Bodies: Sex Pistols and Abortion Art
Issue #55, May 2001
Coffee helps, but I need Punk. On sleepy Mondays I pop in the Sex Pistols' 1977 album Never Mind the Bollocks while driving seven miles to the university where I teach. Kicking off the work week with the opening song "Holidays in the U.K" is bracing, but it's the high-energy second track "Bodies" that is always the most fun and thought-provoking.
She was a girl from Birmingham
She just had an abortion
She was a case of insanity
I assumed the next line "Her name was Pauline, she lived in a tree" was just a throwaway, and nowadays can't help but think of eco-radical pinup Julia "Butterfly" Hill perched high atop the Headwaters forest. Yet in his 1994 Autobiography Rotten, John Lydon, known as Johnny Rotten when he was the Sex Pistols' singer, remembered that Pauline "actually had a treehouse on the estate of this nuthouse. The nurses couldn't get her down, she'd be up there for days".
He continued, "She turned up at my door once wearing a see-through plastic bag. She did the rounds in London and ended up at everybody's door...Like most insane people, she was very promiscuous." I suspect the band enjoyed Pauline's sexual favors, and later were a bit remorseful when they realized that a troubled mental condition lay beyond her Punk outrageousness. Years later Pistols drummer Paul Cook remembered glumly "You had to keep your distance from Pauline." In my first teaching job, in the loosely-managed art program of an inner-city drop-in center with many clients in and out of the mental health system, another male teacher had the habit of bringing home deeply troubled women. He would later bemoan their clinging and emotional dependency. "I want to bear Buddha's babies" wrote one on a drawing he showed me. I can imagine Pauline.
She wasn't the only one who killed her baby
She sent letters from the country
She was an animal
She was a bloody disgrace
Mommy! I'm not an animal!
Bodies! An abortion!
In the early 1970s, abortions may have been prevalent among university-town women in Michigan but required incovenient travel out of state. I was in high school then. In my ninth grade class, one faculty-brat friend disappeared twice from school for that purpose, then finally bore a daughter sophomore year. That same year, an older girl in the neighborhood asked me to take care of her dog, while she dealt with a pregnancy resulting from bored trysts with fellow employees in her job as a hotel maid.
Then came the January 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that effectively legalized abortion across the United States.
There was fear at this new order of women's reproductive rights among some traditionalist young men, for whom removal of the threat of unwanted pregnancies and shotgun marriages should have brought nothing but relief. That fall, I went to college, at a college that had only matriculated its second co-ed class. A pre-med sophomore bemoaned unverifiable "facts" that the year before, ten percent of the newly admitted women had college-provided abortions. This year, he said, the number was so high the college wouldn't release its statistics. He seemed disappointed at my shrug and lack of outrage.
Dragged on a table in a factory
Illegitimate place to be
In a packet in a lavatory
Die little baby screaming
Screaming fucking bloody mess
It's not an animal, it's an abortion
"The fetus thing is what got me." said Lydon. "She'd tell me about getting pregnant by the male nurses at the asylum or whatever."
Like Lydon's, my outrage comes from stories such as those contained in Marge Piercy's novel Braided Lives, a tale of women attending the University of Michigan about 1960. Unwanted pregnancies and abortions figure heavily into their lives. The disastrous consequences of its illegality at the time is described in wrenching detail: the agonizing pain of self-induced methods or those performed by sympathetic doctors without anaesthesia . Piercy's autobiographical narrator explains "Buhbe [grandmother] had twelve children and at least five abortions; Mother three children, at least two abortions and a miscarriage that almost killed her — doctors can't help you when you're miscarrying until the fetus is out, for fear of being an accomplice to abortion. Buhbe, my mother and their sisters always chose illegally and dangerously which of the endless possibilities for fecundity they would bring to birth, which of the multitude of possible children they might feed, clothe and love. So women have always done in societies everywhere, with or without male knowlege or aid, with or without the help of official medicine and law. Such was the province of midwives and witches."
On the rolling drive towards work, even the mid-Michigan environment conspires to make "Bodies" resonate. Halfway to my university, along M-84 near I-75 and across from a Lutheran chuch, there stood for several months last year a notable outdoor installation. Dominated by the billboard "Bay City Population - 38,000. Michigan Abortions 1999 - 26,600." was a roadside field of numerous white popsicle-stick crosses. Twenty-six thousand? Sorry, didn't count. As a piece of political art, it was quite impressive — reductive, conceptually clear, spritual and somber like the military cemeteries that sprang up in France for World War One dead. Like the entertainer Madonna, who grew up in and fled this region, it's high-concept, showy and in your face. And the work is straight-out wrongheaded, if it intends to promote any reduction in women's right to choice.
This wasn't the only anti-abortion public art in Michigan last fall. A group called the Genocide Awareness Project set up for two days a display of what the conservative student paper Michigan Independent called "disgustingly huge" photographs. The thirty 6' x 13' display boards were set up on the University of Michigan's central campus by Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship. Developed by the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform in California, its grisly medical photographs attempt to morally link abortion to mural-sized images of the slaughter of whales, the lynching of African-Americans, and the Holocaust. Even students sympathetic to the anti-abortion cause said they were grossed out by the overkill.
Bodies I'm not an animal
Mummy I'm not an abortion
Throbbing squirm gurgling bloddy mess
I'm not a discharge
I'm not a loss in protein
I'm not a throbbing squirm
Here Johnny turns Pauline's dilemma into a Halloween pantomime, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street waving his sharp instruments above his bloodsoaked apron, or Elephant Man John Merrick stumbling away from the tormenting crowd sobbing that he's a human being. As guitars and drums thrash, the band maintains a characteristically male distance from the fluids of life.
In Britain, John Lydon was born into an immigrant Irish Catholic family, a people for whom unwanted children have caused much misery. With a not-easy life to lead in a not-welcoming place, Lydon's autobiography Rotten is even subtitlted No Irish/No Blacks/No Dogs after a sign he once saw. Though many United States Catholics are stalwarts in the Anti-Choice movement, British and European Catholics are not so rigid on the abortion issue, aware that there were never even Papal pronouncements on the issue until about a century ago. In Ireland, abortion was finally declared a crime in 1861 and remains illegal, despite an active Dublin Abortion Rights Group. Ireland made sure no provision of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty would bind the nation to European Union rulings on women's rights, and an abortion doctor was shot in Ireland in 1998. For the procedure an inconvenient trip from Ireland to England is necessary. Fortunately, even the most severe foes of choice have done nothing to prevent this travel nor the publication of information on abortion services in the press and on the Internet.
At the end of the second verse and chorus of "Bodies" there is a false stop to the song. Then with a slap to the snare drum like a starter's pistol, Cook slams down the gauntlet and Rotten lets loose, goes ballistic.
Fuck this and fuck that
Fuck it all a fucking fucking brat
She don't want a baby that looks like that
I don't want a baby that looks like that
Invariably I laugh out loud to hear Johnny's sputtering, this shining moment of gobbing, hamfisted invective. In the 1980s I occasionally worked as a bartender for a publican from Dublin who was equally effusive in liberal use of the f-word. More recently, on Inishbofin island in Ireland's Galway Bay I heard an angry teenager in a boat dockside cuss as emphatically and carnally — Fuck! Bloody shit! Fuck it all fucking fuck! — when he found someone had messed with his fishing tackle. In "Bodies" there is none of the goodhearted family humor about the turmoil an unplanned pregnancy causes, as in the Irish movie The Snapper. Instead, Pistol Johnny takes an ugly turn, cursing the world and its cruelties and expediencies.
French feminist Ginette Paris has written of "the sacrament of abortion", turning a very difficult yet necessary event into a holy moment of sacrifice for the greater good of a household with only planned, wanted children. This concept — that such an important choice would be sanctified and given meaning in any faith — resonates with me.
The flipside to such magnanimous spirituality is Johnny's exasperated scapegoating confusion. He speaks first as the woman's confidant to a story he wishes he hadn't heard; then as the abortionist; now as a spectator to Pauline's fast operation on a steel table (as efficient as whatever quickies the band enjoyed with her); then back to his growling status as the woman's lover and impregnator, or perhaps even her angry father (think Danny Aiello in Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach" video); and most emphatically, the yowling embryo itself.
Perhaps out of fear — I don't think it's out of respect — Pauline's voice is the one which Johnny and group never speak. By going so over the top, Johnny effectively lampoons all opposition as coming from a male mouth to Pauline's abortion decision. In England's Dreaming (St. Martin's, 1993) Jon Savage notes how "Bodies" has no fixed narrator, its story told in both third and first person, from "an almost schizoid viewpoint" that may even mirror troubled Pauline's. "Bodies" was the last song the Sex Pistols recorded in the studio, the only all-new song on Never Mind the Bollocks, written and assembled by the band in the studio, and inspired by their fan's letter and later in-person appearance in their lives. Propelled by his band's kick-ass beat, Johnny Rotten rages at this young woman's abuse, rages at sex and death and birth and even those stupid fucking fans seeking solace in sexual congress with and confession to a rock band. In those 3 minutes 02 seconds he rages at everything else too. What are you rebelling against? Whaddya got?
Many hoped George W. Bush would be moderate on the issue of abortion, but one of his first acts as president was to deny federal aid to any group that provides abortion counseling in "developing" countries. His actions, like his campaign rhetoric, placate his party's radical fundamentalist Christian wing, though his party is far from united against choice. A recent feature article in the Ann Arbor Observer discussed that city's Dobson brothers, pointing out that though the octagenarian millionaires are staunchly Republican, they dislike their party's anti-choice position. In the 1940s and 1950s Republican women like Dobson wives were strong supporters of Planned Parenthood, whereas the Democratic Party included more Irish- or Polish-American Catholics who steered clear of it.
Despite Roe v. Wade, abortion remains unavailable in 86% of the counties of the United States. RU-686 (mifepristone) is a drug that induces miscarriage and is now available in the U.S. through physicians, though small-town doctors have expressed skepticism and fear of reproach if they were to prescribe it in conservative communities. Anti-choice activists claim they will fight the drug as they do surgical abortion.
Body I'm not an animal
Body I'm not an abortion
I'm not an animal mummy
"Bodies" would make a great wicked animated cartoon, in perverse early Disney or Ren and Stimpy style depicting all the animals that Johnny is not. The Sex Pistols came along too early, and despite their manager Malcolm McLaren's cinematic efforts after the fact, they were spared the budget to make effects-laden rock videos. That gloss is unnecessary, for a perfect three-minute rock song is art enough. And it is women, not those young male Pistols, who when universally given their right to choice, can finally assert they're no longer animals domestically penned for breeding.
I believe "Bodies" remains the most important song to deal with abortion, a major political issue of the 1970s when it was written. The fundamental women's right that was fought for then had been a part of women's lives for centuries — for as long as there have been women — before being discussed in mixed company and won in the public arena. Three decades later abortion rights remain embattled, though I don't believe John Lydon nor any of the Sex Pistols were out to curtail them. Beyond simplistic (albeit powerful) propoganda like the churchyard or campus installations, deceptively simple art like the choppy, frenetic multivoiced "Bodies" is one way to deal with the contradictions and difficulties of serious issues. The Sex Pistols, in their macho bravado, vent their panoply of feelings from the outside of Pauline's decision, including some nastiness which must never again be given force of law (nor be allowed to harass abortion doctors, clinics or clients). Without question, the right of all women to safe, readily available abortion must be defended on all fronts, perhaps doubly so by men. There appears to be little progressive, feminist art on this topic in wide currency, perhaps because abortion is necessary rather than celebratory. Many women have spoken of variegated, deep feelings after abortion, its procedures altering a significant biological course, and to articulate these, perhaps cathartic art forms are best. If two decades after "Bodies," Liz Phair, Hole, or L7 had abortion songs as powerful as "Bodies", I simply don't know about them. The Sex Pistols' compact rocknroll explosion is more nuanced and contradictory than the expansive propoganda put forth in the churchyard to seize the attention of passing cars, or the campus square to alarm blase students. "Bodies" is thus deeper and more lasting, more fun and more true. May its subject Pauline be safe and content today, warm in the knowlege that she inspired one of the great songs of '77 Punk.
Fuck this and fuck that, indeed.
Mike Mosher remembers John Lydon's angry glare when, after the Sex Pistols broke up, Public Image Limited (PIL) played the South of Market Cultural Center in San Francisco. Thanks to Robert Soza and Aaron Shuman for editorial suggestions. Quotes from "Bodies" © Cook, Jones, Rotten, Vicious, 1977. Published by Careers Music, Inc., BMI/WB Music Corp., ASCAP.