Pam and Tommy and Steve and Johnnie

It must be Biopic season, because I’ve just sat down of my own free will and watched two fictionalizations of actual events: one from my infancy, which I look on with fascination, and one from my early adulthood, which I disdain with the snobbery of a thousand dead aristocrats. The second thing, Pam & Tommy is probably better, so I’ll talk about it first.

But before I start gibbering about aesthetics, let us descend from the heightened dramatization into the scurvy truth. Tommy Lee is a giant toddler, a tatted-up frat boy and the reason to hate hair metal, if you don’t feel like hating it because it sucks. Motley Crue is what you get when you take Led Zeppelin and dumb the songwriting down, and put them in lady’s clothes and makeup because, as the New York Dolls discovered ten years previously, young women find that irresistible for reasons known only to God. Crue wasn’t the worst of these sybaritc collections of posers, but they were the most popular, which in a way does make them the worst. That whining eight-grade nihilism known as Grunge did us a favor by showing these clowns up for what they were.

Pamela Anderson, on the other hand, is what happens when you cross Marilyn Monroe with Miss Piggie, without the talent of either. Baywatch is to television what Motley Crue is to music: basic, brainless, and popular with the unwashed masses. She may have been better than that (almost anyone would be), but not much better. Barbed Wire didn’t fail because of the sex tape.

All of that said, they didn’t deserve what was done to them. There’s a school of thought which I sometimes subscribe to, postulating that celebrities are basically sacrificial animals and should be disposed of accordingly. This is true up to a point: fame is a brutal circus, and everyone who takes part in it signs up for the show. They sell their souls for pseudo-adulation. They deserve to discover the falseness of this choice.

But the rules of the circus are for the circus. It’s one thing for Motely Crue to get shoved down to Studio B in favor of Third Eye Blind (in their own way, the Motely Crue of the 90’s), or for Pamela to sit through people laughing at her performance in Barbed Wire. It’s quite another for them to be subject to felony burglary and have no recourse. The most frustrating thing in Pam & Tommy is that the Law refuses to do anything to help the people who are victims of a crime. The porn producers in the Valley who understand what a “release” is treat the Pam and Tommy with more ethical consideration than the courts of the state of California. Let that sink in.

The show gives us a human view of this garish tragedy, making all the principals in this case more or less sympathetic. We discover and sympathize with Pam’s yearning, with Tommy’s romanticism. They loved each other but couldn’t figure out how to live with each other. Their lives in no way prepared them for difficulty, and everything they did to get their lives back backfired in horrible ways. They end up giving the rights to their stolen property to a camgirl magnate in order to contain it.

In a nutshell, we live in a sick society, which was sick well before the 90’s, and this was an episode that made it sicker, more inhuman. An opening salvo of the Extremely Online existence we all lead, in which romantic love and any form of human decency are sacrificed to be Seen by the same masses who found Baywatch and Dr. Feelgood the height of entertainment. But hey, at least Bob Guccione protected his rights.

The flip side of fame is notoriety, and in terms of Rock n’ Roll nobody quite did notoriety like the Sex Pistols. They existed as a functioning entity for two years and two months in the mid-to-late 1970’s, equal parts rock n’ roll freak show and art project. Their music was a bracing mix of the Stooges and Deep Purple, if you’re into that sort of thing. They were angry young working-class lads from an era in the history of Britain when that provided little hope for the future. A pompous rag-trader who called himself their “mis-manager” encouraged them to turn their antipathy for their circumstances into outrage porn. They made one album, which topped the UK charts in 1977, promptly broke up, and have been legends ever since.

But the legend is full of lies, and Pistol is a half-attempt at telling the truth. Not a whole attempt, because a TV show can’t really do that. You have to truncate things for narrative flow, focus in on some things and ignore others. That’s just how the medium works. However, in Danny Boyle’s hands, Pistol becomes the story that Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle or Sid and Nancy wasn’t: the tale of the five young men who made the thing happen: Steve Jones, Paul Cook, Glen Matlock, John Lydon (Johnnie Rotten), and John Simon Beverly (Sid Vicious).

In this respect, it’s more of a basic biopic than Swindle, which was Malcolm McLaren pretending to be a megalomaniacal Svengali, or Sid and Nancy, which was a gross heroin love story. But with all the sturm und drang, a basic biopic to clear out the dross is actually helpful. Virtually every Sex Pistol save Paul, the drummer, and Sid, who’s dead, have published their own accounts of those years. Matlock got in first with I Was a Teenaged Sex Pistol, followed by Lydon’s Rotten: No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish, which is exactly as snarky a tome as the title suggests. Pistol takes its material mostly from Steve Jones’ book Lonely Boy. This is to the good.

Because, as the sharp ones know, it was Steve Jones’ band, mate. He started it, he got Malcolm McLaren to manage it, he went and learned guitar (he’s at least as good as Johnny Ramone, better than Mick Jones or Joe Strummer, a worthy successor to Ron Asheton and James Williamson) when he discovered he didn’t have the stomach to be the front man. Lydon and Vicious came in later.

Much of the story revolves around Jones and Lydon’s mutual antipathy developing into grudging respect. These two would never have tolerated each other in any other context, but somehow they made each other better artists by refusing to sand down their rough edges. Iron Sharpens Iron and all of that.

In between them is McLaren, who uses the band as cynically as any boy-band hustler. The meme among hardcore punks (especially fans of The Clash) that the Pistols were fake and a boy band is unfair, as they learned their instruments and wrote their songs with no help or supervision. But McLaren abused these guys, stoking their dissatisfaction into Post-Modern theater, letting them deal with the reaction he provoked and pocketing the money (Lydon sued McLaren in the 80’s for control of the Pistols name and publishing rights. The rest of the band jumped on and he won). He didn’t give a damn, and his only redeeming characteristic was that he was upfront about it (hence The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle).

The other running relationship is that of Jones and Chrissie Hynde in her pre-Pretenders days. Here the dynamic is opposite; they clearly like each other but don’t dare admit it, settling for a friendship punctuated by guitar lessons and casual sex. Very 70’s, I suppose.

The great question regarding either of these series is of course, who cares? All of these events are old enough to drink and might even be ready to retire. Unless you’re a fan of old-school punk or celebrity scandal, it’s hard to imagine a reason to watch. But there is a thread combining them, and that thread is worth noting.

The past is a foreign country, and the farther back you go, the more foreign. So if Pam & Tommy has you reliving the moment the Internet took over pop culture, Pistol sends you on safari in a pre-internet, post-industrial urban hellscape that generations born after it vanished were taught to romanticize. As with all safaris, it’s ultimately slumming, taking a vacation from comfort in destitution. Allzu menslich, but it limits the takeaway. For all their notoriety, the Sex Pistols, and Punk in general, mattered far less than they wanted to. Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee likewise discovered that fame will chew you up and spit you out with little regard for what you wanted to accomplish. As both series make clear, the future was shaped not by poets or artists but by the guys who run the circus. If we ever want a society in which ethics matter more than clicks, we need to start paying attention to the cost of it being otherwise.

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