Life as a Sex Pis­tol: Crim­i­nally rau­cous riffs

Steve Jones sheds light on his days and daze in the no­to­ri­ous Bri­tish punk band

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY MARK JENK­INS book­world@wash­post.com Mark Jenk­ins is the co-au­thor of “Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Na­tion’s Cap­i­tal.”

Be­fore the Sex Pis­tols be­gan the 1978 U.S. tour that would end with their messy split, they had to can­cel the first four sched­uled shows — in­clud­ing one at the Alexan­dria, Va., Roller Rink. Two mem­bers of the band, it turned out, were too dis­rep­utable to get visas au­to­mat­i­cally. They weren’t the ones who called them­selves Sid Vi­cious and Johnny Rot­ten, but rather the group’s reg­u­lar guys, Steve Jones and Paul Cook.

Now Jones has writ­ten his mem­oir, and it fully ex­plains the U.S. visa of­fice’s re­luc­tance. The gui­tarist had been ar­rested 13 times, he ac­knowl­edges in “Lonely Boy.” Al­though he doesn’t list each charge, he does re­call plenty of in­frac­tions. These in­clude drunken driv­ing and drug pos­ses­sion, but Jones’s real pas­sions were shoplift­ing, bur­glary and car theft.

The Sex Pis­tols, who ini­tially ex­isted just from 1975 to 1978, were of­ten por­trayed as prod­ucts of Lon­don’s most hope­less precincts. In fact, John “Rot­ten” Ly­don and orig­i­nal bassist Glen Mat­lock were mid­dle-class, as was Mat­lock’s self-de­struc­tive re­place­ment, John “Sid Vi­cious” Ritchie. Only Jones and Cook, child­hood friends, grew up on the fringe of poverty. And of those two, Jones had by far the lousier time.

Born in 1955 to a sin­gle mother, Jones didn’t meet his bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther un­til he was in his 50s. Even­tu­ally, the boy ac­quired a step­fa­ther, one of sev­eral men, Jones al­leges, who sex­u­ally abused him. Af­ter that, the kid found lots of ex­cuses not to be at home. He re­mem­bers that he even pre­ferred re­form school to his fam­ily’s Lon­don apart­ment.

Jones wasn’t good at school­work, due to “be­ing dyslexic and/ or hav­ing ADHD.” He also never wanted to have a reg­u­lar job (and ba­si­cally never has). Yet lar­ceny wasn’t sim­ply a way to sur­vive. It was a psy­cho­sex­ual thrill, a feel­ing he traces to watch­ing his mother loot a lin­gerie shop when he was a young boy.

There’s an­other poignant as­pect of the au­thor’s early life of crime. Jones loved rock mu­sic, and he achieved a sort of in­ti­macy with its stars by swip­ing their gear: Keith Richards, David Bowie and Mott the Hoople were just a few of his vic­tims. It’s long been part of Pis­tols lore that Jones out­fit­ted the band with his heists. What wasn’t so clear be­fore this book is that the wannabe mu­si­cian was, in part, try­ing to steal his way into his heroes’ lives (if not their hearts).

Most of the rev­e­la­tions in “Lonely Boy” are in its first third. This chron­i­cles the pe­riod be­fore “Ku­tie Jones and His Sex Pis­tols” — a phrase on a T-shirt for sale at a shop then called Sex — be­came an ac­tual band whose front­man was Ly­don, not Jones. But there are pun­gent anec­dotes through­out the book, even in the parts when Jones be­comes, de­press­ingly, a junkie, and then, more de­press­ingly, an L.A. self-help prac­ti­tioner into tran­scen­den­tal med­i­ta­tion and spin­ning.

If Jones has now achieved a cer­tain seren­ity, he makes it sound as if he’s al­ways ac­cepted the universe and his place in it, how­ever crummy. He faults plenty of peo­ple but is just as hard on him­self, es­pe­cially for his un­feel­ing treat­ment of women. Jones doesn’t in­dulge much self-jus­ti­fy­ing in “Lonely Boy,” and when he does, he’s usu­ally quick to ad­mit it. Ly­don, though, doesn’t come off well, but the specifics of Jones’s ac­count aren’t that dif­fer­ent from those in the singer’s 2014 mem­oir, “Anger Is an En­ergy.”

While Jones did even­tu­ally be­come lit­er­ate, “Lonely Boy” reads as if it was dic­tated and then sculpted by co-writer Ben Thomp­son. Still, the con­ver­sa­tional prose would have ben­e­fited from be­ing pruned of cliches. Clearly in­tended for a Bri­tish au­di­ence, the book doesn’t trans­late its more ob­scure Bri­tishisms, but most of the lan­guage can be de­coded from con­text. (What does “he’s brown bread now” mean? Well, “bread” doesn’t rhyme with “alive.”)

“Lonely Boy” is un­likely to charm peo­ple with­out any af­fec­tion for the strange and some­times ugly out­burst that was Bri­tish punk rock. Still, it’s dis­tin­guished by Jones’s sense of hu­mor, his way with self­dep­re­cat­ing anec­dotes and a can­dor that’s as brac­ing as the open­ing riff of the Pis­tols’s “God Save the Queen.” As he dead­pans af­ter one bawdy con­fes­sion, “This is the good stuff you just don’t get from the guy from Nick­el­back.” In his new mem­oir, “Lonely Boy,” Sex Pis­tols gui­tarist Steve Jones re­counts his sad child­hood and, with­out much glo­ri­fi­ca­tion, his law-flout­ing young adult­hood.

ROBERT MATHEU

LONELY BOY Tales of a Sex Pis­tol By Steve Jones Da Capo. 344 pp. $26.99

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