Public Image Limited
Tuesday, May 18
Maybe, just for a second, it was hard to believe that the doughy 54-year-old on stage at Terminal 5 was once the most dangerous man in music. Ironic Jesus Christ poses, Frankenstein dancing, robot moves, double earrings, button-down shirts, and kinda-cloying anti-Palin rhetoric do not make for a convincing portrait of rebellion in 2010. But, man alive, everything you’ve ever loved about Public Image Limited’s Johnny Rotten or John Lydon or whatever he’s calling himself these days is definitely still in his voice. That venomous warble still cuts through the center of a room like a rusty knife. It gurgles and whines, it wants you to believe music is the best thing ever, it wants you to believe music is a waste of your time, it shames audience members into clapping or cheering. It’s still an unbelievable weapon, a true calling card for a man who yells “Is this life worth saving?!” on stage like Kiss would yell “cold gin!”
The two-hour(!) PiL setlist drew from pretty much every corner of the band’s existence–the punk deconstructionists of 1978’s First Issue, the dub mutants of 1979’s Metal Box, the marching band art-bullies of 1981’s The Flowers Of Romance, the college rockers of 1984’s This Is What You Want, the past-their-prime cut-out bin staples of 1989’s 9, whatever the fuck John Lydon’s 1997 solo album was. It felt less like a “reunion show”–or at least a bit less hungry for filthy lucre than the Sex Pistols reunion shows were–and more like a coming-out out party for the next incarnation of Lydon’s band. Guitarist Lu Edmonds and drummer Bruce Smith only played together on one PiL album, 1987’s Happy?, an album I only hesitate to call “forgettable” since no one has ever convinced me to actually listen to it and then forget it.
But the band proved adept at every PiL variation, attacking them all in their own weird way. “This Is Not A Love Song” was a hard-rock bruiser, “Four Enclosed Walls” featured electronics warped out into a monolithic slam, “Disappointed” was as uplifting as any Arcade Fire jam; even total non-starters like 1989’s “Warrior” were total crowd pleasers. Most notably, “Death Disco” was a full-on, updated-and-all, dance-punk party–New York loved it, what with the four sold-out LCD Soundsystem shows about to happen in the same building (and the straight line you can draw between PiL’s “Radio 4” and our own Radio 4). Even when they entered “the PiL zone,” which I assume is Lydon talk for “jamming and sometimes scatting,” they were no less than funky and joyous.
But, honestly, music is just half of the PiL show. Lydon always comes on stage begging to be quoted, and who are we to deny him? He started: “We are Public Image Limited and we don’t fuck around with phony entrances.” He does however fuck around with phony encores, $30 T-shirts, and forcing his band to play his collabo with Leftfield from the Hackers soundtrack. It was impossible (as usual) to really separate or understand Lydon’s many guises: asshole-as-punk, sweetheart-as-punk, capitalist-as-punk, asshole-as-schtick, sweetheart-as-schtick, capitalist-as-schtick, schtick-as-punk. When he smacked the professional camera obstructing the view of the audience, was he railing against our endless need to Brooklyn Veganize every event, or was he just playing the role of the famous guy who smacks cameras? Are his on-stage snot rockets utilitarian or show? Can one man really have that much snot?