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Deeper Water

Albums in 2012: Loss leader

By Raoul Hernandez, Fri., Jan. 4, 2013

John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, commands Public Image Ltd at Fun Fun Fun Fest, Nov. 3, 2012.
John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, commands Public Image Ltd at Fun Fun Fun Fest, Nov. 3, 2012.
Photo by Gary Miller

"I am no vulture. This is my culture!"

Public Image Ltd, "One Drop"

From the cheap seats, back by the fence keeping Riverside Drive at bay, Fun Fun Fun Fest's headlining stage on Auditorium Shores washed Public Image Ltd over me in waves. Woodstock vets remember music pulsing up the hills of humanity that transformed Max Yasgur's farm into the decade's defining amphitheatre. PiL proved my own personal tsunami.

By the time "Deeper Water" drew me like a tractor beam to within 20 yards of the English quartet, my jaw hung open. Never had I heard a singer modulate such a powerful voice within each line and verse, except perhaps Plácido Domingo. The LP being promoted, This Is PiL – the group's first in more than two decades – plumbed its frontman's waterways, and the onetime revolutionary gave the Chronicle his most poetic interview during the album's press cycle (revisit "This Is PiL," Nov. 2, 2012). Neither prepared me for the actual performance.

I kept flashing back to 1982, when I was a teenager witnessing the Clash in San Francisco, Joe Strummer's shooting-star provocation all but setting a rickety wooden theatre afire. As the FFF crowd began dispersing over the remainder of the hourlong set, all I could think – me, who hadn't previously owned even a single PiL platter – was: "Do any of these people know that's Johnny Rotten up there?" Never mind the Sex Pistols, John Lydon's current crew balled punk, reggae, and tidal rock & roll into one mystic fist.

Today, I'm as bonded to This Is PiL as the Clash's desert island dubwise disc, Sandinista!. Meanwhile, CDs continue ceding sales to vinyl records and downloads, so the album itself erodes ever more into a loss leader for performers, merchandise to hawk on tour while collecting decreasing royalties across digital modes of delivery (absorb "Pennies From Heaven," May 18, 2012).

Musicians aren't likely to forsake the album anytime soon. Spotify, in fact, makes it easier to sample them. Greater global consensus, on the other hand, might become as ephemeral as the last music festival you attended.

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