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Suspicious Minds 

Wednesday, Sep 11 1996
A small man on a big stage looks and sounds far, far away. It's not just physical distance that separates him from the rest of us. Years and years stand between, blocking his little flailing limbs so that they could never touch us. His words melt into each other, making him sound like an anonymous bee instead of an infamous Englishman. Occasionally, entire sentences jump out of his garbled buzzing, and for a second, the shock of recognition tricks us into happiness. Until we hear what he says, twisting words we once learned and memorized as a pledge of allegiance, wrenching them into grubby little cynicisms. Johnny Rotten whoops, "There's no future in Seattle's dreaming!" He actually said that.

Watching the Sex Pistols Labor Day weekend at Seattle's Bumbershoot Festival felt less like a concert and more like looking at a city out the window of a plane: ordinary, lived-in streets turned into neat and tidy abstractions. But it wasn't just the stadium's inherent detachment that sucked the Pistols into the vanishing point: The good ol' Young Fresh Fellows made the same space feel like a cozy living room the very next afternoon. And it wasn't just punk's historicism that quarantined the band from the here and now: Hours later, their compatriots the Mekons played their dazzling chestnut "Where Were You?" with so much present-tense joy they were practically making it up on the spot.

Somehow, it seemed appropriate to watch Rotten piss on his No Future creed at the end of the Democratic Convention's four days of future-this and future-that. My favorite moment of convention coverage was a CNN reporter's attempt to analyze the influence of Rock the Vote on the last presidential election. Anchor Bernie Shaw took that moment to recall the pies Rock the Vote sent to journalists during the '92 New Hampshire primaries. On national TV, Shaw explained that he was so busy that week that he didn't get around to unwrapping his pie for days, at which point it was too moldy to eat. How like the Filthy Lucre tour: The Pistols make moldy mincemeat out of once-fresh anthems and we Bernie Shaws of pop turn it into news.

And yet this story feels too old and timeless to be news. This isn't even history -- this is all myth. Maybe the Sex Pistols, who were mere yards away from my face, felt so far away because of the literary company they keep. There's a way in which their real contemporaries aren't the Buzzcocks or the Clash or even the Mekons, but rather, Shakespeare, or Isaiah; that way in which Macbeth or the Old Testament can somehow speak universally to so many emotional moments while at the same time remain rooted in a keenly specific style of language. To hear "England's dreaming" changed into "Seattle's dreaming" is as unsatisfying and trite as reading "modernized" versions of the King James Bible.

On the other hand, Rotten the aged Antichrist in this fat-40-and-back mode lives out a miniature version of my own Second Coming fantasy. What if Jesus came back to Earth, saw the possibilities of his heavenly powers, and jumped ship on dear old Dad? He cashes in, milks his celebrity, and screws every Magdalene in sight. "This time around, I'm looking out for Number 1," he'll snarl in his Barbara Walters interview. Then, after his father hath finally forsaken him in disgust, he'll go bankrupt and develop classic child-star syndrome, stooping to robbing dry cleaners in Burbank just to make ends meet. Millions of people have read about him and thought about him and pinned so many hopes and dreams on a few of his youthful slogans, and then he turns out to be a big fat money-grubbing disappointment. It would actually be the only subversive path a Christ -- or an Antichrist -- could take.

By Sarah Vowell

About The Author

Sarah Vowell


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