Sid, Johnny & Me: Live and Up Close With the Sex Pistols in San Antonio, 1978
Mere days from their break-up, I witnessed one of only seven US shows by the legendary and influential UK punk tornado...and met Sid and Johnny.
Armed with safety pins, ripped clothes, and bitter punk vitriol, UK’s Sex Pistols marched across the mostly southern stretches of the United States in January 1978. In fact, January 2022 marked the 44th anniversary of that abbreviated US onslaught that crammed seven aural and visual tornadoes into a scant ten days. And then…poof!
They began their stateside tour in Atlanta, January 5, and I caught up with the British bad boys in San Antonio, TX, joining a carload of friends as we made the 3-hour trek west from Houston.
My pre-show interactions with both Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious were not only memorable, but once-in-a-lifetime encounters!
“We came to dance! What did you come for?”
Atlanta Magazine recently recounted the Pistols’ first show. It portends what lay ahead for the band on virtually every tour stop, a musical maelstrom that teetered on the brink of mayhem in every city: “In January 1978, at what is now Lindbergh Plaza, 500 leather-clad, Mohawked fans lined up to see the sneering, spitting British punk band play their first US concert at the Great Southeast Music Hall. (Note: An Atlanta fan who attended this show, and contacted me via social media, reports that, indeed, there were no mohawks at this show).
Plus, noted veteran rock critic, Wayne Robins, who attended that show, verifies the decided lack of mohawks in his Substack article where he interviews (in 1986) John Lydon (then of PIL):
“After the show, bassist Sid Vicious made a stop at Piedmont Hospital after slitting his wrist with a letter opener at a fan’s apartment. The band broke up nine days later, but it made a lasting impression on a city then known mostly for Southern rock.”
“Aren’t We the Worst Thing You’ve Ever Seen?”
Next stop was Memphis, TN, the very next day, January 6th. The Home of the Blues (and Elvis) hosted the Pistols at Taliesyn Ballroom in the 1400 block of Union Avenue, a lot which now boasts a Taco Bell. The Taliesyn, at the time, was not a proper performance venue, per se, but merely a rental spot for high school dances and Lion’s Club meetings.
Pistols manager, the late Malcolm McLaren, 31 at the time, was opportunistic and manipulative, a shrewd marketer who knew how to exploit his young charges, one of whom (20-year-old Sid Vicious) was strung out on heroin. McLaren didn’t want to have his lads go to the media centers of the US for the tour.
“Let ‘em come to us,” seemed to be his calculated mantra, coupled with his desire to avoid the pretentious “flavor-of-the-week/fans-of-the-moment” in L.A., New York City, and other coastal media hubs.
Plus, tiny, unconventional venues, he coldly reasoned, would likely promote raucous band interplay with the audiences, whom (he hoped) would happily verbally and/or physically assault the Pistols if they felt threatened or even (especially?) encouraged.
“The cowboys seemed to take it for the joke it was meant to be.”
Even Johnny weighed in on this dynamic. From a 2019 article on OpenCulture.com: “Rotten had more complicated feelings about what would become a series of violent spectacles. He seemed half in on the joke, and half hoping that ‘real people’ outside of coastal cities would become real fans.
“‘We’re playing these cities because these are the people who will either accept us or hate us,’ he said at the time. ‘They’re not as pretentious as they are in New York.’
“[Rotten] maintained in his  autobiography that McLaren had also foreseen the US tour as savvy marketing. ‘It wasn’t a question of throwing the band to the wolves when we chose to just play the South.
‘We felt that if we were ever going to be taken seriously in America, it would be from a base we built down south. The cowboys seemed to take it for the joke it was meant to be. We weren’t there to destroy their way of life or anything like that.’”
Nirvana-legacy.com offered McLaren’s reckless rationale this way: “The Sex Pistols’ 1978 US tour looks like attempted homicide. McLaren was hungry for the photogenic controversy that might arise if — instead of playing America’s liberal cities — he sent the world’s most controversial group to country ‘n’ western venues across the Deep South.
“This was less than ten years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis and yet, relying on stereotypes of Bible Belt religiosity and conservatism, McLaren wanted to acquire audiences who might protest, attack the band, maybe even riot if he was lucky!
“From the perspective of [the 21st century], the level of callous disregard [by McLaren] for his 20-to-22 year old charges is pretty breath-taking.
“The band — vocalist John Lydon, drummer Paul Cook, Steve Jones (guitarist), and Sid Vicious (born Simon John Ritchie), bassist — went along with it.
“Suffering from both the naiveté and the idealism of youth, they agreed to put themselves at an unknown level of risk for obscure rewards. There was some method to the madness: Sex Pistols’ notoriety short-circuited the traditional route to legend status because few people ever saw them play.”
“I’m not here for your amusement…you’re here for mine!”
Randy’s Rodeo, San Antonio, TX, Sunday, January 8, 4pm:
We filled the car, and I was in the back seat. I was working at Houston’s largest record retailer, Cactus Records, at the time, and fellow employees filled out the sedan’s cabin as we trundled west on I-10 for three hours.
With no other cars in the parking lot, we arrived smack dab at 4 o’clock, and our only company in the large expanse of the country-western bar’s lot was a silver tour bus, apparently newly-arrived for the sound check.
With no real hint at the vehicle’s contents, I vaguely recall a few of us shouting at the open windows to see if anyone was aboard; we only dared to hope a spikey orange head might pop through a window.
Each of us had brought our own copies of Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols, the only official Warner Bros. Records studio Sex Pistols LP that ever saw the light of day (most of us had our free promo copies with the distinctive, round hot-pink & black Warner promo stickers affixed to the front covers).
We happily thrust our album jackets into a driver-side window about halfway to the back. To our amazement, each came back with “SID” sloppily scrawled from lower-left-corner to upper-right, in huge, black marker across the front. (Quick side-step to the turn of the century: I sold my Sid-signed album to an unknown buyer through a good friend, a noted Houston autograph expert and broker. Price? $500).
I later discovered that, for the most part, Cook and Jones flew to gig cities, with Johnny and Sid covering the miles by bus…that bus. Still corralling our giddy excitement over having made initial contact with the band, Johnny emerged sauntering from the bus door and around the front of the bus, hunched-over and, amazingly, right into our vision.
I approached this painfully frail urchin cautiously, but confidently, my 6’1” frame putting his head somewhere in the vicinity of my chest. Clutching my newly-signed Sid album, I asked simply, “Hey, John…may I have your autograph?”
Without missing a beat, he looked up from his hunched posture, and, in his thick London drawl (with just enough of a sarcastic smirk to soften the blow), spat, “Whaddaya want an autograph from this cunt for?”
Armed with precious little that might qualify as a suitable rebuttal, I smiled, and watched him saunter off to the venue door…still curiously hunched over. My traveling companions chuckled when I told them what he said.
Mere months before this classic “punk rocker diss,” another punk icon, Iggy Pop, offered his less-than-flattering comment, only this time in writing, about which more can be read here:
“Malcolm’s intention was confrontation.”
Needless to say, the media coverage throughout the Pistols’ tour was vast and unprecedented, with reporters and photographers from around the globe descending on each venue en masse. Randy’s Rodeo was no different.
Joining us in the crowd, among others, were internationally-known photogs Annie Liebovitz (Rolling Stone) and Roberta Bayley, who rocketed to fame just a couple years before with her iconic B&W cover photo for the Ramones’ debut LP.
Bayley was there at the behest of her employer, Punk Magazine and its founding editor, John Holmstrom, who was also in attendance.
I had met Punk’s “resident punk,” Legs McNeil, a couple years before this, as he and I regularly corresponded by mail; he’d answer my general scene-related questions, and I’d keep him abreast of Houston’s punk rock landscape, such as it was. I know I brought one Bayou City band, The Plastic Idols, to Legs’ attention at one point, and may have even sent him a copy of their locally-pressed single, “I.U.D.”
In fact, the Idols played a large part in my “authorized kidnapping” of Tom Robinson after a show in 1978! My first-hand account of those Houston high-jinks can be accessed here:
In a 2014 Texas Monthly article, Roberta Bayley shared her memories of the Randy’s Rodeo show: “That San Antonio gig was really scary. Those weren’t fans up in the front. Half of the people were there for curiosity, but the other half were there to cause trouble.
“People spit on the band. They threw cans of beer at the stage all night. It wasn’t like the shows I was used to. The Ramones played for Ramones fans. They didn’t take a lot of opening slots because when they played with other bands, they played for people who didn’t get it. But Malcolm’s intention was confrontation. He specifically chose not to send them to Austin because Austin was aware of the Ramones and the Sex Pistols.”
Roberta: “My photos in San Antonio are from the back of the room. I’d come to meet the tour on the same flight as Annie Liebovitz, and she went right in the middle of all that. I chose not to. There was a feeling of . . . menace isn’t the right word. But there was a definite sense of violence. That was the show where Sid swung his bass at that guy.”
(Certainly a sight I remember clearly: At some point, after having beer and/or spit hurled at him relentlessly, Sid took off his bass, and, swinging it around like an ax to a woodpile, slammed the instrument down either onto or quite near the audience member’s head. Without missing a beat, Johnny could be heard to say, “Oh dear, Sid’s guitar fell off!”).
This video, with live footage of their “New York” performance, features a brief interview with Brian Faltin, the alleged target of Sid’s wayward bass. Brian reportedly attended specifically to protest and provoke the band:
“They looked terribly unhealthy.”
Roberta continues: “John Lydon kept to himself. Punk had covered the band and run a long interview with him, so I knew he was intelligent. But he was not sociable. When I got on the band’s bus briefly in San Antonio, he just said, ‘That’s highly unadvisable, young lady.’” It’s quite likely she was on the bus when my friends and I had our Sid and Johnny encounters; if not then, possibly shortly thereafter.
I can’t recall who suggested, or if there was discussion at all among us, but we apparently split just as the show concluded. After all, the car’s driver was looking at another three-hour trip back to Houston.
As Roberta told Texas Monthly, the band made it a habit to come out and mingle with the fans who had stayed after much of the crowd had dispersed. Had I known that, or one of my group had suggested it, I would’ve loved to have stuck around.
Roberta picks up the story: “That was a big part of the punk ethos: the band wasn’t separate from the audience. So the Pistols came out to check out the space, to admire all the beer cans on the floor and talk to the contingent of English press that was following them. The Sex Pistols coming to America was a big British press story.
“They looked terribly unhealthy. They had skin like reptiles that had been underground their whole lives, like salamanders, beyond even the standard English pasty look.”
“Tell us, what’s it like to have bad taste?”
“And they looked freaky, especially for Texas,” Roberta continues. “You didn’t see orange spikey hair back then. They were young, like 21 or 22, and this was their first real tour. When they went on the Anarchy Tour in England, most of their shows were canceled, so they’d just travel to a city and not play.
“But by now they were starting to feel manipulated by Malcolm. He didn’t have their backs. He was an intellectual, a provocateur, and in America he realized they were ‘becoming a rock band.’ That wasn’t interesting to him. And they were getting fed up with being Sex Pistols.”
The next two days (January 9 & 10), the band continued to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, followed by Dallas. After a day off, they played Tulsa, Oklahoma on the 12th.
Dragged down by the flu (Jones), Sid’s smack addiction, Johnny’s exhaustion and shredded voice, the band made their anti-climactic finale on the 14th at San Francisco’s Winterland amid heightened security and a lackluster performance.
Johnny’s last words as a Sex Pistol to close the show and tour: “Ah haha, ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? Good night.”
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