Normally I don’t read autobiographies. Especially ones written by rock and roll personalities. The ones I’ve read are usually too self-serving by half to be informative; all you find out are the levels of false modesty some people can achieve. However, there are always exceptions to every rule and John Lydon’s Anger Is An Energy, published by Harper Collins, is every bit as original as its author.
Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, first came to prominence as the lead singer of the seminal British punk band the Sex Pistols. Although the band only released one studio album, Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols back in the mid 1970s, their influence on popular music can’t be underestimated. While the band imploded after only a couple of years, Lydon went on to form PiL (Public Image Limited) and has continued to push the boundaries of popular music forty years after his career commenced.
In the hopes his autobiography would mirror his music career in both approach and content; unpredictable and exciting; I picked up a copy at a local bookstore. That I happened to be listening to Never Mind The Bollocks on my i-Pod when I walked in the store is just one of those weird coincidences. Lydon follows the typical pattern for books of this type by starting off with details of his childhood and moving forward into the present. However, that’s about the only way it’s typical to the format.
Lydon’s narrative and story telling are rich in both detail and context. We start off in a London which is still in full recovery from being bombed in WWll, and the conditions he was brought up in. While this could have been an opportunity for someone to talk about their hard life, he never once stoops to that. Instead he describes what he learned from his life and how it benefited him. He even talks about his bout of childhood meningitis, which saw him hospitalized for six months and left him with permanent damage to his spine, in terms of how it helped shape the person he became.
Naturally, music features prominently in his narrative; from what he heard as a child and a teenager to what he appreciates to this day. Any of you punk snobs out there who think you should only be listening to certain music can take a lesson from the diversity of music Lydon listened to growing up and continues to listen to this day. As would be expected, most of the music talk is taken up with his life in popular music: the Sex Pistols and PiL.
He talks openly and honestly about everything from his friendship with Sid Viscous, the legal problems he had with Sex Pistols’ management (former manager Malcolm McLaren tried to claim ownership of the name Johnny Rotten) and the ever changing line up of PiL. However what’s truly fascinating about those sections of the book is what Lydon reveals about himself. It’s not as if he is letting anything slip, more like it’s just the proper context for him to tell us about his creative process and certain aspects of his character.
As is to be expected from someone who has been as outspoken in his public life as Lydon, he’s not afraid of giving his opinions on paper. Life in Britain, New York City, punk rock, California (which he now calls home) the Sex Pistols, PiL, working in television, the music industry and all the musicians he’s known and worked with are all talked about with his characteristic forthright bluntness. What was really nice is how much he continues to this day to defy expectations in who he likes and admires and who he has little time for. He makes no apologies for his opinions, but is honest enough to say they’re based on his personal experiences and shouldn’t be taken as gospel or absolute truths.
The most refreshing thing about Anger Is An Energy is its complete lack of false modesty. I’m not saying Lydon isn’t constantly aware of how lucky he is or grateful for being given the opportunities he has had and continues to enjoy. However, he doesn’t give us any of the “aw shucks bull shit, I ain’t done nothing special” common to celebrity autobiographies. He knows what he has accomplished and is justifiably proud of his achievements.
Even better is the sound of the book. If feels and reads like Lydon is talking directly to you. Perhaps he dictated the content and it was transcribed directly to the page. Whatever the case, it somehow manages to bring the man alive as few memoirs ever do. Reading this book gives you a real sense of the man, warts and all. He neither hides his light under a bushel or tries to depict himself as other than what he is and where he came from.
The irony of Lydon is how he’s become an icon for the iconoclastic. He’s self aware enough to see the weirdness of this situation and to let us know he knows what’s going on. In reading this book it soon becomes obvious his goal wasn’t to become either famous or infamous, but now that he is he doesn’t pretend not to be enjoying himself. However, he has remained insistent about always playing the “game” by his rules. This may mean he might not have enjoyed the success he could have garnered, but it does sound like he’s a far happier man for it.
Anger Is An Energy is one of those rare autobiographies which is both a pleasure and an education. John Lydon is not your average rock and roll star, and this is not your average rock and roll book. It’s essential reading for anyone with any interest in both the history of punk rock and popular culture in the late 20th and 21st centuries.
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