I’ve been waiting literally 20 years to see the band Public Image Ltd, the jagged-post-punk-dub-arty-dance-pop-with-something-to-say juggernaut led by former Sex Pistol John Lydon. The last time the band played Milwaukee was in the fall of ’89. They were touring behind their album 9 at the time, and had a near brush with the U.S. pop charts with the song “Disappointed”, which, if I were to rank my personal favorite singles of all time, would probably fall somewhere in or near the top 10. (Along with their signature classic from 1986 “Rise”.)
After their next album together (1992’s That What Is Not), PiL sort of disappeared for awhile. Aside from a John Lydon solo album, there have been no new records from the band. But while there still isn’t a new album from the group, it would be incorrect to say that there has been no new music. Lydon has reconvened the band for its first U.S. tour since 1992. Last night, I saw them play at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee and it must be said that even though their set list leaned heavily on songs from the group’s 1979 album Metal Box (or Second Edition) – generally, and rightly, considered the group’s masterpiece, and truly a pivotal album of its era – the music felt very new, and the performances very now. Listening to the band re-animating their back catalog, I was again struck by how rhythmically, atmospherically, and emotionally complex these songs are, and how well they rebuked the joker a few rows behind me who shouted “Pretty Vacant!” (and laughed at his own stupid joke) as the band took the stage.
Not only have songs like “Poptones” and the freaking glorious “Albatross” remained relevant, they’ve actually become more so over time, and when the band closed its set with an increasingly bass-heavy (at Johnny’s chanted urging) take on the song “Religion”, prefaced with a pop quiz (“These are not trick questions!”) on the Pope, the Catholic church, and justice (Milwaukee is one of the epicenters of the current pedophile priest scandals), the outrage and the rebellion were absolutely palpable. (And not just because the ridiculously/wonderfully amplified bass was rumbling our Pabst Blue Ribbon filled bellies.) If there had been a picture of the pope in the room, the bass alone would have vaporized it.
It’s true the band is comprised entirely of graying and/or paunchy fifty-somethings – PiL veterans Lu Edmonds and Bruce Smith, along with bassist-extraordinaire Scott Firth (whose resume includes work with both Elvis Costello and the Spice Girls). It’s also true that they played a slew of obvious fan favorites, like the opener “This Is Not a Love Song”. But let’s make at least this much clear: This is not an oldies act. This is not a greatest hits show. It’s a 2010 show by a 2010 band with 2010 things to say; and though this is a band that spoke to the high school social outcast 1989 Paul Lorentz, this is a band that kicked the ass of the mortgage-paying-cube-dwelling-slightly-more-socially-appealing-father-of-two 2010 Paul Lorentz.
A quick note about the audience. The apparent median age of the pit audience was 47 and a half. The average weight I’m guessing was about 245. There were more chins than scalps with hair. It was, without exaggeration, the oldest, fattest, baldest pit I’d ever seen. In fact, it was an audience I felt young in, which is an increasingly rare phenomenon, and this gave the proceedings another (however accidental) layer of subversion. The truest punks and rebels of the Milwaukee metro area now look like (and are) grandparents. I myself had a bit of a curmudgeonly moment during the band’s entrancing, alternately meditative and cathartic performance of “U.S.L.S. 1” when an overly flirtatious douchebag and the Taylor Swift lookalike he was trying to make (the only twentysomethings in the audience?) wouldn’t shut up, and I asked them to take it to the lobby. They didn’t immediately comply, but they were clearly not there to see a band play a show (or maybe they were there to see Maroon 5 – oops, easy mistake), and were not long for the place.
After Lydon firmly admonished those in the pit to keep their beers and their bodies off the stage, Lydon affirmed that Public Image Ltd was at the Pabst Theater to enjoy themselves, and they proceeded to do just that for a couple of hours. Throughout the show, Lydon was equal parts den-mother, coach, guidance counselor, rebel warrior, nation-builder, and incendiary device, and he took on each of these roles with an uncompromised joy and unflinching conviction. Reputation for confrontation notwithstanding, Lydon proved a most gracious frontman for an audience that was often either overly polite or (especially later in the show) just plain pooped.
One of my favorite moments in the show was the band’s take on the 1989 single “Warrior” , in which all of those roles came together in a single song. The chorus of the song says “I’m a warrior. This is my land.” In concert last night, Lydon virtually declared the audience and the band together a new nation-state; but he also touchingly proclaimed the U.S. his adopted country (he’s becoming a citizen), repeatedly mentioned how nice it was to see smiling faces in the audience (and by extension the U.S.), and rejected self-pity and complacence. At the end of the song, he asked “Are you a warrior?” The audience replied with the predictable noises. Lydon chuckled in response (I’m paraphrasing), “Well, yes, kind of relaxed warriors.” It was more sweet than judgmental, but it was clearly both. It was good to see his smiling face too. I hope to see it again soon.