|John Lydon and PiL telling it like it is.|
"An Evening with Public Image Ltd."
PlayStation Theater, Times Square, New York
(Review by Steve Shafer)
Following the barbaric terrorist attacks on Paris just a few days earlier, it was probably prudent that the heavy security measures one had to go through in order to enter the Public Image Ltd. show had been enacted. Every concertgoer received 1) a full-body pat down, 2) had a metal detector run over their arms, legs, and torso, and 3) their bags, if any, were thoroughly searched (afterwards, I felt like I should have been locating my departure gate). But waiting that night on the long line to enter the venue with all of the graying and stout forty- and fifty-something PiL fans (and a smattering of young punks!)--with all of the Times Square tourists swirling around us (who had no idea who PiL were when they asked what we were queued up for)--and then going through the airport-style security, it all felt somewhat absurd and surreal, like we had lost our bearings (fear of possible attack wasn't usually part of the equation). We were gathered there for the music, perhaps a message, and certainly for a bit a fun with our friends (as were our compatriots at the Bataclan...). It never crossed my mind not to go see PiL, but the mass murder in Paris had imposed new meaning on attending their show that night. Yet, I doubt that it was anyone's primary intention for it to be an act of defiance (though, more on that later).
Did some of us feel guilt or shame to be participating in the same, seemingly innocent type of event that resulted in so many people being killed? Perhaps. (Guilt washed over me while I was waiting on line, watching the Times Square news ticker displaying the latest, horrific updates from Paris...) I suppose the indiscriminate slaughter of music fans and cafe-goers was meant to cow all of us in Europe and America into giving up the pleasure of going out with friends to a gig or for a drink and a bite to eat--the fun stuff that unites us and strengthens our bonds with each other. So, the only rational response for the average person living in a free society is to keep on doing these things--to ensure that they continue to be possible, even in uncertain times. And that's just what we all did, consciously or not.
The PlayStation Theater is in the sub-basement of an ugly, behemoth of an office building, which houses MTV and Viacom (and explained the music industry-types I encountered at the bar). When I descended the long staircase and entered the actual concert hall (which was comprised of two open, dance floor levels and a balcony with theater seating), it dawned on me that I'd been in this venue once before, when it was the former Loews Astor movie theater. The last time I had been there was in 1977, when I was eleven, to see "Star Wars" for the first time (shown on a 70mm print!). Mind blown, then and now.
There was no opening act for PiL, but plenty of fantastic dub reggae pumping out of the PA, no doubt selected by John Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten), who's been a huge, very knowledgeable reggae fan since his teens. The 2,100-capacity theater was nearly full when Lydon and his PiL bandmates--Lu Edmonds (Mekons, Damned) on guitar, Scott Firth (Elvis Costello, The Spice Girls!) on bass, and Bruce Smith (Pop Group, Slits) on drums--hit the stage for two hours of completely blistering and mesmerizing post-punk/dance-rock. To be honest, I never expected it to have been this good.
Ever the sharp provocateur, Lydon--at almost 60 (!)--gave one of the most animated, funny, engaging, and compelling performances I've ever seen. Not one moment was phoned in; he gave it his all throughout the entire set, like it was the only gig that would ever matter (how exactly can his voice survive night after night of this?!). Madly gesturing, mugging, and making eye contact with seemingly everyone in the crowd, Lydon caterwauled, bellowed, spit out, and sang (as only he does) gleefully defiant songs challenging convention, power, and authority (more on that later), on tracks ranging from PiL's first single in 1978 ("Public Image") through key selections from their new 2015 album, What the World Needs Now... (released on their own PiL label). And it seemed like every song was presented in its expansive 12 inch version, long enough for us to fully inhabit it--to become transfixed by the rhythm section's Rock of Gibraltar-solid grooves and Edmonds' slashes of (what else?) angular post-punk guitar, so Lydon could have all the time he needed to convey his voluminous thoughts on a particular subject. ("Religion" must have been about 10 or 12 minutes long--I watched the first five minutes, then went off to empty my bladder, and returned in time for the last few minutes of the song and its theatrics: The very Jesus-like Edmonds was presented as the Son of God, while Firth played the Devil.)
Fairly early in the set, during a fantastic rendition of "This is Not Love Song," Lydon bitingly (and somewhat outrageously) commented (to loud cheers), "Sommme people cancel concerts--weeee never cancel concerts!" It was a cheeky piss-take on U2 and their cancelled Paris show, diminished a bit by the relative safety of our perch, way over on this side of the Atlantic. Nonetheless, it endeared PiL to the fans and was an acknowledgement of the unusual context of the evening (plus, it a was a tweak of Bono's nose!).
Almost half of their 15-song set was filled with new tracks from What the World Needs Now...--and in their live permutations, they fit in seamlessly with much of PiL's older hits. I particularly liked "Double Trouble," "Bettie Page" (about our repressed, but sex-obsessed American society), "Corporate," and a positively menacing "Shoom" (which was so much better realized live than on its recording). Of the tracks they performed from PiL's back catalogue, "The Body" (1987) was the ferocious highlight of the bunch, with the crowd singing along with the backing vocals, as Lydon wailed above us. (I've always thought "The Body" to be one of PiL's most perfect/catchy post-punk dance songs, one that recognizes society's oftentimes predatory sexual pursuit of women, but advocates responsibility--parents must raise children who will grow up to be good, decent human beings, which includes teaching them to use birth control--shades of "Too Much Too Young"--to avoid unwanted pregnancies and abortions!).
In particular, organized religion and tech/social media companies came under searing attack. The best line in "Religion" was, "Why should I call you father? You're not my Daddy!" And before "Corporate" began, Lydon sincerely (!) implored us to remember that, "Weeee are the one, all of us!" (as he pointed around the room in an inclusive, circular motion)--before ranting about how all of our devices and social media have effectively killed off ("Murderer!") real human relationships/interaction (and our capacity for empathy) and replaced communities with sham connections that serve to separate/divide us and bring out our very worst instincts ("Not global villages/But one globe/Not itty bitty little villages/of pity and learning how to/survive in the 21st century/And looking at World War III/Because all humans seem to hate humanity"). Indeed, the message between the lines this evening was that institutions are suspect, but that we do belong to--and have a responsibility for--each other (in the recent Vive Le Rock #30, Lydon states, "I like the idea of a caring society. Guess what? I became an American citizen because of Obama; he promised Obamacare and delivered on it.").
The final track before the encore was "Shoom," with its chorus of, "What the world needs now is...Fuck off!" and a fantastic, pulsing bass line (the chorus of the song is, presumably, a take on the 1965 Hal David/Burt Bacharach pop song "What the World Needs Now is Love," which was a hit for Jackie DeShannon that same year). It took us all a little while to catch on that Lydon wanted us to do the "Fuck off" part of the chorus, when he dangled the microphone and stand over the audience, like a mad boom operator. Eventually, we got it and heartily shouted our expletives (in a song chock full of them!). Lydon doesn't presume to have the answers to the host of global and personal problems that we're all facing. He most certainly thinks you should think up your own solutions. But he also firmly believes that you should call out anything and everything that is false--"bollocks"! (God forbid, you try to fool him: "Do you think that/You can play me/Do you think that/You can sway me...I'm working class, me/Right at the start/I'm horse and cart, me/Right in the heart/Four to the floor, beat/Grove in the heat/I'm always complete/I come from the street!")
The encore consisted of a spirited, yet somewhat ragged, "Public Image"--which elicited a massive roar of approval from the audience--and everyone sang along to the Irish blessing chorus of PiL's oblique but phenomenal 1986 anti-South African apartheid hymn "Rise." (It should be noted that the lyric,"Anger is an energy" is not a call to riot; Lydon also explains in Vive Le Rock #30 that after he contracted spinal meningitis as a young boy, the illness, "also took my memories for four years and that was a very long, slow process to regain my personality, to regain my life, and that's where the concept of "anger is an energy" comes from. The doctors were advised to not make life easy for me, to keep me angry, to spur the memories back...For me, "anger" has never been a violent thing, it doesn't represent hate or anything like that. Anger to me is a very positive force in my life. When I had the opportunity to use it the song "Rise," that is what I was trying to explain. But I never fully developed on it to an audience. I just hoped that people would pick up on it...It is an anthem. It's about hope. It's a hope-filled song. It doesn't preach violence or hate. It's odd that people think that. I've never preached those things. Unless it's against institutions; I hate them. Not people. There is a difference.")
When Lydon had sung his final, triumphant "Anger is an energy" and the lights came up, the crowd stayed put and applauded and cheered for at least a full five minutes, possibly more. What we had witnessed and experienced was so extraordinary, that we couldn't permit PiL to leave the stage so quickly. (Did we need time to process all that had take place--a moment to transition back to our normal lives?) Lydon was visibly touched by the reaction and thanked us all repeatedly. Before he finally exited the stage, Lydon waved his arm across the audience, pointed and stared at a wide swath of us, and slowly said, "I see all of you."
And I believe he did.
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PiL's set list, New York City, 11/16/15
"This Is Not a Love Song"
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