mixed messages
revisit: smiles of a summer night (ingmar bergman, 1955)

charles m. young, 1951-2014

I’ve often told the story of hearing the Sex Pistols for the first time at Rather Ripped Records and becoming an instant punk fan. (That’s the appropriate term, “punk fan”, since I wasn’t a punk, just a wannabe.) I had heard about the band, but I guess I hadn’t heard the band, which is why that day at Rather Ripped stood out for me.

I don’t recall the chronology, and I wouldn’t trust my memory even if I did have that kind of recall. But in those days, I was a subscriber to Rolling Stone … I think it was the only subscription I had … and their October 20, 1977 issue had Johnny Rotten on the cover. Inside was a piece by Charles M. Young that started by quoting the Book of Isaiah and closed with a shout out to Robert Frost. Young did such a great job of describing London and the Sex Pistols in 1977 that I absolutely had to see the band when they toured America. That concert, the last the band ever played with Sid Vicious, came on January 14, 1978.

The body of the story includes interviews with Johnny and Sid that humanize them in ways you don’t usually see (this is especially true in the case of Sid). Cameos are made by Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert, who were working on a Sex Pistols movie at the time (Who Killed Bambi? never came close to being completed). Elvis dies while Young in covering the band, which leads to this exchange between Young and Rotten (it makes more sense in the context of the article as a whole):

"You got any comment for the world on the death of Elvis?"

"Fuckin' good riddance to bad rubbish," he snarls. "I don't give a fuckin' shit, and nobody else does either. It's just fun to fake sympathy, that's all they're doin'."

"Is it true you used to tell people you had to cut off your piles with a razor blade?"

The biggest impression on my malleable mind (I was 24, our son had just turned two and my wife was pregnant with our daughter, who would be born the day after the Sex Pistols concert) came from Young’s description of a Pistols concert (they played under the pseudonym The Spots, because they were banned from most places).

At midnight, the Sex Pistols finally emerge from the dressing room. The crush around the foot-high stage is literally unbelievable and skirmishes with the security men immediately erupt. The ten-foot stacks of PA speakers are rocking back and forth and are dangerously close to toppling over. …

Some kid has put his fist through one of the speakers and a few more have escaped the security men to stomp on wires and knock over electronic equipment. The song is barely intelligible over the explosions and spitting noises from shorts, just the way anarchy ought to sound. The crowd pogos frantically. … Sid Vicious' bass playing is highly energetic and completely without subtlety. He's been up for two days prior to the gig and, hilariously, looks like he's trying to cop some zzz's between licks. Still clad in his swastika T-shirt, Rotten is perhaps the most captivating performer I've ever seen. He really doesn't do that much besides snarl and be hunch-backed; it's the eyes that kill you. They don't pierce, they bludgeon. …

Several burly roadies join the security men to form a solid wall in front of the band. Rotten is completely hidden from view, so he climbs on top of a monitor and grabs the mike in one hand and the ceiling with the other for balance. Someone in the balcony pours beer on him. …

Grasping a profusely bleeding nose, a kid collapses at my feet. Another pogos with his pants down. The "God Save the Queen" chorus – "No future, no future, no future for you" – sparks a similar explosion and closes the set. "No Fun" is the encore and, true to its title, blows out the entire PA.

The Sex Pistols, and Young’s description of them, made it seem like the world was changed forever. Such was the year 1977.

On Tuesday, Charles M. Young died of cancer.