LONDON — For Steve Jones, direct has always been best. The Sex Pistols guitarist is known for rejecting what he describes as fancy “Beatle chords” in favor of a no-frills sound, and for drunken reactions on prime-time British television.
This approach is central to his 2016 book, “Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol.” In the introduction, he writes, “I can’t get over this rose scent,” before describing the rampant kleptomania of his late teens and his sex addiction. There are also details of his stepfather’s sexual abuse, his slide into addiction after the band collapsed, and the near illiteracy that hampered him well into his adult life.
The book forms the basis for ‘Pistol’, a six-part series directed by Danny Boyle and released on FX/Hulu on Tuesday. The show stars Toby Wallace as Jones and Anson Boon as lead singer of the Sex Pistols, John Lydon, better known as Johnny Rotten.
Tensions abound in the series between the extraordinary and the ordinary, and dramatic debauchery often triumphs faithfully to Jones’ experience. Preparations were also tense, as Lydon lost a lawsuit to the rest of the band over the use of Pistols music in the show.
In a recent phone interview, Jones discussed what he would do if he ran into Lydon, how his story was turned into a TV format and the impact of the band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What motivated you to write the memoir?
There was just a lot of stuff I wanted there, even the dodgy stuff. It was weird at first, but I got so much feedback from it – from men, young boys, who went through a lot of similar traumas as children. I didn’t know things like this were common. Most guys don’t tell anyone, they take it to their graves, and it’s very unhealthy to do that. You can’t carry that stuff with you, you have to move on.
In the book, you say you didn’t mind playing second fiddle after Lydon, but when Sid Vicious joined the Pistols, you kept playing third fiddle. How does it feel to be the dominant voice in “Pistol?”
I mean, it’s okay. I’m a team player, I don’t like being the center of attention. I’d rather play guitar than sing, I’ve always had that approach. I don’t really like all the spotlight at this stage of the game, at age 66. But it is what it is.
But surely that was a consideration when Danny Boyle approached you, that you would be in the spotlight?
Yes of course. But Boyle liked that it came from my point of view. He said I was the Sex Pistols engine room and that I liked coming from that angle as opposed to the obvious angle.
Through Lydon’s eyes?
Precisely. That’s how it normally goes. I got a chance to tell my story, based on my book. But you must remember, it is not a documentary. It is a six part series.
“Lonely Boy” is a fairly candid story that asks for little forgiveness. How well do you think that comes across in “Pistol?”
Like I said, it is based on my book. You have to show it a little bit, you have to make it interesting – even the relationship between me and Chrissie Hynde, the “love interest.” She looked at it the other day, and she was surprised: she said, “I didn’t know I was doing so much.”
“Gun” presents that as a recurring relationship. Did it go like this?
I knew Chrissie, we hung out a bit in the beginning, she wanted to be a musician, and I kind of brushed her off, so that’s all true. But she was shocked when she saw it last week.
But I think it’s a good story. Even if it wasn’t that long, my relationship with her, I think the way it’s written makes it interesting. If you’re a train spotter, you’ll hate it, because it’s not in the timeline, but whatever.
Another unexpected story is the way Malcolm McLaren (played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley) are presented as parental figures. How was your relationship with the couple?
They had a flat in Clapham, and I used to stay there all the time. They had Ben and Joe [Westwood’s children], but Ben didn’t stay much, so I slept with Joe in one of the bunk beds. I just hung out with them at Cranks, the vegetarian restaurant on Carnaby Street. I drove to the East End tailors with Malcolm because he couldn’t drive.
[Meeting them] was a real turning point for me, and therein lay my loyalty. Malcolm showed me another side of life – that whole avant-garde, Chelsea “chic toffs” scene. And I loved it. I wasn’t on my way anywhere the way I was going, so I’m always grateful to him and Viv for that. Even if you couldn’t trust him, I still didn’t care.
In the beginning of your relationship, McLaren helped you avoid jail time. Paying back that debt seems to justify many of your actions in “Pistol.” Did that weigh heavily on your relationship?
That was only part of it. I actually enjoyed hanging out with him. One minute he was talking like a dork, the next he was talking like a cop. Frankly, he delivered it all, and he doesn’t get enough credit for it. I don’t think it would have happened without him.
Did it bother you that Lydon didn’t want to be involved with “Pistol?”
We wanted to involve him. It would have been good if he had been on board. If the shoe had been on the other side, we would all have been excited, if it had been his book and Danny Boyle had wanted to do something similar. At this stage of the game we are grown men, I don’t know why he isn’t interested. But it’s part of his personality that he doesn’t want to be involved. Maybe he secretly looks at it and laughs at it.
Is it “gun” fallout the last straw in your relationship with Lydon?
I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it. It’s not like we’re going out. I live in LA, he lives in LA, I’ve been here 35 years, and he just came after me, and we’ve never been interested in going out. The last time I saw him was in 2008 when we played a lot of European gigs. We don’t have to hang out, I’m good at that, we don’t have to be buddies. But I do respect him, absolutely.
What would you do if you saw it in stores?
I would probably run and hide behind the baked beans.
Danny Boyle Said “Gun” envisions “breaking into the world of ‘The Crown’ and ‘Downton Abbey’ with your friends and screaming your songs and your anger at all they represent.” When did you realize you had the power to shake things up?
The Grundy Thing [a notorious interview of the Sex Pistols by Bill Grundy on British TV in 1976] brought it in a different atmosphere. The power came from having a label, then they gave us the boot, got a label, got the boot again. We called it on our terms, which was unheard of at the time.
The Grundy thing was the beginning of the end. As for making more music, the creative side was out the window. The way I looked at it, it became the leather jacket brigade everywhere. It became mainstream, it lost its originality. Before Grundy, you had the Clash, the Buzzcocks, a bunch of bands that were very creative in their own way.
The End of “Gun” ties things up nicely. Were you happy with where the series ended?
I loved the way it ended. There were a few different endings that I wasn’t thrilled about; [this one] left you in a feel-good-y way instead of not being cheesy about it.
What were the other endings?
There was one where the cast was interviewed about their experiences, and one of those “Where are they now?” kind of endings, which was awful to be honest. I’m so glad Danny dumped it.
However, the third part of your book is omitted, the fallout from the Pistols and your rather tragic personal aftermath. Do you think that’s okay?
It could have gone on, but after that it would have gotten boring. You don’t want to fall asleep listening to what I did after the Pistols.