It's not often you get to talk to a living legend, but when you do, you can't help but hope that the actual person lives up to the hype. Happily, a conversation with Sex Pistols founder Johnny Rotten does exactly that. From his unforgettable Cockney accent (straight out of The Pickwick Papers) to the vitriolic burden of his words, a chat with Rotten inevitably brings to mind the words of Bob Dylan: "Money doesn't talk -- it swears."
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, who brings his famous punk rock institution to the Warfield in San Francisco this week, 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. Enquiring 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 to yammer on about: 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!"
One question that Rotten does answer directly: what it feels 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, he says, will be fictive, "but not fantasy. 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!"
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