2 Filthy, 2 Furious

The Sex Pistols have re-formed (again), and Johnny Rotten is spewing pure vitriol (still)

What's missing, he says, is originality. "That's the hard part," his interviewer suggests, and in his most genuine voice of the day, Rotten suddenly exclaims, "I don't think so! Every human being is original, that's what's so great about nature! It's just peer pressure than makes everyone want to be like everyone else.

"The Mohican thing," he says, changing tack. "Having a Mohawk in California, that doesn't impress me. But doing it in Chile, that does. Those kids have to do a survival course, just like we did, take real physical abuse to be a 'punk.' What does some Californian kid risk by doing that? It's all just fashion."

Of course, the question still remains as to why the Sex Pistols -- once a fount of a certain type of integrity -- have chosen to re-form, an action that can hardly be called disinterested. Rotten isn't exactly forthcoming on the topic, but a few hints emerge here and there in his rapid-fire conversation as to why he's gone and done it. The offense he's taken at the Pistols' exclusion from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is one. "They can ignore us, but they can't write us out of history," he sneers. "It reflects badly on them, though, not on me. It makes them look ignorant and foolish."

Perhaps he looks a bit older now: Johnny Rotten.
Perhaps he looks a bit older now: Johnny Rotten.

Another hint as to his motives is contained in his proposed trip to Baghdad later this year: "I'm calling us the Water Pistols, jokingly, because I've noticed that for all the Americans say they wanted to help the Iraqis, they haven't given them a single bottle of Evian water." Seriously, he adds, "if you want to give them democracy -- well, what's more democratic than the Sex Pistols?"

Many things, actually, but Rotten seems serious in his quest. "Music does transcend populations," he claims, like a latter-day Bruce Springsteen. "All anyone wants is a safe life."

This kind of talk seems somewhat uncharacteristic in a guy who's often portrayed as a volcano of cynicism, rage and negativity, but Rotten may well have been misunderstood by many: "Johnny political, I hear you say? I'm not. I'm not a communist or a conservative or whatever, I speak on the grand level of humanity…of common human decency."

These remarks and others like them lead one to believe Johnny Rotten, the cynical, the profane, the voice of dissatisfaction and ire, is in fact really proud of the Sex Pistols and their legacy, and that he has re-formed the band to take care of unfinished business. The Pistols set out to change the world, but they only half succeeded. Nowadays, we're surrounded by their legacy in the form of "RIP Sid Vicious" T-shirts and three-chord punk bands, but the real ideals that the music championed -- such as the idea that anyone can make music that speaks to and from the heart -- have not been fully realized. Like rap music after them, the Sex Pistols were the CNN of inner-city London: the voice of the unemployed, the pure sound of pissed-off powerlessness telling it like it was.

"Your future dream is a shopping scheme," Rotten sang presciently in 1977.

He also said, "I want to be anarchy -- no dogsbody." In the United States and England today, there's still a vast population of "dogsbodies" whose dreams are sold to them for cold hard cash; they have no future, just as Rotten didn't then. He actually has some harsh words for the underclasses of Los Angeles: "As long as they play the victim, they'll be victimized. I know, because I did that myself -- 'Oh, poor me, I'll never get anywhere, I may as well play the victim and not work and not give a shit.' I'm in total solidarity with those people, because I understand it, but you've got to learn to get a little self-respect. You've got to work for everything in life. It pays off. It got me [to L.A.], and that's not bad for a boy from the flats. Or as you'd say, 'projects.' People yak on here about how oppressed they are, but let me tell you: The ghettos in L.A. are better than anything I grew up in. And it rained all the time."

And that's as close as Rotten comes to saying the unsayable: Punk rock, as degraded and as commercial and as corporate as it is now, saved his life. Can it still save other people's? Rotten says no, but you know that deep down, he really means yes, and that's why the Pistols are back on the road. "What I'm proud of about my past," he says, "is that the things that I said then were true. The royal family is a really negative institution and a drain on the economy that we'd be well rid of. Record companies really are corrupt. I'd like the Pistols to have been influential in helping a generation to think for itself, but I don't really think that's what's happened.

"Before you can change the world," he adds, "you have to change everything, but first you have to start with yourself."

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