Brushes With Greatness


Never mind the bollocks, its Johnny Rotten!!!

(This chatroom posed the topic: “Have you ever had an encounter with a celebrity?” So I wrote this:)John Lydon in the early 80s

I met Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols back in 1982. He was in San Francisco plugging his latest PIL tour, so I got invited — along with the other stiffs of the working rock press — to a “Press Conference” at the swanky, ultra-trendy 181 Club in the heart of the Tenderloin. I showed up with my crazy girlfriend and we took a seat in the back of the club.

True to his name, Rotten kept the assembled throng of reporters and media-hipsters waiting for an hour before he made his entrance (I flashed on his classic quote to the audience at the Sex Pistols last gig at Winterland: “We’re not here to amuse YOU. You’re here to amuse US.”). Roadies and pseudo-technicians spent an hour tinkering with the microphones and the sound system, as if they were getting it just right, while the assembled rock press nervously drank their free drinks and ate from the free hors d’oeuvres and stared at the empty press conference table up on the empty stage., Johnny Rotten and the band strode up to the table and sat down in front of their microphones and fielded questions from the audience. Of course the microphones didn’t work, or were purposely turned down at low volume. The press kept screaming at PIL: “We can’t hear you! Speak up! Our tape recorders aren’t picking up the answers!” Which was duly ignored by the band, who continued to drone on their replies in barely-heard whispers. Finally, one frustrated reporter screamed out:

“Why did you call this press conference?”

To which Johnny Rotten replied: “So I wouldn’t have to talk to you individually.” We all heard that one loud and clear.

A woman English disc jockey chastised Rotten as a “sell-out” for charging so much for PIL tickets, which, to her thinking “betrayed the whole idea of what punk started out as.”

To which Rotten scoffed: “Do you get paid for your radio show?”

“No, I do it for the love of it,” she said.

“Then you, my dear, are a turd,” he said. “We do this for the money.”

My crazy girlfriend called out her question: “God and dog are 3-letter words. Can you think of any others?”   Johnny Rotten said: “Huh?”  (which now that I think of it was the correct answer)

Mostly PIL sat up there smirking at us with contempt, like they were the super-cool in-crowd, and we — the cream of the Bay Area rock press — were lower class dirt-clods trying to crash their hip party. They had their rock star cheekbones, and the latest in English rock-star thrift-store fashions. And of course we loved it, ate up the whole act, because we were all star-fukkers so of course we wanted our rock stars above us. The whole event had the feel of a weird performance art piece and we were all playing out our roles in it. Public Image Limited.

Finally, Johnny Rotten and PIL put an end to the whole farce and suddenly stood up and walked off backstage. Press Conference over. And the reporters staggered off to try and make sense of their barely-audible tape-recordings.

I went backstage and interviewed the bass player. He said: “The one thing Johnny Rotten really hates is when reporters come up to him and immediately start asking him questions about the Sex Pistols.” So that’s the first thing I asked him when he suddenly showed up in front of me. He looked exactly like Johnny Rotten — which was disconcerting because it was sort of like seeing a cartoon character come to life. Like talking to Popeye or Mickey Mouse. There is something other-worldly about celebrities; people we mostly relate to as fleeting images on our TV screens or on newsprint. To see them in flesh-and-blood is jarring. Like seeing a ghost. Johnny Rotten talked in an ultra-serious, grave, undertaker’s voice, almost a whisper. Something ghoulish about the guy, like a grave-digger. I showed him the cover of Twisted Image #2 which featured a cartoon I had drawn of him choking Ronald Reagan in front of the White House while Sid Vicious and a gang of punks rampaged. He whined in seeming pain when I tried to pin him down on his politics, as if I was trying to trap him.

“That wouldn’t be FAIR! I know NOTHING about that!” he whined.

“Well, you have an effect on your audience, on people’s minds,” I said.

“That would be the point, wouldn’t it?” he scoffed.

“I was just wondering what effect you’re trying to have,” I said.

At that point, Johnny Rotten went on a harangue against “record companies,” which he was apparently against. I asked him about Sid Vicious and he said, “Sid bought into his public image. Originally his name was a joke because he was such a wimp.”

My crazy girlfriend was off somewhere in the bathroom of the swank 181 Club, choosing that moment to wash her hair in the sink, for some inexplicable reason. So I left Rotten to track her down. We were all kind of crazy back then. Punk Rock 1982. It was exploding all over the place at the moment, infecting the high schools and everywhere. And somehow Johnny Rotten was at the center of the whole thing. It was interesting to get to meet him. He always reminded me of a skinny, surly orangutan, or maybe Gollum from “Lord of the Rings.” He wasn’t my hero or anything, but he was one of the first people my age (19 at the time of the Winterland gig), from my generation, to get up in front of the media microphone and make a statement (before the Sex Pistols it was all post-60s retreads). So I identified with him on that level. It was neat to meet him. I wrote up the interview in Twisted Image #3, a punk-art tabloid I was publishing at the time. And now, it’s ancient history in a weird sort of way. But back then, it was just one more surreal conversation in a backroom with a famous stranger.




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