There was a young man, maybe 14 years old, in the balcony during Public Image Ltd.’s show at the 9:30 Club on Monday night. His dad stood next to him, occasionally leaning down to whisper something in the boy’s ear, which the young man either didn’t hear or simply wasn’t interested in. You can imagine what dad might have been telling him as they watched John Lydon yell, bark, and scream throughout PiL’s 15-song set. This dad likely talked about Lydon the same way other fathers talked about Michael Jordan when taking their kids to see him play in his single long-past-his-prime season as a Washington Wizard. “He’s one of the greatest ever,” dad probably said. “No one has ever done it quite like he did.” Maybe they watched old Sex Pistols videos on YouTube before the show, which got the kid ready for the crazed spectacle that Johnny Rotten once was.
And then Lydon came out. He’s now 56 years old, 25 to 30 pounds heavier, and most of his movement involved either walking to the drum riser to gargle and spit Maker’s Mark or raise a finger to one nostril and blow snot on the stage (hard to tell if this was for health reasons, or just to be “punk.”) Johnny Rotten, as one fan noted, “has become an old man.”
But much like Jordan occasionally showed stunning flashes of his old self as a Wizard, so too did Lydon frequently make you forget his age. For one thing – maybe it’s the whiskey – his voice is as strong and clean as it ever was. He wields it as well as his band wields their instruments, and while he occasionally had to steal a glance at the lyric sheet in front of him, he was not the least bit hesitant to belt out the words. And he’s still got attitude to spare. “Good evening boys and girls,” he said in his glorious cockney upon taking the stage. “Welcome to PiL. You don’t have to listen to no politicians this evening.” With that, the band launched into “This Is Not A Lovesong,” and the crowd entered “the PiL Zone.”
The set list ran the gamut of PiL’s material, from four songs off this year’s This is PiL to “Religion” from their 1978 debut First Issue (though it ignored 1992’s disappointing That What Is Not, but then, so did fans.) For the most part the band shied away from “hits,” focusing more on material that centered on consistent, thumping baselines, blazing guitar work, and Lydon’s voice. “Albatross,” from PiL’s 1979 masterpiece Metal Box, sounded more like Big Black than any sort of dub reggae. “Flowers of Romance” became an extended noise exercise with multitalented guitarist Lu Edmonds (looking disturbingly like Old Man Marley from Home Alone) forgoing the guitar for a Turkish instrument called a cumbus (think of a tiny banjo), which he played with a violin bow. Lydon alternately howled like a wolf and growled like Tom Waits throughout the song. By the time they got to “U.S.L.S. 1” (pronounced “useless one,” which may catch on as text-speak) it began to seem as if half their set was simply lengthy sonic experiments.
They made up for the extended jams with concise, fantastic versions of some of their “hits.” “Disappointed,” from 1989’s 9, already a great pop song, was given some extra jump. “Warrior” got the crowd marching in place, though it seemed Lydon missed an opportunity to make a Columbus Day speech. “Death Disco” incorporates the main riff from “Swan Lake” and was wonderfully eerie. And “Rise,” the second of the three songs played during the encore, got a night’s biggest rise (if you will) from the crowd and had them chanting “anger is an energy” right along with Lydon.
Even though he looks his age, John Lydon and the current incarnation of PiL still sound great. “I reckon there’s another 50 years left in this old cunt,” Lydon sneered at one point. If he keeps rocking out at this level, let’s hope that’s true.