Sounds, March 4th, 1978
Transcribed by Karsten Roekens
© 1978 Sounds
JOHNNY COOL AT THE CONTROL
JOHN LYDON IN JAMAICA
Words by VIVIEN GOLDMAN Pix by KATE SIMON
There's only one place to be late at night in Jamaica - tuned in to Radio JBC, the man Michael Campbell, the man they call Dread At The Controls. Thanks for the sweet inspiration...
Not being used to hanging around with punk rock stars at airports, I hadn't realised what stupidities catching a plane can entail. Standing next to J. Rotten at the Heathrow check-in, I looked round and there was a phalanx of eager beaver paparazzi photographers, straining like a string of caged greyhounds. Aha! They must think I'm a mechanical rabbit!
Heathrow suddenly reduced to flat cartoon dimensions - there were the muzzled greyhound/photographers, nervously licking their foaming cheeks, jaw muscles worked in counter-rhythm to the dollars and cents signs flickering in their unresponsive eyes. Four clockwork rabbits called John, Don, Vivien and Rudi looked around for the exit route, which sure enough was a mechanical moving staircase a fair trot away.
The rabbits lolloped off in unison, ears flapping, while the greyhounds flocked around them, yapping and flashing their cameras. Just a silly little movie, calculated to induce mild paranoia in the uninitiated. If that happened every time I was waiting for the number 15 bus, I'd start thinking I must be important, if I didn't watch out...
It was Kate Simon who taught me to appreciate the Kingston Sheraton Hotel as an art form in itself. Initially, I perceived it as a somewhat offensive institution, a bland crate of a skyscraper dumped unceremoniously in the uptown hilly mini-U.S. of New Kingston. Last bastion of American imperialism, I would mutter to myself as I vanished downtown to Randy's Records rootsy hustle.
I started to become reconciled when I observed how the fabric of the Sheraton is beginning to gently crumble - the escalator on the ground floor doesn't work anymore, the carpet's wearing thin at the seams, the lifts take it in turns to go slow, then stop, there are cracks in the sunbaked wood of the balconies. This time round, the Sheraton had un out of cigarettes. Believe me, this is a serious thing.
Previously, the Sheraton had been miraculously, reassuringly free from the sudden shortages that rage through Kingston: Rizla (a perennial), milk, bread - most important, cigarettes. No ciggies at the Sheraton is proof positive that the two sevens have clashed. Of course the Sheraton is the hotel that's featured in 'The Harder They Come'. It's the ultimate symbol of luxury for Jimmy Cliff, getting the white-uniformed doorman to open the door of a low-slung sports car that doesn't belong to him, and sweeping off. 99% of the Kingston population want to be just here, sitting at this round white table overlooking the Hockney geometrics of light filtering the surface of the blue, blue swimming pool, the big Sheraton 'S' symbol flickering down below the water. Giant tree-sized editions of weedy British potted plants cast precious shade. Privilege. And you realise the movie's still going on around you, when you look behind you at the poolside bar. Knocking back the rum or fruit punches, depending on their religious inclinations, are a changeable line-up of reggae musicians.
Seems like a good third of the island's major bands have a rota schedule worked out, so that there's always at least one superstar on a stool per three hours. Very occasionally Peter Tosh, frequently a sprinkling of Gladiators, The Abyssinians, I-Roy and U-Roy and Tapper Zukie and The Tamlins, Jah Lion, Prince Hammer, Johnny Clarke, John Holt, the mighty Culture with the other two Cultures, Robbie Shakespeare, Sly, Chinna, Bim Sherman, Prince Far I , Lee Perry, Inner Circle (alas, Jake "The Killer" Miller was chowing down in New York at the time), Prince Mahmoud, Big Youth, The Congos - it got so that you felt like you were wading through your singles collection every time you went to get a glass of water.
And if you appreciate a neatly turned contrast, when you finally got your glass of water and got back to your table, there would be Johnny Rotten in his black Toreador hat, squinting defiantly into the sun through militant shades. And for a couple of days there was Joni Mitchell too, looking wan and elegant in a tiny black and white polka dot bikini, French cut, a paperback on astrological vibrations flapping on the ground beneath the lounge chair...
Believe me, there's only one thing that's luring the reggae galaxy up to the uptown top rankin' Sheraton, and it ain't baby blue eyes, Joni's or John's.
It's the prospect of U.S. dollars in the offing - or sterling, at least. Because John, Donovan Letts, Dennis Morris and myself are not the only Brits in town. As far as Kingston in general is concerned, we come in a job lot together with the Virginians: Virgin boss Richard Branson (as his tan deepens, the resemblance to Island boss Chris Blackwell becomes more and more apparent), plus wispy blonde money maestro Ken, and Rudi, the bronzed cheery Dutch gofer and gigolo lookalike.
Everybody want a recording contract.
And why is John here?
Because he's "temporarily unemployed".
"Virgin offered me a job. It was the perfect break for me after the band split up."
Johnny Rotten, former lead singer with the notorious Sex Pistols, is here as an Artist and Repertoire scout for his record company, Virgin Records. A serious thing. Rotten (or 'Cool', as certain sections of the Kingston population came to call him) is not in Jamaica to record, as popularly supposed, but to be a professional pair of ears on two legs.
His credentials are impeccable. As his Capital Radio how proved, John's a connoisseur who always gets to hear the most worthwhile music that comes out of Kingston (home of almost all JA music).
"I know what I'm talking about. Ever since we signed up with Virgin I've been trying to get them to sign up reggae artists." Virgin, after a massive reggae spending spree two years ago without equivalent financial rewards, had appeared to lose interest in JA/Jah music. "Like all record companies they were nervous. Now they're greedy, because they can see the chance of lots of money. At the same time, I think the bands stand a better chance of making money than I think they deserve," John says in heavily sarcastic tones. "I'm doing my bit for society... it isn't as tedious as that, it's really quite selfish. It means I can get my albums more easily," his voice rocketing from accent to accent.
John's previous unsolicited A&R work has already resulted in a Virgin release of Doctor Alimantado. If John had his way, we'd be able to hear an interesting blood-and-fire British roots album from Linton Kwesi Johnson's Poet And The Roots, and Lee Perry's ethereal production of Wayne Jobson's music and even more good 'uns. The fact that John's out here indicates that Branson's going to take his advice. This time round, he's going to pick his brains.
Mine too, come to that. I doubt whether Virgin felt John needed the publicity of another music paper front cover urgently enough to merit a return air ticket to Kingston, but happily their interests coincide with mine. I want to do interviews, and if they want to sign up the acts I'm interviewing, that's their (good) business (sense). Like John, I want to get my music quicker and at British release prices, thank you very much. By the way, Richard - you missed out on Greg Isaacs and The Meditations.
John: "These people didn't have a chance for centuries, and now they've got it. You only get one chance, and when you fuck it up, boy, forget it. That's it, the first chance decides whether you're going to end up on a factory line or doing something you want."
The voice of one who knows. John's background is similar on one level to those of the artists at the poolside bar - they all started out poor. Poverty in Kingston is more intense than in Britain's comparatively plentiful Babylonian consumer heaven, but John doesn't feel twitchy in the concrete jungle downtown. The ugly concrete blocks of flats clustered on the former site of typical Kingston rusty corrugated zinc shacks, mown flat by one advance of a bulldozer, are the Jamaican equivalent of John's childhood home in North London.
Night time in downtown Kingston is paraffin lamps on a plank balanced on an empty rusting oil drum, the flame flickering dangerously, almost overbalanced by the velocity of the dominoes hurtling across the board. When John was four years old, friendly neighbourhood Teds on the street corners of Holloway taught him card tricks.
Tapper Zukie, like John, is in his early twenties. He plans to use the money Virgin are giving him for finishing off the (so far) two-walled community centre he's building in the Rema slums where he lives. Definitely one of the most community-minded, concerned people you could meet. You better believe he can take care of himself when times get dread (they didn't call that album 'Man Ah Warrior' for nothing). You could say the same about John.
More cultural similarities: John's roots are Irish, and on average twice a day something happens that reminds him of the old sod. Driving through the street, there's always groups of people in line outside the bookies, lazing on chairs tilted against brightly painted hole-in-the-wall bars, or simply propped up against a wall observing the street action. Many, many people - a hideous 40%, I was informed - without jobs. You have to live as a 'scientist', by your wits, receptive to every frisson in the airwaves that could lead to good fortune.
So many people with nothing to do... why, even the British Customs official, trouncing my 'Jamaica Land I Love' plastic tote bag for possible ganja (no, nein, nyet, non - I ain't that dumb), was talking about how music's the only way out of the Kingston ghettos (other than ganja/guns... ). It's worked for Bob Marley, it's worked for John Rotten.
Unemployment's not all. According to John they say (and practice the philosophy of) "soon come", the quintessential Jamaican phrase, in Ireland as well. No sense of urgency in either land, apparently, and what Ireland lacks in ganja it makes up for in Guinness.
At the National Arena on Wednesday night the show's going on, but it's spoiled by the dire backing band. Lloyd Parks' We The People Band are playing over at Skateland, the roller-skating rink where on every night but Wednesday people whoosh around to strictlee rockaas sounds, and on Wednesdays they dance to Lloyd and his brethren plus The Tamlins, Trinity, Althea and Donna, Rudy Thomas or whoever else is singing upfront.
The We The People Band is acknowledged as a more than O.K. set of musicians, in fact they're the live backing band to get. The superstar Robbie Shakespeare / Sly / Chinna / Bobby Ellis conglomerations we occasionally have the good fortune to see over here are well priced out of their home market. Here at the Arena we have to make do with some real wets that promoter Clancy Eccles has put together. Or are they The Fabulous Five? Anyway, they suck a big one, and even Prince Hammer's dramatic twirls of the cape and unexpected bounds are dampened somewhat - but he's a live wire onstage still, and Johnny Clarke mashes it up later on that night as well, and...
Anyway, we're sitting on this ledge along the back wall of the stadium / National Arena, which looks like a college lecture theatre in a Midwestern university crossed with an aircraft hangar, and one the very young, very skinny and raggedy little urchins scampering about has been staring bug-eyed, entranced, at John for a full five minutes. Maybe one of us isn't using Ampex? Are John's flies undone? The kid shuffles cautiously nearer and nearer. Seems as if the combination of metallic numbers and badges glinting on John's blue-grey Chinese military jacket and the Toreador-style broad-brimmed black hat shading the skinny white face has the lad under a spell. Eventually it becomes obvious that this lengthy non-verbal confrontation must be terminated somehow. John says gently: "My name's John. Now you don't need to look at me no more."
The boy retreats, still gazing over his shoulder as if John might at any minute reveal himself as an i-ficcial encounter. John meanwhile carries on swinging his legs, the maroon suede brothel-creepers and translucent silky socks kicking the air. Johnny Cool.
Next week: The source of the moniker, the spy from over the water, and irie ites (various).
A conversation taking place 11.00 am approx. on the balcony of room 0711, Kingston Sheraton Hotel, Jamaica, Sunday 12 February 1978.
Goldman: "How did Malcolm strike you when you first met him?"
Lydon: "A weed. He uses other people's ideas."
Goldman: "You met him at the SEX shop, right?"
Lydon: "I never hung out there, that was all rubbish. I used to go down there to laugh. I used to wear some of the gear... they had a band called the Sex Pistols then, but they wanted a singer. They had no direction, they couldn't write songs. I fitted in perfectly." (guffaws) "Malcolm's idea was to have a band that was like the New York Dolls, just plain awful in every respect. Right down to the songs."
"He wanted all these awful terrible songs. I came up with songs that actually meant something, much to his annoyance. He wanted pure rubbish, so he could throw it on the market -" (switches to prissy upper-class voice) "'Ha ha, look at this, what a joke!' Nothing else."
"People read too much into that man, it's a waste of time. Now write this in your article: 'As we play a Sex Pistols tape, spies of Malcolm were down in the foyer' - look at him looking at us!" (gleefully) "Funny, don't you think?" [All will be revealed next week! - VG]
(Archly phrased) "I want nothing to do with that organisation" (Glitterbest) "in any way. If it comes down to breaking contracts, they broke it. They walked out and left me, I didn't do anything. I just sat there and watched them leave the room, and not one of the cunts actually told me - except Sid, and he'd O.D.'d and didn't know what he was saying... they expect me to go back and work with lackeys and deviants?"
Goldman: "Have Warner Bros. offered you a solo deal in the States?"
Lydon: "They haven't bothered. I think Malcolm's cooking something up with them - though I know they don't get on. Whatever Malcolm's doing, he hasn't told the truth in the papers - nothing but pathetic bickering. He said the group kicked me out. I don't think any of them will tell you that, ask them to their faces! And now Steve and Paul are with him. I don't know how they can tolerate it."
"They didn't force me, I quit. Sid had been in the hospital, it was taken for granted that he was out. Steve and Paul said they were quitting, and I said 'Oooh, isn't that bad, goodbye!' That was it. They'd just had a meeting with Malcolm. I wasn't there. I wasn't allowed to be. It was done behind my back. There was a whole series of that kind of thing, spreading over three years. Malcolm could never confront me with anything."
Goldman: "Seems like Sid's in a real mess now..."
Lydon: "That's just too bad. That's his problem, nothing to do with me, I wouldn't dream of interfering. The other two I spent years trying to get to know, then I found out there was nothing to know."
[Later John said:] "I don't want to put anyone down in the band, because they're alright really. I don't have bad feelings at all - I mess about, I'm a sarcastic cunt. The fact that I know their weak points and they know mine is fine, because we don't use them as weapons against each other. I liked working with the band - let's face it, that was my chance, and they gave it to me!"
Goldman: "What made the others walk out?"
Lydon: "I should say fear. The excuse was we hadn't written any new songs. That was rubbish, I've got hundreds, I've got some here with me. Malcolm pulls patronising kinds of attitudes, 'Never mind, I'll help you in this time of strife', and of course certain people fall for that, a very special kind of person, who doesn't see things clearly. And that doesn't mean people who are trusting, open and honest, that means people who blot things out and would rather pretend that they weren't happening."
"I knew right from the start that we were going to be big, because I was sure what we were doing was right, one thousand per cent. It was the only way out for rock to go, no alternative. But to be honest, there is no mystery about music. Everything's based on the heartbeat, anyway. Why should that be a mystery? Clog it up in mystique and profound statements that mean piss-all to the normal person..."
Goldman: "When they told you over the phone about the photos of us at the airport, you were very annoyed that they were trying to make you into a Rod Stewart..."
Lydon: "Of course! That's what the public wants. They're their own worst enemy, the fools. It's not me who changes, it's the public's attitude. The more and more famous you get - if you can call it fame, it just means more and more people know who you are - the more ridiculous they get, and the further they put you away from them. It's pathetic. It's really just admitting their own insecurities and feeling insignificant. They want heroes to tell them what to think. It's masochism."
(Somebody starts playing a cassette of an American radio interview - John's sounding very bored, telling the interviewer: "The music works out the message for itself. If you don't understand that, you don't deserve to be told.")
Lydon: "Turn that off, will ya! I hate the sound of my own voice..."
Goldman: "Will you still call yourself Rotten as a solo artist?"
Lydon: "How should I know? I never gave the name to me in the first place. Maybe I'll have an opinion poll... that'd be a laugh, wouldn't it?"
Goldman: "Did you feel betrayed when the others walked out of the band?"
Lydon: "I've never felt like that. I just felt maliciously hatred. I'm basic and simple about that. I seriously don't give a damn about the other guys - why should I? I don't hold fulltime grudges. I have my own life. Besides, hate is a wasteful emotion."
Goldman: "Everybody really wanted you to be an idiot, didn't they?"
Lydon: "This is true." (cackles with laughter) "Yes, I failed at trying to be an idiot." (he said laughing) "What makes me most annoyed is that Malcolm took credit for ideas that weren't his own. He likes people to have ideas, but only when they're so stupid they don't realise that they said it. Then ten minutes later he'll bring the same point up, and the dummy says 'What a good idea, that's almost something I could have thought of.' That's the way Malcolm works. He's never done that with me, I'm too damn clever. And this isn't even the half of it..."
Goldman: "So do you feel betrayed..."
Lydon: "Don't be pathetic. This isn't a Victorian melodrama. I think you might write it like that, and it takes out all the spark. I felt an outsider right from the start. After rehearsals we'd be sitting there and Malcolm would say 'Let's go out somewhere,' and I'd sit there and I wouldn't even be considered, I wouldn't even be asked. That's when I started getting my shit together, I started bringing my mates to concerts, and that really freaked him out. They didn't like my friends. I've been told by Malcolm and his lackeys that they're too working class, they know it all too much, or they're too black. All three."
Goldman: "So who does that leave on the planet for you to talk to?"
Lydon: "It leaves no one. Don't you see? They wanted me to be this closet case that wouldn't go out, that would stay in and not do anything."
"And when they found out I was going out it was 'Where's he going?' They still ain't been able to trace that, except for to black clubs like the Four Aces, and that made them mad, because it's places they wouldn't dream of going near."
Goldman: "And all the time there was that deluge of media overkill..."
Lydon: "It was funny. We used the media without even trying. We had them grovelling up their own arseholes without any effort at all. Malcolm was credited with being a media manipulator, but the whole fun of it was, he done nothing. They came to him and he said nothing. People are always credited with things they never done. If anybody was the media manipulator it was the band. It was us who were using the situation, actually doing the things they were writing about."
"What did Malcolm do to make us famous? I had the motivation, the direction, things that didn't occur to them. When I met them I said 'Well, what are your songs about?' - 'Duuuhhhhh...'" (laughs manically, voice breaks into evil cackle) "Stage One of the Rotten Masterplan to take over the world! When I first joined, they thought I was insane. Paul threatened to leave, because he thought I wasn't a human being!" (laughter) "Not all there! rouble was, I am all there..."
Goldman: "What about the clothes, the t-shirts, the visual image?"
Lydon: "We actually had to buy them. Malcolm wouldn't even give us a t-shirt. Everything I had, I either stole or paid for out of that shop." (SEX) "Besides, I've never worn much of that gear anyway, to be truthful."
Goldman: "You're wearing a Seditionaries jacket right now!" (a square-cut baggy electric blue / prune tartan confection with much eye appeal)
Lydon: "My design, I might add... and I had to pay a fucking fortune for it. Visual image. What rubbish. How can anyone tell me what to wear? Look at the band, we're completely different. There was never a direct image for that band. We had Paul, the postman-type figure, Sid, that idiot, Fatty Jones, the coalman, and then" (adopts lofty tone) "a superstar! Me! A genius! I went down as the loudmouthed swine - who was always right, I might add, and that's what made it all the more annoying."
Goldman: "A smartass..."
Lydon: "... who knew it all and couldn't wait to tell others. But I see something good about characters like that, I think they're great... You couldn't put me down, couldya?"
Goldman: "I realised I'd get on with you when I heard your Capital Radio show."
Lydon: "That really annoyed Malcolm. He complained about it to other people, and Vivienne too, Malcolm's loved one, about the records I played. Why didn't I play Iggy Stooge, the Dolls? They honestly expected me to play a load of fucking crap."
Goldman: "They might have known what you'd play. Why didn't they try to stop you?"
Lydon: "They don't fancy knife wounds. The man's scared stiff of violence. It's different in his own home, it's controlled and it's sexual. But is it hearsay? Question mark? Is it? Put all that in! The ultimate mistake McLaren ever made was Rio. That is so pathetic, it's absolute crap. It's a pathetic publicity stunt, that's what makes it a trap. I was told by a reporter that we were going to Rio, and I thought 'Oh, are we? No, we're not!'" (melodramatic stage whisper) "And I wondered why Malcolm never bothered to tell me. I was most curious about that. And why, when I told him I wasn't going, he sent Paul and Steve to the airport, knowing I wasn't going to be there? Even worse, nobody came to collect me, just in case I'd changed my mind and wanted to go!"
Goldman: "Maybe he didn't want you there."
Lydon: "Gosh, I would't know." (sarcasm) "Far from me to say. He actually had the nerve to tell me 'That's what the Pistols are all about, and I had to tell him 'Ducky, I am what the Pistols are all about! You are not required anymore!' I just fail to see how going to a police state to see a failed bankrobber has anything to do with us. What's the connection?"
Goldman: "Another merchandising device?"
Lydon: "It never used to be a publicity gimmick when we started. I spent a year trying to stop his ridiculousness, that the others in the band agreed with. He cheated over that album, by the way. I did not want those singles on that album. I was the only one. I almost left at that time. And I didn't want the price to be so high, and it wouldn't have been if the singles weren't on it. See, I was the only one with these ideas, and they wouldn't tolerate it. 'No, we'll make more money like this... '"
Goldman: "Yet you've got that whole stack of new songs. Didn't you record any of them?"
Lydon: "Nothing else was recorded."
Goldman: "Do you feel like you're living inside your 'Holidays In The Sun' song?"
Lydon: "This isn't a holiday. t's sunny, but I didn't come here to gloat and poke sticks at the peasants and leave litter on beaches and abuse everyone in sight, and go back with ridiculous snapshots and a suntan. I'll do what I want, always, regardless. The biggest obstacle I now face is popularity, which is an overwhelming obstacle. I have no scope, no freedom, every move is analysed, scrutinised, cut into a thousand pieces. But I am not a do-nothing person."
Next week: more JR in JA
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