BOOK REVIEW / Rotten to the core: Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs by John Lydon with Keith & Kent Zimmerman: Hodder pounds 14.99

Ben Thompson
Saturday 16 April 1994 23:02

THIS portrait of the author as a young Sex Pistol is an exhausting, splenetic book, but there is something very gratifying about its refusal to fall into line with the numerous other accounts of the period (which Lydon rubbishes so tirelessly as to become tiresome) and with its subject's obsessive self-validation. Rotten's ranting reminiscences are interspersed with a fascinating body of testimony - some supportive, some healthily contradictory - from his father, his friends, Finsbury Park football hooligans - turned - jewellery designers, fellow Sex Pistols Steve Cook and Paul Jones, record company employees and assorted punk alumni such as Steve Severin, Chrissie Hynde and Billy Idol.

Hynde, whose pre-history as punk rock fairy godmother seems to be worth a book in itself, is especially revealing. The story of her unavailing efforts to get first John and then Sid Vicious to marry her so she can stay in the country is hilarious, and her acute observations on Lydon's character are at once cruel and kind: 'John's a bastard, but there's still something sweet and tender about him. He's not the kind of person who would, for instance, abuse animals.'

The page layout sometimes makes it hard to keep track of who is speaking, so the book occasionally reads like the cut-up hostage notes which the Sex Pistols used to boost their notoriety, but the pluralism is appropriate, and when the prose is lit up by an authentic flash of Rotten scorn, the effect is dramatic. There are the predictably gross anecdotes about the Sex Pistols, but it's not all savagery. Did you know, for example, that Sid Vicious was named after the Lydon family hamster, or that the proto-punk fashions which inspired Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood had a suave Hollywood progenitor? 'Whatever you thought Cary Grant would have worn,' says Lydon, 'that would be nice . . .'

Where Lydon touches on his marriage and family background, he is shockingly tender. Elsewhere, the generally scathing tone renders his occasional warm enthusiasm - for Jose Ferrer's film performance as Cyrano de Bergerac, for time spent as a teenager building a sewage farm in Guildford, for his brief career as a London daycare worker ('I still feel I could have become a teacher if I'd followed through on it') - strangely touching. Much of the bitterness with which Lydon wages post-Pistols war against Mclaren seems to be attributable to simple hurt feelings.

The family photographs of Rotten's formative years, for all their throwaway captions - 'Cocteau-esque Lydon family beach party', for instance - are illuminating. Two snaps labelled 'before and after meningitis' tell their own story. Lydon spent a year between the ages of seven and eight in hospital, acquiring not just the outsider status but also the hunched back and unfocused stare that would later (with help from Olivier's Richard III) solidify into the Rotten persona.

The book's greatest achievement is to capture the excitement of breaking out of that pre-punk English small-mindedness which the title (from a sign once seen all too frequently in boarding-house windows) embodies so perfectly. 'If you went smack into the middle of the enemy's camp,' Lydon remembers, 'they'd back off, because they couldn't believe you had the cheek to do it.' He's under no illusions, though, about the durability of his achievement: 'I really do think the crowning glory of the Sex Pistols is that we've always managed to disappoint on big occasions. When the chips were down, we never came through.' (Photograph omitted)

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