“Wake UP!” I look up from my notepad to find a grimy-looking middle-aged fan suddenly swinging his way through the floor of the Nokia theater, pushing me and half-pummeling the people around him as they text and tweet from their mobile devices. He’s being a dick, but I get his point. This show is supposed to be recorded for posterity, for a live video or documentary or some such thing, and Mr. Lydon on stage wants the crowd to get riled up as much as this dude. He’s even taunting the sound guy on mike, in rhyme, at the end of a blistering “Religion”: “Walter, turn up the bass! Turn up the bass! Walter, you fucking disgrace!”
The truth is, though, that like Mr. Lydon himself, we’re all getting a bit long in the tooth to be moshing about. Most of the few young people in the audience were clearly led there by the previous generation; I saw one kind of rad dad with a boho-Nu Wave look and his smoking-hot teenage son, and the most fascinating array of rock tees all around me: PJ Harvey, Devo, Einstürzende Neubauten, OFF!, Dead Kennedys, House of Blues…
I guess that’s how life works. Mr. Rotten himself was once a scourge of British society, but now he’s almost an elder statesman there, turning down knighthoods more deftly than Mick Jagger. It’s worth remembering that his biggest musical achievements came when he was ridiculously young himself, having just turned 22 when the Sex Pistols imploded. Then, by the age of 26, he had already hired and slowly fired/ostracized the entire classic lineup of Public Image Limited after leading them through one of the most fantastic album arcs in rock history; he even fooled some journalists into believing he and his drummer, bassist, and guitarist had ushered in an era of “post-rock.”
But you know how so many bands hit a certain sound somewhere in their arc, and then they get stuck with it for the rest of their careers, with subtle nods to their back catalog live but everything converted to the New Way? The Stones had “Start Me Up,” and Bowie had “Ashes to Ashes,” and U2 had the goddam Achtung Baby/Zoo TV thing. For PiL, it was the song they opened with Sunday, “This Is Not a Love Song,” a tongue-in-cheek response to record company demands for hits in 1983 that nonetheless pushed PiL into a long string of smirky pop tunes from which they never properly recovered. Not to say that PiL was exactly “poppy” on this fair eve, but as good as things were, all the sounds did ring very 80s, descended largely from the time in the mid-80s when PiL became the John Lydon solo project rather than a band of equals.
There were definitely glimmers of PiL’s post-rock past, and those were the parts the crowd loved best: “Religion” was a triumph of anger just as poignant as when it was coined 34 years ago, and the abbreviated “Chant” reminded me of the gleeful repetition that always impressed me about the best songs from PiL. “I want beer mate, I want beer mate, I want to kill, I want to hate … EXTERMINATE! EXTERMINATE!” (Yep, Johnny Rotten just imitated the actor who had imitated him in Sid and Nancy.) Even if bassist Scott Firth couldn’t quite get the Jah Wobble bounce of the old recordings, guitarist Lu Edmonds (ex-Damned, Mekons) sounded more like old Keith Levene than Keith would probably do if we could somehow thrust him on stage. Lu flailed around, his long hair and beard almost as flowing as his ease with half a dozen instruments, it all reminding me quite a bit of Warren Ellis as he appeared with Grinderman in recent years. At one point during “Flowers of Romance” he was even bowing a strange 12-string banjo-like instrument to replicate the old fiddle parts.
But the real triumph was something that was not there in the early days, something Mr. Lydon has honed well in my adult lifetime, and that was his voice. Oh, that warble. It was pitch perfect, like a male Nina Hagen, including the parts where he slipped into her Exorcist voice on old tunes like “Albatross.”
While on some of those late-era PiL albums, I’d never trusted the “new” voice, here I realized that I’d been conned by my own fandom. While this Lydon was not the same guy who goofed on Roy Orbison and snarled his way through Metal Box out of key (tonight’s “Death Disco” was the most tepid song in the set), he’s come up with a sustainable vocal tool that’s actually quite emotive, quite professional, quite… well, it’s a texture and flavor that feels vaguely middle-eastern, like a uvulating Lebanese woman, yet also feels British, almost like a bagpipe, or a yodel, and 110% from his own self-involved iddy eg . It tied the set together, stringing along seemingly dissimilar tunes, including a new one called “Reggie Song” that Lydon looked terrified while singing. I was touched—Johnny Rotten cares how I feel about his song?
A classic Freudian father-hater, I came to the show with the possible intention of shaming John Lydon. I had jokes ready. I was prepared to say he looked like a Killer Klown from Outer Space—and you know what? With his stripey socks and orange suspenders that glowed under the black light, and his tuft of Tintin hair perched on top of his middle-aged head as he read old lyrics off a music stand, he really did. But even in his Sex Pistols days, when he aped Richard III, he’s never been the type to care whether people thought he was a buffoon. The only thing that scares him, it seems, is whether people like the music he’s making. And Mr. Lydon, even if our audience response was a little tepid, we do. We did. We will. We like you. Isn’t that what friends are for?
Well played, boys. Please don’t stop.
-D. M. Collins