HOLD ON, ITS GETTING MUCKY!
….I was settled in at the Iroquois Hotel along with Martin Atkins and the recording sessions continued sporadically, some of which were terse to say the least but we had the first gig planned for Roseland in NYC 28th September (1982) so some rehearsals were in order. We set up camp in a downtown rehearsal space and dived straight into the PiL back catalogue. It was pretty obvious that the material wasn’t going to be a challenge and Martin and I thundered through the old tunes. I was replacing Wobble and his distinctive sound but wasn’t prepared to replicate his style totally; the new material we were recording was moving in a different direction and I wanted to reflect that. Bob Miller, the sound engineer who was handling our sound live as well as in the studio, had never heard Metal Box which I found extraordinary. So he wasn’t trying to recreate the old PiL sound with loads of fat heavy bass but we did use sub bass speakers live that could be switched in and out at the appropriate points, a compromise of sorts. Anyway, I let everyone else get on with the “sound”, I just played. John had just returned from his foray into the acting world with his part in a truly awful film, “Cop Killer” (alternatively titled “Order of Death”) with Harvey Keitel for which he had been paid $10,000 so had a bit of cash to keep him happy and he was ready to wail. At this point, things were getting desperate, Virgin records had practically disowned the band by pulling the advance for a new album and we were told to deliver the album in full. In other words, pay for it yourself! The way PiL worked in the studio was guaranteed to hike the studio bill to silly levels despite Bob Tullipan securing a cheap rate as he knew Bob Kalina, the owner of Park South Studio. There was never any structure to a recording session, no completed songs to record. It was endless hours of noodling about experimenting with bits and pieces of ideas while the tape ran. Eventually, out of the chaos some sort of song would emerge. Martin and I did a couple of sessions on our own and recorded “Miller High Life” and “Solitaire” on our own. There was talk of a deal with Stiff records for distribution and publishing in the States for a new record, but someone had forgotten that there was still an agreement in place with Virgin for future releases so that idea was kicked out. You couldn’t make it up!
So it was a cursory run through of the old stuff, most of which didn’t have much verse chorus structure; you started playing something like “Death Disco” or “Careering” and kept playing until someone decided John had wailed enough lyrics… It could be 5-8 minutes depending on the mood. This way of playing was new to me but at the same time quite liberating. There was never any set list planned either, we decided on the opening number just before going on stage and the rest was sorted in between songs. Sometimes, either Martin or I would just start playing a song at random and that was that.. Chaos. But it didn’t matter, that was what PiL were, breaking the boundaries and structure. John was very clear, never judgemental. “You wear what you like, play what you like” was his mantra. He never gave comment, good or bad, on your playing. In that respect he was easy to work with, just a complete arse off stage.
One evening drinking after rehearsals at the Danceteria John and I had a chat at the bar.. Conversations with him were often stilted and awkward, not because I was in any way in awe or scared of him, it was more he had piss poor social skills and was vey wary or defensive talking to anyone. Anyway, he let his guard slip for a moment and said he was really pleased I was on board and he was glad that we were in a position to start gigging “I’m glad you’re ‘ere”….. He avoided eye contact, that was reserved for intimidation, he couldn’t look at you while saying something sincere. That actually might have been the longest conversation I had with him the entire time I was there. One time we stopped for a coffee somewhere on the road and we sat down together at a table. I said something to John, can’t remember what, but it was just small talk. “This sounds like a false conversation to me” said he. What can you say back? Resisting the urge to smack my boss in the fucking mouth, I got up and walked away. And that was often the case, you’d get some stupid inane bit of conversation from him, then he would destroy it with an even more stupid comment. John had an annoying habit of saying “Drop Dead” to anyone if they said “see ya” or “goodnight” or whatever… Yeah, funny the first time, but not every fucking time someone went off to their room. The social skills of a moron, or was he just playing the “Johnny Rotten” persona to anyone he met? Who knows? But the constant child like behaviour was bloody infuriating, as was watching people running round after him pandering to his demands.
John would keep his very close circle of friends and everyone else outside that was fair game and not worthy of much respect. His closest ally was his partner Nora who I really liked. She was the opposite to John and we had a lot of fun when she joined us on the road, completely bonkers. I could never see what she saw in him but there you go… Still together after all those years… Sort of.
Anyway, the internal dynamics weren’t my fucking issue, Martin was still a mate and ally and I thought, well, fuck the rest of you and your immature hang ups, just pay me and I’ll play. There was a lot of tension before the Roseland gig, PiL hadn’t appeared in 17 months since May the previous year at the Ritz gig where it all ended in chaos. Roseland was a sell out crowd and the place was rammed as we took our places behind the stage curtain and you could feel the anticipation from the crowd on the other side. We struck up a new song “Where are you?” (A song about Jeanette Lee who mysteriously left the PiL camp just as Kop Killer was completed shortly before I arrived) as the curtain opened and the response from the crowd was electric and they surged forward en masse. The sound was great, the reception was perfect and Lydon was at his caustic best, he turned round and looked at me through the chaos, eyes wide with a big grin on his face, he loved it. PiL were back in business.
All the bollox vanished when we were on stage, it didn’t matter a toss, the buzz you get playing a crowd like that is indescribable and I hadn’t experienced that before. I could hardly believe my eyes when I started playing the opening bars of “Public Image”, the power of 16 notes!.. A huge roar of recognition arose from the crowd and as the crowd surged forward again it was like the Anfield terraces from the seventies! The barrier at the front of stage gave way under the crush and it was unbelievable that nobody was badly hurt. I felt that tingle up the spine, hairs standing on end moment that was better than any drug and I loved it. It was easy too, the songs were piss easy to play and only a handful of songs had any structure to worry about. I could just stand there and watch Lydon play the crowd and do his stuff.
Back then, John still had charisma by the bucket load and those that came to see the Johnny Rotten Roadshow weren’t disappointed. All eyes were on John, he would bum cigarettes off the crowd, chat to the front row in between songs, stare down anyone who was giving him stick and best of all, go ape shit at anyone who spat. He had great wit, gave good verbal and was sharp as a nail when he barked his derisive comments at the crowd. It was mesmerising and I would just stare at the spectacle to which John often said “Why do you look at me funny on stage?” Well, it was fucking first class entertainment John, that’s why! It would have been easy money had I been paid. I found it hard not to laugh at it all but I kept a steely glum face… Trying to be cool, inside I was laughing my bollox off.
The next month we had 7 gigs booked, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Washington and a couple of dates in Toronto. This was hardly a punishing tour schedule and we would usually head back to New York in between dates. I thought this was madness. The cost of getting band and crew to a city, hotels, food etc for the entourage was huge, let alone the drugs bill on top. I questioned why we weren’t playing more often, we were getting something like 12-15,000 dollars a night, we should have been milking the cash cow while we could. The answer I got was from Keith; “We want every gig to be an “event” not just another gig like everyone else”. What?!!! At this point we were just like any other fucking rock band not a circus but it made no difference. The idea was to play different venues than other bands, bypassing the usual promotors and we did play some interesting smaller sell out venues. We went on playing dates here and there, recording shit in between, it was suicide financially. We played 5 dates in November, 5 in December, 1 in January, 4 in February…. Can you see the problem with that? Keith’s idea of an “event” was to put a sign at the front of the venue that said “You are now entering a Commercial Zone” another poorly executed half baked idea. Bob Tullipan was effectively managing the band and his assistant Maureen Baker was taking photos. She was constantly clicking away at gigs, backstage, wherever and in the days pre-digital. So much so that we often thought she had no film in her camera and was just posing. She ended up taking hundreds of excellent photos which I didn’t see till years later. She took some superb candid shots some of which have been used all over the world.
So there was I in amongst this maelstrom getting bits of cash here and there, just enough to get by. I was still at the Iroquois Hotel but Martin had left there to go and stay at the Loft with John. Smart move on Martin’s part, never one to miss an opportunity to leg himself up the career ladder, being 24/7 with John gave him a chance to have a position of greater influence. I didn’t think it was possible for him to get further up John’s arse than he already was but he was going to give it a go and I don’t blame him for doing that, I couldn’t do it, but hey, you gotta get on. It was the start of a split in the PiL camp; Keith was living with his girlfriend Lori Montana at her apartment on 5th Avenue. (They got married while I was there and John was best man… Strange little affair and surprise surprise, it didn’t last long.) Lori played bass for a band called Pulsallama who supported PiL in NYC.
So I was on my own at the Iroquois Hotel and by this time I had flown over my girlfriend from the UK so there were now two mouths to feed and money seemed to be getting harder and harder to get hold of. I was getting hassle from the hotel about the $2000 bill not being paid up and I kept giving excuses as their threats became more and more serious. It came to the point where the hotel were going to seal our room with all our stuff in it until the bill was paid. Like holding your belongings hostage! This meant that we could only leave the room one at a time, if we both went out, we were fucked. I had $12 in my pocket, back then worth about 6 quid and I was getting nervous! I called Keith to let him know I was walking up Shit Street and needed some cash, his reply floored me “We’re all individuals in this band. So you’ll have to sort it out” I was gobsmacked and tore into him. His suggestion, which wasn’t ideal but it got us out of a jam, was to move into his apartment. Essentially doing a runner from the hotel, so over the next couple of days, we moved most of our stuff out bit by bit down to Keith’s. So as not to arouse suspicion from the hotel it was all done in small bags a bit at a time, last thing to leave being my bass guitars. I left some clothes there, and never did get them back. The hotel bill was paid weeks later, after we’d left I believe.
So yeah, fucking great, sleeping on Keith’s pull out sofa bed. Rock ‘n’Roll. It was a small apartment at #1 5th Avenue, a swanky address, and a very nice, but very small apartment. It wasn’t ideal, but it gave me a chance to get to know Keith a bit better and we even managed to have a few laughs! Fancy that eh? Laughing. We also discussed what PiL was about and we had some very enlightening discussions over dinner. Keith said that I was very much part of PiL, not just a hired hand, just as much as anyone else, and that my contribution was just as important. I couldn’t agree with him though, I maintained that PiL was really about him and John, it was the chemistry between the two of them that was in essence, the heart of the band. Anyone else was just making up the numbers and basically session musicians. We debated that point for some time without resolution but at least we understood each other a bit better. His wife Lori put things into a different context though; she said that the problem with the band was that John was gay and in love with Keith and it was his jealousy that was causing all the problems. Well, that was news to me! But keith seemed to be buying it, or at least, didn’t counter a different argument. Personally, I cared not a jot if John was gay, still don’t. It was said by some that his relationship with Nora was just a front, a sham, to give a respectable gloss to the Rotten persona.. I had no idea what was truth or fiction from one day to the next, pure pantomime and it was all starting to stink like a rotten fish.
During my time at Keith’s, I could tell he was having trouble with some of his demons, I would often hear him sobbing at night behind closed doors, he was having a real internal battle but never confided to me in any detail, he had his wife to cry on. There was a lot of drug use going on, it seemed that we were all doing something and I was no exception. I hated taking anything while playing, as I’ve said, it makes your playing really shit. Others weren’t so fussy, sometimes I wouldn’t understand what anyone was saying, they were so out of it, serious stuff. Anyway, we stayed at Keith’s for a few weeks until we moved uptown to stay with one of the road crew, again, not ideal but we had our own bedroom and it was better better than being crammed in with Keith. It was over run with cockroaches, like a lot of Manhatten, just another piece of shit to put up with. Playing live whilst off your head wasn’t a problem for some. Martin and I would get wrecked after the show. The nature of the songs having little structure meant that Keith could play his guitar parts over the solid back beat without worrying too much what he was playing. He just mostly had to generate noise and this would vary night to night depending how out of it he was.
The sporadic nature of the gigs continued. As did sporadic payments of cash, not nearly enough as I deserved. PiL had original wanted Bill Laswell to fill the bass slot but couldn’t afford him! So I guess I was the cheaper option. The constant chasing for scraps of money here and there was really pissing me off. We played further dates in L.A. San Fran, Seattle, Atlanta and more dates round the Eastern seaboard. In-between the PiL dates we managed to squeeze in a few Brian Brain dates. There was some talk about Brian Brain supporting PiL but thankfully, that idea was quickly scuppered. It was during these dates that I decided to quit Brian Brain. We were playing at the City Gardens in Trenton and halfway through the gig I was suddenly hit by an immense feeling that what we were doing live was an absolute pile of fucking shit. It hit me like being hit with a lump of wood round the back of the head, but before that I had been relatively happy playing with Martin and Bobby. But I was now embarrassed to be on stage performing those shitty songs with Martin rolling about like an idiot, I felt ashamed and couldn’t wait to get off stage. I told Martin later that I’d had enough and I think he had sensed that I wasn’t into it any more and I left the band with no malice. We had a good run with Brian Brain and three trips round the States was a fucking hoot, all silly madness, fuelled by drunkeness and fun. For that I am eternally grateful to Martin for making it happen. I never really did appreciate that fully at the time. Brian brain continued in my absence with Margot Olavrria taking over bass duties. She had been an original member of The go-Go’s and was living with my old school pal from the UK Geoff Smyth. He joined at the same time as second guitarist.
So I just had to concentrate on PiL, we had a few more dates booked in the States and we were starting to talk about going to Japan. Now that was something I was looking forward to! I had always dreamt of playing there, seeing a different culture, what an opportunity. I was prepared to continue to put up with the shit for the opportunity. The internal politics were still crap, the Levene/Lydon division was getting worse, Martin was piggy in the middle. All I wanted to do was play, the hour on stage was a respite from all the other shit going down and they were always good gigs. Unlike the Brian Brain shows, there was always guaranteed a crowd, it was always interesting and despite the lack of structure, always enjoyable. Off stage it was a different matter and I soon realised that despite the lure of going to Japan, the politics and inner wranglings were going to come to a head and it was all going to end in tears……
To be continued
Copyright Control Pete Jones J.A.M. UK 2015
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