Angelus is the respected news magazine of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles, and it is a sober and socially conservative outlet. I was stunned then to find a recent issue lauding a pop culture figure who in his day was regarded as a kind of ultimate evil, and a threat to civilized society. Had that figure himself not claimed publicly to be an Antichrist? The article, by Robert Brennan, concerned “Johnny-not-so-Rotten.”
As Brennan makes clear, he never had time musically for Mr. Rotten (John Lydon) or the group he once fronted, the Sex Pistols, whose very name he cannot even bring himself to utter in the pages of Angelus. But as he has discovered, Lydon is himself in many ways a shining exemplar of old-fashioned virtues. He has been married to the same woman for 42 years, and for some time, the main focus of his life has been serving as sole care-giver of his wife, who is gravely afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Lydon refuses to consider any kind of institutionalization, and he stolidly accepts his burden. He has said that he would not have it any other way.
Reporting his own family’s experience with Alzheimer’s, Brennan offers a powerful and moving tribute:
The crude and profane Johnny Rotten puts me to shame. It might be presumptuous on my part, but I would hazard a guess Johnny is not coming to his devotion from a religious perspective. … And if a guy who became rich and famous screaming about everything under the sun can embody Christian sacrificial love, we need to look in the mirror and ask, what’s our excuse?
Embodying Christian sacrificial love … and this about a man who in his day was about as popular in the media as, say, al-Qaeda is in our own time.
With enormous respect to Brennan’s fine column, he doesn’t know the half of it. Lydon has at least one other very notable achievement to his credit.
The other part of the story requires some explanation, and involves another entertainer who in his time was as beloved in Britain as Lydon was loathed. This was disc jockey Jimmy Savile, who for decades was a ubiquitous celebrity, prominent in multiple works of charity and fund-raising. (Please note, this case is totally familiar in the UK, but is scarcely known in the US, and hence my explanation). Everybody loved Savile, including politicians, the BBC, and the royal family. Beyond just fund-raising, he involved himself directly in helping the sick, serving as a volunteer nurse in hospital and a helper in orphanages. Few doubted that he was a kind of secular saint. His spectacular public career ran from the late 1950s through his death in 2011. He was knighted in 1990.
The only problem was that Savile was a monster. If you struggled to imagine the worst child sexual abuse case ever, you would definitely offer the Savile affair as a candidate. Investigations following his death showed that he had committed at the very least several hundred known acts of rape and molestation, while the real figure was far higher. He had a special predilection for the disabled and the deeply vulnerable, and hence his interest in hospitals and care homes. Some of the particular charges are so horrible and unsettling that I will not even discuss them in detail here.
How could he have kept his secret life going as long as he did, for over half a century? Surely someone knew? And indeed, victims and witnesses often complained of his misdeeds, and some reported incidents to the police. But a systematic cover up, especially by the BBC and other mass media, meant that Sir Jimmy died beloved and respected. After his death, plenty of people remarked how Savile’s crimes were well known, but nobody dared to reveal them. One veteran media personality said there was a “running sick joke” at the BBC “about Savile being a pedophile.” “Everybody knew.”
So nobody in public life had the guts or the integrity to speak openly about Savile’s crimes? Well, actually, there was one brave whistle blower, and it was Johnny Rotten aka Lydon. In a BBC interview in 1978, John Lydon expressed his desire to kill Savile, on the grounds of the man’s hypocrisy and his “all kinds of seediness,” and all the well-known rumors floating around him. As he rightly said, everyone knew the stories, but were not allowed to talk about them. And indeed, as that remark suggested, the interview was not broadcast, and remained suppressed for 35 years. The affair contributed to Lydon’s being banned from the BBC airwaves, which remained so welcoming to the saintly Sir Jimmy Savile. In the decades following 1978, Savile went on to abuse hundreds more victims.
The original interview was reissued on an album in 2013, and it became a media sensation. In 2015, Lydon discussed that affair in another interview that can be found in multiple places on the Internet. The later interview is powerful in its own right, and is very well worth watching. But do skim through the thousands of Youtube comments, which amazingly continue to flow in en masse today, over five years after the original postings. Many commenters simply express their respect to John Lydon, and their gratitude for his courage and honesty. But the Youtube sites have also become a kind of confessional arena in which quite conservative people use the affair to express their disgust at the whole British establishment and its institutional structure. I paraphrase, but a typical comment might say something like: I hated the Sex Pistols, but now I realize that Johnny Rotten was the only one in the country at the time with the nerve to tell the truth. To hell with the BBC, the royal family, the government and the political parties, the police, and all the criminals they defend. The only decent man in the whole sordid story was – oh my – Johnny Rotten.
Looking at the present day, it must make us ask: if we roll the film forward thirty or forty years, which of our current villains are going to turn out to be the knights in shining armor? And which current heroes will be the demons?