Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols were the enfants terribles of the repressed mid to late 1970s Britain.
They were rude and sweary on national television, they sang (?) songs about anarchy, and rendered an ironic version of God Save the Queen that was clearly a poke at the historic institution of the monarchy. To be honest it all seems a little tame now considering what can be said, sung and exhibited by singers on mainstream and social media. However, at the time, well, let’s just say mothers keep your daughters away from young men who wore razor blades on their trousers and glued their hair in spikes.
The band was the brainchild of the maverick music and fashion influencer (yep, such things existed before Instagram), Malcolm McLaren, who sensed the need for what philosopher Charles Taylor describes as “Carnivale” during a particularly the social upheaval of British culture about to launch with Margaret Thatcher. Someone needed to let off some steam, and they were willing to provide it.
Lydon has been a gadfly to the very same mainstream media that still issues moral directives to the masses.
Of course, it all ended in tears. Tears and suspicions of murder. Bassist Sid Vicious was suspected of killing his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, though both were so off their faces no one knew the truth. And not long after, Vicious himself died of a drug overdose. McLaren had foisted Vicious onto the band to replace original bassist Glen Matlock, who was accused of “liking The Beatles”. McLaren wanted anarchy in the UK and by that time, The Beatles were no longer the trendsetters for that.
When it all broke up, that should have been the end of that, except for the fact, of course, that Johnny Rotten – aka John Lydon – was actually very talented, super insightful, full of ideas and always ahead of the anarchic curve. Lydon has been a gadfly to the very same mainstream media that still issues moral directives to the masses, albeit from a very different direction.
In fact, Lydon has been a moral force pointing out the hypocrisy and contradictions of the likes of the BBC. Ah, the BBC, that vanguard of all things British for so many years! It was Lydon who pointed out – also on national TV – that the sainted entertainer Jimmy Savile was an active pedophile – a fact known by many at the BBC who turned a blind eye to his activities even in their studios, due to his influence and power. Lydon called it out and challenged the BBC to do something about it – which to their shame they did not do until Savile was dead.
Lydon was all for anarchy below the surface, while the likes of the BBC? Well, you could do what you like in the cover of darkness, but as long as it was all sparkly and shiny when the cameras were turned on. The Sex Pistols – inadvertently – called out the hypocrisy of their society, and Lydon just twisted the knife in his wild-eyed way.
So lots of anarchy there? But his real anarchy? The truly head-swivelling act of this unchained, sometimes unhinged, publicly notorious poet? The final – painful but beautiful – act of that has just been played out in John Lydon’s life, as his wife of 44 years finally succumbed to the Alzheimer’s disease that has affected her these past five or six years.
He changed his whole life and their living arrangements to ensure that he was her primary carer until the day she died.
Already 14 years older than him when they married, Nora Forster was the love of his life. And that didn’t change in the midst of hardship When her own daughter from a previous relationship died at 48, she and Johnny took over the parenting of her three children, despite them having no children themselves.
And when Nora slipped into decline, one that became increasingly more precipitous over the past few years, Lydon determined that no one but he would care for her. So he changed his whole life and their living arrangements to ensure that he was her primary carer until the day she died.
Just prior to her death, he said this: “When I make a commitment, it’s forever, and I stand by that, and I’m very proud to do the best I can for her. What’s an illness between true friends, man and wife, lovers, whatever you want to call it? We are a proper pair of people who love and adore each other.”
He went on to observe in another interview: “Well, good luck to people that are flippant about their relationships and their responsibility towards their fellow human beings, but people like me and Nora, we spend the time and take the effort to understand each other. And then it becomes a life’s work in progress. And for my way of living, that’s how I want it to be. I don’t take commitments lightly. I don’t treat fellow human beings as tools of my trade. So, there you go — I’m a loyalist at heart.”
To refuse to make fellow human beings the tools of our trade is the ultimate anarchy.
I gotta say I like that line: “I don’t treat fellow human beings as tools of my trade.”
And isn’t the tendency to do that the access way to so many grievances, sins and horrors? Isn’t that exactly what Jimmy Savile did, and the BBC allowed him to do? His young victims were simply tools of his trade, and as long as he was raking in the viewers for the national broadcaster, then whatever the costs of the trade, it didn’t matter.
To refuse to make fellow human beings the tools of our trade is the ultimate anarchy, not just in the UK but across the world. It cuts against the grain of our extreme expression of individualism in which we can contort any questionable action against another human being into an authenticity drive.
The “you do you” culture we’re marinaded in can make a virtue of almost any vice. Whether that be human trafficking of any kind, or merely the endless Tinder swipe to try and find someone – anyone – who will make life less rotten for some brief period of time, other humans become tools of our self-fulfilment trade And there’s something rotten about that.
In the same way that Nick Cave isn’t a Christian (not yet, at least!), Johnny Rotten isn’t one, either. But both have learned to embrace kindness and self-sacrifice through a journey of suffering, in which they neither mask nor refuse the pain, but lean into it deeply. And for all the dollars spent on pitching a vision of what marriage is, from both sides of a hot cultural potato, Rotten/Lydon nails it with a costly commitment to his wife that transforms him at the same time.
And there’s something truly anarchic about that.
This article is republished with the author’s permission. You can find the original article here.