Anger Is an Energy: My Life Uncensored by John Lydon
Reviewed by Martin Lockley
Much as I love my thrice-annual copy of the Network magazine, I find the articles and book reviews, while fascinating, sometimes thematically rather similar, dealing with, among other things, sometimes hard-to-define, alternative world views, and intractable problems of consciousness. These are perhaps issues that “tend” [that word again] to be of interest to a certain generation … “talking about my generation.” Thoughtful people, including SMN readers, probably mostly work unobtrusively to make their communities and world a better place. But there are others who are a little more obtrusive if not at times “in your face.” But isn’t it the slings and arrows of outrageous individuals and movements that wake us from complacency and challenge us to evaluate the state of the world and how we can go about changing it, hopefully for the better? [The good old thesis-antithesis-synthesis cycle applies here].
Since many SMN members are psychologists and psychiatrists, what dost thou think of the thesis that Anger is an Energy, the title of the new autobiography of John Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols)? This is surely a question of some psychological import. I hasten to add that I never “got” the punk thing at all, rather I was enamoured of the hippie generation, naively believing its adherents would make the world a better place, and maybe they, or at least some of them, have. But,… what makes a young man, or a young generation, angry, and how does it affect society? Johnny Lydon, was brought up in extreme poverty, in the grimy, bombed out and “deprived” inner city parts of London around Benwell Road, stomping ground for Arsenal fans [‘arse an’ all], and street-aggressive hooligans from both home and away. A combination of rat-infested filth and meningitis put six year-old Johnny into a coma for the best part of a year. [As the Monty Python upper-class toffs might joke – “you were lucky”]. Johnny came out of this unconsciousness not knowing himself or his family [‘e were lucky, haha!]. Now that’s an early identity crisis! Actually his family members were a nice, doing-their-best lot, always playing their “enormous record collection.” In order for Johnny to snap out of his recent comatose state, the doctors actually advised being “brusque” with him. That’s a gentile word. As Johnny puts it his parents were “advised never to let up on me, never mollycoddle me, or baby me, because if I fell into a lazy-arse way… I’d never resolve my issues. And being agitated got me to think. Agitation’s a powerful tool sometimes.”
Johnny’s excursion into the unconscious left at least some psychic legacy, he knew when his grandfather died, and ran to tell his parents. He had intellectual leanings, loved history in school and became a great reader, Dostoyevsky at age 11. But despite his intellectual promise his teachers were mean to him. He found “that fella” Oscar Wilde outrageously funny, getting at society’s faults, as well as his own. Any Brit born just post-WW II will likely identify with an upbringing in the 1950s and 1960s, warts and all. Johnny had more than his share, including a gob full of rotten teeth, hence the nickname. One was brutally yanked out by a dentist with medieval skills. Although his parents loved the Beatles he hated all that “she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah stuff” and their matching hairdos. Instead he “loved Rachmaninov,” “Rimsky-Korsakov banging-of-the-piano” and all manner of pure and impure sounds. “After meningitis came another nightmare and a half… – adolescence!” When he dyed his hair green his dad said “Get out of the house, you look like a Brussels sprout!” But “Johnny wears what he wants” [title of chapter 3] and liked “street culture” and being a “fairground attraction.” Elsewhere he says “I can take influence but I can’t take teaching. It goes back to school really. Don’t tell me what to do, tell me how to do it.”
Johnny is opinionated, and admits it, usually in a naïve “Oi likes this and Oi don’t like dat” kinda way. As the Sex Pistols began to form, playing rough beer-soaked nightspots for pennies he says “As for musicality who gives a damn? It was the bravery of what they were attempting to do” that counted in a sea of “spoilt kids in bands.” The anger energy is part of the nightmare of adolescence, mixed in with jealousy and inverted snobbery. The Beatles may, have been spoilt in Johnny’s opinion, by the music industry, after initial success brought in big money, but they came from the same deprived roots. And later when Johnny met Paul he thought him a lovely guy. Inevitably the Sex Pistols anti-authoritarian, into-the-inferno-style drew the attention of the media, and mostly its scandalmongers. Johnny says they effectively stimulated the birth of the worst British-style, paparazzi parasites. Who needs to be outrageous when they are telling the most outrageous lies about you? “Infamy, they’ve all got it in for me!” Plenty of seed material there, given the Pistols’ famous tracks Anarchy in the UK and the infamous version of God Save the Queen. Parliament even debated charging the Pistols with treason! But scandals are scandals and infamous Pistols band member Sid Vicious, a heroin addict and son of a heroin addict mother (who gave him the drug as a birthday present) eventually killed his heroin addict girlfriend in New York before he died of an overdose. Johnny was different, and although not averse to “speed” as a youngster, and plenty of boozy parties, he despised heroin users, saying “they’ve lost their soul” and have lifeless eyes. Johnny was no squeaky clean saint but he usually liked to go on stage “relatively” sober. He espoused general empathy for the disadvantaged and said of Sid that he “used drugs to cover up his sense of inadequacy.”
With the demise of the Pistols (and Sid Vicious) Johnny formed Public Image Ltd. (PiL) named after Muriel Sparks novel Public Image about how “the publicity machine turns an average actress into a monstrous diva.” [More literary pedigree]? Here I might dabble, as Johnny does, in some psychology. What turns a shy post-comatose kid into a society-confronting rebel? Well perhaps it is obvious, the need to overcome insecurity and prove oneself, and to remind society that all is not well in deprived communities. If they (the system) are out to get you it can make you paranoid, or as the reversed, ironic version goes: “just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.” SMN readers may, at times, find the choice language a bit choice and repetitive [I did] but Johnny says he don’t mind insulting and being insulted (street culture) just as long as you don’t lie, especially about me. Balanced against this one finds some gems of naïve humour and wry observation. Johnny is “just a human being trying to explain his place in the world.” “Irony [he says] will always be there because that’s the greatest achievement in the English language, and … sadly lacking in other cultures.” Anger is an Energy is a big book, 500+ pages, and it chronicles, Johnny’s growth, without his loss of naivety and childish enthusiasm for new experiences, as he began to travel internationally, and even settle in Los Angeles first as a legal resident then, recently, as a citizen.
His childish naivety is exemplified in his endearing response to sunshine; it was if he discovered, in his 50s, that California is in fact a sunny, golden land of opportunity without the dreary disadvantages of the British climate. It took him a while to adjust to the lifestyle of “getting up early and enjoying the sunrise and sunset…more thrilling than anything a squalid disco in Sheffield can offer..” Likewise, because, after decades in the industry Johnny was on his way to being an elder statesmen, it “absolutely shocked” him that big name people of status had respect for him. And he began to work with some of them. But, you guessed it, he still rails against the conventions of the music industry, MTV and its “vacuous pop.” “If you had anything poignant in your lyrics, MTV would find a way to cancel you out.” He even rails against the Band Aid movement as “celebrity branding” saying you should be able to help starving and orphaned kids “without a pop star’s name on it.”
On another level Johnny combats his insecurity with a naïve form of amusing, if sometimes repetitive, self-congratulation for himself and his cronies. “I’m glad to report that I came out of my own self-analysis rather favourably.” As a part of the peripheral LA celebrity establishment Johnny began get offers of TV spots. He acts a little ambivalent about involvement with the “establishment” but his partner Nora who he endearingly loves to bits helps him decide. He ends up suddenly discovering the wide world of nature and doing things like John Lydon’s Shark Attack and John Lydon Goes Ape. Again the naïve enthusiasm is endearing as if the street culture kid is discovering the natural world for this first time, which he is.
Yes he swims in cages to film Great White Sharks and goes, like David Attenborough before him, to film chimps and gorillas. His accounts of these adventures are hilarious. Being told we could learn a lot from chimps he says “I learned they are bloody dangerous. They are football hooligans par excellence! They know how to throw rocks… After two years old you can’t …train them, they will not have it. But then I’m untrainable too.” He asked if they hit us can we hit them back? The answer was no, but they are allowed to “get up on tree branches.. and piss on you…laughing their heads of… little sods.” When getting close to a silver back gorilla he was told “never stare at them.” “That’s all well and fine [says Johnny] but when you got multicolored stripes in your hair, they’re gonna stare at you…. What was I supposed to be here? A two-bob David Attenborough.” Johnny and Nora became foster parents to her real grandkids, two wild, semi-illiterate adolescent twins brought up in Rastafarian Jamaica by her daughter Ari Up from the punk band the Slits. They took the job more seriously than mum, recognising that “they’re going to make foolish mistakes, and look like daft twats, but that’s the privilege of youth.” They had to learn new concepts of guidance and boundaries.
So Anger is an Energy but it can be “managed.” A deprived street kid can become a two-bob David Attenborough and guide his foster grand kids away from the Rasta-punk circuit. Johnny was a daft twat in his day and now may be merely an endearingly daft senior citizen going into new things “wide eyed, and as dumb as a plank of wood.” But hey why not? That is sometimes how you strive beyond, or break out from your “alleged capabilities.” In the 1970s the Pistols God Save the Queen was treasonable, angry energy. In 2012 it was iconic British culture featured in the Olympic opening ceremony! Wot-on-erf?