Let’s face it. John Lydon is not a nice guy, and that’s a good thing. In his autobiography Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, Lydon writes:
Nice is the worst insult you could ever pay anybody. It means you are utterly without threat, without values. Nice is a cup of tea.
Can you put it any more simply than that? It’s like calling someone pretty. Some girls (and boys too now, probably) are perfectly fine with being called pretty. Most of us are not, however. We aren’t flowers, don’t call us pretty. It goes hand-in-hand with being called nice. “Oh, she’s a nice, pretty girl! I’ll bring her home to meet mother!” I’m getting off track.
The story told in Rotten is one that spreads from the working class streets of London where Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten) was raised, to the meeting and forming of the Sex Pistols, to Lydon’s recollections of various tours and the all-around media frenzy surrounding them, to Lydon’s days of putting Public Image Limited together. It also includes a nice collection of rarely-seen photos of a very little John looking shy and timid, family photos and photos from the early days of the Pistols. A nice touch at the beginning of the book is a photo index and short descriptions of each photo.
The book includes many funny stories, or maybe they’re just funny because of the way Lydon tells them. For example, the “shit sandwich” and “sperm omelet” story. Most people, I would think, wouldn’t find such things amusing, but the way in which Lydon recalls them, almost fondly, is humorous. There are also many, many digs at the former bassist of the Pistols, Glen Matlock. It (almost) makes you feel bad for the guy. The book also contains quotes from various people from the punk days that surrounded Lydon and the band, including Billy Idol, Steve Jones and Paul Cook (members of the band), Chrissie Hynde, Julien Temple and many others; Lydon’s father even has two chapters wherein we get to see a bit of a different side of John and, ultimately, a very honest one. The only thing that I feel is missing are quotes from Glen Matlock. It would have been a riot to see the contradictory stories between John and Glen, and to see Glen trying to back-paddle his way out of being a middle-class schmuck.
Lydon paints a very black portrait of Malcolm McLaren, and basically, everyone he comes into contact with. Even Lydon’s wife, Nora, was not safe from his sharp use of words when they first met, and she even claims to have hated him the first couple times they met.
Towards the end of the book are affidavits from various people from when Lydon brought McLaren to court, for money issues I won’t get into here. We seem to get all sides of the story in this case, from both Lydon and McLaren, as well as Steve Jones and Paul Cook.
Another thing that is cleared up, from someone who was actually there, is the Sid Vicious story. Possibly one of the most hyped-up people in music history—Lydon talks of Sid in a very true, though contradictory way—saying they were close friends, then turning around and saying how stupid and naive Sid was. In a touching way Lydon writes:
… I could have helped Sid more. If only I hadn’t been lazy and washed my hands of him like Pontius Pilate. That’s something I’ll have to carry to the grave with me.
It strikes me as a very courageous thing to say to people who may read the book and use it to criticize Lydon further.
Lydon also writes about the American tour, which was the beginning of the end for the band. With Sid Vicious drugged up and barely able to stand on his own, and the members barely getting on with one another, it was pretty much a disaster waiting to happen. Their last performance in San Francisco is proof of this.
When it comes down to it, John Lydon is an honest and truthful man. It’s not about being obnoxious, outspoken. It’s not even about being punk. I urge all the kids today who continue to call themselves punk to read this book, see the true meaning of the word and look at themselves, and see if they’re being true to what punk was, and if they would make Johnny Rotten proud. Lydon makes it obvious that it’s not a fashion statement. The torn sweaters were because of lack of money, not fashion, and that punk goes beyond the leather jackets and the false attitude of today.
Most people will be surprised by this book in many ways, if all they know of John Lydon and the Sex Pistols is what the media has fed them. Under the confrontational, witty, and sometimes rude person is a caring and sensitive guy. Not quite what would you expect from someone with the history of Johnny Rotten.