Never mind the Democrats here's Johnny Rotten

Andrew Gumbel watches the former Sex Pistol blow Al Gore away
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The Independent US

The weirdest people turn up to American political conventions. For starters, this week in Los Angeles we have the World Wrestling Federation, a colourful body of bruisers and jokers who might not at first sight seem to have much to do with the Democratic Party but are in fact registered - yes, indeed - as august members of the press.

The weirdest people turn up to American political conventions. For starters, this week in Los Angeles we have the World Wrestling Federation, a colourful body of bruisers and jokers who might not at first sight seem to have much to do with the Democratic Party but are in fact registered - yes, indeed - as august members of the press.

Then, this being the home of Hollywood, there are those celebrities who appear at fund-raisers and presidential schmooze-fests even though you'd be hard pressed to find a single political bone in their beautiful bodies. Like Brad Pitt, one of Bill Clinton's movie-star groupies this week who, when asked a few years ago about the subject of his film Seven Years in Tibet - a subject close to liberal Democrats' hearts - answered: "Who cares what I think? I'm an actor. They hand me a script. I act."

Now we have Johnny Rotten, late of the Sex Pistols and Public Image Limited; the man who made safety pins and ripped mohair fashionable, sang very badly, gobbed on stage, threw up a lot, and succeeded in making very little money while becoming the number one sensation of the punk-rock movement in the late 1970s.

Unbelievably, Rotten has recently been carving out a new niche for himself as a political commentator, opinion-maker, convention-floor observer and on-site radio talk-show host. Looking utterly unmistakable - gaunt, pale, nervy, carrot-topped and still wearing the same square-edge shades after all these years - he has been hovering around the corridors of the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles in a psychedelic forest-fire of a shirt, all swirling yellows and oranges and reds, demonstrating a remarkable degree of interest in the proceedings all around him.

As you'd expect, he's none too impressed. Al Gore, he thinks, has as much appeal as "a very slow, ponderous librarian". President Clinton went on so long in his keynote speech on Monday, "I thought they'd have to get the meat hooks out to pull him off". As for George W Bush and his fellow Republicans, whom he saw at their convention in Philadelphia two weeks ago, "If they get in, it'll be only 100 minutes before church and state are one again".

The outfit that has put Rotten up to all this is a New York-based internet broadcasting service called Eyada (slogan: "We really do give a rat's ass!"). Clearly, Eyada are out for the publicity. Clearly, too, there is something irresistible about having the man who wrote "Anarchy in the UK" report on the overblown pomposity of a US political convention and the angry throngs of demonstrators pressing against the chain-link security fence outside.

But for anyone who remembers Rotten snarling into the microphone and yelling "I am an antichrist, I am an anarchist!" a generation ago, there are a few surprises. He knows what he wants, and he knows how to get it. But he doesn't believe in throwing rocks. He doesn't even like the demonstrators thronging outside the convention centre under the watchful eye of LA riot police, "a bunch of unwashed know-nothings" in his view. Rather, he's a passionate advocate of democratic participation, and urges his listeners to vote otherwise "pretty damn soon, the minority that votes will vote to stop voting altogether".

So has he undergone a conversion, or has the Johnny Rotten of times past been misunderstood? "I am not an anarchist, and I never was," he tells me testily. "I wrote a song called 'Anarchy in the UK', but that doesn't make me an anarchist. I also wrote a song called 'Pretty Vacant' and I'm certainly not vacant. I wrote a song called 'God Save the Queen', and I ain't no queen."

You can argue with the way he remembers his own past. After all, in his autobiography, No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, he declares unequivocally: "Chaos was my philosophy. Oh, yeah. Have no rules." He admits being attracted to anarchy because of its connotations of negativity and destruction: "Sometimes the absolute most positive thing you can be in a boring society is completely negative. It helps."

But the most Rotten will admit to now is a disposition for dissent. "Dissent is our privilege," he says. "I'm a professional dissenter. I'm a one-per-center dissenter."

The line is classic Rotten - the slow, deliberate delivery, his peculiar way of hovering over each syllable, and the evident sneaky pleasure you can hear in his voice as he delivers it. Where, though, is the anger, the outrage, the delight in shock for shock's sake? Everyone has a right to grow up, but if Johnny Rotten has mellowed out of his formidable reputation, what is he doing at the convention at all? "I am studying American politics in all its forms," he declares with a smile, "and extracting financial benefit from same. How much more American can you get?"

If that sounds like a sell-out, Rotten is certainly well camouflaged in his corner booth on the ground floor of the Staples Center. In a convention swarming with delegates and journalists, but whose stilted official proceedings rarely rise above the interest level of a high-street bank advert, his presence actually feels hugely refreshing. He can't go outside for a cigarette break - which he does, a lot - without attracting the instant attention of reporters, delegates nostalgic for their youth, and gaggles of enthusiastic young women who simply like to gasp, "My God, that's Johnny Rotten!" shake his hand and move on.

Instead of coming across as uncouth and shocking, Rotten is looked on as a curiosity by most people these days, and his mannerisms are seen as a peculiar form of English charm. On his radio programme, the convention delegates and phone-in listeners he talks to are merely amused by his hard-edged north-London directness. "'Ello, what's 'appening wiv you?" he asks one caller cheerily, and she starts giggling. When a Hispanic delegate from New York corrects the pronunciation of his first name, Rotten shoots back: "I stand corrected, well slap my bottom. And what do you have to say for yourself?"

His is hardly political analysis of the first order. Rotten ain't no intellectual, and for all his sceptical digs at the machinery of mainstream American politics, he doesn't have it in him to ask the tough, provocative questions that might get his interviewees to come out of their tightly clamped political shells. His guests are an unimpressive lot - a minor delegate from Maryland here, an East Coast city councillor there - and they provide him with little more than the party-line on the issues of the day.

Then again, the guests are hardly the point. Johnny is the man who does most of the talking, and offers most of the opinions. They may not go very deep, but he has a knack for speaking in easily digestible little slogans that certainly make you understand how he's managed to survive in showbusiness all these years, even if they won't challenge you very hard on the state of modern America. Chuck him an issue, and he'll chuck you an opinion. On the LA police, whose presence has swamped the demonstrators and led to one vicious crackdown: "LAPD have surpassed all expectations of brutality... They are so wicked it's unbelievable." On politicians: "Politicians by nature are liars. They have to be. It's a deceitful industry. They are professional lizards. Their eyes do not blink." On the Democrats' best chance of electoral success: "Al Gore's got to open up and declare himself as a human being... So far he's presented himself as a plank of wood." On the Monica Lewinsky affair: "What they did behind closed doors is none of our business. But I must say I wouldn't mind a video of it."

Aside from the occasional flash of inspiration, it is remarkable how humourless and carping most of this is - his persistently mocking, largely negative attitudes having more to do with Johnny Rotten and the maintenance of his public persona than the outside world. Sometimes he'll sound not just opinionated, but a little naïve as well. When one caller asks him about the Gore campaign's much-publicised cancellation of a fund-raiser at the Playboy Mansion, he doesn't really get the issue. "I do not find pornography offensive," he replies. "I don't see the adoration of the human form threatening democracy in any way. Besides, Playboy is not exactly hardcore porn, is it?"

If Johnny Rotten were really going to make a go of being a radical in his adopted country - he lives in California full-time now - he'd need to shape up on his political correctness all round. Just as his response to the Hispanic New York delegate showed scant respect for his cultural origins, his remarks about Joe Lieberman, Mr Gore's Jewish running mate, verged on the downright racist. "Don't be afraid of the little Jews, they won't do no harm," he said, mimicking what he took to be the Democratic Party line on the issue.

But perhaps the biggest shock in catching up with punk's former enfant terrible after all these years is hearing his current view of the big corporations - the companies whose ever-increasing contributions to the political parties are taken by most dissenters to be the great corrupting force in modern American public life. "I like certain aspects of corporate America," Rotten counters. "The corporations give me things I want, like food to eat." And with that, his fag break is over - and Rotten announces he is going to mill about for a bit with the suits and the balloon-wavers on the convention floor. A moment later, he's gone, his orange hair disappearing into the crowd.

Johnny Rotten, apologist for corporations and the porn industry, scourge of street protesters and only the mildest of critics of party politics? What has the world come to? As Rotten infamously said at the end of the Sex Pistols shambolic final concert, in San Francisco in 1978, "Ever get the feeling you've been had?"

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