Another Rotten Day
John Lydon on the Radio, Punk Rock, and Reunions
Yup, Johnny Rotten -- the man who, as vox of the Sex Pistols, caused a massive music-business coronary 25 years ago by loudly proclaiming himself the Antichrist, rhymed it with "anarchist," then followed that with the abrasive post-dub of Public Image Ltd. -- has just added another marketable job skill to his resumé: Radio personality.
"I'm not sure I like that moniker a'tall!" snaps Rotten. John Lydon, as he's known to his Mum and Dad, is "getting over the flu -- but then, everybody and 'is pet dog 'as got it, so why should I be any diff'rent?" Nevertheless, he's braving that promotional atrocity known as "the phone interview" to chat up "Rotten Day," the two-minute, this-day-in-rock-&-roll-history-with-your-host-Johnny-Rotten program syndicated by The Album Network and broadcast locally at 8:20am each morning on 101X-FM.
"I did this show because I thought it would be a bit of a laugh, messing about with the bare-faced realities of some of these so-called `alternative rock gods,'" explains Lydon. "It's turning into a bit of a bind, quite frankly. The lesser journalists out there tend to go, `Is he like Howard Stern?' Because they can't see past the end of their own noses. Whatever Howard does has nothing to do with what I do. I don't like those pale comparisons."
Of course, I reply. Because you're quite clever and witty, and Howard just appeals to the most base elements.
"Well, I wouldn't disagree with that," Lydon counters in a voice that could only be accompanied by arched eyebrows. "But I will have you write in print that I didn't actually say that! Ha ha!
"Our show is, literally, a diary of events. The most effort that goes into it is the actual scripting, because we have to be accurate. Otherwise, people jump all over us. It can't be just a bunch of hearsay and innuendo. Now, a lot of radio stations are using the excuse for not airing this show that it's not cutting-edge enough. Well, hullo! You can't play with truth! It is what it is, and I really think it's cowardice on their part, because I definitely get the impression they're lying to us when they use that as an excuse. Because a lot of these realities that we bring up tend to be -- ouch! -- best left buried."
Or floating. The always caustic Lydon, when he turns his jaundiced eye upon rock history, is liable to chronicle the day of Brian Jones' death by remarking that the ex-Rolling Stone was found "playing the role of an overturned air mattress in his own swimming pool." Noting Jim Morrison's drowning in a Parisian bathtub the same day two years later, Lydon intones, "Cleanliness is next to godliness! Splish splash!" Remarking on Morrison's Miami cock-flashing, Lydon suggests "reports 'ave it that there wasn't too much to see," then chuckles about "the breeze between my knees." Of the day Paul Weller left the Jam, Lydon remarks, "His reasons for quitting were partially that he thought he was `too old to play that sort of music' -- e.g.: fun and listenable!" The day Morrissey releases Bona Drag is commemorated with Lydon snarling, "Talk about giving the game away! A complete bone drag of a record!"
Not that anyone's complaining about Lydon's arch commentary. "[`Rotten Day'] is a great feature," says 101X programming director Sarah Trexler. "It works for us real well. It's got everything: it's got attitude, it's got information, and he's really witty. It's wonderful. Who hasn't been a fan of that guy for a long time? He's so talented. The response has also been really good. If we're a little late on it, people call and complain. If something else preempts it, they call and complain. They wanna hear it again, they wanna hear it five minutes after they heard it."
The basis for the show? The book Punk Diary, written by Dallas native, pioneering punk radio personality, and the mastermind behind the Tales from the Edge CD compilation series, George Gimarc. Gimarc, who scripts "Rotten Day," had originally turned a proposal in to Album Network for a show called "Punk Diary" that they basically sat on for a while before Gimarc was asked, "Hey, would you be interested in doing the show if you're not the host?"
"I was thinking they were going to get somebody from one of the West Coast radio stations to host it or something," recalls Gimarc. "So I said, `I dunno. Who were you thinking about?' `Well, we were thinking about getting John Lydon to host it.' So, to hell with my ego! Yeah, let's do it!
"It probably took until the second round of scripts before I totally got into his character and his vocabulary and phrasing, to where when I write the scripts I have his voice in my head. By now, we're into the fourth or fifth round of scripts, and it's pretty tight. By the time he gets the scripts, we don't have to do much wiggling on them. We do a bit: He adds punchlines, and he'll change a phrase or two, and he'll add his own observations to them, which I could never anticipate. It's not a painful process, it's really fun. In fact, when we go to do the scripting sessions and then go into [recording], it's a really fun three or four days." Gimarc also says there have been moments where he's impersonated Lydon's voice to show him how certain lines could be phrased, "which he's kind enough to let me get away with."
Still, not everyone is pleased. "Some of these radio stations," says Lydon, "have had major arguments and disputes with people like, for want of a better example, that woman from Hole. Her and [Los Angeles altrock station] KROQ have a situation going on between them. Now KROQ won't play the show."
And it's because of Courtney?
"No, but I'm sure that must have come up at some point. When we played them the original demos of this radio show, they were kind of squawking at the comments about Nirvana, and that led up to Courtney. Now, I'm sure that Courtney Love, being what she is, would find the whole thing hilarious. But wankers like KROQ come in a poor second when it comes to wit and imagination and fun and spontaneity. What pisses me off, ultimately, is that these radio stations claim themselves to be the cutting edge. When, really, the only thing they're cutting is the reality and fun, which is the very thing people would be tuning in for. They're really the censorship edge of rock & roll."
Well, John, Courtney can be quite vindictive....
"Yes, but at the same time, she's absolutely amusing. Whether you laugh at her or with her -- mostly at her -- it's nonetheless an endless source of titillation!"
Madonna recently remarked in Spin that Courtney was interesting in the manner that an old, Tourette's-addled woman you see in the park is interesting.
"Oh, that's very funny!" Lydon laughs. "But I don't think it's that at all. I think it's just the spoiled brat syndrome. `I want! I want! I want!' With precious little content."
Don't you find it odd that people like Courtney and Al Jourgensen claim to come from punk rock, and they behave so much like the old Seventies rock stars?
"Yes, which is the very thing we actually tried to get rid of. And it's a shame that they're role-modeling themselves around the Sid & Nancy vibe, which was the asshole end of it. It's because it's the easy way out, isn't it? That kind of mentality requires no thought, no content, no effort, no point, no purpose. Junk food is easy to package. It's cheap, and you can mass-produce it."
Speaking of junk food, you must find the 20-years-too-late American commercial punk ascendance amusing.
"Well, you can't be too precious, and you always know that as soon as you do anything, there'll be 10 copies of it available at half-price two weeks later. That's just the way it is. It's sample-and-hold, isn't it? It's gonna take them a lot longer to understand anything Public Image ever did. So, I'm kinda safe for now!" Lydon laughs. "Because that's a most seriously different kettle of piranha.
"I've seen Rancid on the TV, and I thought they were charming. It was [a] little like...what are those dolls? Ken and Barbie! They dressed up, and had all the right moves, everything looked like it was bought brand-new, and all the movements were well-rehearsed. The whole thing looked kind of like a one-act play."
A bad one-act play based upon events he's already lived out, Lydon could have added. He didn't. As can be seen, the John Lydon who turned 40 on January 31 is no less caustic than the 21-year-old Johnny Rotten of the laserbeam stare and eternally foul disposition. If anything, his good humor is more apparent than before, and age and seasoning have (forgive me, John) "mellowed" him into the classic English eccentric, which is neither a new observation nor a welcome one: "Oh, no!" he snapped at an English journalist in '86. "`English eccentric!' That's terrible! I'm not Viv Stanshall!"
But John Joseph Lydon's got better things to occupy his thoughts than radio shows, or worrying about either shitty prefab "punk rock" or whether he's now fit to join the Bonzo Dog Band or not. He's wrapping up his first solo album, "a deeply strange piece of work" that's been a year in the making. Due in March, the record was made entirely in Lydon's new home studio, done only with the assistance of an engineer, younger Lydon brother Martin, and a few machines ("although you damn well wouldn't know it"). He promises that "to anyone who likes a Whitney Houston record -- y'know, everything orchestrated and [in] the right place -- it's probably horrific. It's not what people want, but it's what they fucking well should have!"
This is what you want, this is what you get. Isn't that a service the once and future Johnny Rotten has been providing since he first announced, "I am The Antichrist!!"? 'Course, what some want is a Sex Pistols reunion, something even I (a major-league Pistols devotee) dread. If the newspapers are to be believed, a Sex Pistols reunion is exactly what we will get this year. I didn't bother asking. I didn't want to know, and I've learned that Marvin was right: believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear. All I know is, the Sex Pistols taught me at a young age that anything is possible.
"It certainly is," agrees John Lydon. And maybe that sly bastard was affirming what I didn't ask when he added, "People ask me what do I mean when I say no [there won't be a reunion]. I mean, `No means: perhaps and possibly!' Save that for something else you'll hear about shortly and you'll go, `Aha! Now I know what he means!' So, 'bye-'bye!" n Tim Stegall's role models when he was growing up were Johnny Rotten and Bugs Bunny.