Saturday, August 1, 2015

John Lydon's "Anger is an Energy": Book Review

"In fact, I changed music twice." So claims John Lydon early in these five-hundred-plus pages of recollections. He later boasts that "I changed history." At fifty-seven, living in Malibu, the punk provocateur enjoys sailing and loafing, far from the "dustbin" he came from in London, a son among many in an Irish immigrant family. As he explains the title of his second memoir, Anger is an Energy, Lydon reminds readers that he channels anger for neither hatred nor violence, but to motivate principled, sensible change.

As he covered his upbringing and his career with the Sex Pistols in Rotten: No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish (1994), Lydon may repeat tales of his formative years here. He attempts to get the record straight; he castigates Jon Savage's England's Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock (1991) for its distortions. Lydon's reminiscences, which may provide less insight than expected to audiences who have scoured Savage's book and other chronicles of punk's heyday, nonetheless capture his playful, wry voice.

This book, set down by journalist Andrew Perry, does capture many moments when Lydon enriches our understanding. He speculates on what "a bitter, twisted fuck" he must have appeared at Malcolm McLaren and Vivianne Westwood's SEX boutique as the band was formed. He explains why safety pins were sported. "It was about fallout, having an instant repair kit for when Viv's goods fell apart."

Later, he judges that her "aesthetic counted more to her than the actual physicality of a human being." At ground zero for the punk boom, Lydon narrates McLaren's manipulation of him and his bandmates. He struggled against his wishes, and the other Pistols. He articulates that "my songs don't lecture, they give you freedom of thought, inside of the agenda I'm pushing." He makes enemies. But these are not people, but institutions. Placing no faith in political parties or armed resistance, he instead urges his audience to follow his lead. He forges, in his estimation, a daily struggle with "integrity" to banish a "witch-hunt" against dissenters, freaks, and those the system crushes or hates.

Lydon challenges "punk as a standardized uniform" worn by those with no insights into non-conformity. When it comes to punk, "there are no rules." His disgust with the "Boo Nazis" who replaced the movement's open-mindedness with "rules and regulations" led him to Public Image Ltd.

As for music and the message: "If you're not doing this for the poor old biddy that lives next door and can't afford the heating in the winter, then you don't count at all. Studded leather jackets for all is not a creed I can endorse." Here, you hear Lydon's humanism, the commonsense beneath his sly stance.

He also offers insights into fellow musicians and singers caught up in the spotlight. Not only towards his friends, humble or famous, and his rancorous bandmates, but to such figures as Joe Strummer. Lydon contrasts the isolation of the Clash, who sought fame and big-label success, with the purported socialism and sloganeering that, in his opinion, made them a caricature of the values they mouthed.

Breaking with such contradictions, PiL sought to reform the way bands made music. This is the second of the changes Lydon promoted. He attempted collaboration with Jah Wobble and Keith Levine, two strong-willed individuals. Drugs, egos, and drink worsened the communal situation soon. But the band's second album, Metal Box (1979), issued by musicians barely out of their teens, "is a stunningly beautiful tapestry of high anxiety." They never reached this peak again, and soon, despite what in Lydon's terms appears to be a misunderstanding of their mission, PiL soon became a series of musicians backing whatever the singer felt he wanted to do in the studio and live. Lydon worked with some stunning talent, such as guitarist John McGeoch, but the band never recaptured its first spark.

Like this autobiography and like some of PiL's eclectic earlier music, this narrative resists linear fluidity through italicized interspersions. These deal with his wife Nora (whose daughter, Ari Up, was a founding member of the Slits), Shakespeare, celebrity woes, and bad teeth among other topics. These short excursions lighten the weight of so much detail from Lydon, who appears to have kept journals and archives well in order to draw upon, decades later, in the preparation of this account.

As he admits halfway through: "But I digress here, Sorry, it's the way my brain works." By the mid-80s, Lydon warily suns himself in Venice Beach, determined to leave London for Los Angeles. Working with Ginger Baker, Steve Vai, Bill Laswell, and his band now consisting of Allan Dias, Lu Edmonds, Bruce Smith and McGeoch, Album (1986) defied its generic title and packaging. This line-up persisted until near the end of the decade, when again, PiL splintered and lost its direction.

While Lydon acknowledges the difficulties of funding and handling a fractious lot of musicians, he appears to judge PiL's later music as worthy of acclaim as its earlier recordings. To me, as a fan, I find Lydon faces a blind spot. The band's music after Wobble and Wardle fit more into eclectic rock, but it no longer felt as unclassifiable or as alien as Metal Box, despite that album's humble budget.

However, Lydon understands the challenge. He muses: do people want the "scandal-mongering of a nineteen-year-old? Or do they want to go on a journey of self-discovery?" PiL contributes to the soundtrack of Point Break, Lydon tries out for the cast of the film adaptation of Quadrophenia, and he announces on the inevitable Filthy Lucre reunion tour of the Pistols: "I'm fat, forty and back."

He contributes ads for Schlitz, Mountain Dew and English butter. He appears on a brief-lived Rotten TV on MTV.  He also graces I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, and Judge Judy. He likes making nature documentaries: Megabugs, Shark Attack and Goes Ape. He roams about, doing what he likes in and out of music. Unfortunately, the production of Jesus Christ Superstar with him as Herod is cancelled just before it opens. He displays a likeable wit, and learns to handle his fame with grace.

Lydon sums up his legacy. "My songs were echoes of revolution and empathy for people, and certainly not the work of some sneery, selfish little toad." He ends this genial, if garrulous, tale by praising his family, insisting on privacy and celebrating his "hobby" of PiL. In the end, he seeks "nothing but joy to the world." Happy on the beach, caring for Nora's grandchildren, John Lydon lives as he pleases, and as fifty-odd years ago in North London tenements, as he had dreamed. (In slightly altered form to Spectrum Culture 7-30-15; with one word censored, to Amazon US 8-1-15)


tony bailie said...

I find Lydon a fascinating character, someone who has clear insights into his own psyche yet for many is still boxed into the his teenage persona. It must be an interesting and frustrating place, psychologically, to be. Will have to get a copy of this. althouhg maybe not as innovative as earlier material, I do like 'This Is PiL' from a few years ago and was listening to it last night. I also agree with his take that the punks who fell in to the image trap missed the point, too busy preening their spikes and adjusting their 'fart flaps' to see that they were simply caricatures rather than individuals.

John L. Murphy / "Fionnchú" said...

Thanks as always, Tony, for this. I know you recommended This is PiL to me on release. Like Lydon's solo CD (which I sold at a used record store after hearing it once), I admit it has some textured moments. But their music no longer grabs me. I'd have loved to know how much of this book is "told to" as original, but I cannot figure it out from my end. Whatever the process, his voice is present and grows on you. Funny but I never thought I'd get past the first fifth, in the middle of the Pistols. Some of this has surely been more than twice-told tales by him, but as the book goes on (and on), his presence gets more affable as well as more cranky, middle age having its drawbacks even on the shores of Malibu, for a fellow Irishman once removed here in the sunny state. His idealism comes across, as well as his gumption.