Time has made it hard for Johnny Rotten to stay rotten in Public Image Ltd.
When the final version of the Voodoo announcement that Public Image Ltd. (Saturday, 8:15 p.m., Carnival) would be a part of this year’s festival, it included a quote from John Lydon: “All you Voodoo people would do best to bring a gas mask. I'm going to fart continuously. P.S: I want to see Donald Trump misrepresented with the greatest possible glee throughout New Orleans on Halloween night.”
My first response was a visceral groan. Lydon had seemingly gone from one of rock ’n’ roll’s great provocateurs to a caricature of himself, someone who could be programmatically outrageous in predictable, self-conscious ways.
Lydon was perhaps punk’s great rock star—along with Joe Strummer—and at the time he was as complicated as he was compelling. His sense of humor was more wry and lacerating than that of most punks—to be fair, a bunch that left behind a fairly humorless legacy. At the end of The Sex Pistols’ cover of The Stooges’ “No Fun” at Winterland in San Francisco at the end of the band’s last show, Lydon asked, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” It was a very Johnny Rotten way of taunting the crowd—not hammering them with fuck yous but suggesting that the Pistols just ripped them off. He was also talking to himself though, as he has since said, realizing that manager Malcolm McLaren had created the band for the express purpose of blowing it up. He also realized that for all of his cynicism and obstinance, he’d believed in the band and got played too.
Lydon understood punk not as a sound or style but as a way to confront authority. PiL did that by opting out of punk’s musical orthodoxy and charting a new musical course, particularly on Metal Box and Flowers of Romance, each of which found countless ways to perplex punk orthodoxy. In a era when songs longer than four minutes were hopelessly bourgeois, Metal Box tracks trance out at hippie-like lengths at tempos that don’t hurry to get anywhere. Its packaging was thorny, with the music initially released on three 10-inch discs fit so snugly into a film canister that you had to turn it upside down and let gravity help you get to the records. Eventually, it was reissued as a more conventionaland user-friendly two-album set, Second Edition.
Even the band’s concept challenged notions of punk. What could be harder for punks to take than CEO Johnny Rotten?
It wasn’t surprising that he revealed a scabby, bruised heart in his 1993 autobiography Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, but his disheartening evolution into a celebrity started with 2000’s Rotten TV and 2004’s I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!, a British reality show. On a bonus DVD included in The Sex Pistols’ concert DVD There’ll Always Be England, the Pistols’ visit places that were formative to them growing up, and Lydon’s theatrical tears in Finsbury Park are the low point of an otherwise fascinating feature. In context, his trademark vitriol came to seem more like brand maintenance. He seemed to be angling for the center square seat in the next incarnation of The Hollywood Squares rather than the human spanner in the works.
Gambit’s Will Coviello interviewed him when Lydon was scheduled to come to New Orleans in 2014 for a performance of Jesus Christ, Superstar that ended up being cancelled. In the conversation, Lydon seemed to recognize the distance between who he was and who he’d become when he agreed to play King Herod in a play that was once the icon of commercial hippiedom.
"When we started the Sex Pistols, we used to rehearse around the corner from Soho where the play was. It was always there. It was a permanent fixture."
Does he remember any feelings about it?
"It probably would have been negative, because it was part of the establishment," Lydon says. "I don't think [Webber] had me in mind when he put pen to paper all those years ago."
Much of that came during a fallow time for PiL, which seemed had seemed like a conventional band since the release of “Rise” in 1986. It was hard to reconcile the presence of hotshot guitarist Steve Vai on the track, who’d also played in David Lee Roth’s band in the ’80s, and an MTV-friendly video made the whole project seem sadly conventional. PiL was just a brand and Lydon just another performer, one whose shtick was to be the anti-Will Smith.
The prospect of a professional PiL in 2015 depressed me to such a degree that I thought I would rather skip the set than see the deep, hypnotic, prickliness of the band’s best songs forsworn, or worse, become crowd-friendly or feel-good. But recently, I saw that the band includes Lu Edmonds of The Mekons and Bruce Smith, drummer for The Pop Group. Both made their own thorny punk rock, and that gave me hope.
In the mid-80s from both sides I don't think either the band or John were really fully committed. John had all that success with the Album (1986) and with the single Rise and which was produced by Bill Laswell. It also had Steve Vai on guitar throughout and John had just come out of that very experimental phase with The Flowers of Romance (1981) and This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get (1984). And so when we came together, we just vaguely learned the chord sequences and vaguely learned the songs. We weren't really good as a band and we didn't take it seriously. I think with John, he'd be sometimes interested and sometimes he'd be bored. But right now, he is totally interested in what he's doing and totally into it and having a really good time. He is doing things with his voice that I've never heard him do before. In fact, I have never heard anybody else do before.
Is that the Lydon I want? Not exactly, but it’s possible that his integrity continues to express itself in idiosyncratic ways, and that underneath the celebrity—just as underneath the punk—there’s a complicated person trying to get a very personal vision into the world. The new PiL album, What the World Needs Now …, gets most interesting when Lydon softens a bit and feels redundant when he’s In Your Face Guy.
It’s still too late to be excited by PiL, but I now have a reason to think I won’t be disappointed. Not the most ringing endorsement, admittedly, but that’s what fart jokes and hokey Donald Trump lines earn in 2015. With an Internet full of trolls with sharper digs, you’ve got to keep up.