I’m an old punk. I listened to other genres of music prior to the punk movement back in the mid/late 70’s, but it was Punk that truly lit a fire in my brain. When I first heard the Sex Pistols I was amazed at the energy and anger in the lead singer’s voice. Johnny Rotten made me feel the music through his frenetic, angry energy. The band were loose, sloppy, and had messages that, even though they were primarily about life in England, I understood where they were coming from. Later, when Rotten formed the band Public Image Limited, it took me a lot longer to get what he was up to. It was a different energy, so it didn’t hit me the same way. Still, I grew to love PIL as much as the Sex Pistols.
Jumping forward 40+ years, it’s not surprising that the Pistols and PIL have remained a prominent influence in my life. I just consumed the audiobook of the autobiography of John Lydon, also known as Johnny Rotten, and I found it incredibly ironic that Lydon didn’t read his own book. It was read by a very well-spoken, proper-sounding English chap named Derek Perkins. He apparently reads a lot of books for Audible. I’m sure he’s a nice person, but I felt the overall thing just lost some of that Rotten patina that Lydon would have given it.
There was no snarl in Derek’s voice, at least not of the same caliber as Rotten’s. There was only a mere hint of gut-churning disgust when he read sections about the end of Sid Vicious’s life and the heroin vortex into which he’d disappeared. Other examples include Derek reading about Lydon’s upbringing, arguments with former band members, or simply cussing for emphasis. It just lacked the Rotten-ness that I expected. Still, Derek did an outstanding job and I won’t judge the book harshly because of that.
Lydon spends a good deal of time describing how everything he does is for the betterment of humankind, as lofty as that sounds. He truly sounds as though his intentions are to help people grow in some way. And he has a low opinion of people who do nothing but put up roadblocks to prevent him from accomplishing his goals simply due to how he dresses or how he looks. He describes them with very precise four letter words.
His memories of Sid Vicious were all truly from the heart. He has wonderful memories of the early, fun, untainted Sid and terrible, difficult memories of the lethargic, depressed, heroin Sid. Everyone has an addict in their family somewhere, whether they are close relatives or distant, and we all have to deal with them at some point. However, Lydon has faced it up close and personal in more than one band member, so his opinions are very strong and founded on personal experience.
I enjoyed hearing about he and Nora, his lady friend, moving to California and him becoming an American citizen. It obviously meant very much to him. He’s developed the right ideas about life after living in the sunshine for a few years. His comparisons to the gray, dreary London are poignant and funny. At one point he describes watching rabbits running around as he sat on a bench in a park and how pleasant it was and the fact that you didn’t have to kill them… You could just enjoy watching them. People don’t do that in London apparently.
Since 2000 he has done far more than I had known including several nature-focused shows on TV (one about bugs, one about gorillas, and one about great white sharks), a stint on “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!” from Australia, a performance of Jesus Christ Superstar that was cancelled only days before the tour started, and several other projects.
Having said all that, the one complaint I have about the audiobook (other than Rotten not reading it) is that his story sometimes rambles far too long about a topic like domesticity, or dealing with family when you don’t want to. It’s not bad, but at times I got a little bored. I guess it’s difficult to listen to him talk about being a spokesperson for butter after the maniacal stories about the Pistols and PIL.
Best quote of the book: “It’s a reward to be chastised by the ignorant.” (In discussing his role in Jesus Christ Superstar.)
UPDATE: I need to add some more to this review. I was washing the dishes thinking about the audiobook and realized I published this too early. So, here’s what I didn’t include in my review but should have.
I’ve read and heard about the friction between the other members of the Sex Pistols and Johnny Rotten for a long time so it’s good to hear the same stories from the horse’s mouth. Especially about Malcolm McClaren. Johnny didn’t like Malcolm and he makes it very clear.
Lydon is more complicated than many people give him credit for being. The deaths of his mother in his earlier life and of his father more recently had a profound affect on him. As he points out several times about himself, he doesn’t handle death very well. He reveals himself as a more fragile person than people know from the media. He makes himself vulnerable in the book. That’s another thing that makes it worthwhile.
He also describes relationships that started out strongly and ended bitterly both with members of the Sex Pistols and PIL, like Sid Vicious, Jah Wobble, Steve Levine, and others. Though he couldn’t work with these people any more he didn’t want to end their friendships. He just wanted to stop working with them because of the stress and conflict. They’ll have their own sides to the stories too.
If Lydon is as emotional as he claims he is, I have a friend I’d like him to meet. My friend is the most emotional male I’ve ever known. I’d like to get them both in a room and tell them a sad story about a kitten that didn’t know how to play or something…
Mostly, I loved hearing about how the Pistols actually made the music, what life was like in the studio, at Rotten’s flat, the people that came and went, the hooligan days, the other musicians that participated on the albums and with which he had contact throughout his career…
It was dumbfounding to me to hear who played on the album, “Album,” but no one knew because the idea was to make it a generic product, so there were no liner notes. No credits. I mean, the list of names that were in his studio BECAUSE they knew their names weren’t going to be associated with Rotten is incredible!!! It too made a profound impression on Lydon.
This is the first audiobook that I not only completed, but that I looked forward to hearing on the way home or on the way to work. Wherever I’d end up I would sit for another 10 minutes listening to it.
Okay, I think I’m done. Go give it a listen.