On the last stop of the Sex Pistols’ first American tour, they took on almost as many people—over 5,000—as they faced in Atlanta, Memphis, Baton Rouge, Dallas, San Antonio and Tulsa put together. They held the stage for an hour; four days later, they blew apart. It may be that the Pistols’ only alternative to the future the rock & roll world had imagined for them—a future devoid of imagination, a future made up of the rock & roll rewards and penalties they had set out to deny—was to quit the scene; that, or a plane crash.
The Sex Pistols left behind more history than music, but on their final night the music lived up to the history.* The first thing that struck me, not a minute into their show, was how much stronger the Pistols sounded onstage than on their records. The music was all bite: you could reach out and touch every jagged note.
It was Steve Jones—somehow revitalizing every stance in the English book while sounding as if he were playing a guitar factory instead of a mere guitar—and drummer Paul Cook who made the noise, and together they were likely the only great two-man band in the history of rock & roll.
Sid Vicious used his bass as a prop; spraying the crowd with spit, beer and mucus, he looked like an English Charlie Starkweather. With one arm taped from wrist to bicep (Vicious was to OD twice that week), he was there to bait the crowd.
What was most surprising about Johnny Rotten was his .intelligence: intelligence you could read most clearly in his eyes—he might have been a kid out of Village of the Damned seventeen years later—but also in the way he used his body. He slumped like Quasimodo; he cut through the curtain of objects hitting the stage and the band (ice, cups, shoes, coins, pins and probably rocks) with a twist of his neck. He hung onto the mike as if he were in a wind tunnel, about to be blown off the stage.
“There’s not enough presents,” Rotten yelled after a belt flew over his shoulder. “You’ll have to throw up better things than that!” A perfectly rolled British umbrella landed at his feet. “That’ll do,” he said. The crowd wasn’t young—most were older than anyone in the band—and they were nasty, either by pose, choice, or necessity. A man in a football helmet butted his way through the crush until he smashed a cripple out of his wheelchair; the band went its own way. “Bodies” broke the show open with the same intensity with which “No Fun”—the single encore—finished it off: Rotten and Jones bore down as if they had nothing left to lose. There was the unrecorded “Belsen Is a Gas” (“Belsen is a gas, I heard the other day/Saw the open graves where the Jews all lay”), the careening momentum of “Liar,” the dead-end kid sputter of “Problems,” and, finest of all, the fury and glee Rotten put into the chorus of “Pretty Vacant”: “And we don’t care!” Finest of all, because the force of his negation brought such pleasure: a thin edge of affirmation.
Just before the band left the stage—carefully gathering up everything of value from the floor (there were four umbrellas by the end)—Rotten rang a change on his music. It was that famous line from “Anarchy”: “Don’t know what I want/But I know how to get it.” This night, the negative was gone. He knew what he wanted, Rotten shouted, and he meant it. But whatever it was, those of us who were there couldn’t give it to him—and he knew that too. So, minutes later, he left, and we will see nothing like him again.
*Not that the band wasn’t ready to make more. They had planned to hit Brazil immediately after the U.S.A.; their opening act would have been one Ronald Biggs, reading poetry. Ronald Biggs was a member of the gang that pulled off the Great Train Robbery.