Rotten Goes Rancid
At one point in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the young malcontent and artist-in-the-making Stephen Dedalus sums up his father’s life this way: “A medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a drinker, a good fellow, a storyteller, somebody’s secretary, something in a distillery, a tax-gatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past.” We Joyceans are a notoriously obsessive bunch, but the last phrase seemed particularly relevant when I saw a clip of John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) participating in a panel discussion on the history of punk after the Epix channel released, to little acclaim, a new and hardly necessary four-hour docuseries purporting to get to the bottom of this crazy punk rock phenomenon once and for all.
As if the whole topic of punk hasn’t already been discussed, dissected, debated, and regurgitated ad nauseam in countless articles, books, documentaries, films, and memoirs. As if it hadn’t migrated by now to credit cards and designer boutiques. Isn’t there something inherently embarrassing about subtly embalming our once-subversive subcultures with the endlessly profitable rehashing of yesterday’s parties? A good rule of thumb is that once they start holding panel discussions about The Great Cultural Importance of a particular subject, it’s a sure bet that that subject’s potential edginess (and cultural significance) can now officially be declared dead on arrival. Did Kurt Cobain die for nothing?
Isn’t there something inherently embarrassing about subtly embalming our once-subversive subcultures with the endlessly profitable rehashing of yesterday’s parties?
But oh well, whatever, never mind. Nearly half a million people have clicked on the clip of this unruly confab, and I was one of them, so I guess the joke’s on me. Besides, it’s amusing to see who they get to turn up at these things. The sturdy, black-clad Henry Rollins rubs elbows with the likes of the surprisingly undead G n’ R’s Duff McKagan and John Varvatos, the Tommy Hilfiger of CBGB. And then there’s Mr. Lydon, drink in hand, acting like quite the toff, making faces like Quasimodo’s drunk uncle, snarking things like “rock and roll is a disgusting concept” and refusing to apologize for incorrectly labeling Black Flag a bunch of suburban rich kids. He also manages to slag the poor, forsaken, too-tough-to-die Marky Ramone as an “asshole fake idiot” in the bargain. It made me want to react like that guy in the movie Ghost World who ridicules Thora Birch by calling out her teenage dirtbag aspirations: “Ooooh, how punk!” Cue the thousands of furious clicks!
Lydon, now sixty-three, has no desire to fade away, apparently: in a recent interview with no less of a hip, edgy countercultural zine than Newsweek, he found time to complain about the homeless people who have ruined his retirement amid his swanky digs in L.A.’s posh Venice Beach: “They came over the gate and put their tent inside, right in front of the front door. It’s like . . . the audacity. And if you complain, what are you? Oh, one of the establishment elite? No, I’m a bloke that’s worked hard for his money and I expect to be able to use my own front door.” Later on, Lydon lamented that he can’t even go to the beach anymore because the homeless junkies ever so obnoxiously leave their needles in the sand, and there’s poop everywhere.
Now, there’s no need to belabor the ironies inherent in such rot: the selfsame bloke who first achieved notoriety (and kickstarted a lengthy career) by screaming “I wanna be anarchy” and “I wanna destroy the passerby” is now complaining about having to endure similarly “aggressive” behavior from the dregs of society who keep, like, totally messing up his daily routine. Nor is it cutting-edge to point out that Lydon has evidently gone reactionarily rancid in his old age, voicing support for both Trump and Brexit. If anything, it suggests that he’s demonstrating, intentionally or not, the hoariest of empty-headed political clichés about being liberal when you’re young and conservative when you’re old. He has mutated into a member of the self-satisfied, overfed, whiny bourgeois set he made such a profitable career out of shocking. All of which is almost touchingly disappointing considering that he evidently still expects to come off as an older and wiser version of the bug-eyed provocateur of his youth.
We could bite the bullet and say that yes, Lydon has worked hard over the years and made some salient music. Nothing wrong with making an honest living, whether through music, pumping gas, or whatever else. So, let us be generous and assume that he’s entitled to a well-earned rest on his mohawked, safety-pinned laurels. If he wants to putter around his salubrious estate, play some video games, and watch his favorite Meryl Streep movies until the end of his days, then why begrudge an old punk rocker some me-time?
But if he still expects to be taken seriously as a challenger to the status quo, then instead of making boorish, mean-spirited potshots at powerless targets and obstreperously praising the worst among us, maybe he ought to rise to the occasion once in a while. You know who else hates homeless people? All those spoiled swells in penthouses who the Pistols were gleefully scandalizing once upon a time by saying bad words in TV interviews. Homelessness is a crisis in Los Angeles, as well as in many places elsewhere in the country, and there have been concerted efforts by Angelenos to try to deal with it. The Los Angeles Times reported that the city has already spent over $600 million to fix the problem, but as executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority Peter Lynn said, they are “unlikely to make significant headway” without sufficient rent control and affordable housing initiatives.
Given Lydon’s background, it should be fair to expect more from him than mere preening over his storied past. And therein lies the rub. Never mind the bollocks; punk rock ultimately boils down to one thing: empowerment. Not the market-friendly Oprah-esque variety, but in forcing an indifferent world to remember that you exist. The desire to take your particular circumstances and create something of your own choosing out of them is one thing that drove punk rock. And no one understands the urgent need for radical self-reliance more than those who are currently living through a “no future” of their own, whether on the beaches of Venice or anywhere else.
He has mutated into a member of the self-satisfied, overfed, whiny bourgeois set he made such a profitable career out of shocking.
So, if Mr. Lydon really wants to live up to his subversive reputation, he could consider doing something, anything, other than complaining to journalists about how annoying other people’s misery is to him. Lydon’s got a bigger heart than he gets credit for, as evidenced by his sensitive reaction to the sudden death of his friend, The Prodigy’s Keith Flint. And since he’s a famous person who got that way in the first place in part because of his radical behavior, it would be hypocritical for him to simply complain about homeless people without doing something about it. If, say, Justin Bieber or Tom Jones said something similar, it would hardly make news. I wouldn’t say that being rich and famous automatically disqualifies one from being authentically “punk” either—as the song says, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.
Using the celebrity status he still possesses could facilitate a lot of interesting things—perhaps he might flip through his Rolodex and set up a fundraiser to benefit a homeless shelter or write a song about their experience. Better still, he could pick up the phone and start organizing a benefit show. It’s the kind of thing you could see Joe Strummer doing, if he were still alive. Why not round up the surviving Pistols to do another big reunion, and not just for the blatant cash-grab this time? Maybe even corral some of the other venerable old punk icons to join the bill—I bet Henry Rollins would be down, perhaps X’s John Doe too, and maybe even Jello Biafra from Dead Kennedys could make the trip down from San Francisco.
It could be quite a thing—a sort of Punk Rock Live Aid for the Wretched of the Earth. And those in attendance wouldn’t even need to shell out to dress appropriately punk. Part of the anarchist spirit, after all, is to uphold popular action where the political and economic systems fail. Anger is an energy, as Lydon once sang, so perhaps an opportunity has presented itself to put that energy to use. Or he can just continue plugging for Trump and Nigel Farage, praising his own past at discussion panels, and literally yelling at the grungy kids to get off his lawn. But that would be, as the young punks once put it, pretty vacant—and bad for the public image.