Sunday, March 3, 2013

There is No Future in Romeo and Juliet's Dreaming

Will Stockton’s lecture last Friday, finely focused on the fierce urgency of “now”, shed a critical and queer light on Romeo and Juliet that my all-girls', conservative Catholic high school would never have imparted me with. I was particularly stricken when Stockton mentioned how the relationship of Juliet's urgency and a certain queerness drives the motives of the two. Ultimately, because the star-crossed lovers are doomed, they have “no future.” 

Once Stockton uttered those two particular words, I couldn’t help but immediately connect Romeo and Juliet’s demise to the blink-and-you-may-have-missed-it rise and subsequent fall of England’s monumentally influential Sex Pistols. Arguably one of the U.K.’s most infamous musical exports, the Sex Pistols’ rallying cry of “no future” embodied an entire generation of discontent, fueling anarchy against Thatcher’s England, and protesting the doom of a life constrained to industrialization -- stirred in with a healthy dose of angst and amplifiers, of course.

Contrary to popular belief, the Sex Pistols didn’t invent punk as a genre. White noise-addled freaks and Warholian performance troupe The Velvet Underground are traditionally deemed the godfathers of punk, and Iggy Pop’s band The Stooges are the forefathers (Iggy having popularized on-stage antics like stagediving, after all). But on an aesthetic level, the Pistols were the portrait of punk. As soon as the Sex Pistols left England, a sort of cultural anarchy in the U.S. happened, so to speak. Soon, kids from Atlanta to San Francisco began to bear characteristic spiked haircuts, adding safety pins to their tattered-to-perfection shirts. Bassist Sid Vicious was reported to be so terrible at performing his instrument, that his bandmates unplugged his amplifier during shows, keeping Vicious onstage merely for appearances’ sake. 

I’m speculating here, but I would venture to say that were he alive today, Shakespeare would have adored the Sex Pistols, who have a striking amount in common with the hopeless youngsters Romeo and Juliet. Perched at the helm of mainstream success and widespread cultural acclaim, the Sex Pistols released their only record, the no-bullshit Nevermind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, revered (or loathed, depending on your fancy) but a key component in early punk rock's sonic texts. Then, as quickly as they had risen, the Pistols plummeted. 

There are inevitable parallels between the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious -- half-perceived as a martyr, half-blamed for the mysterious death of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen at the Chelsea Hotel -- and Romeo and Juliet. Fresh from their hushed, adrenaline-fueled marriage, Romeo drinks a vial of poison and dies, thinking Juliet is dead. Upon seeing her lover lifeless, Juliet takes her own life with a dagger. Sid, perhaps stricken with grief, very possibly injecting his veins with a toxic amount of heroin -- passed just a few days later after Nancy’s death. To this day, the question remains: was Nancy’s death an impassioned crime fueled by love and hatred, a tragic, drug-fueled accident, or a suicide?

In his superb oral history of punk rock, Please Kill Me, famed rock journalist Legs McNeil interviewed members that were crucial to the formation of punk rock’s second wave, including Leee Childers, photographer and former manager of David Bowie. In the book, Childers comments on the mystique of Sid Vicious, implying that he may not have been as loyal to Nancy or as “straight” as he’d seemed. Vicious would purportedly sleep over and curl up in Childers’ arms most nights in England. Childers quotes, “I wish I had sex with him because I was attracted to him. Sid didn’t know what his sexuality was -- we talked about that a lot. I thought that he would have sex with me, but the next morning he’d freak out: “What have I done, am I a queer?” (264)"

The urgency of Romeo and Juliet as a queer tragedy comes full circle with the Sex Pistols’ sexual ambiguity. A queerness, like the questionable homoerotic relationship between Romeo and Mercutio, is pivotal in the Sex Pistols’ tale referenced in Childers’ account and Vicious’ penchant for shopping at sex stores, purchasing lubricant to style his hair into the characteristic mohawk and donning leather jackets garnished with S&M chains. The name itself, Sex Pistol, brims with queer connotations. As former Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren put it, the band’s name conjured imaginings of “a pistol, a young thing, a pin-up, a better-looking assassin.”

Much like Romeo and Juliet’s all-too-sudden but riveting tale, the Sex Pistols continue to be referenced in the canon of rock history for not only having one of the most short-lived and influential careers, but also possessing one of the most fascinating unanswered stories. The absence of a future for Romeo and Juliet echoes the sentiment of hopelessness penned by Johnny Rotten in the band's snarky hit "God Save the Queen", which features the spitting chorus, "there is no future / in England's dreaming."

Yet I often wonder how things could have been different for the Pistols. If their time hadn't have been as short, would they be remembered as vividly as they are today? Would Romeo and Juliet's star-crossed tale have been entirely valid if they had defied death, grown old together and fulfilled the ultimate fairy tale stereotype? Did the Sex Pistols have a future past 1979, or were they doomed to die with Sid Vicious and the '70s? Simultaneously, I ponder the same about Romeo and Juliet: could they have had a future after all, with better judgment and perhaps a bit more planning?

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