It’s come to this -- a Sex Pistol drives a Prius. On a recent crisp afternoon, Steve Jones, the guitar architect of London punk in its primacy, zipped down Hollywood Boulevard in his shiny white hybrid Toyota, which is customized with a rooftop image of her majesty Queen Elizabeth, a safety pin jutting from her lip. And you thought punk rock was dead.
Even with the distraction of nubile young tourists strolling up the Walk of Fame, Jones was in a melancholy mood. You see, like so many people in America these days, the 53-year-old rock star turned radio DJ is looking for a job.
“It’s weird not to have somewhere to go,” Jones said. “And wherever I do go next won’t be the same, I know that.”
Jones joined the ranks of the unemployed on Jan. 17, when Indie 103.1, the scruffy but revered L.A. rock station, became a victim of a vicious downturn in advertising revenue. For five years, the Sex Pistol had been the gloriously unpolished voice of “Jonesy’s Jukebox,” an eccentric and unpredictable two-hour lunchtime show on which he played any obscure record he wanted, chatted up famous guests or just, well, whistled.
The show was rebroadcast in the late afternoon, and its pirate soul became the signature of a station that Rolling Stone, Esquire, Spin and other national magazines celebrated as the best commercial radio outlet in the nation.
“Indie, that was my radio station, so to speak,” Jones said. “I think people are starting to really miss it and realize how special it was. And for me, taking the job, it got me out of a rut that I was always in. I’m pretty much an isolated person. I’d rather stay home and play video games. For me to go somewhere every day, it was the best thing for me as a human. It got me away from the madness in my head.”
A lot of people miss Indie, which was eulogized far beyond the reach of its famously feeble signal. Bloggers who only had read about the station wrote tributes to it as a vinyl spirit in the Digital Age. When the station’s corporate chiefs at Entravision abruptly switched the call name to El Gato 103 and began pumping regional Mexican music, rock fans of a certain age reacted the same way they did when Tower Records closed or CBGB was shuttered in New York.
“A lot of people were devastated; Indie was a community, and it was chaotic and unpredictable and had all this rare energy,” said Mark Sovel, Indie’s former music director who has been working to revive the station as a broadcast concern (the station is still available online at indie1031.fm, but it’s a shadow of what it was). Those revival efforts have, so far, gone for naught, but they have led to some interesting conversations, such as Prince calling to offer his name and guitar in service of saving the station. “But it’s not looking good,” Sovel said, adding that Indie loyalists have more enthusiasm than business acumen and face a bleak marketplace: “We are not exactly ‘business plan’ kind of guys. . . .”
There was a recorded message that played over and over the last day Indie was on the air that suggested the station, like some rock martyr, died defiantly because it wouldn’t play pop hits by Britney Spears or Sean “Diddy” Combs.
“It’s ridiculous; that was embarrassing,” Jones said with a groan. “There was no one telling anybody what to do. Look, money’s tight and advertisers ain’t spending. The station never had great ratings, the signal was small, but we made money on commercials. And then we didn’t, and that was because of the economy.”
Indie might be in the ground for good, but Jones is likely to land on his feet. Calls have been coming in from traditional radio stations and satellite radio and Internet ventures. He canceled a trip to Hawaii last week to handle some new overtures, but he said he is proceeding cautiously.
“Wherever I go, I will still do my show the same; I wouldn’t change it. I don’t think I should, and I hope any of these people that are thinking of hiring me aren’t going to try to mold me into something else,” Jones said. “I’d be bored out of me brain. I’d last two weeks if they had me reading some nonsense. If you want someone to read a piece of paper, just hire someone else. There’s loads of people that do that.”
Jones is also leery of any post where his listeners couldn’t tune in on a transistor radio. Local radio, like freeway asphalt, links communities in the mad sprawl of L.A.
“The thing I liked about Indie is you could really be in your town,” Jones said. “It’s live, and the people listening feel like they’re part of one thing, a local thing. When you do satellite, you’re in space. It could have been recorded a month ago.”
There’s also been some vague offers regarding a television show, perhaps something along the lines of the chat-and-perform format now being used by Elvis Costello. Jones chuckled: “And where do you think they got the idea from?”
Not like KROQ
“Jonesy’s Jukebox,” if you never heard it, had some of the pacing of Howard Stern’s unhurried ramble but with the bleary voice of a rock survivor who, despite 2 1/2 decades of sobriety, still sounds hung over. His guests -- among them Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson and Robert Plant -- also responded to him as a showbiz peer.
Jones had plenty of war stories: Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, for example, dropped by to recount her 1970s sexual escapades with the Sex Pistol. “You won’t hear that on KROQ,” Jones said, referring to the rock powerhouse station in Los Angeles that is far more slick in its approach.
Might KROQ be a home for Jones? He won’t say whom he has talked to, but he’s decided to limit his choices to L.A. or New York. If a good fit doesn’t present itself, Jones has talked about going on tour with Iggy Pop and the Stooges -- the band’s guitarist, Ron Asheton, died last month at age 60, and having an old friend take his place might help the band soldier on.
Jones also says he doesn’t really need to work (there’s enough money in the bank after recent Pistols reunion tours), but he also dreads the idea of slipping into a hermit’s life.
“I can’t get enough of Call of Duty,” he said. “I’m the oldest guy who plays on PlayStation. But 53 is the new 16.”
When Jones really was 16, he was a juvenile delinquent of the first order. He was saved from a life of crime by rock ‘n’ roll -- well, mostly saved. At one point, he did steal David Bowie’s microphone and gear, equipment that went to good use when the Pistols made their searing debut in 1975.
The Pistols released just one album and imploded, but it was enough to eventually land the band in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Jones moved west in 1982 after a year in New York, during which he sold his passport for dope money. He was homeless for a while and floating in a heroin haze. He cleaned up, looked around and realized he loved Southern California.
“I’ve lived here now longer than I lived in London,” he said. “I really appreciate the place now. People would recognize my voice too, they would say, ‘You’re that guy on the radio.’ I miss that.”