Over on Twitter, I bothered Theresa Reed with one of my posts. She’s The Tarot Lady, and if you want to learn a great deal about tarot online, there are few people better to do it. She recently posted a Rolling Stones / tarot playlist, so it seemed somewhat appropriate to bug her. She called my attention to something I hadn’t thought about: The Sex Pistols! Yes, why haven’t I read their seminal (and, uh, kind of only) album, Nevermind the Bollocks? I guess it’s time to fix that!
I’m sort of familiar with the Sex Pistols. I read a lot about them last year, as research to help a student with her thesis. Mostly I read about them in Greil Marcus’s book Lipstick Traces, which manages to go from punk rock to the Dadaists and back. That’s a recommendation, by the way. And so, as I read, I listened to the music. But I’m really only familiar with a handful of Sex Pistols songs, so portions of the album are actually a bit strange to me. Well, what the hell, let’s do it anyway.
As always, my procedure works this way: I’ll write my first impressions of the piece. When you see the tarot card, that means I’ve flipped it over. I actually don’t know what’s coming during these posts until I am midway through them.
Holidays in the Sun
The album starts by punching listeners in the throats, really. Imagine listening to this during the actual Cold War, with actual atomic bombs pointing every which way. The song is really, really mad, which I think sets up the thing I always think of when I think of the Sex Pistols: they’re mad, but they can’t do shit about it. That was basically the problem, right? As people grew up in the Cold War, they saw all sorts of problems: injustice, discrimination, wars, environmental catastrophe, the threat of total annihilation. But what were they going to do about it?
The song talks about having reasons for things, reasons for waiting. It seems, oddly, to be the Cold War itself, with the Berlin Wall standing in for the entire conflict. The line I’ll pick out here is “there’s too many closets…” In the midst of the paranoia and fear, everyone shut themselves off. It’s very similar to the beginning of Ziggy Stardust, actually. There’s nothing really left for anyone. So all the speaker can do is to wait, to stare at things, to come up with any reason at all to do anything, since all the old reasons — relationships, power, anything — are useless.
7 of Wands
This card indicates passions in conflict, almost under siege. The sephirah associated with all the sevens is Netzach, usually translated as “victory.” In the cups, that takes the form of daydreams; in the coins, long-term crop growth. Here it’s combat, and hard-fought combat at that. In a typical reading, I might say that this card indicates the need to defend oneself, or one’s projects and passions, from the outside world. That’s exactly what’s happening in the song here. The speaker is defensive, as was everyone — if everything is out to get you, you have to defend yourself from everyone and everything. It makes you strong, but it cuts you off, too. Look at the card: there’s nothing in it but the hill, the fighter, and the threats from below. No house stands in the background, no friends wait to take their turn or rescue the fighter.
Here’s the first song I’m not super-familiar with to start out. It’s a startling and repulsive screed about abortion, basically. It seems to simply abjure people to not get abortions, that people should be more than slippery bodies on tables. But that part at the end is somewhat more mysterious: Lydon slips into incoherent profanity and says both that the woman didn’t want a baby like that and that he doesn’t want one like it either. So, you know, what the hell did the baby look like, then?
10 of Pentacles
Here’s one that may take some mental gymnastics to make sense of. The Ten of Pentacles is pretty much always looked at as positive. As we saw recently, the archway and thick wall can indicate that someone is cut off a little, spending too much time with their earthly pleasures and not enough with other people. There’s something to that, as we saw in the previous song. Particularly, the woman, Pauline, lives in a tree, crazy (so he says), and the song itself is obsessed with earthiness, bodies and blood and slippery bits. This is the dark side of the pentacles that I think I don’t consider enough. Maybe we don’t overall. If you ever want to be reminded of the dark side of the Pentacles (I mean, the one that’s not just plain old greed), read Grant Morrison’s Nameless. In that, tentacles go through heads, razor blades sever the nerves that connect eyes to brains, and mouths emerge from space to eat. We are animals. The ten of any suit can represent the culmination of the suit and the spill over into a new cycle. It’s both the end of one set of numbers and the beginning of another, is the ten.
Well, if you’re an animal, and a cycle is ending and beginning, it could be a handful of things. You could be eating, or shitting, or fucking. More long term, you could be dying. If you’re stuck thinking of nothing but that stuff, you’re not going to have a pretty pleasant view of the world.
And, let’s be honest here. This song is about class issues. Pauline is from Birmingham, which is basically like saying she’s from Detroit of Harlem, if you’re reading from North America. One huge reason women get so much shit about abortions from the middle classes is that the middle classes can’t look at a woman who got an abortion and think of anything else. If women are objects in someone’s eyes, they stay that way, good or bad (“good” here just meaning stuff the someone likes, like sex or whatnot). Is Lydon actually condemning Pauline or performing the screed that’s running through everyone’s heads when they meet her? I have no idea.
We can probably go ahead and assume that the title is a state Lydon aspired to, at least sometimes…
The song is a portrait of narcissism on one level. The speaker talks about loving himself and having no time for anyone else. But then there’s that allusion to Dion DiMucci.
Here, have this:
Here’s my quick autobiographical note for the post series: I grew up in a time warp. My wife, who grew up in the same state as me, confirms it. Basically, our towns were just behind everything else, culturally, technologically, the whole deal. So, when the local radio stations became “classic rock” stations, they weren’t playing Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Nope. The most recent stuff they would play was Bob Dylan. So I listened to a ton of early rock and roll, like “Runaround Sue.” I’m glad I did, in a way. I got a peek into the part of rock history that a lot of people my age missed.
Of course, that means there are still hit 90s albums I hear for the first time today, so, uh… Yeah.
Anyway, what the ever living fuck are the Sex Pistols doing referencing this song?
Well, it seems easy to me: the speaker isn’t a narcissist, he’s just pissed (no, really?). He’s singing this to someone who keeps trying to get back with him. It’s basically Lily Allen’s “Smile.”
3 of Swords
Here’s the good stuff. As a friend of mine, C-$, says, the cards just know, man. The three of swords is a portrait of pain. At one point I’ve read someone, maybe Jessa Crispin (?), write that the three of swords indicates old pain, pain that may have developed scar tissue. The singer here has definitely done that.
Can you believe it? We’re all of three songs in, but we’re already over 1300 words? No one’s gonna read past that on their lunch break! So we’ll end here for today. Since we already know what we’re doing, the following posts will definitely have more songs apiece.
Anyway, so far we have portraits of people who are closed off, from external and internal pain. The world is in pain, it seems. This is not a startling thing to say about the world that gave us the Sex Pistols. But it’s probably still worth remembering.