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The Price of Infamy

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John Lydon
on the Late Late Show With Tom Snyder, May 23

Last Friday, nearly 17 years after their notorious face-off on NBC's Tomorrow Show, John Lydon sat down for his second interview with Tom Snyder. Back in 1980 Lydon, still acting relatively Rotten, cadged cigarettes off Snyder, ignored his questions, and muttered snide remarks to no one in particular as the garrulous talk-show host grew more and more furious. According to Rolling Stone, the two cursed at each other during the commercial break, and after the segment Snyder told Lydon, "It's unfortunate that we are all out of step but you." The rematch was a guaranteed letdown, but in a way it was an appropriate coda to the Sex Pistols' tired reunion tour and live album: during their original reign of terror, the Pistols' music was always overshadowed by their exploitation of and by the media, particularly television.

Lydon's return must have been a bitter pill for Snyder to swallow, but he can no longer dismiss lightly the chance to drum up a decent audience. Since David Letterman brought him back to late-night TV in 1995, Snyder's one-on-one interview show on CBS has chronically lagged behind Conan O'Brien's collegiate antics on NBC. Snyder's old Tomorrow Show often featured politicians, authors, and other serious-minded folk (and to his credit had a strong record of booking weird and obscure bands that typically got to play two full songs), but his Late Late Show has been one excruciatingly long celebrity suck-up after another. Cast into a ratings war quite unlike anything he'd ever had to worry about in the 70s, he's clumsily navigated a middle ground between the supermodel chitchat of O'Brien, Leno, and Letterman and the more substantive fare on PBS's Charlie Rose. As a result Snyder practices the lively art of conversation with people who have little to say: movie stars, TV personalities, and other familiar faces whose only area of expertise is themselves.

Of course the 90s haven't been particularly kind to Lydon either. His post-Pistols project, Public Image Ltd. (PiL), sputtered to a halt in 1992, and two years later, at the ripe old age of 38, he published his memoirs. The Pistols' reunion was denounced as a crass abnegation of everything they'd accomplished in the first place; Lydon's assertion that he wanted to explode their myth didn't square with--or ring as true as--his flip aside about the band returning to swindle us once again. Now Lydon is trying to jump-start his career with a long-promised solo album, Psycho's Path, so what better way to promote it than to revisit one of his more celebrated acts of bad behavior? Lydon has always had more fame than fortune, and he's seen no reason not to spend it.

TV Guide once listed the original noninterview among the ten greatest rock 'n' roll moments in television history--a fact Snyder mentioned proudly in his opening segment, choosing to ignore that he'd been the butt of the joke. But any expectations of another white-knuckle confrontation Friday were quickly dispelled when Snyder apologized to Lydon for anything he might have done to offend him on June 27, 1980. Lydon, who'd been giggling a moment earlier, shrugged it off: "No, it's all right. I mean, it's just entertainment, isn't it?"

Under the circumstances, the only way Lydon could have scored any points over Snyder would've been to smile, comport himself like a gentleman, answer Snyder's questions--and still manage to scare the hell out of him. All of which he did: even in his crabbed, domesticated adulthood Lydon has the white-hot glare of a lunatic, and as Snyder shifted from Lydon's public hell-raising to his wretched childhood, the giggles evaporated. By the end of the interview Lydon was answering through gritted teeth, and Snyder was handling him with kid gloves. But the obligatory handshake and Lydon's genial parting wish, "May the road rise" (a tip of the hat to both his Irish heritage and PiL's big radio hit, "Rise"), revealed any tension between the two strictly as--you guessed it--entertainment.

Live television draws its energy from the danger that things might get ugly, that the carefully constructed facade of a "program" might be torn asunder by uncontrollable events or personalities--in effect, that something "real" might happen. The Sex Pistols' conniving manager, Malcolm McLaren, knew this well, and in 1976 the band earned overnight notoriety in Britain when Lydon and guitarist Steve Jones began tossing around four-letter words on a BBC chat show. The novelty of a pop star who might not use his fame responsibly was irresistible to the media, and news coverage of the Pistols appeared on American television well before their music found its way onto the radio. On Friday, Snyder asked Lydon about PiL's 1980 performance on American Bandstand, during which he began shoving members of the audience. "I forgot the words to the song, and I was miming really badly, so I had to act quick, and did," Lydon recalled. "Perfect! And created brilliant TV. Which is what it's all about, ultimately."

More recently artists like Sinead O'Connor and Rage Against the Machine have tried to subvert the Man through the time-honored tradition of pulling a fast one on Saturday Night Live. But Lydon's callow assessment of his own actions puts him in a class with the sleaze merchants who've turned the airwaves into a circus. Since Lydon last sat with Snyder we've been served a rich and nauseating diet of real drug busts, real animal attacks, and real white supremacists throwing chairs at Geraldo Rivera, none of which has added any real meaning to our lives. How could Snyder and Lydon's little nostalgia trip be anything but a disappointment when the white-knuckle moment has become a glibly choreographed staple of the medium?

After years of exploiting his notoriety and cagily allowing others to do the same, Lydon has paid a price as well. When Snyder asked him what he liked about southern California, Lydon replied, "That I can just be myself. I'm not pestered and bothered when I walk around the streets. People just tend to leave you alone. I think they're worn out with fame, and that's perfect for me. And I'm not infamous here like I am in Britain, so there's less violence involved in that." He may have been referring to the beatings he endured after the Pistols sabotaged the queen's silver jubilee in 1977; on one occasion he was attacked by a pack of knife-wielding right-wingers who managed to sever a tendon in his left hand. Later, after the Pistols had broken up and Lydon and McLaren were at each other's throats, McLaren facetiously dramatized the beating for his Sex Pistols film, The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle. Fame, like any weapon, is useless once someone's turned it against you.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): TV image photo by Steven D. Arazmus.

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