Hope You Die Before We Get Old

The reunited Who and Sex Pistols cheat death one more time

It is a Midsummer Night's Eve in a wooded glen somewhere in the wilds of Finland. The chill blue sky is full of cumulus clouds, the air is ringing with the music of Bad Religion, and I am surrounded by thousands of comatose Finnish kids in an alcoholic stupor.

Today--18 years, six months and seven days after they busted up on a rainy night in San Francisco--the Sex Pistols are about to take the stage in the first stop of what's being billed as the Filthy Lucre Tour, and that stop is on a lovely hillside some 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Since snowboarding has helped sell hard-core and nouveau-punk rock to American youngsters, it's only fitting that the Pistols' first concert in 18 years is to take place here at the Messila Funpark, a densely wooded lakeside snowboarding park some 100 kilometers north of Helsinki.

This weekend it's the site of the three-day Messila Festival featuring a diverse set of bands: Moby, the Shamen, the Prodigy, Sepultura, and--back from the dead!--the Sex Pistols. There are also about 20,000 young people who have traveled from Finland, Norway and nearby Russia.

"It is a terrible day," a nice woman named Raija says on the train from Helsinki. "It is as if they compete to see who can be the most sickening."

She could easily be talking about the fact that the Pistols and other Seventies acts such as KISS, Kansas, Deep Purple, Van Halen, Foreigner and the Who are all about to hit the road again looking for the wallets and coke vials they lost in your couch the last go-round. But, in fact, she refers to the traditional drinking binge that marks Midsummer's Eve here.

In Finland this is a vacation day like, say, New Year's Eve, and although Americans aren't too shabby with a bottle, the Finns are Olympic champs at it. Johannussattu, as it's called, is Finland's national drinking holiday, and its effects are already apparent in the glazed eyes and fucked-up faces spread out throughout the train compartment. At the station in the town of Lahti, where special coaches have been arranged to take people to the Messila Festival, a handful boards the bus carrying extra-large green trash bags full of belongings: socks, a bedroll and an enormous stock of beer bottles. Every time the bus comes to a halt on the twisting road up to the park, there's an enormous clatter--clank!--of glass on glass.

One boy, a nice, bespectacled youth of 21 or so, silently drinks two 24-ounce cans of beer in the ten minutes it takes to get to the festival site. It is three in the afternoon.

Messila is a recreation area with campsites, sailing facilities and a gorgeous view of a lake. Nearby, in Lahti, three enormous ski jumps loom ominously over the dreary town.

Approaching the park, however, a visitor is forcibly struck by the emptiness of the surroundings. Unlike in America, where some cities become densely populated war zones for the duration of any major rock event, you would never guess a giant rock concert was anywhere in the vicinity. The place feels deserted, even as the festival occurs all around us.

This is, in part, a reflection of Finland's vastness, but it's also a result of the European tradition that finds kids camping and gathering peacefully all over the continent at a series of summer rock festivals like these--often for days on end. In America, any concert that draws more than 50,000 people--Woodstock in 1994, for example--is considered a huge event, but such festivals are increasingly common in Europe. In the United Kingdom alone, there's Glastonbury, Reading, Phoenix, T in the Park (Edinburgh); there's Fleadh in Dublin--all of them drawing about 100,000. And the continent has even more: Pink Pop in Belgium and Roskilde in Denmark draw up to 150,000 people, five times what Messila will get on this day.

For some reason, Finland is a mecca for such rock festivals. Several are held every summer, including the notorious Ruisrock Festival headlined by Nirvana in 1992; this year's bill features the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bunny Wailer and Neil Young. Frighteningly, a heavy-metal festival is being held this same weekend somewhere up near Lapland, and it will feature Iron Maiden and a re-formed version of Deep Purple. (Sepultura is heading up there to play as soon as it finishes opening for the Pistols at Messila--oh, the irony.)

The Messila Festival, however, is particularly notorious, because it takes place on Johannussattu. Because it draws some of its audience from northern Russia and Estonia--countries that rival Finland for the scope of their insobriety--and because of the holiday, Messila is downright bizarre. Unlike, say, Lollapalooza, here there is no traffic, no pushing, no searches, no filing through gates like cattle. There is only a long hike up dirt paths past hundreds of plastic tents. The road itself is littered with used condoms, pools of vomit and comatose kids resting by the side of the road. At the top of the hill, though, is a familiar sight: hippie booths selling incense, Finnish burritos and the inevitable tee shirts bearing anarchy slogans.

The Messila Festival is sponsored by Koff beer, one of Finland's most popular brands, and temporary beer halls abound. Each one bears the name of a U.S. town: Memphis, El Paso, Nashville. The whole place is reeling and hilarious, and night will never, ever fall: When ten o'clock rolls around, it looks like four in the afternoon, and it's not going to get much darker.

At that moment, I thank the Lord for Sepultura, a kindly Brazilian death-metal group whose Finnish record company had left a backstage pass at my hotel in Helsinki. The Sex Pistols' management had refused me access to this gig because they didn't want any press here, but Sepultura was delighted to oblige. Sepultura--the name means "burial" in Portuguese--just recorded an album titled Roots that employs the services of a Brazilian Indian tribe called the Xavantes. When Finnish air, so cold and clean, fills with a taped recording of this tribe's rhythmic chant and thousands of Finnish kids start pumping their fists in unison, it's easy to feel as though global unity has been achieved at long last.

Some Americans might think a concert featuring a death-metal band like Sepultura and a punk act like the Pistols is a bizarre coupling of musical styles, but Sep's Max Cavalera is, in fact, a big Sex Pistols fan. Roots even contains a song called "Cut Throat" that is modeled after the Pistols song "E.M.I."; it contains a chorus that goes, "Enslavement/Pathetic/Ignorant/Corporations."

"I got the Sex Pistols' record [Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols] when I was 13 or 14, and it was one of the only punk albums you could get in Brazil because it was released on a major label," Cavalera says from backstage. "The funny thing about us was we were little metal kids. We listened to Motsrhead, GBH, Discharge. My friends were all, 'Oh, that's stupid punk stuff with stupid hair,' but I hadn't seen pictures of them--there isn't one on the album--and I thought it was fucking great. I didn't understand English then, but I loved the music, the attitude. So while people in Europe and America thought of the Pistols as this punk thing, to me they were like the logical next step after Iron Maiden, who were all played out."

Cavalera says he saw Johnny Rotten at the Helsinki airport. They nodded pleasantly to each other, but Cavalera isn't going to get a chance to talk to Rotten here since Sepultura has to take off for Lapland before Bad Religion's set even finishes.

As it turns out, Cavalera wouldn't have had a chance to talk to Rotten anyway--the Pistols' arrival precipitates a sudden security lockdown. When the Pistols' bus rolls up--a mere half-hour before their scheduled performance--a raft of security guards starts pushing everyone away from the driveway. No one is allowed to see the Pistols up close and personal: They are whisked from bus to trailer to stage in total seclusion. Clearing the path, one guard manhandles Bad Religion's Greg Graffin, shoving him out of the way like a grubby autograph seeker.

By the time the Pistols take the stage at 10 p.m., the field in front of them is littered with audience members passed out in their own vomit. Thousands of young and bleary-eyed Finns--all fabulously, tremendously, mythically drunk--rock and sway to the recorded music, bellowing insults in indecipherabalese between swigs from huge plastic jugs of booze.

This is the Sex Pistols' first time in Finland. The band was supposed to play here in 1977, but the show, a benefit for a children's organization, was canceled when the promoter deemed their material offensive. Tonight, there's the problem of the audience's indifference. Although hundreds of the kids in the crowd sport "Anarchy" tee shirts and multicolored hair, the crowd as a whole seems oblivious to the Pistols' music--especially as the first six songs are relatively obscure numbers, including such rare B-sides as "Done You No Wrong" and "I'm a Lazy Sod."

They open with "Bodies," but then immediately play their five least-known songs, thus inducing sudden boredom in the crowd of kids that had just moments before gone apeshit over Sepultura and Bad Religion. To those of us standing in front of the stage watching the Pistols prove that history books are indeed written in invisible ink, the Pistols' music sounds clean and shiny; even Rotten seems bored, uttering the equivalent of, "Hello, Finland! Do you want to rock 'n' roll?"

No wonder the kids start pelting them with things.
Twenty minutes into the set, Rotten stomps off the stage in a rage, angry because audience members are hurling plastic bottles at him. "I am not your target," he yelps. "There are worse things than me in this world. You should be fucking grateful I'm here."

Rotten makes good on his threat to quit the set after the next song, telling the crowd, "That's it! Fuck you! Fuck off!" The rest of the band leaves with him. "Get some Finnish cunt up here to take your abuse."

The poor sod left with that unenviable position is one Billy Carson, an African-American actor popular in Finland--except on this night. "Idiots! Morons!" he shouts in broken Finnish. "This band has come here after 20 years. You should treat them with respect!"

The band returns to the stage to play five more songs, including such better-known numbers as "Holidays in the Sun," "Pretty Vacant" and "E.M.I." But there's little applause once the Pistols finish, almost none until the band returns to encore with "Anarchy in the U.K." Only then does the crowd--most of whom weren't born when the song came out--explode, dancing, cheering and singing along in English.

The Pistols wind up the set with the old Stooges song "No Fun." "This is what you've been, and what we're having," says the ever-pleasant Rotten when introducing the song.

But despite his taunts, many young fans insist after the show they were pleased with the performance. "I liked it very much--them and Sepultura," says one 19-year-old girl. "Maybe they are only doing it for the money," adds her 15-year-old friend, "but it's still good music. They still have something to say." Even if it's "Fuck you" one more time.

As the Pistols' bus speeds off into the evening light on its way to the next gig in Munich, Messila returns to normal. Headliners the Leningrad Cowboys, a Finnish band that parodies metal and country, perform the Pistols' "God Save the Queen," then slip imperceptibly into Elvis Presley's "Burning Love" before winding up with the all-too-appropriate lyric, "Noooooo future, less vodka for you."

A Tale of Two Cities
Two days later, on the flight from Finland to London, the airplane dips over Hyde Park, and I can see a bunch of workers erecting the stage for the Who concert that will occur there next week. A mile to the north, in Finsbury Park, the stage has already been built for the Sex Pistols' second London debut in two decades.

By midday, the tube is full of bright-haired punks heading up the Victoria line to see the all-day concert. It is Sunday, June 23--the day of the Sex Pistols' triumphant return to their birthplace.

This is the show the Pistols want the press to attend, to help propagate and fuel the hype that's going to drive them across the Atlantic this summer; it is also being recorded for a live album Virgin Records will release later this year. And when it comes to hype, the English press is happy to oblige, just as it did the first time. But where skepticism about the Sex Pistols' reunion barely edged out healthy indifference in Finland, England is brimming with stories about punk's 20th anniversary. Besides this much-talked-about show, a festival in Blackpool this August will feature reunions of X-Ray Spex and the Damned, among others.

Given the number of young Mohawked punks you see on King's Road now fueled by Green Day and NOFX songs--the 1996 equivalent of hippies on Haight Street still grooving to a Dead beat--it seems like the time for the Pistols' ridiculous reunion is ripe here in the U.K. And yet, according to Time Out! and Capitol Radio, sales have been slow for this concert despite all the hype. It's unclear if the intended audience for the Pistols' tour is 16-year-old Rancid fans paying homage to their elders or older fans who never got to see them in the first place.

More than likely, the latter: The day of the concert, Finsbury Park is hardly an advertisement for British beauty. It's a melange of old punks basking in the foreign sunlight; their shirts are off, their fleshy bellies protruding and messy hair receding, and their skin has the unfortunate hue of dead fish. They resemble the cast of the touring company for Mad Max: The Musical.

The Finsbury Park show comes off without a hitch: The warm, clear weather and England's unexpected victory against Spain in the European Cup soccer quarterfinals the day before have combined to cast a euphoric spell over all Britain, and nowhere so much as here. People are friendly and smiling, blissed out, beaming. Nothing could blow their high today, and the Sex Pistols--preceded by Iggy Pop, the Wildhearts, the Buzzcocks, Stiff Little Fingers and a few others--don't even try.

Prior to taking the stage a half-hour late, the Pistols treat the audience to prerecorded music of all the worst songs from 1976: Leo Sayer's "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing," for example, and "The Night Chicago Died," plus winners of the Eurovision Song Contest, too terrible ever to have been heard in the United States. This was the music the Pistols meant to destroy, and the crowd immediately gets the joke, singing along with every insipid word.

This time, when Rotten and Co. take the stage--"Are you r-r-r-ready?"--and rip into "Bodies," a giant roar of appreciation goes up as an audience of 20,000 sings every syllable, every scream. Everyone is arm in arm, laughing, dancing, singing along as if to a Christmas carol: "She was a girl from Birmingham! She just had an abortion!"

Wheee! If nothing else, there's no denying that the rest of the Pistols' set is one long white riot, with the audience, warm and fuzzy and full of good cheer, chanting, "No future! No future!" like so many idiot savants. Next day's papers report that the concert was attended by Johnny Depp, Kate Moss and the inevitable Gallagher brothers, Liam and Noel, who are clearly ubiquitous in London (a few days later, one of them startles poor Burt Bacharach by leaping onstage at the Royal Festival Hall and telling the audience how great he thinks Burt is).

It's all very unsettling, this mixing of cultural icons. Where is the tribal unity that made punk rock so appealing? This evening the Pistols were introduced by two English football stars, Gareth Southgate and Stuart Pearce, the latter of whom swears that Never Mind the Bollocks is his "favorite band ever." I wonder aloud if this is someone's idea of irony--like, "Look, the same people who loathed us before now love us, 20 years later."

"No way," sneers Lindsay Hutton, editor of the fanzine Next Big Thing. "It's meant exactly as it is--as the worst kind of night out with the lads drinking, part of this whole ridiculous English nationalistic football fervor."

"But Rotten's Irish," I say, puzzled. Later on that week, Southgate utterly betrays England's hopes in the European Cup final by kicking the losing penalty shot that gets caught by Germany's goalie. Pearce, as it turns out, will also play a part in England's losing effort during the Cup finals.

The backstage area at the Pistols show is as large as any concert venue, and it's a madhouse, like something out of the Robert Frank-directed Stones movie Cocksucker Blues. It's full of minor pop stars, old punks and American record-label employees who yak incessantly through every band. Every time a band comes onstage, the guests stream through the guest entrance onto the field to watch the show "for real," but it's all very perfunctory. During the Pistols' ecstatic rendition of "Anarchy in the U.K."--which may be one of the highlights of the summer--I heard a label dude yell into somebody's ear, "So, how's Sleeper doing in the U.S.?"

The Punks Meet the Godfathers
Six days later, the mood of England has distinctly altered for the worse. Or, to put it another way, a heartbreaking loss to Germany in the European Cup finals and a sudden steady rain have returned the country to its normal gloom.

It's Saturday, June 29, the day of the concert for the Prince's Trust--better known as the tongue-twisting "MasterCard Presents the Masters of Rock Concert," which has been billed in the oft-erroneous British press as "the largest rock concert ever held in London," "the largest rock concert held in Hyde Park since 1976" and "the largest gathering in London since the Royal Wedding in 1981."

The newspapers here also keep asserting that this is the first time Quadrophenia has ever been performed, but this isn't true: In fact, Quadrophenia was performed at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in 1974. My cousin, who accompanies me today, may be the only person in the 150,000-person-strong audience who can claim to have attended both shows. The night he went, Keith Moon passed out halfway through the show and was replaced on drums by a random member of the audience. Today, Moon is being replaced by Zak Starkey, whose greatest claim to fame is that he was Ringo Starr's strong sperm on one fateful night.

The MasterCard Presents the Masters of Rock Concert, which is being taped for presentation on HBO, features five acts: Jools Holland, Alanis Morissette, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, and "Pete Townshend and friends"--Pete's friends being Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, 14 other musicians, numerous singers and six actors hired for the performance of the Who's tragic mod-rock opera in its entirety. The concert is a benefit for the Prince's Trust charity, but it is also a huge media event designed to occur in conjunction with the rerelease of Quadrophenia on CD. One can't help but suspect it's also a prerehearsal for the Broadway-ization of Quadrophenia à la the 1992 smash Tommy. Either that or Quadrophenia on Ice.

It's such a hype, in fact, that a clever press officer manages to get a rumor started that there will be some "special guests" at the end of the show--meaning an impromptu reunion of the remaining three Beatles. It's a rumor that, despite its unbelievability, keeps gullible journalists in their seats to the end of the concert. But that special guest turns out to be no one more than Stones guitarist Ron Wood, who plays along with Bob Dylan.

Inside the Hyde Park enclosure that houses the concert grounds--which is way too small to hold 150,000 people--things are not so pleasant. For one thing, it is a freezing-cold day, and huge gray rain clouds loom threateningly overhead. Much of the audience is not allowed out on the field, and, even more unbearably, we are being inundated by MasterCard cant--from the ads on the 12 Jumbotron screens that dot the enclosure and the giant blimp that hovers overhead.

When Prince Charles enters the arena, Quadrophenia promptly begins . . . and, alas, it is a mess. The staging, such as it is, is impossible to watch; the voice-over makes little connective sense; and, worst of all, the size of the venue means that the sound and the visuals are out of synch, so every character--including Phil Daniels as the Narrator, Trevor McDonald as the Newscaster, Gary Glitter as the Punk, and Adrian Edmondson (ironically, the man who played the faux-punk Vivian on The Young Ones) in Sting's role as the Bellboy--looks like he's been badly redubbed in a kung fu movie. The lips move, and the sound comes out seconds later. Theatrewise, it's a debacle.

Oddly, the music itself actually holds up better than expected. Songs like "The Real Me," "Had Enough," "Cut My Hair," "The Punk Meets the Godfather" and "5:15" have been relatively underplayed on FM radio--at least compared to so many other Who songs--and they sound great here. Daltrey, who looks about 20 years younger than his mates, is in particularly fine form, and Townshend is quite moving on the solo acoustic number "Drowned."

The show winds up, as the recording does, with a bombastic version of "Love Reign O'er Me," followed by an encore of "5:15." But it all comes to nothing: The audience is distracted and unenthusiastic. Clapton's simpler set fares much better later in the evening. Here in Britain, Clapton is still God.

Somehow, I had pictured this concert as being more like the films I'd seen of the Rolling Stones' famous free concert in Hyde Park in 1969, which drew an alleged 250,000 people: all verdant grass and picnics and "butterflies are free." But the MasterCard Presents the Masters of Rock Concert is the antithesis of that: It speaks instead of money and advertising and cross-promotion and megahype. It's just no damned fun standing in a frigid field for nine hours watching a bunch of dinosaurs lumber across some far-off TV screens. It's like watching an old-timers' game from the cheap seats in the middle of a snowstorm.

My cousin insists people are here for "the event itself," that they "want to be able to say they were here."

"What's wrong with that?" he asks.
"A lot," I tell him.
Ever feel like you've been cheated? I have, again and again--but more so in the last ten days in Europe than ever before. As I look out at the enclosure at Hyde Park, two football fields long, I am summarily reminded of all the things the Sex Pistols were fighting against in 1976: bloated rock concerts featuring bands like Queen, who (articles keep reminding us) headlined the last such event in Hyde Park in 1976; Led Zeppelin, whose lead members Jimmy Page and Robert Plant are seated a few rows down from me; and the Who themselves. In those days, the Pistols and the Buzzcocks stood firmly against the glitz and pretension of what now seem like minor infractions: Page's double-necked guitar, eight-minute-long songs, rock operas, silken trousers and fringed scarves, the occasional use of the London Philharmonic Orchestra to flesh out rock operas, backstage parties populated by Sloane Rangers and stick-thin models.

At the time, those things seemed worth destroying, yet many of those things are still here today, and some of them are named Johnny Rotten. But compared to a Who concert held in a quarter-mile-long cattle pen, the Pistols reunion was downright honest. At least, for all its nostalgic aspects, it was fun. And in comparison to the Who's Hyde Park gig, the show in Finsbury Park with its moderate crowd of 25,000 was like freakin' CBGB.

Despite its amusement value--and face it, it was amusing--the whole experience has made it clear that rock 'n' roll wheezes along on its life-support machine. It received a mortal blow in Finland, and now the bell is tolling loud enough to drown out the Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K." London is stiff with boredom now; soon, it will be stone cold, immobile, and everyone in this entire city will be turned into pillars of salt.

You can already see the statuary in these giant gardens--Finsbury Park, Hyde Park, Green Park. There's Johnny Rotten, his hair in cement spikes. There's Roger Daltrey, his chin jutting out. And there's Clapton and Dylan, like Methuselah and his father, and there's Peter T. with his arm stopped straight out in mid-windup. One of these people once said, "Don't look back," but it's way too late. Everybody did.

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