Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale! Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonor!
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick
I keep thinking about this Texan sitting across from me in a computerized trolley in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. The guy looked as if he had played tackle for the Longhorns about twenty years ago and since bought into fifty big oil wells: 260 pounds, $300 three-piece suit, I.B.J. hat, embroidered boots, a bloated cigar in his mouth.
“Well, I ain’t heard their music,” he allowed when I asked his opinion of the Sex Pistols. “But, uh, what’s the drummer’s name?”
“No, the other fella, uh, uh….”
“That’s him!” The Texan pulled the cigar from his mouth, threw back his head and laughed. “Hot dog! That’s a good ‘n’!”
Sheeeeit. Now there’s a man who understands the Sex Pistols. And sheeeit if you can say that about most of the national press. I hate to sound catty, guys (it is standard practice among journalists who write about the Sex Pistols to denounce other journalists who write about the Sex Pistols), but we get paid a lot of money and it looks real bad if the heaviest insight we can come up with is that Sid Vicious is not vicious looking. And we simply have to agree on whether to call them phony for being gross and ugly or for being not gross and ugly enough.
No matter. There are worse fates for a rock & roll band than heading the Today show sheeeit list. These people ought to be threatened. As the Sex Pistols have been saying for a couple of years, they are not interested in playing music as it has been traditionally defined; they create ruptures in society. And, contrary to everyone’s wishes at Warners, they knew exactly where to create their ruptures: redneck bars in the American South.
The nations roar like the roaring of many waters, but he will rebuke them, and they will flee far away, chased like chaff on the mountains before the wind and whirling dust before the storm. At evening time, behold, terror!
The Sex Pistols blew into Dallas the same day as the New Improved Ice Age—God’s wrath visited upon a nation conceived in banality and dedicated to the proposition that all men can be reduced to a People profile. Extreme times these are, calling for extreme actions. So I came home to New York and put a hammer through my television set. It won’t stop the Death Blizzard, but at least I won’t have to watch it on Eyewitness News.
“We are deadly serious about hating celebrity worship,” spoke the prophet in the Longhorn dressing room as the sky puked ice on the Eternal Flame a few miles away. “It must be destroyed.” God’s own truth, just 3,000 years too late. The poor bastard would have been happier wandering around the desert, screaming at rocks and scorpions that the Canaanites would ravish the daughters of the Chosen People for twenty score generations because they had made deals with the Forces of Sheol. No more sissies like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Amos. Show me the Book of Rotten, and I will show you a prophet worthy of melting down Golden Calves.
“. . . …I don’t care what happens anymore, they’re all right. It was all worth it and Johnny Rotten is a fucking superstar,” said Bob Regehr, Warners A&R chief, to Robert Christgau of the Village Voice after the opening Atlanta concert. No doubt a nice guy, Regehr, but in this case the Voice of Sheol. If a prophet wants to scream at more than rocks and scorpions these days, he can’t just ride an ass into Jerusalem and club a few money-changers. He has to get recorded, distributed, booked and sold. He has to make a deal with Sheol to denounce Sheol, which wants to turn him into the very thing he hates. What gaineth it a man to be worshiped as another pair of Farrah Fawcett-Majors nipples and loseth his own soul? How does the discerning prophet conduct himself before the Death Blizzard buries us all?
Farce is the theater of impotence. In a situation of general social paralysis/stasis, sterility, stereotypification the aim is not seizure of power, but the dissolution of power.
—Norman O. Brown, Closing Time
Johnny Rotten going onstage in San Antonio (their third American gig, my first) wearing a massively ill-fitting plaid bondage suit and a T-shirt picturing two cowboys facing each other with their huge dicks hanging out—Sid Vicious greeting the audience with “Ya cowboy faggots!” and bashing his bass over the head of some guy who tries to attack him onstage—Johnny Rotten saying, “Oh my, Sid dropped his guitar,” under an unrelenting barrage of beer, beer cans, handfuls of whipped cream, spit and anything else the crowd can get their hands on—drummer Paul Cook and guitarist Steve Jones earnestly trying to make the right sort of racket for the antics of Rotten and Vicious to continue—Randy’s Rodeo, reputedly one of the toughest bars in Texas, stuffed with 2,200 people, some of whom are laughing and pogoing, some more of whom are shouting, “You cocksuckers!” and meaning it (but still having more fun and getting more stories to tell than at a hundred Kansas concerts), and most of whom are standing around watching, as if it had no more reality than the goddamn Today show. (You cannot counteract 20,000 hours of TV watching in their lives in one night)—that is farce.
None, except for a few groupies who never seem to get the word on anything, are worshiping. Traditional rock transcendence comes in losing one’s identity to the star onstage, but with the Sex Pistols, so insistent on their own raunch, identity flies out the window—not seizure of power by some prick with a guitar, but the dissolution of power. That is why Warners should follow the example of EMI and A&M and drop these guys right now. There is just one more step to the realization that you can have a good time without buying anything. Then everybody will be fucked. In the snow.
Steve Jones and Paul Cook make a point of shaking my hand firmly backstage because I had accused them of dead-fish grips in a previous article (RS 250). With “Gimme” scrawled in Magic Marker across his self-scarred chest, Vicious justifies his clubbing the audience member by saying the guy hit him in the head with a full can of beer. Rotten emerges from the dressing room a few minutes later, his righteous glare made a tad ludicrous by all the talcum powder on his shoulders (he dusts his hair with it). I ask what happened to Russ Meyer, who was to direct their feature film.
“We sacked him,” says Rotten. “There was a clash of personalities. He thought I was a cunt. The man was excessively into finances.”
“The amount of stuff thrown by the audience was astonishing,” I say. “Aren’t you afraid of losing an eye?”
“I can throw it back,” he says. “You shouldn’t run away from something until you find out for yourself.”
“Got any plans for the immediate future?”
“We’re going straight to Europe after this tour,” he says, “Then maybe we can get longer visas to come back here. Twenty days to cover America is ridiculous, and we’ll never play bigger halls. I really don’t understand all the problems we’ve been having. Sooner or later, people will realize we’re just a dance band…with a heavy message…we’re out to destroy the world. Did you know the FBI has been following us around? Several of them. They’re trying to take us for a ride.”
Indeed, only barbarians are capable of rejuvenating a world laboring under the death throes of unnerved civilization.
—Frederich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State
It’s very hard to explain the looseness the band needs to a record company,” says Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren on a flight from Baton Rouge to Dallas. Sitting on either side of him, Jones and Cook are throwing lime slices and ice cubes at each other from their drinks, with McLaren occasionally joining in. “Their whole instinct is to contain while I want the wildness to come out. As a manager, I look for it. We need clubs where you can jump into the audience and disappear for half an hour. We never should have played Atlanta or Baton Rouge. How can the band write good songs when they are playing for college students? Next time we’ll play Mississippi and Alabama, so we can see how horrible things really are. If we’d listened to Warner Bros., we’d have played New York.”
McLaren fairly spits out “New York.” “I sincerely hope another band comes up to give us some competition,” he continues. “I don’t see any now, but we need one to get the Sex Pistols excited again. As it is, they are becoming fossilized, self-conscious and self-congratulatory. Even I can see it.”
Farce is the mode of demystification the tragic mode remystifies
—Norman O. Brown, Closing Time
The show that night in Dallas is a sad one, very sad. Sid Vicious has clearly ingested too much of something and is entirely out of it. But alcohol, or whatever, is not the problem. The problem is that he is mugging in an obvious way. At one point—his “Gimme” expanded to “Gimme a fix”—he bends over a pogoing girl next to the stage and gets his nose bashed into her forehead. For the next half-hour he lets the blood drip unchecked from his nostrils, smearing it on his face, spitting it on punk girls who keep calling for more. I’m all in favor of a good gross-out, but this was no gross-out. The foolish grin gave it away. He had succumbed to Hey-look-at-me-I’m-a-star.
The most charming and spontaneous Sex Pistol in his way, Vicious was willful in his innocence when I first interviewed him last August. “But how can they?” he said when I asked how he would deal with people who wanted to turn him into something he wasn’t. “I only know one way to live. That’s like now…I don’t really think about the future. I ‘aven’t got a clue.” Now he’s stepped right in the middle of the future, and he’s got a bad dose of what afflicts every other rock & roller: the craving to get away with everything. Just what the world needs: another Brian Jones myth.
“He had too much to drink,” says Rotten in the dressing room. “And he got a good telling off for it.”
“Hear that?” says Jones. “Someone else noticed. Sid’s a tosser tonight. He didn’t even know the key for ‘Pretty Vacant.'”
“It would be fuckin’ monotonous if every show was good,” says Rotten, lifting a fresh beer to his mouth. “Here’s to two years of bad press, and Phase One of our attack on America.”
I step out of the dressing room to find Paul Cook talking with a groupie. “Well, you got any messages for your American fans, now that you’ve seen the States for a week?”
“Yeah, have a laugh on us,” he says. “You can’t be serious about this business.”
Sid Vicious stands off to the side of the stage, arguing with two quietly insistent security men. They are holding him from plunging out into a small band of admirers who have stuck around after the show. “I don’t want to fuck them all!” he shouts. “I just want to fuck one.” The security men hold him back, but he grows more desperate to hear from the groupies that he is wonderful and the band is wrong to criticize him. “I want to talk with the people. I just want to talk with the people.“
Talent is to be ranked according to the sensation it produces; Genius according to the opposition it arouses (religious character according to the scandal it gives). Talent adapts itself immediately and directly; Genius does not adapt itself to the given circumstances. Talent warms up what is given (to take a metaphor from cooking) and sees to its appearance; Genius brings something new. . . .…
—Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals
Genius is a lousy word, because it sounds as if I’m replacing old false gods with new false gods. And maybe I am. I bet a friend twenty dollars that Never Mind the Bollocks would make the Top Twenty—a severe case of believing what I wanted to believe. But, hell, I saw the Sex Pistols on two good nights—Wolverhampton in Britain and San Antonio in the States—and I know there is collective genius at work here. Nobody has ever commanded the theater of impotence like the Sex Pistols. They have made all the right enemies, and now they must find their friends. When and how they can do it, or even if they can last two more weeks, I shall not predict.