Public Image Ltd: First Issue

Steve Rubell said: ‘We turned away the President of Cyprus because he looked boring.’”

That’s Bee Gees biographer David N. Meyer quoting Studio 54 co-owner Steve Rubell, who apparently quipped anti-Cyprus to Jack Egan at the Washington Post, 1978. And if you’re wondering why I’m leading with Studio 54 in the context of the Bee Gees (whom I’ll get to later), it’s that last adjective. Boring.

How pervasive was boring in the late ‘70s? Let me put it this way: Four fellows who couldn’t dampen a collective Bronx cheer for disco, used it as their bugaboo, across yonder pond. Punk, which begat post-punk, which begat this First Issue (out for the first time in America, on Seattle’s Light In The Attic Records). After cultivating that famous image in late ‘78/early ’79, everyone on that scene waiting to see what Johnny Rotten did next–and he collapses the leadoff track, “Theme,” after successions of “I wish I could die!” with the release, the sizzle-down of guitarist Keith Levene’s solar flares, he finishes with his climax and his release, “I just died!”

“I just died!”
(…”from terminal boredom”…)

And boredom made an easy target, sure. Adolescents hate and fear it. Post-adolescents take ennui for malaise. Wrong-headed, of course, starting with how it tells us to stay muffled in our cocoons taking no action against the bigger problems, and even worse, in how it tells us that we have no bigger problems (inoculate yourself against the big disease(s) with willful ignorance, boredom as the syringe). Rubell and his velvet-rope goons fought boredom with elitism (the rope) and fuck-like-it’s-the-end-of-the-world debauchery (inside the door), ignoring that you don’t obliterate problems by ignoring them (and the world won’t end that way, either). PiL saw tedium as an excuse for a put-down (carried over from Rotten-as-Sex-Pistol, commenting on a TV presenter’s outfit: “So bloody boring it really is remarkable”). Look carefully and you’ll spot the common noose.

So “boredom” simultaneously cheapens and gives the lie to “Theme,” because no man that passionate–about his own inability to live, no less–could be bored. His self/other-mocking laughter during the tension, his exaltation, at his release–which is death–no, he’s got bigger problems and bigger passions, even if he won’t admit them. “Religion I,” “Religion II,” and “Annalisa” turn the hose on faith, dogma, and how the two combined lethally in the case of a young girl who was probably mentally ill, but was killed by a team of exorcists. (Rotten/Lydon will claim in the BBC interview enclosed with this edition, that his hatred of Catholicism is only a reflection of his hatred of institutions in general, but I submit his performance virulence, as opposed to his interview casualness, gives another lie.)

tumblr_leds52YaLq1qd25nbo1_500“Fodderstompf,” with its death-march dance groove, onslaughts of silliness, and mocking invocations of “love,” certainly sounds like that legend that the band ran out of money halfway through and had to crank the rest out on sixpence. Here too the easy target (“Be bland/Be dull/Be boring…”) pops up. They (on one side of the glass/vinyl) seem to be laughing at you/us for making it through seven-minutes plus of the pus.

Lydon knew he wanted to annoy,” comments Trouser Press, “but was still working out the best way to do it.” I think rather, he was working out the way to say worthwhile things in the next post-Pistol context, getting used to being his own boss after savoring that fantasy. And the enclosed BBC interview with Vivien Goldman, a sometime member of the Flying Lizards, demonstrates a mind mid-concept.

Over the course of almost an hour, the man of the hour, the Rotten rotter, the villain, the criminal, the recluse, sounds spot-on persona-wise, but he also sounds confused, contrite, even tender, by turns. He says he’s drunk as he tries to weasel out of the hard questions. Goldman, for her turn, sounds funny and nervous, sometimes “dum-de-duming” along when stuck for a new question. I’m hearing at least two other people in the room, sounding amused too, but I’m not sure if we’ll ever know who they are.

The monster’s mask comes unpeeled at unpredictable moments, and that’s the best part. The laughter from his actual unposed mouth sounds out warm and regretful. Participatory. Not enough of the good stuff, but when he laughs with Vivien, he sounds connected. No cocoons. No ropes.

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