'Pistol' tells Steve Jones' story. With a touch of showbiz.

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'Pistol' tells Steve Jones' story. With a touch of showbiz.
Steve Jones, the guitarist for the English punk band the Sex Pistols, in Hyde Park in London, May 26, 2022. His 2016 memoir forms the basis for “Pistol,” a new six-part series on FX/Hulu that tells his story, but just don’t confuse it with a documentary, Jones says. Alex Ingram/The New York Times.

by Hugh Morris

LONDON.- For Steve Jones, direct has always been best. The Sex Pistols guitarist is known for rejecting what he describes as fancy “Beatle chords” in favor of a sound without frills, and for drunken retorts on prime time British television.

This approach is at the fore in his 2016 book, “Lonely Boy: Tales from a Sex Pistol.” In the introduction, he writes, “I’m not gonna come out of this smelling of roses,” before detailing the rampant kleptomania of his late teens and his sex addictions. There are also details of the sexual abuse by his stepfather, his descent into addiction after the band collapsed and the near illiteracy that hampered him until well into his adult life.

The book forms the basis for “Pistol,” a six-part series directed by Danny Boyle and arriving on FX/Hulu on Tuesday. The show stars Toby Wallace as Jones and Anson Boon as the Sex Pistols’ lead singer, John Lydon, known as Johnny Rotten.

In the series, tensions abound between the exceptional and the ordinary, and dramatic license often overcomes fidelity to Jones’ experience. Preparations have been tense, too, with Lydon losing a lawsuit to the rest of the band over the use of Pistols music in the show.

In a recent phone interview, Jones discussed what he would do if he ran into Lydon, how his story got changed to fit a TV format and the impact of the band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: What motivated you to write the memoir?

A: There was just a lot of stuff I wanted to get out there, even the dodgy stuff. It was weird at first, but I got such a lot of feedback from it — from men, young guys, who experienced a lot of similar trauma stuff as kids. I didn’t realize that kind of thing happens a lot. Most guys don’t tell anybody, they take it to their grave, and it’s very unhealthy to do that. You can’t carry that stuff around with you, you’ve got to move on.

Q: In the book, you say you hadn’t minded playing second fiddle to Lydon, but when Sid Vicious joined the Pistols, you were left playing third fiddle. How does it feel to now be the dominant voice in “Pistol?”

A: I mean, it’s OK. I’m a team player, I don’t really like being the center of attention. I’d rather be playing guitar than singing, I’ve always had that approach. I don’t really like all the spotlight at this stage of the game, at 66 years old. But it is what it is.

Q: But surely that was a consideration when Danny Boyle approached you, that you’d be thrust into the spotlight?

A: Well, of course. But Boyle liked the fact that it was coming from my view. He said I was like the engine room of the Sex Pistols, and liked coming from that angle, as opposed to the obvious angle.

Q: Through the eyes of Lydon?

A: Exactly. That’s normally the way it goes. I got a shot at telling my story, based on my book. But you’ve got to remember, it’s not a documentary. It’s a six-part series.

Q: “Lonely Boy” is a pretty frank tale that asks for little forgiveness. How well do you think that comes across in “Pistol?”

A: Like I said, it’s based on my book. You’ve got to showbiz it up a little bit, you’ve got to make it interesting — even the relationship between me and Chrissie Hynde, the “love interest.” She watched it the other day, and she was surprised: She said, “I didn’t realize I was about this much.”

Q: “Pistol” presents that as a recurring relationship. Is that quite how it happened?

A: I knew Chrissie, we did hang out a bit in the early days, she wanted to be a musician, and I kind of brushed her off, so that is all true. But she was shocked when she saw it last week.

But I do think it’s a good story. Even if it wasn’t as long as that, my relationship with her, I just think the way it’s been written makes it interesting. If you’re a train spotter, you’re going to hate it, because it’s not in the timeline, but whatever.

Q: Another unexpected narrative is the way Malcolm McLaren (played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Vivienne Westwood (Talulah Riley) are presented as parent figures. What was your relationship with the pair of them like?

A: They had a flat in Clapham, and I used to go and stay over there. They had Ben and Joe [Westwood’s children], but Ben didn’t stay over much, so I would sleep in one of the bunk beds with Joe. I just used to hang out with them, at Cranks, the vegetarian restaurant in Carnaby Street. I used to drive Malcolm around to the tailors in the East End because he couldn’t drive.

[Meeting them] was a real turning point for me, and that’s where my loyalty lay. Malcolm showed me a different side of life — that whole avant-garde, Chelsea “posh toffs” scene. And I loved it. I was not headed anywhere good the way I was going, so I’m always grateful for him and Viv for that. Even though you couldn’t trust him, I still didn’t care.

Q: Early in your relationship, McLaren helped you avoid a prison sentence. Repaying that debt seems to justify a lot of your actions in “Pistol.” Did that weigh heavily on your relationship?

A: That was only one part of it. I actually liked hanging out with him. One minute he’d be talking like a toff, and the next like a cop. In all honesty, he really made it all happen, and he doesn’t get enough credit for it. I don’t think it would have happened without him.

Q: Did it bother you that Lydon didn’t want to be involved in “Pistol?”

A: We wanted him to be involved. It would have been good if he had been on board. If the shoe was on the other foot, we’d have all been thrilled, if it had been his book and Danny Boyle wanted to do something similar. At this stage of the game, we’re grown men, I don’t know why he’s not interested. But it’s par for his personality for him not to want to be involved. Maybe he’ll secretly watch it and have a chuckle.

Q: Is the “Pistol” fallout the final straw in your relationship with Lydon?

A: I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it. It’s not like we hang out anyway. I live in LA, he lives in LA, I’ve been here 35 years, and he came just after me, and we’ve never been interested in hanging out. The last time I saw him was in 2008, when we played a load of European gigs. We don’t need to hang out, I’m good with that, we don’t need to be pals. But I do have respect for him, absolutely.

Q: What would you do if you ran into him at the shops?

A: I’d probably run and hide behind the baked beans.

Q: Boyle has said “Pistol” imagines “breaking into the world of ‘The Crown’ and ‘Downton Abbey’ with your mates and screaming your songs and your fury at all they represent.” When did you realize you had the power to shake things up?

A: The Grundy thing [a notorious interview of the Sex Pistols by Bill Grundy on British TV in 1976] took it into a different sphere. The power came from having a label, then them giving us the boot, getting a label, getting the boot again. We were calling it on our terms, which was unheard-of back then.

The Grundy thing was the beginning of the end. As far as making any more music, the creative side was out the window. The way I looked at it, then it became the leather-jacket brigade everywhere. It became mainstream, it lost its originality. Before Grundy, you had the Clash, the Buzzcocks, a bunch of bands that were very creative in their own ways.

Q: The end of “Pistol” ties things up quite neatly. Were you happy with where the series ended?

A: I did like the way it ended. There were a couple of different endings that I wasn’t keen about; [this one] left you with a feel-good-y kind of way as opposed to not being cheesy about it.

Q: What were the other endings?

A: There was one where the cast were interviewed about their experiences, and one of those “Where are they now?” kind of endings, which was horrible to be honest with you. I’m so happy Danny ditched that one.

Q: It does leave out the third part of your book though, the fallout of the Pistols and your quite tragic personal aftermath. Were you OK with that?

A: It could have gone on, but it would have started getting boring afterward. You don’t want to fall asleep listening to what I’ve been doing after the Pistols.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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