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The first thing Johnny Rotten did when he arrived in the United States was test out an airport men’s room. Apparently America’s plumbing passed with flying colors.
“They’re lots better than the bogs in London,” he snorted. “At least they keep the fucking places warm.”
Tulsa, Oklahoma where I caught up with the Sex Pistols’ abbreviated American tour, is most certainly not the promised land. It’s a homely citiy, trapped along the arid Southern rim of the Great Plains. The drive and from the airport is enough to fix your cultural bearings; to the east lies Muskogee, home of proud, flag-waving Okies, and at the center of town are Tulsa’s twin godheads of education, the American Christian College and Oral Roberts University.
Apparently I looked like a congenital sinner, for the preacher made no effort to heal my spiritual wounds. Instead, he concentrated on a pair of wayward Okie punkettes who wore safety pins in their belt loops and flicked matches between their teeth. They didn’t praise the Lord, but they did pass the ammunition, offering the man of the cloth a toke on the joint they were smoking. Horrified, the Reverend frantically prayed for their souls. He was still on his knees when I went inside.
Only the walls exuded class. They were adorned with ancient, sepia-tinted portraits of country and western hall of famers like Tex Ritter, Hank Williams, Spade Cooley and Bob Wills, who looked down on the punk proceedings with what must have been a queer mixture of awe and disgust.
Pandemonium reigned when the Pistols finally took the stage a little after 11 p.m., though actual brawling was at a minimum. The only fight I saw all night broke out over a bottle of cheap wine that a bunch of Okie punks were passing among themselves. A few punches were thrown, one chair sailed across the room and one unlucky kid knocked himself out when he toppled over backwards in sheer punk ecstasy, cutting his head open on the corner of a table.
Later I asked the Pistols what they thought was responsible for the violence at their gigs. Sid Vicious—who staggered across Cain’s after the show and threatened to punch out any journalist who showed his face—was openly contemptuous of this constant challenge to do battle.
“It’s really sick,” he growled. “I don’t like it when these cunts in the audience just come looking for a fight.” Glaring at me, he added,”I don’t fight with people I don’t know, I just murder them. Any other group would’ve
packed up and run from all the bottles that’ve been thrown at us. We just say ‘come on, let us have it.’”
To make sure I got his point, Sid waved a bottle of Jack Daniels in my face. That was his way of being friendly. I asked him if he’d ever murdered anybody. Sid smashed the back of my chair. That was his way of being less friendly. Johnny giggled. “Come on, Sid, tell him about your victims.”
Sid grinned. “Well, I’ll tell you who I’d like to murder,” he grumbled, taking a long pull from the bottle. “That bunch of losers, the Dead Boys. ‘Specially Stiv Bators… Write this down, now!” he ordered, giving my chair another whack. “Tell Stiv I’m looking for him and I’m gonna cut him to pieces.”
I wondered why he was so angry with the Dead Boys. “They threatened Johnny,” he said. “And anyway, they’re fucking poseurs, with all that shit about sonic reducers. Fucking wanking faggots is what they are, just cheap imitators living off our reputation.”
One of the few bands the Pistols admire are the Ramones, whose July ’76
British tour was a major influence on many fledgling English punk aspirants. Vicious’ highest praise went to Dee Dee Ramone. “He’s like us,” Sid Sid. “Even before I joined the Pistols, I idolized the Ramones. Even if they do hate us. I don’t care.”
As you probably know by now, the Pistols didn’t always turn the other cheek on their sojourn across the States. In fact, in a year that brought all sorts of royal oddities to America, ranging from an Egyptian mummy to England’s own inept and hilariously innocuous Prince Charles, no one elicited as much outrage and squemish curiosity as the four little princes of darkness. The menacing quartet of working class misfits rode in on a king-sized tidal wave of media hype.
At every stop on their ten-day, seven-date tour, pushy, ignorant reporters and TV camera crews heralded their arrival with the morbid fanfare you’d normally associate with the capture of a Nazi war criminal. Concert post-mortems were conducted with a similar stench of yellow journalism. You’d think Johnny Rotten was going to steal an atom bomb. Several TV commentators exhibited visible signs of distress when there was no hideous immorality or mass murders to report.
That is not to say that the Pistols were suddenly transformed into angelic choir boys. Even when Johnny was slowed by the flu, Vicious unveiled his own crude, offensive and utterly loathsome stage personality. Sometimes it seemed that Sid spent more time wiping blood off his face than he did playing bass.
The Baton Rouge crowd threw money on stage (Rotten claimed later that he pocketed $30). In Dallas a tough young punkette punched Sid in the face. She said she drove all the way from L.A. to do it. Vicious, surprised to find blood gushing from his nose and mouth, took a couple of seconds to compose himself. Then he spit it back in the girl’s face. He proudly massaged the rest of the blood on his chest, like an Indian donning war paint.
“American audiences are pretty lame,” Rotten confided the morning after the band’s Tulsa show. Hiding behind a pair of huge pink sunglasses, he looked small and rumpled, like a mole that has just emerged from sleeping in a pile of leaves. “Our fans in England are crazy. You can’t stop ‘em. They bite and claw their way up on stage. We have to encourage the rest of the crowd to beat them senseless.”
Rotten held court in a motel room littered with beer bottles, crusts of pizza, shreds of clothing and a broken mirror propped against the TV set. Up close, Johnny looks sallow and misshapen, his hair pointing skyward like uncut weeds. He has the face of a reptile—its geometry is all wrong (or all right, depending on how you see it). His cheek lines droop, his grin is lopsided and his nose is bent like a nail that’s been ripped out of a wall.
“It’s different here in the States,” he sighed. “They treat us like we’re some kind of circus act. It’s really a load of bollocks—everybody wants my fucking autograph.”
As if to emphasize Johnny’s point, Sid stuck his whiskey bottle under my chin again. “Now that’s my autograph,” he sneered. “I’d like to autograph someone’s face.” (Sid thrives on displays of intimidation. Asked why he replaced the Pistols’
original bassist, he replied, “Because I beat up Nick Kent.”) I turned to Johnny, hoping he’d say something. Johnny said nothing, staring right past me.
Sid studied my profile petulantly. “Of course,” he grinned, “if I want to kill somebody, I don’t want to get caught.” I took this as an encouraging sign.
Johnny, in a rare display of diplomacy, quickly intervened. He grabbed Vicious’ bottle, took a quick swig and then stashed it safely out of reach. “American kids are really pathetic,” Johnny continued. “They put bands like Kiss on a pedestal. Then they sit on their hands and demand a freak show. Well fuck ‘em. If they’re gonna be like that, I’m going out of my way to disappoint them.
“We don’t care about the bloody money,” he snapped. “We could be fucking millionaires and we’d be the same filthy old cunts we are now! Those British rockers are evil, filthy parasites who’ve done nothing but line their pockets. They’re worse than the press—all they do is sing silly, pathetic love songs. You won’t see me writing any love songs. I wouldn’t know what it’s about.”
"Blimey, I've ripped me shirt and he's glued his hands to his mic! A fine lot we are."
“Look at Mick Jagger, with his fucking make-up,” said Vicious, coming alive again. “I hear he goes round in a bloody wheelchair. I’d like to thrash the lot of ‘em!”
To emphasize his point, Vicious pummeled the back of my chair. The British writers on tour with the band had warned that the Pistols enjoyed this sort of adversary relationship with the press. One veteran of this kind of behavior coolly suggested that I pack a gun or blackjack. Instead, I tried a bit of intimidation.
“Ooohh, junkies,” Johnny chimed in, mocking Vicious’ tone of voice. “Don’t say junkie,” Vicious complained. Johnny giggled. “I’ll say what I fucking well please.”
Vicious kicked his chair. “Just don’t go round screaming junkie.” Rotten glared back, winking at me. “Junkie! Junkie! Junkie!” he chanted.
The Pistols’ predominantly Southern/Southwestern U.S. tour featured their familiar British guerilla tour tactics. Don’t go to the media, make the media come to you. “The Pistols have never played a proper gig in England,” one British rock writer explained after one of their shows. “They’ve always picked out-of-the-way clubs or tiny colleges, with no announcements ‘til the day of the show. That way only their followers and the music press show up, giving the event the atmosphere of a riot. It builds up the mystique if you make it hard to see them.”
Most of the Pistols dates were deliberately booked into small clubs, so that even a crowd of 300 seemed like a dense, seething throng. To see anything on stage, you were forced to mount a chair or a table-top. My shaky bar stool perch in Tulsa was constantly buffeted by a frenzied pogo dancer who leaped from table to table, signalling the end of each song by
Rotten didn't sing, he sneered. Pouted. And railed against the universe. On a song like "No Fun." The Pistols' homage to The Stooges, he groaned and moaned like a corpse from the grave.
crashing to the floor. His biggest problem was getting back up again. One of his arms had no hand, just a mangled flipper that was geared nicely for applauding but practically useless when it came to picking himself up off the floor.
Live, the Pistols were everything their fans expected and all the curiosity seekers feared. Onstage for a little over an hour, they played at a furious, ear-splitting pace, barely pausing to catch their breath before plunging into a new number. The crush of bodies at the edge of the stage was fierce. One massive
Rotten was poised in the eye of this rock’n’roll hurricane. He wore a white shirt open at the collar, with a battered vest and an orange and black polka-dot tie. (Vicious, of course, sported his ludicrously oversized black motorcycle jacket. He looked like a demented Anglo Iggy, baring a goofy grin that scrunched his whole lip into one corner of his mouth.)
Rotten didn’t sing, he sneered, pouted, and railed against the universe. On a song like “No Fun,” the Pistols’ homage to the Stooges, he groaned and moaned like a corpse from the grave.
Despite the Pistols’ apparent break-up, an air of historical inevitability surrounds the remainder of England’s punk vanguard. In England, punk is like a virus which, after infecting the populace, slowly subsides, only to return again with renewed virulence.
The current punk era emerged as a reaction against the boring, bloodless and pretentious humbugs of “space and pomp” (offenders include Yes, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Genesis, ELP…need we say more?) who had thoroughly drowned ‘70s British rock in a sea of moogs, synthesizers and idiot mysticism.
This is the dark side of the British character, the rubble of a socialist state with an economy as rotten as a corpse. The Pistols are England’s latest working class curse, a new breed of morlocks, those grotesque black shadows smelling of freshly shed blood that H.G. Wells prophesized would haunt the complacent, decaying world of the English upper class. When the punk virus began to take hold, the aging, irrelevant rock aristocrats will be the first to be infected and die.
Sid Vicious whacked the back of my chair one final time. “If you were British, I’d be bashing you about the room. They’re leeches.”
Johnny banged the table. “We’ve never even vomited on stage,” he said. “It’s a pack of lies. Everybody vomits now and again, but I certainly wouldn’t do it as part of a stage act. How third rate!”
Originally published: April 1978