Johnny Rotten doesn't converse, he spews. Epigrams fly from his lips like spittle from a baby's bottle. Even by phone, the words burst the dam of his thin little lips like a river in an impassioned form of rhetoric that might easily be mistaken, by those who can't think straight, for venom.
It isn't venom, though, so much as sincerity: a habit of speech most people in the entertainment world are seriously unfamiliar with. The guy isn't mean and nasty, as reputed; on the contrary, the 46-year-old singer is quite friendly and jovial -- within the confines of his persona, that is. Asked what he's up to, he actually laughs.
"I'm overworked and underdeveloped," he says. "As are we all. As are we all."
In one way, however, he is much like his mentor and enemy, Pistols manager and mastermind Malcolm McLaren, and any number of other wretched politicians and shysters. Rather than answering any direct questions, Rotten sticks to his own agenda. Inquiring minds would love to know what music Rotten grew up with, how he met his German-born (and reputedly rich) wife, and why the hated Glen Matlock, fired prior to the Pistols' legendary album Never Mind the Bollocks and reviled in the film The Filth and the Fury, is now a permanent member of the band again, replacing his deceased replacement Sid Vicious.
Instead, Rotten yaks on in a friendly fashion about the topics he's chosen: his new film project, his exclusion from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the idiocy of an American war with Iraq: "What did America know about Iraq before it went there? It's disrespectful. You know, the lazy lifestyle requires someone to suffer down the line -- to me, making one population suffer so another one doesn't, that's no Arab thinking or Christian thinking at all!"
There's one question that Rotten does answer directly: What does it feel like to see your youth, and your raison d'être, depicted in other people's films and fantasies? "It's a shame, really," he says, Rottenly. "I'm not a multimillionaire, despite the fact there's a whole cottage industry making money off my life. Bootlegs, T-shirts, books, whatever none of which refer to me at all. A lot of people chronicle my world who weren't even there."
As an example, he pulls author Jon Savage out of a hat. Savage's 1993 book England's Dreaming is considered by many to be the definitive history of punk rock's origins, but Rotten is not a fan.
"He wasn't around," he says flatly. "He's no more than someone Malcolm knew later. He may have had a vague attachment, but I can't take that seriously it's all verbiage, just on and on in a manner no one can follow and then, in comparison, my book" -- Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs -- "is queried as mere opinion, as if that's less important than his? I'm not a braggart, and I don't mean to be arrogant, but really he doesn't even understand the social changes or the environment or what it means to be working-class."
Rotten has a point: Savage's book is the type in which the first page details the architectural history of the building in which the shop "Sex," where the Pistols auditioned for McLaren, was housed. Casual punk enthusiasts might prefer Rotten's book for its frank outlook, insider anecdotes and, well, verbiage.
In fact, Rotten, who lives in Los Angeles, is working on a development deal to make No Irish into a fictional film, directed by Penelope Spheeris (The Decline of Western Civilization), whom he calls "an absolute genius."
The film will be fictive, "but not fantasy," he says. "It will reflect greatly on London life in the '60s and '70s, really give a taste of that world. Maybe that will end the foolishness about -- that punk comes from the Ramones and Debbie Harry and fashionable things like that. Don't get me wrong: They are valuable in their own way, but you just can't lump them in with us. If Sting's a former punk, then hello, Kelly Osbourne, you are too!"
Those who "pretend" to be punk weigh on Rotten's mind these days. Imitation, he says, "is not a form of flattery -- it's a totally destructive impulse because it shows no self-appreciation, no self-awareness." When pressed, Rotten doesn't name anyone in particular as imitating him: The Offspring, he says good-naturedly, "are a good band, I like their music, they just don't sound anything like us. I don't mind when people cite us as influences -- it's the lack of respect and blatant thievery that upsets me."
The Sex Pistols, he adds, have been perceived as a format now, and it wasn't like that back in the day. "It was our vocation. It really shows the way the industry is corrupt, but more importantly, how mundane it is, how bogged down in rules and regulations that make no sense to anyone. It's a trap, the music business is. Young bands today, they probably have good hearts, but after they've done it for a while they find themselves slyly contriving to be a part of the industry, they allow themselves to be made into puppets. What do they want to achieve? If it's money and fame, well, that's fine, but if it's art..."
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."
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.
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"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."