NME, November 12th, 1983
Transcribed by Karsten Roekens
© 1983 Julie Panebianco
NOTE: This interview was originally published in Boston Rock. Writer Julie Panebianco sent NME the magazine and they apparently used it without permission.
THE KEITH LEVENE GUIDE TO BEING ROTTEN
PIL are now on their first UK tour, but without guitarist and songwriter Keith Levene, who left them last spring. He won't be bought off, and as far as he's concerned John Lydon is dead. Julie Panebianco interviews the bitterest PIL.
That urgent guitar which cuts through the rumble of the 'Public Image' theme isn't just the instrument going through an amp. Powerful, proud, hypnotic, cloaked in disquieting rhythms, the lead guitar of Keith Levene defined Public Image Ltd.
Blessed with a lead singer who dropped his pseudonym - Johnny Rotten made way for John Lydon when his infamous band the Sex Pistols broke up - Public Image Ltd. created
just as strong a reaction.
Levene matched Lydon's nastiness with his own intimidating manner (his offhand "Got a
cig?" even shook up NBC 'Tomorrow' host Tom Snyder). And as Levene garnered praises from critics he was quickly dubbed the first postpunk guitarist.
Things soured: live performances turned into riots ("I don't like being spat at," snarled
Levene), innovative record packages became headaches for PIL and fans alike ("We were all ripped off by the record company and by record shops, who charged three times more
than they should have"), band members either quit or got kicked out. Lydon once remarked: "People don't leave Public Image, they are asked to leave."
After several publicised feuds with several major record companies, PIL moved to New York and formed their own label. It was the beginning of the end: making a production and distribution deal with Stiff America ("This was going to save their lives," said Levene, "they knew it and we knew it"), the company floundered and folded before the band completed their fourth album (the others were 'First Edition', 'Metal Box/Second Edition' and 'Flowers Of Romance').
While they were recording that album, the relationship - business and personal - between Levene and Lydon festered, irritated by the presence of occasional PIL drummer Martin Atkins. As Levene comments on Atkins: "I cannot tell you how much I despise him." After threatening to quit many times, Levene left PIL last spring on the eve of their Japanese tour.
Lydon and Atkins recruited three members of a new Jersey cover band. They also took on a new manager by the name of Larry White ("He used to manage Davy Jones of The Monkees," Levene explains. "He now manages John Lydon"), have since had a sursprise hit single with 'This Is Not A Love Song' ("Lydon was having trouble with words") and released the two record set 'Live In Tokyo', which omitted Levene from the songwriting credits - all songs are credited to Public Image Ltd. And PIL reportedly offered him only $10,000 to give up all the rights to his songs.
Levene is now in New York, recording and setting up his company Multi-Image Corporation with Bostonian Alec Peters. Hopefully MIC will be what Public Image Ltd. intended to be but never was: an artists' collective where "we can develop ourselves, be creative." He is looking into opening an 8-track recording studio with Waitresses' / Swollen Monkeys' Mars Williams and Cowboys International's Ken Lockie. A project with premier bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma is also in the works. Levene: "I don't want to talk about all this, I just want to do it."
Levene and I walked around the Lower East Side of Manhattan for hours ("I've been taking you through the roughest, most dangerous areas in the city," he apologised), stopping only to play the video game Robitron. Wearing a golf jacket and jeans, his shiny black vinyl steel-toed shoes his only concession to fashion, he looked healthy. His marriage last year to former Pulsallama member Lori Montana has given him security and confidence. In March they are expecting a child. Says Levene: "I feel good about things now. I've got my talent. I'm fine."
Panebianco: "So what happened?"
Levene: "I can't believe how restricted I was by my own creative unit. If you are in the Stones or Fleetwood Mac making millions, I guess you can work with people you don't like. In PIL's situation it couldn't have carried on, because we had to come to hate each other's guts."
Panebianco: "Were you dependent on the situation?"
Levene: "When I formed PIL with John, people accused me of latching onto John because he was a big star. When I left The Clash, people said 'Ha ha, you've blown it, that was your big chance.' I don't feel I blew it when I left The Clash, I don't feel I was latching onto Lydon. I think I've got a million times more to offer than Lydon. At one time I would have said 'I feel I've got as much to offer as Lydon.' Now I say different. I mean, any music you ever hear on a PIL record except for the occasional drum track is me. The music's me. So I feel Lydon's lucky he knew me, if he didn't know me he wouldn't be around now. You know, we kind of of got what we wanted. When we formed PIL, we formed a company, we didn't form a band. Then we began to find out what a Limited Company was really about, and what choosing your own direction was all about. The way we followed through is what you see now: me here, and them there. As far as I know, they're wearing tuxedos and singing 'Anarchy In The U.K.'"
Panebianco: "How do you feel about Lydon?"
Levene: "I think he writes great words, and I thought he had a unique talent, but I don't think he's got it anymore. You see, he's not prepared to work at it, I think he needs to see a psychiatrist, I don't think he's in touch with his feelings at all. And if you're gonna be an artist that writes words and songs, you've got to be in touch with something. I don't think he's in touch with anything."
Panebianco: "What was your role with PIL at its inception?"
Levene: "I was 19 or 20 when we formed PIL. I was in The Clash, then the band Flowers Of Romance for about four days, then Sid Vicious left to join the Pistols. Then I worked with Ken Lockie of Cowboys International, and the old company concept was coming to mind. We formed PIL to be a communications company, without any horrible rock and roll routines.
"Then I'll tell you what happened: we did our first American tour, and me and John came a few weeks beforehand to do interviews. John would contribute about an eighth of it, and I talked a lot. John had just gotten over that Pistols bullshit, and he went out of his way to crush this bullshit Johnny Rotten-image and promote what PIL was trying to do, that he wasn't the superstar, that he was part of the band. He really did try, and I respect him for it, because then he could have really sold out and been on top of the charts. We could have done any sort of rubbish and made it.
"But when all the stories and interviews came out, it was all pictures of John, nothing I said was even written, it was as if I wasn't there. It was always John, John, John. It really hurt the band. You see, the first year and a half, even longer, people came to see the Sex Pistols, not PIL. Wobble left, Jim Walker left, Jeannette joined and things changed a bit."
Panebianco: "What was Jeannette Lee's role? Nobody ever did quite explain it."
Levene: "She didn't do anything. She was supposed to excel in the video department, and so on. All she did was use my money, I used to get a lot of things for her, because I was aware of all the latest things in video and film, OK? And she never did nothing with it. And all I can tell you is, I encouraged her. I don't know what happened between her and John when he went to Italy with her to make that movie, but she left after that. Who knows, who cares, you know?"
Panebianco: "There was a two year period that nothing happened. There were a lot of drug rumours about you and John, was that part of PIL's problems?"
Levene: "Well, I don't know, because yes, I was doing smack. I was dabbling with it when we formed the band, then I was doing it constantly for about three years. But I stopped doing it about two-and-a-half years ago. I was still doing it while we were making 'Flowers Of Romance', and I stopped just after we finished it, like: official, stopped, finish. I don't want to speak for anyone else's problems. The rumours were true, there was, let's say, a drug indulgence going on on my behalf. But not in the two years you're talking about."
Panebianco: "The drug thing has gone hand in hand with a lot of rock and roll people, hasn't it? What do you think about that?"
Levene: "It's sad."
Panebianco: "Doesn't it hold you up at times?"
Levene: "Yeah. I was doing it for years, when I was first doing it, I was just finding out about it and had the money to do it. Then you get to a stage where you aren't enjoying it anymore, and you don't realise it, but the reason you feel bad is because of the drugs you are taking to feel good, it is not for fun, it is because you have to. And when you have to do something creative, it's very hard.
"When we did 'Flowers', I tried to make the session coincide with the part of the day where I really had the least amount in my system. I always felt bad for it, I always felt better when I hadn't done anything, you know? But those were the days where if I hadn't done something I couldn't do anything.
"When you do heroin, it is a maintenance thing, you have to have it to get normal. Then maybe have some more and get high. Most junkies aren't happy."
Panebianco: "What made you stop?"
Levene: "I just wanted to, I'd had enough. It takes control of your life, and really drastic things start happening. When you subtract it from your life these things don't happen. It's a whole ritual, like, junkies score together, take their drugs together, alcoholics drink together, and so on. If you are with a load of people that are doing it, you feel better about it, it becomes an identity."
Panebianco: "So why does it go hand in hand with rock and roll?"
Levene: "Probably because it's such a horrible business, you fucking need something. I guess Keith Richards is the most renowned junkie, and he's the one that lived longest. Sid died by mistake, I'm still here - I stopped. It is encouraged, in fact you are looked up for it, like some kind of cowboy macho thing: he draws a gun quicker than you, he takes more drugs than him. I mean, I used to have lots of little worshippers, I didn't realise it at first, I realised it in the end."
Panebianco: "Did anyone try to stop you?"
Levene: "No, no. My situation with junk was this: I used to run PIL when I was on junk. I used to make all the music, get the money out of Virgin, make sure the record was promoted, find out if we were on 'Top Of The Pops' that week, you know, I was quite pleased with myself.
"When I analysed the situation, it was because basically I was very lonely and very scared and under a lot of pressure. Once I worked that out, it helped my quest to stop, because I had to make a big effort to stop - a fucking big effort."
Panebianco: "Why did you move PIL to New York?"
Levene: "We knew about the place. I originally popped over here for a week. Then I got John and Jeannette over here for this thing we really wanted to do, which was a live video gig at the Ritz. All I got from them was that I was treating them like puppets. Then, the morning of the gig, they had their suitcases packed, ready to go home. I said 'Look, fucking go home, I don't really care, cause if we don't do this gig we'll fucking get our legs broken!' So we stayed and we did it, and it was what it was. And I've taken credit for it, I do, I do. All John did was put on his little yellow-and-black striped thing, walk around and give me a hard time. Even at the gig."
Panebianco: "Do you think your live video concept was a couple of years ahead of what audiences were ready for?"
Levene: "Everyone I spoke to said it was brilliant. The American public, I hear, thinks it was some kind of rip off. I'm sure I would have found that gig worth my ten dollars. The idea was that we weren't really gonna know what was going to happen. As you saw, we didn't. We weren't trying to start a riot, that was the last thing we were trying to do. We had a boom mike over the audience, I wanted this communication between the audience."
Panebianco: "It always seemed the communication between PIL and their audience was less than satisfactory."
Levene: "Not with me. It wasn't. Anyone who asked or interviewed me I fucking told what PIL was about. I would have loved to go on the telly, or done millions of things, to tell people what we were doing."
Panebianco: "Do you think all the negativity surrounding PIL turned on the band?"
Levene: "Oh yeah. The punk scene was so negative, it crawled up its own ass. Everyone fought against each other, that was the mistake. They had a lot of the right ideas, but there's nothing left, which I guess is good. I'd much prefer The Clash to be dead and gone than be around in ten years like the Stones, because of course it is everything they said they would never be.
"That's why I'm glad PIL split. The last six, eight months we were going around being everything we always swore we would never want to be, I was aware of it. I had to see the scene through, but I had to say goodbye in the end. I never said I quit, I told Martin 'You do know, don't you, that I'm not going to Japan with you? And I don't want to work with you again, or see you again.'
"John was in L.A. by then, and I haven't seen him since. The next night I went to the studio to remix 'Love Song', I told them 'I've got the remix it, it's embarrassing.' Martin called John in L.A. and told him I was in the studio. This was the major trump card in Martin's power play: to be John's best buddy. John called up screaming that I should get out of the studio immediately, right? I said 'John, I can't put out a tune that sounds like that!'"
"This was just after that horrible manager Larry White had come along. I had originally hoped to God that he would run the band, and all I would have to do was worry about the music. But he was such a little creep, a five foot two inch sleazeball. It would have been nothing that me or John would ever had listened to - if Sid was alive he would have killed him on the spot. What I did was fucking tell him that night that I didn't want anything to do with him, I didn't want him to work with the band, I didn't want him touching our money. John was quite pleased, Martin thought he would save the world for us: get us loads of gigs and make us loads of money, which is all he cares about. Gradually this little creep edged his way into the situation, gradually I was finding it more impossible to deal with."
Panebianco: "Does John have a high tolerance for hangers-on?"
Levene: "John? John has a high tolerance for anyone who will save him effort, even though in the long run nobody is saving him anything."
Panebianco: "Do you think it was your marriage that pulled you away from PIL, made you view things differently?"
Levene: "Yes, my obligations changed and my responsibility factor changed. My marriage had a great deal to do with me leaving PIL, it was an integral reason. The way my wife puts it, which doesn't make me look to great, is that I was with a lot of bastards that were giving me a hard time, and I was too much of a nice guy to know it. She's got a point. I always overestimate people, I really trust people, I'm very vulnerable. It took someone who really did love me and really did care about me, and someone I really love and care about and all those chivalrous things, to make me realise that these guys were total assholes and I shouldn't have anything to do with them. I should never have known them."
Panebianco: "What is the status of the unreleased PIL album?"
Levene: "I don't know. You see, the record is finished, I finished it. I guess that was against PIL's will, but they weren't doing anything about it. I mixed all the records anyway, OK, but John would be there, he'd be into it. "Well, I hadn't realised they considered the record finished vocally, but I heard through the grapevine they felt it was. Personally, if I was John Lydon, I wouldn't have said the vocals were finished, but they said they were. I went in and made the best of a bad job. But the album turned out quite good. "John and Martin have gone off and called themselves PIL and released a record. All I want is my money and credit for my songs, it upsets me. Legally, I have as much a right to the PIL name as John, and I've no aversion, if it comes down to it, to phoning up Wobble and showing people who's worth going to see!"
Panebianco: "Did Lydon feel over his head musically with you?"
Levene: "No, the way he felt was really glad that he knew me, cause he knew I could do what he wanted. We were both always onto the same things, telepathically."
Panebianco: "Do you miss that?"
Levene: "No, I don't miss it. I feel sad that we had that, and we should never have lost that. John was my best friend for years, I thought he was great, so great. It was me, John and Sid. We all thought each other were great. Sid died, and John has now died as far as I'm concerned."
Panebianco: "Do you think you've wasted a lot of time?"
Levene: "Yes, but I regret nothing. There has been no time wasted that won't be used. More results should have happened with PIL. I'll just carry it on with MIC."
Panebianco: "What is the concept of Multi-Image Corporation?"
Levene: "Our main interest isn't making records, we just happen to be very good at making records. If we want to play something that sounds like El Latino, Puerto Rico, we'll do it. Soundtracks we'll do. We want to do graphics and soundtracks for video games. We want to communicate with seven-year old lads, we want to have fun. We will not be rock and roll, we will not take drugs, we will not stay up all night - that is MIC in a nutshell."
Panebianco: "Why do you want to communicate with seven-year olds?"
Levene: "My ideal audience is between 7 and 14, they aren't infested by that rock and roll desire. Not trying to be hip. Not listening to a group because everyone does. Maybe not listening to any group. "I understand wanting to be the next Beatles, the next Stones, because of their impact on kids, that kind of excitement. But you won't do that by being like the Stones. It's got to be totally different. For all we know, the thing that might be the next Stones will be the furthest thing from rock and roll you've ever come across. It might be those fucking little intellectual kids who wear glasses and use computers."
Panebianco: "How do you write music?"
Levene: "Every now and then I'll say 'I'm going to write a commercial single', and it'll turn out to be the most esoteric thing possible. I don't write songs that have verse and chorus and words - I write modules, bits all over the place, and I put it together. I haven't got songs, I've got loads of bits. It's like dub, I just slap them together. Everything inspires me, it sounds corny but it's true. I hate to sound like Mick Jones, but everything I do is part of what I do in music."
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