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An open letter

Wednesday, Aug 21 1996
Dear Johnny:
My problem is that I can't figure out what kind of face I should make at the Shoreline next week, if I come to see you. As the Sex Pistols launch into, say, "Seventeen," should I adopt a look of slight amusement, register a condescending smirk that suggests I see the irony in all this? Could I pogo, perhaps, or thrash around on the grass and wish it were true when we sing, "I'm a lazy sod"? Maybe I could heckle, and yell out requests for Public Image Ltd. songs?

Probably you've read Fred and Judy Vermorel's book The Sex Pistols, where your fan Debbie says this: "I sometimes daydream. Like one day I was daydreaming about, like, if the Pistols took over all the country. ... There wasn't a Parliament. It was more run by people like John."

This is of course a sweet daydream of social change, and a sick one that asks Daddy to take care of things. Like Brian in the Monty Python film, you preach self-determination, while your followers wait for you to change the world. You see, you have become Daddy, and therefore comic, like all Daddies. Your solution is to cop to it, proclaiming yourself "fat, 40, and back." Clever stuff.

It's hard now to remember how frightening punk rock was at the time. Punk meant trouble, violence, tales of someone losing an eye at your gig at the 100 Club on Oxford Street, arrests, and knife attacks on you and other members of the band. The Pistols sought out a certain kind of trouble -- a promotional media melee (yes, where is Bill Grundy now?), a confrontation with the powers that be, and, crucially, with hippie apathy. But other troubles came looking for you, and you make it clear enough in your autobiography that you were scared, too.

But we are disappointed, Johnny, that you are not causing more trouble. We don't want anyone else to get hurt (do we?), but we'd have appreciated a Grundy-esque bust-up with David Letterman -- you know, the kind of thing that Madonna pulled off; a bit of swearing, some disruption of his annoying goofy knowingness. Instead you performed like a cartoon character. Too animated, Johnny. Too funny. When you played on Top of the Pops in England, the BBC could not contain its sense of triumph over your earlier refusal to appear on that show. But still, it was good to see the Pistols on CBS and the BBC, singing "Pretty Vacant," knowing that this song still means it, man. Greil Marcus, in Lipstick Traces, talks about a black hole where the center of the Sex Pistols should be, and he clearly adores that void, sees it as a political act. But the Lads (Paul, Steve, Glen), with their soccer-terrace backup vocals, now sound more like the Glitter Band than a band of Situationists.

Re-forming a punk rock group almost 20 years after the fact to milk a career that only amounts to 42 minutes of music (Never Mind the Bollocks plus Sid's "My Way," which you should be doing on this tour) is hardly dignity personified. But it's understandable enough. When you quit England for California, running at punk rock speed from the crushing burden of growing up poor in the wrong place ... well, those hidden injuries have a habit of traveling with us, don't they? You feel, reasonably enough, that you owe us nothing.

It isn't your fault that we can digest neither Happy Johnny nor this, from Marcus again: "Listening now to the Sex Pistols' records," he wrote in 1989, "it doesn't seem like a mistake to confuse their moment with a major event in history." Jon Savage said as much, too, in his book England's Dreaming. So how do you restage a major historical event? How do you come back, without reminding us of a bunch of old geezers at a Renaissance Faire, re-enacting battles from the English Civil War? It can't be done; not without the comic element of the Pistols, which was always present but never dominant, finally winning out.

It turns out that the Lads can play, too. What a letdown. As the Filthy Lucre Live CD (on Virgin -- now owned by, yes, EMI) confirms, the con perpetuated by the Sex Pistols was not that you could not play, but that you could. The band was not awful, useless, or incapable. The Achilles' heel of the Sex Pistols was and is something much worse -- you are a perfectly competent rock band. The Pistols are not groovy, adventurous, or inventive. Musically speaking, you have nothing that measures up to the gorgeous conceptualizing heaped upon you by Marcus, Savage, and the Vermorels. Strip away your Laurence Olivier-doing-Richard III impression and the lyrics that brought real substance to the songs, and we could be listening to the Tom Robinson Band.

You see, you were the black hole, and you were supposed to swallow everything up. Now you're back, and we don't know how to react.

I had decided not to come to see you. But I reconsidered after talking with a young woman who works at Amoeba Records. She said she was coming to your show, but with "mixed emotions." It didn't seem like such a big deal to her, but she knew it mattered. She smiled at me and made the face that I will search for if I make it to the Shoreline. She looked amused, intrigued, and possibly a bit, well, disappointed.

Punk disappointed us because it promised something that music cannot deliver -- a different world. It's not your fault that the return of a frozen moment can hardly fail to leave us feeling a bit cold.

The Sex Pistols play Tuesday, Aug. 27, at Shoreline Amphitheater, 1 Amphitheater Pkwy., Mountain View; call 541-0800.

About The Author

Andrew Goodwin


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