“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? Good night!” Thus John Lydon ended the last Sex Pistols concert a zillion years ago. Actually, it was 1978 and the rotter has now cheated some middle-aged people all over again. How very dare he give an interview in which he said he would vote for Trump? Old punks, in their most headmistressy mode, are not just angry but very disappointed.
He is now the worst Sex Pistol, which is quite some feat considering one of them (Sid Vicious) murdered someone. I found parts of the interview very moving, such as when he was talking about caring for his wife, Nora, who has Alzheimer’s. That is no easy job – even when you have the kind of money he does. She deteriorated when her daughter, Ari, died of breast cancer, and he helped raise her children. John Lydon, family guy, does not sit well with the image of John Lydon, wind-up merchant … obnoxious, rude, funny, kind. “I could be wrong, I could be right,” as he sang on Rise. Well, that sentiment is no longer permissible these days, that’s for sure.
Is his support for Trump idiotic? Yes. Is he a big political influencer in the swing states, this old real-estate punk? Of course not. The anger comes from wanting your heroes to be uncomplicatedly pure for ever, which is a peculiar demand to make of anyone.
Did what Lydon thought ever matter? Once. That 1,000-yard stare, the whine, the declaration we have no future. England’s Dreaming. It mattered decades ago. PiL mattered. His love of Kate Bush mattered. His support for Brexit was predictable, though. The butter adverts, the appearance on I’m a Celeb, the comeback tour, It’s all a bit contradictory, and those who feel let down should ask themselves what they have done for the past 40 or so years, instead of living in some overhyped glory days.
A lot of music has been created since then; a lot of art. A lot of books have been written, and much of what we once revered is now “problematic”. Lydon is no better than he ought to be. When musicians get involved with politics, the result is often ill-thought-out populist rubbish that actually reinforces the prevailing orthodoxy. It’s embarrassing.
It’s not just that your heroes let you down, it’s that this is a singularly impoverished way of understanding culture in the first place. Far from challenging the status quo, the entire artistic establishment speaks with one voice. Brexit is the obvious example. The idea that the left owns culture and the right owns power needs to be questioned. The self-congratulation of that view in the time of Covid no longer holds.
Some of us (women) have long had to separate art from the artists. It is impossible to be a fan, or indeed a critic, of most of what is around us is if we don’t. How could I love Lars von Trier, William S Burroughs or James Brown if I didn’t? I don’t share the Hannah Gadsby view that Picasso is ruined for ever by knowing he was a shit. I refuse to let misogyny narrow my horizons so easily.
That doesn’t mean I don’t want more women to come to the fore. There is more than one way to challenge people. Art takes us to the places that discomfit us as well as putting us together again.
Lydon said of his Catholic school: “I learned hate and resentment there. And I learned to despise tradition and this sham we call culture.” Let’s not forget punks dabbled with fascist imagery as well as all the situationist theorising that came in its wake.
I care not for authenticity. If there was anything to be taken away from that brief spurt of energy it was that a mere safety pin could challenge authority, but within a moment that challenge, too, was commodified as a symbol of rebellion. Everything was bought and sold in the end.
Lydon once had chaos emanating from every pore. It was electric. Now, he is a middle-aged carer. Who is to say this is not the best work of his life?