mary: “No, no, cut the shit. [Laughing]
Johnny: “I never understood why people are scared to go onstage, cause it doesn’t take anything. You don’t have to be drunk or out of your head. Just walk up there, that is if you feel like doing it.”
“Like all the legendary events that I have attended in my life, the Sex Pistols concert was half empty,” Mary told me, “The club was called `Eric’s,’ in Liverpool. It was quite a big nightclub, and it was half empty. There was hardly anybody there. There were about five people dressed like punks, and they all knew each other. If some movie director was filming this now, they would have everybody dressed like a punk.”
Mary: “Did you ever have nerves before you went on?”
Johnny: “The first time, yeah. The first time I knew I wasn’t getting it from a group,”
“Did I tell you that I brought all these kids that were hanging around, into the interview with me?” Mary asked, “I’d met all these kids in rubber trousers who looked terrifying in their fetishist clothing. Some of the Bromley Contingent was there, including Siouxsie Sioux, but mostly they were just hairdressers and art students from Liverpool. Sweet kids. Their dream in life was to meet the Sex Pistols, so I brought them into the interview with me.”
Johnny: “What’s New York like, anyway?
Mary: “It’s really good.”
Johnny: “The New York groups, they’re very into proving how good they are… how intellectual… I don’t like that. I think that’s silly.”
Mary: “What don’t you like about it?”
Johnny: “You know, going on about social significance, blah, blah…”
“When I first saw English punk,” Mary laughed, “I thought, `Oh my god, oh my god, what have we done, what have we created?’ I thought what we had done in New York as a joke– had been taken for real by a younger and more violent audience in England. It was like everything we had done ironically, in New York punk, the English took seriously.
“The English punk scene was more in your face and you couldn’t help notice it,” Mary continued, “There was a violence under the surface—it was much more kind of raw and real. You felt something could erupt at any moment; smashed glass, a real kind of violence. It was much more volatile and edgy– and more dangerous.”
Mary: “But people are always saying your music is socially significant?”
Johnny: BUT WE DON’T, DO WE? We want to be AMATEURS. Don’t mouth your own philosophies, or you’ll just get laughed at.”
“I really liked the Sex Pistols as well,” Mary continued, “I mean that was a great show, I mean, it was bad– it was sloppy, but I loved the way Steve Jones played guitar. It was just like any good rock band, really. There was a little bit of casual heckling. I remember Johnny holding the mike and saying, `FUCK OFF SUNSHINE!’ He was very sarcastic– and doing this weird kind of dance.”
Mary: “How did you feel about the set?”
Johnny: “It wasn’t a good one. We can do much better than that. We were in Wolverhampton last night. And Dundee the night before. Fuckin’ traveling around in the back of a van is no fun. It fucks you up.”
“One thing I was aware of sitting backstage,” Mary noted, “Was that Johnny was very aware of what people expected of him– and he could play with that– or he could intimidate people if he wanted to. He already had that power. I don’t think he could help it really, he’d already been written about– and he was kind of making fun of it.”
“My ex-boyfriend, who I’d dragged along with me, absolutely hated the show,” Mary laughed, “He was just disgusted by Rotten and the Pistols and he told me, `I’m very sorry but the whole thing is just a con. It’s all just hype! It’s all been masterminded by their manager, Malcolm McLaren! It’s a scam, and you’re really stupid to have fallen for it!’
“He was just snide about it,” Mary continued laughing, “And he found it hard to admit he was wrong.”
Mary: “Do you think the anarchy thing has been misrepresented?”
Johnny: “People are trying to make it out as a bit of a joke, but it’s not a joke. It’s not political anarchy either; it’s musical anarchy, which is a different thing.”
“I really felt the world moving and shaking that autumn in England, in terms of punk,” Mary confessed, “I went to interview the Damned— I was supposed to do the Clash and that fell through– but there was definitely a sense of something big happening.”
Mary’s interview was my first introduction to Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols, and it captures Rotten when he was still a fresh-faced, snot-nosed kid—his world spread-eagled before him with stunning possibilities. Johnny seemed like a sweet kid. Mary got him at just the right moment, before everything came crashing down on him.
By the time Mary did the interview in October 1976 and it was published in PUNK magazine in March 1977, the interview was already obsolete.
That’s how fast things were happening.
In that time, the Pistols were signed to EMI Records, released their first single, “Anarchy in the UK,” and then came the infamous December 1st 1976 appearance on the Bill Grundy television program. The Pistols, along with their entourage, `The Bromley Contingent,” (including Siouxsie Sioux) appeared on the Thames Television Program `Today.’
Johnny Rotten said, `Shit.”
Steve Jones told Bill Grundy he was, “A Fuckin’ Rotter.’
All in all, not as offensive as what is regularly seen on lots of American TV. Still, it was enough of a sin to snare the headlines– the Daily Mirror ran with the now infamous “The Filth and the Fury,” while the Daily Express went with “Punk? Call it Filthy Lucre.”
The Pistols were oblivious to the fuss they’d caused, and left the TV show to pickup Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers at Heathrow Airport, since the New York band was scheduled to open for the Pistols on their “Anarchy in the UK Tour.” The Heartbreakers were there to lend the Sex Pistols some punk creditability, but after the TV show, they didn’t need it.
“Someone called me in New York,” Mary Harron explained, “And said that she just heard that Johnny Rotten had been on this TV show and had said, `Fuck.’ Or whatever. I had the number for Malcolm McClaren, so I called him in London and I could tell he was kind of shocked. It was Malcolm and Leee Black Childers, the manager of Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, I talked to both of them. And I just thought, `Whoa-oh!’ Because, quite in contradiction to the myth of Malcolm as a great manipulator, Malcolm said, `I can’t believe what just happened!’ I think they felt like they were on a runaway train.”
The resulting fallout from the Grundy show caused local authorities to cancel most dates on their Anarchy Tour—and as a hostile press slagged-off the band— the Sex Pistols succeeded in becoming the world’s first PUNK band.
It didn’t matter that the Ramones, the Damned, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, The Slits, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, etc, were already going concerns. It the old music business dictim, “Whoever gets the most press, wins,” the Sex Pistols captured the English imagination—and then the world’s.
The Pistols and their ilk, looked disturbing, even to me. If you doubt this, just ask yourself, “What looks more shocking? A Johnny Ramone bowl hair-cut or a Day-Glo Mohawk?” Suffice it to say, it was in that moment, everything we had done in New York– the magazine, the music, the scene– were no longer valid. And what made it even worse, was that the Pistols sounded so goood.
Cheetah Chrome, the Dead Boys lead guitarist told me, “We were really happy with the first album that we had just done, when somebody put on the Pistols first records and we went, `What the fuck?!’
When the “Anarchy in the UK Tour” finished up to near-riots—because of the cancellations– EMI was at a loss of what to do with the Pistols. So the boys in the front office decided to send their headaches to Amsterdam, while the negative press subsided.
Instead Rotten and the Pistols became a bonfide snarling commodity after television crews filmed them drunk and disgusting in Heathrow Airportupon their return from Amsterdam.
EMI quickly dropped the band on January 27th, 1977. (It was my birthday. I was twenty-one years old.) In the shake-up that followed, Glen Matlock was replaced by Johnny’s friend, Sid Vicious, the ultimate Sex Pistols fan, and the band signed with A&M Records.
After a wild record signing party back at the A&M offices– Sid trashed the Managing Director’s office and vomited on his desk—and the Sex Pistols were dropped the following week from A&M Records.
All of this happened between the time Mary Harron interviewed Johnny Rotten in October 1976 and the interview was published in March of 1977. Whatever Johnny Rotten had been when he was playing to fifty people in Liverpool—he was now a household name in England.
Was it particularly good for John Lydon or anyone else in the band?
Probably not, but it was fantastic news for the brand-names known as “Johnny Rotten” and the “Sex Pistols,” because they were fast morphing from a band into an argument…
Danny Fields, the manager of the Ramones, the discoverer of Iggy Pop, the editor of 16 Magazine, among a dozen other credits to numerous to mention, has always told me that this was what killed the Ramones, and every other American punk band’s chances of making it.
“Malcolm’s strategy for the Pistols was the theory of chaos,” Danny Fields said, “It was out of control and had nothing to do with anything musical. It had to do with this phenomenon of terror that was coming out of England. They put safety pins in the Queen’s nose and they would vomit and curse and say it’s the end of the world. I always say when the music moves from the music section to the front page of the newspaper, you’re in trouble.
“It was news for the wrong reasons,” Danny Fields continued, “It was like, here’s the Pistols making front-page news in England every time they burped and farted, which they did a lot. So it was reported in America, and it couldn’t help but define punk rock, because as soon as something is on the seven o’clock news and on the front page of the newspaper, then that is punk rock.”
As right as Danny was, the Pistols story didn’t end there– in May of 1977, the Pistols signed to Virgin Records, their third label in twelve months. They quickly released their second single, “God Save The Queen,” during Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee Celebration.
As some fans have noted, “`God Save the Queen’ was an attack on the ideals and institutions of Britain, delivered in Johnny Rotten’s trademark sneer. The song is summarized in the line `There is no future … in England’s dreaming,’ which became a de facto position statement for British punk.”
(England’s Dreaming is also the title of Jon Savage’s great book on the Sex Pistols, which if you haven’t read, you should.)
It’s most likely that “God Save The Queen” would have charted at Number One, but since it was banned from airplay by the BBC, it came in on the official charts at Number Two, second to Rod Stewart’s, “I Don’t Want To Talk About It.”
In celebration of the success of the record, Malcolm chartered a party boat, and the band sailed down the Thames– past Westminister and the Houses of Parliament– singing, “GOD SAVE THE QUEEN, SHE AIN’T NO HUMAN BEING!”
Since it was the week of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Celebration, upon returning to shore, the police immediately raided the boat and took Johnny Rotten and his entourage into custody. Again, the Sex Pistols made headlines.
What had started as an innocent publicity stunt, soon became an opportunity for Royalists and other English folk who didn’t get the joke– to get Johnny Rotten and kick the living shit out of him. The most costly incident happened when Johnny was assaulted by Teddy Boys outside Pegasus pub, which made headlines once again.
“Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols!” the band’s first and only album was released on October 16, 1977. The album far surpassed every promise the band’s singles ever made—and then some.
Like every action the Pistols now took, there was also a media reaction— the Sherriff of Nottingham gave the Pistols more headlines when he threatened a local record store with prosecution for displaying the ‘obscene’ album cover.
I mean, the Sherriff of Nottingham? Now they even had a Robin Hood mythology happening—as the trial heard expert witnessed testifying to the origins of the word bollocks— saying it meant a “priest,” “testicles,” and in this case, “nonsense.”
The case was thrown out of court, not before insuring that pre-release orders were so high for the Sex Pistols album, that it immediately charted at Number One.
Since it is every English band’s dream to conquer America, Malcolm finally had the goods with “Nevermind The Bollocks,” and set out to declare war on the U.S.A.. Things started off on a bad note when the Pistols were denied entry into the U.S. because of some minor criminal convictions. The tour was pushed back from December 1977 to January 1978, and it process, they cancelled their showcase on the hit American television show, “Saturday Night Live.”
Elvis Costello and the Attractions jumped in and appeared on the show, undoubtedly selling more Elvis Costello records than Sex Pistols.
Unfortunately; the Sex Pistols missed their one big chance to show America how great they were, musically. Had they appeared, Johnny Rotten probably would have become the new Bob Dylan or some other kind of International Folk Hero.
Instead things only got worse. .
“As the four musicians straggled toward the plane at London’s Heathrow Airport last week,” Time magazine reported, “It was clear from their appearance that they were not just another Top 40 act. They spat in the air, hurled four-letter words (the mildest `scum’) at the photographers and with malevolent glares set off shivers in their fellow passengers. Said one woman passenger in disbelief, “What are we flying with—a load of animals?”
No, just the Sex Pistols living up to their bad-boy reputation as the prophets of British punk rock.”
Of course, since I was the Resident Punk at Punk magazine, I was destined to meet the Sex Pistols. The moment came on January 17, 1978 at the Winterland Theater in San Francisco. I had been in Los Angeles with the Ramones, when John Holmstrom called from somewhere in America, on tour with the Pistols and told me it was my duty to meet up with him and Punk magazine Photo Editor, Roberta Bayley in San Francisco for the last date of the Sex Pistols American tour.
My immediate reaction was, “I’m not going, this is stupid!”
My problem was the Ramones. If ever there was a group where each member believed in his heart that he was the star of the band– who never could give praise to anything except their own accomplishments– who were about to become even more bitter over the Sex Pistols success– it was the Ramones.
The Ramones hatred of everything un-Ramones should never be underestimated. From day one, the Ramones set the standard for everything punk in America, which is probably why it took a bunch of bratty English kids to sell PUNK to the world.
When I told Joey Ramone that I had to go see the Sex Pistols in San Francisco, he acted like I had stabbed him in the back.
“Yeah Legs, go hang out with your new best friends,” Joey snapped “The Sex Pistols.”
Who could blame him?
The Ramones had just released their third album, “Rocket To Russia,” and were headed for superstardom, they believed, when the train was derailed by Sex Pistols hysteria. Me and Joey watched on television as the Sex Pistols crawled across America– and kids traded in their denim and flannel for black leather and leopard-skin prints– finally getting Punk.
“The Sex Pistols were at a sound check when the Variety ‘77 television show presented them on national TV for the first time,” John Holmstrom wrote, “Alan King and Telly Savalas made a point of announcing their appearance every five minutes, “Coming up soon, the Sensational Sex Pistols!”
It was amazing. The Sex Pistols did in ten days what we had been trying to do for three years. And what was so humiliating– it wasn’t being done because of the Ramones or Punkmagazine, but because of these foreign creeps who got all the attention. And to add insult to injury, Warner Brothers, the Ramones parent company, dumped all their promotion money into the Sex Pistols, while the Ramones were left high and dry, once again.
It was hard to admit, but America didn’t want the Ramones or Punk magazine. In fact, nobody knew that we even existed. And the media had chosen the Pistols because they were the easiest to ridicule– the target was already pasted-over their faces.
Take this quote from Time magazine, “Sure enough, the Pistols American debut was tame, almost a respectable happening. Johnny did not throw empty beer bottles at the audience. All he did was blow his nose a lot. Guitarist Steve Jones did not vomit, though in the past he has proven he has the stomach for it. Nor did Bassist Sid Vicious sputter forth more than a few four-letter words. Sid did manage to draw cheers when he removed his shirt and revealed the torso of a 90-lb weakling. Both Vicious and Rotten sported hairdos that looked as if they had been blow-dried in a wind tunnel or plugged into a pre-amp.”
“The Sex Pistols were more authentic than the New York punk bands,” Mary claimed, “They had to be. That was their purpose. Their art was to be offensive, kind of like Iggy was in the early days. Iggy was more like the Sex Pistols, than Iggy was like the Ramones, in the spirit of those early performances.
“The big thing that was happening in punk,” Mary asserted, “Probably more so in Britain than America, was a real emphasis on purity and integrity. On not being a poser. Of being honest in a way– but if you made one wrong move, then everyone would pounce on you.
“But once everything you do is extreme and everything you know is extreme,” Mary asked, “Where do you go from there? “
Since I was in Los Angeles to interview Hugh Hefner and hang out at the Playboy Mansion, I didn’t think it would hurt my drinking to make a side-trip to San Francisco to see the Pistols, while I waited for Hefner to get back to me. (He never did.)
I picked up the receptionist at Playboy magazine, a beautiful, tall, skinny brunette– and drove to San Francisco with a bunch of beer-drinking musicians who had to stop the van every twenty minutes to take a piss. We finally made it to the Miyako Hotel in Frisco’s Japan-Town after ten hours, where a luxury suite was waiting for me.
The greatest thing about seeing the Pistols was the Miyako Hotel—crab meat sandwiches on English Muffins from room service—while floating in this green shit you poured in the bathtub. So me and the receptionist spent most of our time in the tub, fucking and eating crabmeat, while chaos ruled all around us.
There were hundreds of kids in black leather and bizarre ghoul make-up, standing in front of the hotel, trying to get catch a glimpse of their heroes. But the big problem of the Pistols tour was Noel Monk and the Warner Brothers roadies, who decided to distance Johnny and Sid, who were traveling on the bus– from Malcolm McLarren, Steve Jones and Paul Cook, who were flying to every gig.
It was Malcolm’s promotional genius that dictated the band would play every backward American city, instead of going for the glamour of big cities, which is why they played Atlanta, Memphis, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Tulsa, San Antonio, etc.
As some critics have written, “The two-week American jaunt was an exhausting, badly-planned, dispiriting experience for all concerned (Vicious was beaten by the bodyguards hired to protect him, Rotten had a fierce head cold, and the band’s performances were plagued by bad sound and physically hostile audiences, mainly at unlikely venues in the South),”
As Malcolm told Rolling Stone, “We never should have played Atlanta or Baton Rouge. How can the band write good songs when they are playing for college students? Next time we’ll play Mississippi and Alabama, so we can see how horrible things really are. If we’d have listened to Warner Brothers, we’d have played New York.”
While Malcolm was all for adventuring, he didn’t want to travel on a bus to every backward American city. Therefore Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious were sealed inside– with the Warner Brothers thugs– so television stations had something to film from their helicopters that followed the bus across America.
While Malcolm was busy trying to cause a teenage revolution, Noel Monk tried to steal the band from him.
Of all the rock & roll assholes I have met in my life, Noel Monk was, without a doubt, the biggest. He had all the charm of a Hell’s Angel at Altamont, and tried to subvert the Malcolm and the Pistols at every turn.
“One of the English reporter’s complained to the tour manger, Noel Monk, about the treatment they’d received,” John Holmstrom wrote, “Monk was standing behind one of his gorilla’s, leering down at this wimpy little reporter, shouting, `OH YEAH? WE’LL JUST SAY YOU TOOK A SWING AT US. IT’LL BE YOUR WORD AGAINST OURS, MOTHERFUCKER!” The reporter stood up to Monk, trying to reason with him, but after persistent violent threats, he retreated to the bar.”
What was such a pity, was that the Pistols now needed a thug like Noel Monk to keep the all the shit away from them. Being a Sex Pistol had become so physically dangerous, that they needed thug-bodyguards to protect them.
“I was on the tour bus with Johnny and Sid.” Rock photographer Bob Gruen told me, “And it wasn’t only the band who were crazy—the people who were supporting them were even worse. The Sex Pistols weren’t violent people, but by shouting out their boredom and rage with everything, they attracted the most bizarre reactions from every side.
“One night, Noel Monk, the Sex Pistols road manager was asleep,” Bob Gruen continued, “We pulled into a truck stop, like two or three in the morning, and Sid and I were up front, talking. We pulled into this place, so we jumped off the bus to get a hamburger. We sat down at the counter and ordered. I got a hamburger and Sid got some eggs. Noel came running in and said, `What are you doing? What’s going on? What’s happening here?’
“I said, `We’re getting something to eat. Nothing’s happening, you know?’
“Noel said, `Okay, well, come right back on the bus when your done.’
“Everything was very normal, but then this big cowboy walked in with his family and took a seat at a table right next to us. The cowboy recognized Sid and started talking to him, and then invited Sid to join him at the table and eat with his family. Everything was fine, until I heard the cowboy say, `Oh, you’re Vicious, can you do this?’
“I looked over just in time to see the cowboy putting a cigarette out on his own hand. Sid was just sitting there eating his eggs with his knife and fork. He looked up, unfazed, and said, `Well, I can, you know, hurt myself…’
“Then Sid his hand with his knife and it made a small cut in the skin. Not very deep, but the blood started seeping out, slowly working its way down until it reached the plate of eggs. But Sid didn’t care; he was hungry and just kept gobbling them up.
“And the more Sid ate, the more horrified the cowboy became, until he completely freaked out, jumped up, gathered up his family, and started running for the door.”
The Sex Pistols were so battered by being Sex Pistols, that they made a pact with the Devil so he would protect them (i.e. Noel Monk)– and like all Faustian bargains, there’d be no happy ending…
As soon as I arrived in San Francisco, John Holmstrom and Roberta Bayley told me that Noel Monk had accused Roberta of being a CIA Agent and wouldn’t let her into the show that night at Winterland.
“Okay, crazy-time,” I thought to myself.
“Well, if Roberta can’t get in, than I’m not going either,” I told Holmstrom, but he could see through my solidarity ploy as just an excuse to stay in the bathtub with my Playmate.
So I had to go to the show.
The Sex Pistols concert at Winterland sucked. During the early evening, Malcolm had tried to get some young, unknown bands to open the show, and it turned into a musical nightmare. Bad sound. Bad lighting. Bad vibes. When the Sex Pistols came on, it was just a continuation of the Bad. Plus, they looked like they weren’t having any fun. In fact, they looked down right miserable.
Johnny Rotten finished the performance by saying those now infamous punk rock parting words, “Ever feel like you’ve been cheated?”
The only thing interesting about the entire performance, was when the band was leaving the stage, Sid paused, and nodded to the roadies– who pulled four young women out of the audience. That greedy Sidney. The girls were all knockouts too. I was jealous.
Right after the show, Roberta introduced me to Malcolm for the first time, and I told him the Pistols sucked. Malcolm agreed with me, saying he hoped he could find a new punk band to blow the Pistols away. Even their manager wasn’t having any fun.
John Holmstrom found me after the concert, slapped a backstage pass on my jacket, handed me a tape reorder, and sent me to get a backstage interview with the band.
The backstage dressing room was a large rectangle room filled with old couches and green plastic garbage cans– filled with ice and Heinekens. Lucky for me, the pockets of my black leather jacket are ripped out, allowing me to fit an entire sixpack into my jacket.
On one wall, above the couches, someone had drawn, “The Sex Pistols,” in large colorful letters, leaving me with the feeling that I was at some pathetic birthday party.
I say hello to photographers Bob Gruen and Joe Stevens, both friends from CBGB’s, and grabbed a beer.
Sid was the first Pistol I saw, sitting in a chair, with his shirt off, surrounded by the four groupies the roadies just pulled from the audience. John Holmstrom and Roberta Bayley, had told me over the phone from Tulsa, “You and Sid will get along great. He’s just like you.”
I thought, “Oh great, an idiot.”
Sid didn’t do much to change that image.
I watched him, a bit shocked, that anyone would be offering themselves to Sid after that performance. Then I remembered, it doesn’t matter. The Sex Pistols hype had done its job.
Sid asked, “Who’s gonna fuck me tonight?”
One of the girls, a bit shy answered, “How about a kiss first?”
It was like a bad porno movie.
“Poor Sid believed his own press,” Cheetah Chrome, lead guitarist for the Dead Boys told me, “He totally bought it lock, stock and barrel. Sid was the perfect punk, I mean the guy came from fucking absolutely no musical background whatsoever, and just happened to be the best man for the job.
“Sid had to be the most attention-getting man in the world,” Cheetah laughed, “Yeah, let’s stick him in on bass,’ and next thing he’s an internationally famous rock & roll star, with like lots of money and no manners. No anything. If you put Sid and Peter Frampton, who was the biggest roll star of the world the year before, next to each other on a couch– Sid would have won hands down just by sheer force of personality. Sid was really rock & roll.”
Johnny Rotten looked a combination of embarrassed, painfully shy and angry, as the groupie said to him,”Hi Johnny, how do you do?”
Johnny spit back a, “Fuck you,” at her.
The groupie turned red, and tried to smile.
It was painful.
Johnny proceeded to go on a long rant about how, “How do you do,” was an invalid opening line. It was even more painful. Then photographer Joe Stevens introduced me to Rotten, who asked, “What the fuck is a Legs McNeil?!!”
“What?” I asked, a bit pissed.
Johnny immediately went on to something else, flittering around the room, trying to come down from that debacle he had just orchestrated onstage.
Johnny looked like a duck on crack, except that he was wearing a beret and a long overcoat, so that he actually resembled a French duck on crack.
I sat on a couch, sipping my beer, when Rolling Stone photographer, Annie Leibowitz, came marching into the room, complete with an assistant carrying umbrellas and lights. Annie set up her photography equipment in a curtained bathroom, off of the main dressing room. Bob Gruen and Joe Stevens smirked to themselves at the idea of getting a posed Sex Pistols shot in this atmosphere.
At this point, Annie Leibowitz, realizing she wasn’t going to have the band’s cooperation for a posed shot in the bathroom, approached Johnny, who was now sitting on the couch alongside me.
“Johnny, will you sit next to Sid, so I can get a shot?” Annie asked politely, holding her camera.
“That fucken tosser can get over here then,” Johnny barked back at her.
Annie turned to Sid, still surround by the four groupies, and asked him if he would join Johnny.
“Fucken no way, tell that cunt he can come over here,” Sid.
This was going nowhere fast.
Sid and Johnny bantered back and forth, until Johnny turned to Annie and snarled, “You wanna take my picture? IS MY HAIR ALRIGHT?”
Then Johnny Rotten shot her one of his famous stock-crazy-faces, and I decided to leave. I said goodbye to Bob Gruen and Joe Stevens, as Annie somehow got Sid and Johnny a bit closer to each other, so she could get her picture.
As I walked out of the dressing room, my jacket full of Heinekens, I bumped into famed New York groupie, Damita, who was nine months pregnant. She had a hole cut in her t-shirt, so that her naked, pregnant belly was exposed. I ripped off my backstage pass and slapped it on her swollen stomach, and said, “Go get ‘em girl!” And then I walked off, happy to be done with the Sex Pistols.
“Who could be bothered to listen to their music?” Danny Fields argued, “Do you think Walter Cronkite was going to listen to twenty seconds of the music? There was no music on the network coverage of the Sex Pistols. It was simply that this sociological phenomenon from England that happened to play music, was playing here. What the Pistols did radical was in terms of music, which no one really appreciated. They were famous for the wrong reasons.”
Whatever Johnny had been when he played to those fifty people in Liverpool—he was now thoroughly damaged by the pummeling from everybody and everything.
“It’s unbelievable that a rock group,” John Holmstrom wrote, “That played no more than one hundred live performances (less then fifty according to guitarist Steve Jones) and existed for only twenty-seven months, could become as internationally disliked as the Sex Pistols were.”
Little did I know, as I walked out of their dressing room, that it was the last time the Sex Pistols would be the Sex Pistols, for almost twenty years, until they would reform for another American tour in 1996.
Johnny Rotten would leave the band two days later.
“There’s a fine line between the brilliant and the retarded,” Mary Harron claimed, “But in a way, both Johnny and Sid were the Id of Punk, they are the thing itself; you can’t really separate them from it. They are these crazy destructive impulses– and they’re primitive– but they’re also very conceptual. Sid was very conceptual in the way he dressed—who is it that people want to look like? Sid became the very picture of punk. I know a Laotian couple who named their baby, `Sid Vicious.’”
“The Sex Pistols really couldn’t do it in another band,” Mary continued, “So I thought it was perfect that they broke up. I remember someone called me again to tell me that they had broken up and I was kind of like, `Oh how perfect and true, they’ll never disappoint us.’”
Sid went on to be accused of murdering his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, before he died of a heroin overdose. Johnny Rotten would sulk on the outskirts of the music industry, until he did his famous, “I’m fat, I’m 40 and I’m back,” tour of America 20 years after the fact. And so the Sex Pistols came to represent the long-dead era of Punk Rock.
But I always wondered what would have happened if the Pistols hadn’t got all that attention and become such a spectacle. If they hadn’t made front-page news every time they so much as burped.
What if the music—instead of the antics—had gotten through?
If you want to know who the Sex Pistols really were, and what they might have become if they hadn’t been chosen as the world’s first punk band—hoisted out of the gutter by the media to be ridiculed and scorned, you only have to look at their final UK performance—at Ivanhoe’s in Huddersfield, on Christmas Day 1977.
The Pistols played a benefit for the families of striking firemen, and as one critic wrote, “the gig was considered by some as a vindication of their anti-establishment stance when they were, for once, united with what might be viewed as their true constituency, the dispossessed British working class.”
The Pistols did two shows, a matinee and an evening performance which, if it had been reported fairly, might have reversed some of their negative press. As one critic reported, “Johnny Rotten mingled with the crowd wearing his pith helmet, and the good humor of the matinee—which was a benefit played for free—lingered on. Years later, the promoter of the evening show confessed that the Pistols never cashed the check.”
The Sex Pistols as naughty children, posing as bad boys, to raise money for striking firemen.
It’s a nice image, right?
Johnny Rotten fixing a nice piece of cake for the old ladies in the corner, while Sid handed out turkey sandwiches?
The Sex Pistols were a bunch of scruffy street urchins who enjoyed a good time. That’s the image I like to keep of them—getting drunk and playing at the Union Hall—while all the old ladies and gents looked on, disapprovingly.
Quaint isn’t it?
(Johnny Rotten interview copyright 1976 by Mary Harron, used with permission of Mary Harron)
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