The Self-Made Man: Johnny Rotten
I realize that this week’s Self Made Man – Sex Pistols singer Johnny “Rotten” Lydon – has kind of a limited appeal unless you’re into punk rock, or British. Or both, I suppose. But seeing Lydon’s rise from street urchin to nihilistic punk to no-longer-ironic national treasure is really interesting, and it also illustrates that TSB’s model of self made men is a global one.
Lydon’s parents were Irish immigrants who had moved to north London when he was born in 1956. The neighborhood they lived in was a poor, high-crime one comprised mostly of Irish and Jamaican immigrants, and the sanitary conditions there were underwhelming to the point where John almost died from spinal meningitis when he was seven. In his book, No Irish No Blacks No Dogs, he claims that he contracted it from “rats pissing in the water.” Lovely. John had to endure a year of regular spinal taps that would screw up his posture for the rest of his life, and had to be retaught how to read and write during his recovery.
Still, by age 10 he had rehabbed enough to work as a minicab dispatcher, and worked at a series of similar jobs throughout school, even while he was rebelling against his teachers and dying his hair green to annoy his father. An attempt at college fizzled out, and John ended up squatting in abandoned houses with a group of ex-hippies and his best friend John Ritchie, aka Sid Vicious.
England was going through a pretty bad recession in the late 1970s, with high youth unemployment and a clueless aristocracy whose lavish lifestyle was shoved in the public’s face all the time as a distraction from how badly everyone but them was getting screwed. Imagine that. John was as rudderless as most youth back then, but was more rebellious than apathetic, and found like-minded people at a fetish clothing shop owned by Malcolm McLaren and designer Vivienne Westwood. McLaren had recently been the New York Dolls’ manager, and was mentoring a rock band that practiced in his shop. He thought Johnny would make a good singer for the group and brought him in right off the street, and the Sex Pistols were born.
The band’s history has been done to death by now, and it’s available on Wikipedia anyway, but John was thrust into the media spotlight as the snide, angry frontman of a band that was constantly beset by scandal. They got banned from club after club for their stage antics. They swore on national television. They were arrested for playing “God Save the Queen” on a boat during Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee, and the anti-royalty lyrics for that song got John attacked by knife-wielding thugs who permanently damaged one of his hands. By the time the band broke up in 1978, John’s infamy and quick wit had made him a star.
John has leveraged that stardom into some pretty lucrative business deals for himself – he started another band, Public Image Ltd., and put out a well-received solo album in the 1990s, did advertisements for Country Life Butter, hosted a couple of television shows, and even got back together with the original Sex Pistols (Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Glen Matlock) for some reunion tours.
And while it’s certainly true that his relationship with McLaren helped get him noticed, it was ultimately not advantageous. Unlike a lot of the men I’ve talked about here, John’s mentor took him for a ride; McLaren embezzled so much money from the band that they took him to court over it and won. A lot of performers more famous than John have gone broke due to poor management and never recovered, but John has flourished on his own. And through it all, he’s become a sort of public curmudgeon whose outrageous behavior and foul-mouthed social criticism betray a genuine love for his country.
Also, apparently Ron Paul likes his music. Just putting that out there.
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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.