2 Filthy, 2 Furious

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..."

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Gina Arnold