#41: The Sex Pistols, "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols" (1977)

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The Sex Pistols changed my life.

It happened to me.

Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am. Or who I am. Getting into punk rock made my world different.

You probably know someone who feels the same. Who has said the same thing.

I’ve heard it so many times that I have to wonder:

Am I a cliché?

*

Here’s an origin story:

*

I bought Never Mind The Bollocks on a Saturday afternoon while my mom did errands in downtown Concord. We went home before 4:30 mass so my mom could take a shower and change clothes. Before we left I had enough time to listen to the beginning of the tape and was completely shocked by what I heard: the music was primitive and the guy who was singing was awful. He couldn’t keep a tune or hold a note.

But I was captivated.

We went to church and I sat through mass trying to imagine what the guy looked like, what he was so angry about. How he could sing in a band even though he wasn’t a good singer. I was pretty sure his name was Sid.

If this guy could do it, than anyone could.

*

I learned to play a little guitar in college and was That Guy. Seriously, I was the worst: any time a guitar was handy I’d pick it up and regale whoever was around with renditions of Pavement and Bad Religion songs.

I’d play coffeehouses around campus.

I’d sit outside and play in the middle of the quad.

I always wanted to put a band together, but I didn’t know how to do it.

I told myself I couldn’t, because I didn’t have any gear except for an acoustic guitar.

I got to a certain point and stopped playing. I was bored with it.

I wasn’t any good, I told myself.

*

I managed to get into grad school and moved to Maine in 2008.

My first book had come out a few years earlier. I was hoping classes would propel me to finishing my first novel.

I saved afternoons for drumming. I put on headphones and went down to the basement to bash away at Zeppelin songs on my hand-me-down drums.

Six months later I had the hang of it enough to play once a week with one of the five other grad students in my tiny office. We had a great time covering Devo and the Damned and the Replacements and drinking domestic macros even if I could only really play one or two beats with any degree of competence. The proficiency wasn’t the point.

*

The guy I played covers with graduated.

The second year started. The final year. My girlfriend Bec and I went to the grad student party and we met the new crew. A guy with curly hair and glasses from Virginia said he wanted to play banjo in a band that covered the Velvet Underground.

Well, I said, I play drums.

*

This one woman had been in a summer course with me and Bec. The notes she took in the novels we read were like indices—mention a theme or symbol and she’d flip to the formerly blank few pages at the front, which she’d annotated by hand as she went. Amazing.

Later that summer Bec and I were walking on campus and bumped into the thorough gal from class. She was on a bike, and had a toddler in the backseat. Her daughter, who she introduced.

A few days after the party with the banjo guy I saw the thorough girl on my walk home. She was hanging out in a neighbor’s driveway. We got to talking. She said she played guitar. I invited her over to my garage.

Then I got in touch with the banjo player.

*

When I moved to Maine for grad school I had hoped the drums would give me just such an opportunity as this: I wanted to get a bunch of like-minded people together to hang out and play music. While in Boston I had been so jealous of my friends, who played in varying constellations of bands with each other, going on tour, coming back from the practice space speaking dialects of in-jokes that were simultaneously indecipherable and the coolest thing I had ever heard. While my friends created something together I sat in my room and worked by myself.

The little bit of guitar I knew wasn’t enough to get anything going. Drummers were in short supply. I thought I’d teach myself to play and reap the benefits of being in demand.

And it was happening!

*

Bec dug her old saxophone out of storage around the same time that the California surfer dude in the new cohort nominated himself the bass player. And thank goodness—the rest of us had no idea what we were doing. California had played in bands before, and acted as translator as much as bass player: he could decipher and communicate what any member of the band thought was a part and how many times said part should be repeated to constitute a verse, a chorus.

*

Man, were Fridays great. We’d all converge in the garage and play for hours, bashing out “No Fun” for forty-five minutes at a time. It’s a Stooges song, sure, but I heard the Sex Pistols do it first. (Sorry, Ig.)

We tried to remember what we’d played the previous week, jammed to come up with new ideas. Our friend’s daughter ran around, enormous protective earphones enveloping her tiny head. When the weather got cold we moved to the basement.

We started writing songs.

The first few were incredibly rudimentary.

So were the last batch, but by then we started to have a sense of when to ease up, when to go harder. Not just in terms of dynamics, but arrangements: half the band dropped out to let the other half have some. We didn’t totally suck at the end of our nine months.

*

The truth is I hadn’t been confident enough to be in a band. I only had a little skill on guitar compared to my friends—but that’s the problem.

Compared to my friends.

By comparing, I was putting myself out of the running.

Maybe on purpose.

*

During all this I managed the college radio station. I had no experience, but I acted the part and was hired. Funny about this.

I got into the habit of throwing Hail Marys to bands whose music I liked: hey, I’d say via email, let me know if you ever want to play way up in Maine.

I contacted Coastwest Unrest in part because they namechecked the Minutemen in a song. Unlike most bands, they wrote back, and asked if I could book something for them at the end of April.

Sure, I said.

I had booked what, two shows as an undergrad?

Barely anything.

But I mentioned Coastwest at a staff meeting and everyone was like cool, we like that band, and assumed I knew what I was doing.

So I acted like it was no big deal. Even though I was petrified.

And I put my own band on the bill and suddenly we had a deadline.

And needed a singer.

*

When I wrote my first book, I had all the interviews sitting in my little recorder, waiting to be transcribed, for more than a month. Every day I would think about sitting down and getting everything typed up and something inside my head prevented me from starting. Because once I started I’d have to finish—or not finish.

Maybe my book wouldn’t measure up to my favorites. To others.

Choosing not to choose was way easier.

And once the book was complete, I sent email after email trying to find readings, trying to set up a tour.

Because I had a reason to get out there, for the first time.

And I didn’t know any other writers who toured. I had no one to compare myself to.

The rejections and indifference didn’t bother me. I kept at it until I had a slate of readings—a tiny slate, but something.

Then I booked West Coast stuff after that.

*

Bec shared an office with one of the other fiction writers in the cohort. We knew she recorded her own stuff at home. I played some of it on the radio station. It was awesome.

We asked her to be the singer, and she agreed.

Everyone in the band wrote lyrics to a song or two, we practiced, did doubles as the show approached, and got better.

*

I don’t remember much of our first show, honestly, save for being so hyped that I drummed faster than usual, with the rest of the band, similarly afflicted, keeping up. We set up at the VFW hall, soundchecked, talked to friends who had come specifically to see us.

We played first, opening for Coastwest and another, bigger touring band. I grinned a little when the crowd thinned after our set. Our grad student homies represented.

Then there was the afterparty.

After all, our band had played a show.

We all wanted to do something, so we put in the time and did it.

I managed to get over myself, to stop listening to the voices I’d invent in my head to keep me from doing things I wanted to do.

I’m not sure why I told myself I couldn’t do things.

Maybe because I was bullied.

Maybe so I wouldn’t have to try.

To measure.

*

If this was a movie, there might be some kind of “where are they now?” or postscript.

There’s the triumphant moment, Rudy being hoisted up on shoulders or whatever, and the credits roll and hearts warm and that’s that.

Except it isn’t.

The next thing is never shown.

But life isn’t like that. You know this. Things begin; things end. The trick is starting new things.

Sometimes there’s no next thing.

*

After that VFW gig, we played a talent show, a release party for a professor’s novel, and me and Bec’s rehearsal dinner, in the garage. Then we moved to Western Mass so Bec could continue grad school.

*

We still see some of the Maine gang. Not as often as we’d like. That’s the way, isn’t it?

Out of everyone, we see our guitar player and her daughter the most.

Sometimes they come down for New Year’s Eve.

As 2017 turned into 2018, our friend’s daughter, age now in double digits, asked me if I knew anything about heavy metal.

I smiled and nodded. Do you know what kind?

Old stuff, she said.

Sure. Like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest?

She shook her head.

Some kids in school are talking about this band. The Sex Pistols. Do you know them?

First I thought I have been waiting my whole life to tell someone about the Sex Pistols.

Then I thought it’s going to be easy to overdo it.

They were my first favorite band, I said, thinking of all the books I collected on them as a teenager, all the times I’d watched the Grundy interview, the Winterland implosion that was “No Fun.” How, when some kid I didn’t know was giving me shit, I’d think of Johnny Rotten and his utter fearlessness. He was beyond compare.

She said what do they sound like?

And for the rest of the weekend, whenever we all went to a place with a jukebox, she’d ask me for money and I’d give it to her so she could first play her dad’s favorite song, a ballad by George Jones which would get everyone in the place nodding their teary approval.

Then “God Save The Queen” and “Anarchy In The U.K.” and “Holidays In the Sun” and the approval visibly turned to disgust and we all cracked up. “Pretty Vacant,” where Johnny Rotten yells “AND WE DON’T CARE.”

*

I didn’t say it was my origin story.

I said it was an origin story.

There are so many beginnings.

Maybe I’m making too much of it. Being presumptuous. Maybe it’s nothing.

But it’s nice to think there’s something more when the story ends.

That the tales change even if the structures are the same. Because everyone has a telling that’s different. That recursion and cliché aren’t the same.

That the storyline keeps unfolding even after the credits have rolled.

There’s no need to compare.

—Michael T. Fournier