"What kind of guy am I?" asked singer-guitarist Steve Jones, absent-mindedly stroking his chin as he pondered the question. You could tell something caustic was coming.
"I'll tell you. I'm not the kind of guy a girl would take home to her mother. She'd kick the girl out and probably call the cops on me."
Jones looked smug. He obviously still likes being thought of as a rowdy rogue--just like in the old days. When he was playing guitar with the Sex Pistols, the infamous English punk pioneers, back in the late '70s, he was notorious--a rowdy, boozing rascal who was totally out of control.
Jones and his colleagues--Johnny Lydon, Sid Vicious and Paul Cook--terrorized the rock music world. What redeemed the Sex Pistols was the music, which Jones helped write. But those four young Englishmen were bigger than their music. People who had never heard the music knew about the Sex Pistols. They were vile, surly and obnoxious, preaching decadence and anarchy back when the Beastie Boys were still innocent schoolboys.
But, as Jones was quick to point out, the Sex Pistols are old business. Things have changed for him. He's starting a new career as a solo performer on MCA Records. His first album, "Mercy," is out Monday.
But Jones hasn't yet turned into a spiffy yuppie. Though he was lunching at a fancy West Hollywood restaurant, Jones was decked out in a T-shirt and old jeans. His long hair was in disarray, having been whipped around in the wind as he rode his motorcycle--a big Harley-Davidson--to the restaurant. Though he still looked like a tough, dangerous character, that look was somewhat misleading. By his own admission, Jones is fairly tame now.
"I've mellowed out," he announced, his Cockney accent largely garbling the words. "That happens when you get older." At 31, Jones looks grizzled and worn. He's crammed a few decades worth of action into the last 10 years.
During that time, music wasn't his focus. It was drugs. From the time Jones left the Sex Pistols until two years and one month ago, he was a junkie.
Ironically, kicking the heroin habit has made Jones more popular than anything he's done since leaving the Sex Pistols.
People recognize him from his anti-drugs spot on MTV, which he proudly re-created:
"I'm polishing my motorcycle and the camera zooms in. I say, 'Hi, I'm Steve Jones. I used to play guitar for the Sex Pistols. A good friend of mine, Sid Vicious, died from drugs. I nearly died from drugs. Drugs suck.' That's it--cool, real cool."
Jones recalled that, after the Sex Pistols split, he turned to drugs out of boredom and discontent. "I didn't want to be what I was," he said. "I wanted to be someone else. Drugs helped me feel like I was somebody else."
After the Sex Pistols, he played in two bands, the Professionals and Chequered Past. But those were fruitless exercises. "I was only interested in getting high then," he said. "I had no interest in the music. I was writing songs and I didn't know what I was writing about."
What convinced him to kick the habit?
"Some friends I used to get loaded with got straight," he recalled. "I ran into them. I had nowhere to live. I was this lowlife, scum-bag junkie, ripping off houses. They said come to this meeting. I went because I thought I might get some money for drugs. But they got me to go to a detox center. I've been straight ever since."
"Mercy," Jones' new MCA album, is more in the rock mainstream than you'd expect. Surprisingly, it's neither offensive, angry nor daring. Though some songs rock fairly hard, they're all rather melancholy. His vocals most often resemble Bryan Ferry's--deep, droning and detached. In lower registers, Jones' sexy growl is like Elvis Presley's. Actually, the album is very good.
"There's darkness on some of the songs," Jones said. "Maybe that's because things were pretty dark for me for many years. But there was no point in me doing punk songs. I don't even like them."
"One minute I was kicking the hell out of people at football (soccer) matches and the next minute I was playing guitar in the Sex Pistols," recalled Jones, just a novice guitarist when he started with the Sex Pistols. "The whole thing wasn't that serious to us when we started out. We were getting drunk and chasing women. When you were in a band, you could do all that. I wasn't a musician. I was a hoodlum."
Bad memories of that period still haunt him. "I can listen to the Sex Pistols' music, but I don't like to do it too often. It brings back a lot of memories I don't particularly like."
According to Jones, who wrote some of the Sex Pistols' songs, he didn't like a lot of the group's music. "You can't listen to some of those songs," he said. "Johnny's weird way of singing gave them some distinction. That's why some people liked them. To me, a lot of the tunes are just rot."
Jones and drummer Paul Cook were the group's musical backbone. But bassist Vicious, Jones recalled, was basically a liability: "Sometimes on stage, the roadies would pull the plug on him because he'd be making such a racket with his playing. And he wouldn't ever know it. He'd still be playing, thinking somebody could hear him."
The main reason the group split up in 1978, Jones insisted, was its inability to handle fame, American style: "'We were sick and tired of all of it anyway. But coming to America really did us in. Everyone was treating us like big rock stars here. It went to John's head. All these people are hanging on to us, kissing up to us. The whole thing was sick.
"The last gig (in San Francisco) was the last straw. I didn't like the way we were playing. Nothing was working. Sid was out of it. Sid was a nightmare--it was all a nightmare. I was glad we decided to end it."
One thing that still galls him is the way they mishandled their money: "We didn't have lawyers and accountants. No one was watching out for our money. We'd go to the office and get money and go on our way. I was 19-20 years old then. I was stupid. I didn't know any better. We weren't getting our fair share of the money. That happens to young musicians all the time. It makes we mad when I think how stupid we were."
Jones has been very productive since he's been off drugs. He co-produced and co-wrote Andy Taylor's album, "Thunder," and collaborated on three songs for Iggy Pop's album, "Blah, Blah, Blah." Jones also contributed material to three movie sound tracks--"American Anthem," "Something Wild" and "Sid & Nancy," the story of Vicious' drug decline.
Jones is now a Los Angeles resident. England, his homeland, is just a distant memory. "I have no interest in going back there," he said. "In England, they hate everything. It's a negative place. I still have a couple of friends there. And my parents. . . . I haven't seen them in 10 years. I don't even know where they live."
If his solo album does well, Jones plans to tour. He has done some live performing--guesting in other musicians' shows, beginning with a show at the Central, a local club, two years ago. "I had just gotten off drugs," he said. "I was jamming with a bunch of guys. I was terrified. I had never been on stage without a beer in my life."
Ideally he'd like to be an opening act on a major concert tour. The thought of playing clubs, he said, made him cringe:
"I don't want to play stinking, beer-ridden clubs. It depresses me even thinking about that. I really hate it when you're finished with a show and you're in your dressing room with that stink of beer and sweaty girls. It brings back an ugly picture for me. I'd hate to have to do that again."