Thursday, October 11, 2012

This Could Be Heaven

A young woman leans on the barricade facing the stage. She resembles Bjork. Short ginger hair. Blank expression. She wears a tight sweater, cowgirl skirt and saddle shoes.

To her right, an older man, perhaps my age. White beard. Bald. He wears a tan suit with brown tie. He reaches for the young woman's hand. Squeezes it. She smiles, stares ahead.

I don't know if they're lovers, relatives, doctor and patient. There's a coolness to their affection. They say nothing to each other, but seem close.

I wasn't sure who would show up to see Public Image Ltd. While the band, in its prime, represented post-punk experimentation, PiL has long been John Lydon's solo act.

Lydon's evolved past the snot-faced caricature that defined his early years. Genuine passion remains, though it surfaces in unexpected ways.

His tearful reaction to Donna Summer's death might have surprised those still hooked on his Rotten persona, but in the long view made sense.

Summer and Lydon hit the zeitgeist at roughly the same time, yet back then, you wouldn't have connected the two. When Lydon praised Summer's originality and power, he meant it. One wonders if young Rotten secretly listened to "Last Dance."

The club fills up. Middle-aged fans in PiL t-shirts. Young people with spiked dyed coifs in black leather jackets, plaid pants, Doc Marten boots.

It's the kids who make me smile. Not only are they latching on to their parents' music, they resemble mascots at a punk rock theme park.

Few people I knew back in the day could afford such threads. There were some who adopted the safety pin look, but most wore what they owned: t-shirts, ripped jeans, scuffed boots.

Lydon has consistently dismissed the standard punk uniform, urging his fans to be individuals. Clearly, many of these kids either missed or simply ignored Lydon's pleas. They want to play punk dress up, based on the stereotypes from that period.

Why not? Given what young people face, there are more destructive modes of escape. Besides, in our post-post-post world, what is timeless and what is tired?

Lights dim. The reggae playing overhead fades. PiL takes the stage. The audience loses it.

I'm right in front of Lydon. Maybe 20 feet away. This is the first time I've seen him in person. I'm genuinely thrilled.

PiL plays songs from their new album. Many people around me, primarily the kids, sing along. They know the new stuff.

But I'm not really listening to the music. I'm studying Lydon.

For a man in his mid-50s carrying a paunch, Lydon's spry. He attacks the mike, voice soaring, crashing, screeching along. He uses every octave he owns, sometimes reaching for sounds that defy categorization.

Whatever else you can say about him, Lydon doesn't phone it in on stage. His facial muscles clench and twist. His eyes pop open, his hard stare impossible to deflect.

We lock eyes a lot during that two-hour show. For Lydon, I'm sure that most audience faces are interchangeable. For me, it's exciting and a bit nerve wracking.

Staring into Lydon's eyes is not a calming experience. You plug directly into him, get a taste of his mad energy.

I search for early Lydon in those eyes. Johnny Rotten as the Pistols fell apart. But my projection is thwarted by Lydon in the moment. There's no nostalgia present. He is as you see him. And that's plenty.

PiL launches into "Albatross," "Flowers of Romance," "Religion" and "Chant." Nostalgia overtakes me. I sing along, heavy bass vibration pounding my chest. I cease staring at Lydon and let the music consume me. For the first time in ages, I'm transported among strangers.

Then the band plays "Rise," one of my least favorite PiL songs. But I'm in an extreme minority. The crowd screams, applauds, and led by Lydon sings to the rafters.

"ANGER IS AN ENERGY!" they shout again and again as Lydon conducts them. But they aren't emitting anger. They're deliriously happy.

In this space, anger is a lyric. A concept that applies elsewhere. Everyone is in a smiling, wavy trance.

After an extended encore, PiL finally stops. Lydon, who has said very little between songs, tells us, "We do this because we love it. We're happy you shared it with us. Goodnight."

Love is an energy, too. Tie me to the length of that.

(Photo by Tony Mott)