My friend Griffin invites me to see Public Image Limited – a British 80s punk band I have only recently heard about from a friend that described their recent Coachella performance as “fucking ridiculous”. Of course, I was left with no other choice but to go.
The Music Hall of Williamsburg’s grandiose title strikes me as a bit misleading. As I walked ten minutes in the wrong direction and the subsequent fifteen-minute correction, I nursed visions of a restored antique theater with walls of gold leaf and various gilding-of-the-lilies. As Griffin walks towards me, ticket in hand, I take one look at the 90s glass cubes embedded in the MHW’s walls and realize this is no Grand Ole Opry.
We walk the dark stairs lined with harsh blue fluorescents. The air is hot and music pumps into the hallway from doors on each level. When we arrive at the upper level, I check my surroundings. I feel like I’m on the set of 90210 circa 1993. The décor is so garish it doesn’t strike me as real; everything looks like a stage prop. I look around in hopes of finding Luke Perry sulking in some dark corner.
Griffin and I stand behind the DJ booth, a vantage point that offers a full view of an aging punk rock crowd – a predominately male group sporting black t-shirts and shaved heads. It takes me about thirty five seconds to realize I know this lead singer from somewhere. He turns in profile, and although gravity has dragged his face down a bit since I last some him last, it all comes flooding back: Johnny Rotten.
Johnny Rotten is a character from my MTV viewing days of yore, back when they used to run decent music videos and Kurt Loder was the pop culture voice of God. Mr. Rotten was a fixture in many infamous interviews in which he told some poor sod given the excruciating task of attempting to carry on a conversation with this notorious, hostile lunatic to “fuck off” and other such unsolicited advisories. I never really knew the music; I knew the man.
Well, it appears that Johnny hasn’t changed. After their opening song, a punk rock version of a love ballad, Johnny grabs a towel, wipes his face, and yells into the crowd something like, “If you fucking spit in my face one more fucking time I will jump into that crowd and macerate your fucking face.” Point noted.
Aging celebrities are an interesting breed. Despite our collective awareness that all humans are but mere mortals, the pedestal we’ve placed these people on is so impossibly high that we expect them to remain eternally youthful, exuberant, beautiful. We want celebrities to be everything we can’t be because they already sort of are. But no one can cheat death, not even David Bowie. Not even Johnny Rotten
Johnny wears a black ensemble six straps away from a straight jacket. His pants hang generously from hip to hemline; the billowy and forgiving nature of his outfit makes me think that he simply rolled out of his coffin this evening and went to work in his pajamas. At one point I am sure I see drawstrings indicating my hunch is correct. Johnny’s hair stands up from the top of his head like an island of blonde daggers. He looks like a Bruce Willis Chia Pet. Behind him stands his bassist, wearing a PIL shirt and a plaid kilt.
Their songs are excruciatingly long; the type of length I had previously assumed was reserved for jam bands like OAR and Phish. It feels as though each song is a journey of a band getting progressively more wasted and keeping the recorder going just because they’re too fucked up to shut it off and move on. My interest wanes after about minute 4:30 of each track, but that could just be that my limited attention span is simply a product of the ADD culture I live in. Who am I to expect variety and musical arcs in every song I listen to? Then again, nine minutes of grating baseline and lyrics about birds – a subject that Johnny Rotten seems quite fond of – is enough to rattle even the most stalwart of concertgoers.
The dance moves of Johnny Rotten are a strange combination of mummy meets monkey. He raises his arms shoulder height, creating a hunchbacked jig that reminds me of a vaguely sinister “Monster Mash.” These moves do accompany the band’s general theme: everyday is Halloween if you are dark enough to want it to be.
Johnny is like the ambassador of walking contradictions. He speaks about “our nation” as though he is American, venturing into a brief riff about Sarah Palin then moving into other political topics. In the middle of an impromptu monologue about the value of friendship, Johnny looks at the back of the room and screams, “Turn down those lights you fucking idiot.” From there, he seamlessly transitions into a dissertation on forgiveness.
Towards the end of their two-hour set, Public Image Limited gets increasingly liberal with the bass. Johnny calls out for more with the repeated demand “WaaaaaalllttttttttEERRRRR!!!! Can we have mORREE bbbbAASSSS??!!” I put my fingers in my ears and experience the strange sensation of having my heart rattle within my chest. It’s like an audio defibrillator. My spinal column hums and Griffin points at the floor at a bottle of water, its contents experiencing a similar sensation to my own, percolating with vibration to a near boil. When it all ends Griffin accurately compares the resulting body-feel to skateboarding over gravel for a couple hours.