Russ Meyer, a grand-fatherly man with a small, well-manicured mustache, shows me into his nicely furnished apartment the next day and motions to a slightly pudgy young man on the other side of the room. "This is Roger Ebert," he says. "He won the Pulitzer Prize for film criticism and he's writing the movie with me. At the Chicago Sun-Times, he's Dr. Jekyll. With me, he's Mr. Hyde. He's really into tits."
Ebert laughs and says, "Remember, without me, there wouldn't be any mention of Bambi in this movie."
Meyer turns around and motions to the couch behind me. "This," he says, "is John."
Sid Vicious could not have described him more accurately: all misshapen, hunchbacked, translucently pale, short hair, bright orange – undoubtedly the vilest geezer I have ever met too. He is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Destroy and a swastika, black leather pants and these bizarre black shoes shaped like gunboats. His handshake is the limpest of all. "You, uh, prefer to be called John?" I ask.
"That's right," he says. "I despise the name Johnny Rotten. I don't talk to anyone who calls me that." His voice could turn the Lord's Prayer into brutal sarcasm. Having learned, probably, that if you stare at anyone long enough he will think you know he's a fraud (because everyone is a fraud), Rotten glares with demonic self-righteousness that threatens to reduce me to incoherence. The overall effect, though, stirs a maternal instinct I didn't know I had. The idea of this sickly dwarf bringing the wrath of an entire nation down on his shoulders is, well, heart-warming. Maybe, just maybe, if someone this powerless could cause that much uproar, maybe words still mean something.
"You got any comment for the world on the death of Elvis?"
"Fuckin' good riddance to bad rubbish," he snarls. "I don't give a fuckin' shit, and nobody else does either. It's just fun to fake sympathy, that's all they're doin'."
"Is it true you used to tell people you had to cut off your piles with a razor blade?"
"Yeah, I didn't go to school for about three weeks. The teachers sent me flowers. I'm an atrocious liar."
"How did you get that way?" I regret the question by the time it's out of my mouth, but there's no taking it back.
"Through dating people who ask that kind of crap. Assholes who believe that sort of thing don't deserve to be spit on."
"You look like Mel Ferrer," says Meyer to me. "Has anyone ever told you that?"
"No" I reply. "They usually compare me to Charlie Watts."
"We're lookin' for a journalist who looks like Mel Ferrer for the movie," says Rotten. "He gets murdered." He glares at me again. This time I glare back, and we end up in an unstated contest for about ten seconds. He seems to withdraw more than lose concentration, not leaving me much of a victory. Meyer asks him about certain English slang words to give the script some authenticity. "A tosspot is even lower than a jerk-off," Rotten answers. "A weed is a pansy. If you don't know that, it's just an indication of how fuckin' stupid you Americans are."
"Just a minute, boy," laughs Meyer. "In '44, we saved your ass."
"Like fuck you did . . . " Rotten trails off, suddenly realizing he's put himself in the position of defending his country. "You can slag off England all you want. There's no such thing as patriotism anymore. I don't care if it blows up. There's more tourists in London than Londoners. You never know what accent you're going to get when you ask directions."
"Hasn't anyone defended you from the standpoint of freedom of speech?"
"Not a one," he replies. "England was never free. It was always a load of bullshit. I'm surprised we aren't in jail for treason. Where's the bog?"
"Down the hall to the left," says Meyer. "There's ale in the refrigerator and on the counter, if you want it warm."
"No, the bog, man," says Rotten. "You know, the shithouse, the wankhole."
"Oh! The bathroom!" says Meyer. "Straight down the hall." Rotten trots off.
"Hmmm," Meyer continues, "what do you think about 'Bog' for a movie title? 'Bog,' with an exclamation point."
When Rotten returns from the bog, I ask if he shares Vicious' views on love. "Love is two minutes and fifty seconds of squelching noises," he says. "It shows your mind isn't clicking right."
Meyer suggests that we go have dinner and asks Rotten what kind of food he likes.
"I don't like food."
"Come on," says Meyer.
"You have to eat something to survive."
"What do you eat when you eat very little?"
"Whatever is available. Food is a load of rubbish."
Rotten finally agrees to a fish restaurant named Wheeler's Alcove and the five of us – Meyer, Ebert, Rotten, me and this roadie who showed up halfway through the talk – stuff ourselves into a subcompact that would be cramped for two. "You can't blame him for being difficult," whispers the roadie. "Journalists ask the most unbelievably stupid questions. They've been calling all day asking how he felt about Elvis."
On the way, we stop at a store so Rotten can pick up the following day's groceries – two six-packs and a can of beans. At the restaurant, Ebert entertains me with a joke about an elephant having his testicles crushed by two bricks until the waiter arrives.
"I'll have a filet with nothing around it and a green salad on the side, mush," orders Rotten.
"Yes, sir, but don't call me mush," says the waiter who appears to have just gotten off the boat from Pakistan.
Rotten leans over the table and delivers his most enraged stare. "And I'll have a Guiness on the side, mush!" The waiter tries to take the other orders, but Rotten insists: "Did you hear I want nothing around the filet, mush?!" The waiter finally hustles off to the kitchen, much relieved to get away.
"What's a mush?" asks Meyer.
"Someone whose face is all beaten in and looks like a cunt."
"He didn't like that. He'll spit in your salad."
"I know it. That's why I said it. The mush couldn't take a joke."
As the food arrives, I ask Rotten about the close friendship of reggae and punk. The first single by whites ever carried in some of the record shops in Brixton, the Jamaican ghetto, was "Anarchy in the U.K." But neither movement seems to have made much of an impact on American blacks, who still very much believe in the middle-class dream, at least according to a New York Times poll which showed that of any racial group, blacks have the most optimism about New York.
"Punks and niggers are almost the same thing," says Rotten, oddly echoing a theme of the last decade which substituted "students" for punks. "When I come to America, I'm going straight to the ghetto. And if I get bullshit from the blacks in New York, I'll just be surprised at how dumb they are. I'm not going to hang out with the trendies at Max's and the CBGB. I'm not asking the blacks to like us. That's irrelevant. It's just that we're doing something they'd want to do if they had the chance." Rotten seems to be at his most sincere of the evening. He leans forward, almost urgently. "Listen, this band started by nicking every piece of equipment. I still sing through David Bowie's microphones. Punk fashions are a load of bollocks. Real punks nick all their gear from junk shops."
I ask Meyer if, as a Hollywood outcast, he feels any kinship with the punks.
"Not really," he says. "I don't consider myself an outcast. I'm the only independent who can compete with the major studios. I thought this would be a good transitional thing to get out of the straight bosoms-and-brawn thing. They're also paying me one percent of the U.S. gross."
"You mean you don't believe in what they're saying at all?"
"Don't you know that all directors are whores? John, wouldn't you make yourself look like a cunt for a million dollars?"
"How could you make me look like a bigger cunt than I am?" says Rotten. "The joke's on you."
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