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Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones Looks Back: ‘It Just Seemed Doomed’

With the release of memoir ‘Lonely Boy,’ guitarist reflects on Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten and how it all went wrong.

With the release of memoir 'Lonely Boy,' guitarist reflects on Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten and how it all went wrong.

Steve Jones, born in London but a Los Angeleno for decades, is considering a move to what he describes as the “middle of nowhere” in northern California. “It’s just beautiful, it’s not too hot and they have a lot of rain,” he says. “And there’s not a lot of people. Most people get on my nerves these days, maybe ’cause I’m turning into a grumpy old man.”

The guitarist has been considering his journey from handkerchief-headed Sex Pistol to grumpy old man a lot lately, as he worked on his recently released memoir, Lonely Boy. In the book, he structured his life into three parts: “Before,” “During” and “After.” “It’s like a guitar solo – start, beginning and end,” he says, sounding more thoughtful and witty than grumpy.

The book shows off Jones’ wry humour and blunt assessments of himself as he parses his life. He details a rough childhood, including being molested by his stepfather, and how that led to kleptomania, sex addiction and substance abuse. He recounts how he stole gear from David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust farewell shows in 1973 and other gigs to fence or to use in his own nascent group, which became the Sex Pistols. He recalls the highs and lows of touring with Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, and explains how he and drummer Paul Cook picked themselves up again to form the power-pop-leaning post-punk group the Professionals.

stevejoneslonelyboybook f23b371a 3af5 4f36 b8a6 c95ddf1ef168He also discusses his solo works, producing gigs and current stint hosting Jonesy’s Jukebox on L.A.’s KLOS, and ends the book with a surprisingly detailed appendix listing dozens of “Things That Are Not Rock & Roll,” such as sandals and selfies. “The worst is being bald,” he says. “It’s funny when you get guys who are bald to try to cover it up with hats and stuff. It just looks stupid.”

As a whole, the book provides a fresh look at the punk movement 40 years removed from the release of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, and it presents an unflinching, sometimes even uncomfortable self-portrait of Steve Jones. “I did wonder, ‘Do I want to let everyone know this?’ about some of the stuff in there,” he says. “But I decided, ‘Fuck it. Whatever.'”

You had a rough childhood. What did you struggle with including in the book?
The stuff about my stepfather. When your stepfather fiddles you when you’re 10, you get confused, and I was confused about my sexuality for years, when I was, like, 10 through 15. I’m 100 percent not gay at all, but it steers you in a weird direction. How do you deal with that information?

How do you feel it affected you?
I just turned into a kleptomaniac and a sex addict. I was addicted to everything. But that’s not to say it made me a drug addict or an alcoholic; I think I already had that gene. It definitely pushed me to act out further. I was trying to fix a hole inside me.

For years, I put it in the back of my mind, and for many years, I didn’t talk about it. I didn’t know how to deal with it. Most boys, when stuff like this happens, turn it into anger or frustration. I’ve dealt with it in therapy 15, 20 years ago.

When did you realize that the abuse led you to kleptomania and sex addiction?
In therapy. When I was a kleptomaniac, it didn’t seem like I was doing anything wrong. I knew it was wrong, but nothing stopped me from doing it. I was driven to it for some reason. Kleptomania gave me something to do every day when I woke up in the morning. It gives you a purpose for living in a weird way.

When I think about it now, I wish I wouldn’t have done it. I’m sure I caused some people some grief. I’m not proud of it. It’s not a nice feeling. But when I was a kid, the last thing I was thinking of was other people’s feelings.

Did you ever tell your mother about your stepfather?
I did send a letter to my mom. My therapist at the time advised me to do it, so I explained in the letter what I felt about it. She sent me a letter back in complete denial. “Oh, that didn’t happen. What are you talking about? You’re crazy.” So that was the end of that.

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Jones, in the early Nineties.

When was the last time you spoke to her?
I haven’t spoken to her since 2008. I tried to have a relationship with her when I got sober. I hadn’t spoken to her for years when the Sex Pistols started; I just completely stopped seeing her. I have no desire, to be honest with you, but I do feel like I’ve bonded with her. She wasn’t a bad lady. She was just cold. I don’t think she wanted a kid; it was an accident. But she did the best she could, and I’ve got no animosity, but it’s just better for me if I don’t try to have a bullshit relationship.

Did you ever get any sense of what she thought of the Sex Pistols?
She never said. It was probably bittersweet because I was famous, but not famous in a good way. I don’t know because she’s a hard one. You talk to her about the weather, and if you get any deeper than that, she shuts down.

Going back to your kleptomania, you wrote about it with a reserved fondness in the book. What strikes you as your most audacious criminal act? Would it be the Bowie heist, where you took gear right off his stage at the next-to-last Ziggy gig?
That’s definitely the most famous one. I was a complete fan and what’s funny was I had Tony Visconti and the drummer, Woody Woodmansey, on my radio show and I made amends with Woody for stealing his cymbals. He was kind of taken aback. I looked at him and said, “What do you want?” And he said, “Well, nothing. I said, “Well, say something.” So he said, “Give me a hundred bucks.” So I gave him 200 bucks, and he was chuffed.

You loved David Bowie at that time. It didn’t bother you that you were ripping off someone you looked up to?
Yeah, it’s weird. It was just a way of being closer to the idols, I suppose.

You met Bowie years later. Did you fess up to him then?
I think he knew in some way or another that it was me. But the thing is, it wasn’t really his stuff that got stolen.

You took his microphones.
I don’t think they were his. I wish I had that little one, though, with his lipstick on it.

You pulled off that heist in 1973 and used the gear yourself with the Pistols. A few years later you met the man you nicknamed “Johnny Rotten” because of his teeth. Just how bad were they?
A couple of them in the front looked green. They just looked rotten. They weren’t fangs or nothing. It was no biggie, but I guess it stuck.

It did. Lydon told me he was OK with it because it was funny.
We were a very humourous band in our day. We took the piss out of everything.

You had a difficult relationship with Johnny Rotten, but what was it that drove you all apart on the U.S. tour?
Just everything. It was Sid just being an idiot, just wanting to get high and not trying to play bass. It was John just … We just was all drifting in different directions. We wasn’t a band, like a unit. It was all over the place, and America just made it worse, because we weren’t used to this big country and all the attention. It was just a weird time, and just in two weeks – however long we was in the States.

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The Sex Pistols, making their U.S. debut in Atlanta, January 1978.

Why did you think you could continue without him, when you and Paul Cook headed to Brazil after the San Francisco show?
Well, we was planning to go to Brazil anyway to do a movie, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle. And of course Lydon wasn’t interested at this point. Me and Cookie went ’cause it seemed like a great place to go. I wanted to keep doing the movie.

Did you think you could continue as a three-piece?
No, no. We wasn’t even talking about that at that point. Even though in the movie it looked like we was auditioning singers, that was just [Malcolm] McLaren’s idea of creating everything. But we had no intention of getting another singer. If we did, it wouldn’t have been called Sex Pistols.

How long was it after you got from Brazil that you and Lydon talked?
It might have been years. I can’t remember, because I was a mess at this point. That’s when I started doing drugs.

At that point, you’d seen Sid struggling with drugs. Did watching what he went through ever make you question your own drug use?
Not in any shape or form. It didn’t even occur to me. Heroin was the perfect drug at that point. I didn’t think, “Oh, I better not do this, because look what happened to Sid,” because I just don’t think like that.

Sid could be very belligerent. You wrote a lot about him “glassing” people in bars. Did you ever feel like he was putting you in danger?
When we came to America, I would go with him to these cowboy bars and he was like a magnet to cowboys, just looking at him, and they would fight. One time, me and him and one of the bodyguards that was assigned to be looking after us got into a fight at some bar in Texas or somewhere. I thought, “You know what? I’ve had enough of this.” It was almost like he was provoking it to live up to the image with the media. It was like, “You’re Sid Vicious, now do something vicious.”

You wrote that it took you a while to feel remorse over Sid’s death. What do you miss about him?
He had a good sense of humour. He had a sweet soul. And I think he could have been a contender, you know? I think he could have been a star in his own light. He is in a way, but not being known for anything other than Sid Vicious. But he did have some talent. I think he got slung in the deep end too quick and couldn’t keep up – like all of us, in a way, but we had a little bit more experience than him.

John Lydon wrote in one of his books that Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister tried to teach him bass. What do you remember about that?
Maybe Lemmy did, but I attempted to show him where to put his fingers. He tried at first. He really gave it his best shot. I would put bits of tape where to put your fingers but … it was a pain in the ass. I didn’t want to be teaching someone else how to play bass. So he got by in some weird ways.

I’m glad he didn’t play on the record. That would have been shambles. But you can hear him a bit in “Bodies” because he’s out of tune.

What have you made of Sid’s legacy since his death?
It bothered me when he first joined the band because he was getting more attention than me, but now I look back and I can see why. He was the perfect punk, if you will. He had the perfect look. He did outrageous things. He and his girlfriend ended up dead. You can’t top that, really.

You own his bass. In your book, you wrote about how you were not sentimental about the New York Dolls when Malcolm gave you Sylvain Sylvain’s guitar, but are you more sentimental about Sid’s bass?
No. I just happen to have it and I haven’t sold it yet.

Will you ever sell it?
I haven’t even thought about it. A couple of people have offered a bunch of money for it, but I don’t know if it would be bad karma. But there’s no sentimental value.

This year will be the 40th anniversary of Never Mind the Bollocks. What strikes you about it when you listen to it now?
It’s an album that was so bizarre for these 19, 20-year-olds to do in the structure of the songs. It’s just one of them classic albums, if you will. I’m not pumping myself up. But it’s a bizarre record. We didn’t go for like, “We need to write a hit song for the record company.” There was none of that. But there’s a lot of catchy bits in some of the songs. I don’t know. It’s just a real weird album. When I do listen to it, I love it.

I do like the sound of it. The highlight of my Sex Pistols career was recording the album. That’s when I had the most fun and could be the most creative. And Chris Thomas allowed me to be creative and Bill Price to get the best out of me, ’cause literally I’d only been playing a year. And I don’t know. It’s quite extraordinary it turned out the way it did.

You wrote in the book, “The Sex Pistols were born to crash and burn, and that’s exactly what we did.” When did that imminent self-destruction become apparent to you?
It was apparent after the Bill Grundy show and then Sid joined the band. It just didn’t look like it was going to last much longer. It all got dark and weird. Plus, we were all very young. We had no coping skills. I didn’t for sure. I don’t think any of us knew what was going on.

When did it seem like the chaos and spectacle overtook the music?
We got caught up in the whole whirlwind of mainstream media [after Grundy] and we weren’t interested in writing any songs.

What is your friendship with John Lydon like now?
There is no friendship. He lives in L.A., I live in L.A., but we just don’t talk. I think the last time I spoke to him was 2008 when we did a tour of Europe. I have no desire to speak to him and he has no desire to speak to me. That’s totally fine. I wish him all the best. I’ve got no resentment toward him. It’s just our marriage went wrong and we got divorced. You don’t want to speak to your ex-wife, do you?

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The Sex Pistols, November 2007.

So it seems like another reunion is improbable.
Not for the amount of money we make when we do reunions. If we were making Rolling Stones money, that would be different.

You attempted to write new music for a possible new Pistols album around 2003. What did that sound like?
It was awful. It fell on its ass two minutes into it. It was the worst thing we could have done.

After the Sex Pistols, you and Paul Cook formed the Professionals, but the group didn’t last long. Have you ever considered reuniting that group?
You never know. I wouldn’t be doing it to set the world on fire. I like Paul. He’s my oldest, closest friend, so it could be a possibility if it’s not too much of a headache.

You wrote that something that bugged you about punk is how it seemed like you weren’t supposed to want money or enjoy success. Where do you think that came from so early?
Well it came from all the other punk bands at the time, the Clash, with the lyrics. There were all these other bands saying, “We’re not like all the rock stars that drive around in Rolls Royces and live in mansions.” It’s not like we were going to do that, but it we didn’t want to be broke either. Who wants to be broke? It was a stupid thing. I don’t want to live in some bloody squat. None of us did. I think I speak for all of us when I say we wanted to make dough like anybody else, and we deserved to make dough.

So I don’t know where all that started. It was other bands thinking that’s what it was about. It was a different vibe from Led Zeppelin, it was a different thing. But apart from the money, there’s no difference between Led Zeppelin and the Sex Pistols. It’s the same personality: There’s the crazy one, the one who don’t like that one, and they do outrageous things. There’s no difference.

You’re a lot kinder to the memory of Malcolm McLaren in your book than John has been in his. Why is that?
Them two never got along. They butted heads from the beginning. For me, Malcolm was a buddy of mine before the band started so I was more loyal to him, even though he did some shitty things. I appreciate now what John did by suing McLaren [for rights to the band’s music]. Don’t get me wrong. That was a good move. I just wouldn’t have done that personally because of my relationship with McLaren.

What have you made of the way Malcolm and Vivienne Westwood’s fashion sense still resonates with punk today?
It’s bizarre. Gucci just did a whole campaign with bondage pants. It just doesn’t end. It seems like it’s here to stay with all this pop culture. But nowadays, you can wear anything. Nothing’s outrageous. You could walk down the street in bondage pants or have your hair pink and no one would even look twice.

Then there are bands like Exploited who have hung onto the look since ’79 and groups like Green Day with spiky hair.
I guess when you get your best moment, you don’t let go of it. But I could care less to be honest with you. Image is a funny thing.

Punk died out in the Eighties as metal got bigger, but bands like Megadeth, Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses covered your songs. What did you think of them?
Well I was kind of doing that when I came to America with my long hair. I wasn’t playing scream or whatever you want to call it, but I like the energy from them bands. I was flattered that they wanted to do Sex Pistols songs, “Anarchy” and Anthrax did “God Save the Queen.” I was even more flattered when Guns N’ Roses did a song I wrote, “Black Leather,” on their covers album, Spaghetti Incident. The Runaways also did that with Joan Jett, and that was a good feeling.

Toward the end of the Eighties, you did a session with Bob Dylan for Down in the Groove. You wrote in the book that you felt unprepared for the session. What was it that felt off?
I’d never recorded that way. He was just seeing if all these tunes were laying on us, if any of them gelled. In hindsight, if I would have known that, I would have given more input instead of strumming along. I think Bob wanted to see if any magic was starting with it.

Why did he want to record with you? Was he a Pistols fan?
No. I don’t know why. I think it’s just him to pick certain people to play with. It was a great experience, though. Me and him got along pretty good. He was very friendly to me for some reason.

Do you see yourself ever making a new solo album?
Yes, just for shits and giggles. I haven’t done a solo record in a long time. I’ve got loads of tune that are not completely finished, so that’s on my list. I would love Jeff Lynne to produce it.

When you think about your life, what are your regrets?
One of my regrets is walking away from the Sex Pistols in San Francisco [after the final concert in 1978]. I might have been acting a bit hastily. I wish we would’ve went back and had a breather. We could have huddled ’round and talked about it. But that was a weird time. It just seemed doomed. But I regret not giving it another shot.