Friday, January 11, 2013

Throw Something at 'Em: The Sex Pistols in Baton Rouge

THROW SOMETHING AT 'EM

THE SEX PISTOLS IN BATON ROUGE


by Alex V. Cook


Note: This article about the 1978 Sex Pistols show in Baton Rouge never found its home. I'm posting it here to commemorate the 35th anniversary of that show.

The Kingfish was carved out of an old Baton Rouge grocery store. “Where the meat counter would be, that’s where the stage was and the door where they go to the back was the dressing rooms,” explains Grady Smith, one of the owners of the club. “Some nights we’d have biker gang kind of people who’d come in to watch whatever show it was, and then we’d have Randy Newman play for us a couple of times. He’d do two shows and it had to be dead quiet in the room or he wouldn’t play. Fats Domino played one of his last dates there.”



The Sex Pistols at the Kingfish, Baton Rouge (full show)

The Sex Pistols also played one of their last gigs there, Jan. 9, 1978, the fourth of seven shows on a U.S. tour that ended with the band splitting up a week later in San Francisco. A band born on hype and conflict, the Sex Pistols were seeking to go toe-to-toe with the real America.

Smiley Anders, beloved daily columnist for Baton Rouge’s newspaper The Advocate was a business reporter in 1978 and attended a press conference Malcolm McLaren set up in his hotel room. According to Anders's “Sex Pistols’ Rock Style not at All Hard to Take”:

A Warner Brothers representative on the tour, Heidi Robertson, said the band had wanted to go to clubs outside the major urban areas because they are a “People’s band” and wanted to reach people at a grassroots level.

A tape of the show, readily available on YouTube reveals that Baton Rouge, at least was ready for them.

The crowd is a wave of "fuck you"s, calling and responding like tree frogs in a swamp with what they understood the Sex Pistols to be just minutes before the world’s most notorious band was about to set into “God Save the Queen”. One onlooker near the mic suggests “Throw something at ‘em.” 



D.O.A.: A Rite of Passage (part 1 of 5)

In the 1980 documentary on the Pistols' American tour, D.O.A.: A Rite of Passage, offers a non-linear montage of scenes from that tour along with opening acts and other punk bands of note. The band unravels as the film unfolds. Johnny Rotten possesses an insect rage but an almost schoolboy orderliness to his punk drag of plaids and carrot soufflé hair. Sid Vicious is a lank, shirtless sex god.

 The Baton Rouge show is excised from this particular record, possibly because it was the least outraged stop on the tour. From what can be gathered through hazy memories and documentation, no one got beat up by the sheriff. No one was run out of town. The wildest thing that happened was a blowjob, but we’ll get to that. But being such a supposed sham, the Sex Pistols were a formidable band at this point.

 “I think people looked at punk rock through those kind of eyes,” says Smith of their reputation for tunelessness. “But I remember them being pretty good musicians. I mean, they weren’t on the level of Randy Newman or when Roger McGuinn played for us, but if they hadn’t been any good, no one would’ve paid much attention to them”

 Punk was and still is a fractured lens through which society’s ails can be scrutinized, and in the “Pretty Vacant” Sex Pistols, one could see what they wanted.


Noel Monk and Jimmy Guterman's 12 Days on the Road: The Sex Pistols in America, a travel diary of the tour, depicts the groups' arrival in Baton Rouge.
5 a.m. The only positive note of the day, as far as the band and crew are concerned, is that Sid has taken his first bath since he arrived in America. He still spends much of his time deciding on the right combination of talcum powder and Vaseline for his hair.
The photo section offers a pre-bath before shot with Sid defiant and snotty and after, scrubbed and wearing only a boyish grin. 12 Days nurses a romance with the group’s annihilative streak, the twin stars of Rotten and Vicious caught in each other's death orbit with Steve Jones and Paul Cook left to play the music soundtracking their endgame. Monk and Guterman claim, “Although there are some in Louisiana who can make the connection and might be open to the band, what they see on stage is too repulsive to follow. The Sex Pistols are the extreme end of the music they love, and the audience is appalled, both by the music and what it means about the listener’s musical beliefs."

“I was blown away,” offers Dickie Landry, a Lafayette musician who made the drive in for the show. “I’d never been to the Kingfish. Baton Rouge was where you went to get to New Orleans.” A decade earlier, Landry was one of the original members of the Philip Glass Ensemble, consorting with the cutting edge of the New York art world. “I’d read a little about Sid Vicious and wondered how Baton Rouge people would react. I figured I wasn’t around to see Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring premiere in Paris in the early 1900s and the audience threw tomatoes at them. I thought maybe I’d get a group with tomatoes or raw oysters thrown at them.”

Landry, a founding member of the Philip Glass Ensemble, knew a thing or two about underground music going into it. “I hung around a lot of the people in that scene, John Cale and Patti Smith and all and we never did discuss the Sex Pistols. Not once. [The Sex Pistols] were not in Baton Rouge in the newspaper. “

Not in Baton Rouge, at least not before the show.* A scroll through the microfiche of that week’s The Advocate has Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones doing double duty at The Regina and Asleep at the Wheel playing at the Coon Trap that night. The outsized ad for Saturday Night Fever’s run at the Robert E. Lee Theatre has the tagline “The Fever is Spreading” but no mention of the Sex Pistols until Anders’ review.

Thirty years later, Anders reflects on the hype surrounding the band. “Everyone was so excited about the whole punk thing because it was so extreme, but with the mainstream media here, they didn’t get that much attention."

“They were rude and crude and loud,” says Anders, trying to remember the show. “But, hell, I grew up with rhythm and blues. Joe Turner, some of his lyrics are pretty rude and crude. It didn’t shock me or anything. It was kinda fun. It seemed like kids playing rock again, like throwback rock ‘n’ roll.

“They seemed pretty harmless. “

D.O.A. pits footage of the Sex Pistols against other punk acts. They get out-jittered by the Rich Kids, out sleazed/charmed by the Dead Boys. At their final show, veteran show producer Bill Graham booked the Nuns and the Adverts to open; in Baton Rouge, they got zydeco wild men Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters. One wonders who looked weirder to whom. Smith offers, “This was south Louisiana, pretty much the Belgian Congo of the world so to speak. They weren’t going berserk like something big and nasty was coming. I think people were more here out of curiosity. “

When the band finally takes the stage at 10 p.m. Monk and Guterman remark, “It’s the first one [of the tour stops] at which the band seems indifferent, which makes the unsettling thoughts in their music that much more unsettling.”

Katie Jeansonne, then a 19-year-old salon receptionist, was there. “The crowd. Oh my God, that was bizarre. There were all kinds of people there. People that just knew that the Kingfish had live music. It was everything from people that went to LSU that had never heard of them but was going to see them to--I don’t know. A lot of hair. To me the crowd looked confused." When asked they were expecting something like southern rock, she laughed, “No. Just skilled musicians. You know who played there the next night? The Temptations”

The truth is in the tape. Recordings reveal their early shows in the north of England to be shambolic. A year or so later in the swamps, the group rages in fine form, leaning heavily on Steve Jones’ buzzsaw guitar. You can hear Sid’s musical contribution as well, pulsing thud through (most of) the night. Rotten works the crowd like a puppeteer, pulling off a precision, full-stop cheer during “I Wanna Be Me”.

“I just thought the way he would slump down, Johnny Rotten, and swing his arms was so cool,” says Jeansonne. “Later on I read that it was his whole Richard III thing. I looked at it like Quasimodo. I’d never had a band come out and show how disgusting they were."

12 Days on the Road tells the tail of the “five-feet-three-inch, 160-pound package of bulging spandex” who found her way on stage, dancing and sharing her vodka with Sid.
During “New York”, she leans in closer with half her body onstage and closer to Sid, finally falling to her knees in front of him. Sid twists his bass behind him, giving her easy access to his crotch. She has Sid’s jeans halfway to the floor boards before the promoter called on Monk to pull her off to the side of the stage.
The onstage detrousering and attempted fellating of Sid Vicious has become a thing of legend, but it didn't have much impact on the actual show. The bass drops out a couple of times during Jones’ solo, but it does that a lot anyway. If the crowd saw anything, they took it in stride. A dude yells ,“Someone get the man a joint!”

“I did not see that,” says Jeansonne. “It was crowded. Most of the time I could see just the drummer and to move up to the front was pretty tense.”

“I don’t remember anyone pretending to give him one, but I do remember an incident behind the upper bar,” says Smith. “The show was over and we were doing the cleanup and some chicks stayed around to go play with Sid Vicious.”

12 Days recounts that the groupie finishes what she started while “Sid smiles, lays back, and takes an occasional swig of his beer.”

The Sex Pistols seemingly won over the crowd onstage as well. Rotten’s maniacal laugh during “Belsen Was a Gas” whips the room into a frenzy. The crowd claps along to the prolonged drum intro to “Holidays in the Sun”. Rotten works his anxiety about his place in history with the line, “Please don’t be waiting for me” but the crowd is way ahead of him, talking about fighting someone. Smith shrugs off any real sense of conflict that night. “David Allan Coe came through and he was rough and tough as anybody. These were just some guys that wanted to play.”

Someone close to the recorder reports, “I really want to punch this guy”. Could be the band; could be anyone.

After “No Feelings”, the suggestion to throw something at them finds purchase; they start pelting the band with fistfuls of change. “I’ve had it with coins,” Rotten bellows at the crowd. A commenter named “kevn_rocks/carlton” on a bootleg discussion site The Wrecking Room remarks, “Sid was scurrying around picking the coins up.”

Say what you will about the talent-free charms of punk rock, but the Sex Pistols clocked in their non-stop at just around a respectable 60 minutes. “Shut up. We’re not fucking ready” hollers Rotten at the encore, followed by, “This is the last one you lot are gonna get.” They launch into a positively radiant explosion of “Anarchy in the U.K.” It’s a song rendered to a cliché by now, but hearing the cadre of normals and freaks in the Kingfish singing in unison that they “wanna beeee anarchy” is transformative. Maybe it’s the only one of their songs the whole of the audience knows, or maybe they felt something.

Jeansonne muses, “When I saw them, all of a sudden I realized how connected music is with politics. That was the first time I felt an ‘us against them’ kind of thing. I thought I was at the right place at the right time.”

The lot gets a few more--the Stooges' “No Fun.”

“This song is by an old hippie”, Rotten taunts. They close with a rabid run through “Liar”, embodying everything you want from a Sex Pistols song. Rotten’s vibrato hits the feedback arcing over Jones’ stripped boogie. Sid’s in there, perhaps as much as he can be, a teenager failing to meet the expectations of high ideals and society’s outrage. Plus he might have just gotten a blowjob.

Smiley Anders ends his review as charitably as her started it. “You May not like the Sex Pistols. But they are not a bunch of punks. They’re unpleasant and loud and crude, but they may well represent a new direction for pop music, back to the social protest of a few years back.” The band may have set that in motion, but they wouldn’t be there to see it. Johnny Rotten would revert back to John Lydon and explore the interior of his paranoia with Public Image Ltd. Sid Vicious would be dead in little over a year.

The Sex Pistols may have thrown a spanner in the works of English conservatism and the world’s worst fears about youth culture. In turn, Baton Rouge threw some coins, some alleged tomatoes and oysters, and a blowjob at the band, and seemingly had no problem catching everything that came their way.

Thanks to Alex Rawls, Dickie Landry, Kate Jeansonne, Grady Smith, Melissa Eastin, Smiley Anders and Johnny Palazzotto for their help with this story.

*Edited to add: My friend Clark Gernon found a short preview feature in the State-Times, the evening edition of the Morning Advocate.

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3 comments:

  1. Thanks for posting this. Look online for a nice pic of Sid Vicious on a BR city bus.

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  2. What a great way to end this piece, Alex:

    The Sex Pistols may have thrown a spanner in the works of English conservatism and the world’s worst fears about youth culture. In turn, Baton Rouge threw some coins, some alleged tomatoes and oysters, and a blowjob at the band, and seemingly had no problem catching everything that came their way.

    I keep hearing about the old Baton Rouge with all this great music and can't help but wonder, "What happened?"

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  3. Just found this inspired by an article in Texas Monthly; thanks for writing it.

    I was home from college and working at the Kingfish that night for Glenn and Danny, security in the backroom. The whole thing was a combo of surreal and amazing...three things: (1) Steve Jones getting the guitar player from Good Rockin' Doopsie and the Twisters to show him some things; (2) some dude with them gave me a 100 dollar bill at the end of the night and I was amazed; (3) from what I heard back in Austin from folks who'd been at the shows in San Antonio and Dallas, BR was a little saner.

    Still have my staff/stage pass--been up on our fridge forever--and a t-shirt that my youngest daughter has with her at college and some amazing memories of the Kingfish and that night.

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