When I think back to my time as a punk, the seven stages of grief – shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing and acceptance – invariably cross my mind. Luckily I quit being one when I was still a teenager, turning to the deep peace of the twinset after the hurly-burly of the bondage pants. It was easy for me; I’d only ever pretended to be a punk to advance myself professionally as a 17-year-old keen to find a way of evading factory life. But Jordan – born Pamela Rooke in Seaford – was the real thing.
The position of women in punk was an interesting one – better than being a hippie girl, expected to put up and shut up, and more on a par with being a mod girl: a mate. What mod and punk had in common was their drug of choice, amphetamines, which tend to put sex on the back-burner. Girls were encouraged to be mouthy, and Jordan was an audacious young woman from the start. As a teenage Bowie fan she got close enough to her idol for him to notice an earring she had made “out of a starling’s feather, with pearls sewn into them… He took my hand and asked me if he could have it. I shook my head slowly and said, ‘No.’”
Refreshingly she makes no attempt to pin her subsequent waywardness on her upbringing: “My childhood was like one long fantastic dream.” Always clothes-crazy, her first memory is of being a toddler and seeing a pink cape in a shop window “with a mandarin collar in black velvet and a little cap that went with it”. But by nine she’s being fitted for her first bra – “I was well endowed for a young child” – and you sense that trouble’s waiting in the wings of her pastoral playground. At 18, in the summer of 1973, she already has a stage-name – after Jordan Baker, the enigmatic female golf champion from The Great Gatsby – and is applauded when she walks into clubs, due to her singular dress sense. She has no evident talent except for that of getting people to stare at her, so when Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood open SEX at 430 King’s Road, she finds an appropriate stage: a shop that was a cross between a kinky brothel and an art-school happening, where you could have any colour as long as it was rubber.
Though the McLaren/Westwood legend is tarnished today (if it’s possible to tarnish a pair who played with images of rape when they were starry-eyed young things), it’s remarkable to think that there was once a shop where Bianca Jagger was asked to leave “because she had so many airs and graces”. (A more favoured famous customer was the newsreader Reginald Bosanquet, who apparently wore rubber pants beneath his immaculate suits.) They were fonder of impoverished teenagers, and soon the Fagin in McLaren was well-served by a gaggle of artful dodgers keen to pick a record company pocket or two. John Lydon, a teenager of extraordinary beauty, turns up in the shop wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt with I HATE written above it – and the rest is hysteria.
When Lydon appears, everyone else in the book fades away, including Jordan herself to some extent. She keeps her end up, claiming to have inspired his ripped, torn and safety-pinned clothing – but the couture designer Zandra Rhodes claimed this, too. His bandmates are a bunch of doofuses, ranging from sweet to semi-human, immediately reduced to backing musicians by his sheer molten charisma. McLaren begins to look even more of a pranking ponce as Lydon’s passion comes up against McLaren’s fashion; during an event with a cultured crowd at the ICA, Rotten reportedly sets off the alarm and the fire brigade turns up. It was a metaphor for the way a first-rate talent refuses to be a puppet; told by McLaren to write a song call “Submission” about sadomasochism, Rotten accidentally misunderstands and comes back with a song about a submarine mission.
The plot sickens with the arrival of the New York contingent, led by Johnny Thunders. I remember how excited and honoured we wide-eyed kids were that ACTUAL NEW YORK DOLLS wanted to live in our quaint little country – only to find out that they were here not for the beer but for the NHS methadone. Jordan, already dabbling in the hard stuff despite having been subjected to Lemmy’s anti-drugs lectures (“Speed doesn’t count!” he used to say), doesn’t blame them – “but one thing you can blame the Heartbreakers for is Nancy Spungen”. The eternal triangle of Sid, Nancy and smack takes shape and a great rock band are doomed to premature implosion.
Jordan becomes the manager of a young Adam Ant, whose repertoire consists of playing the same song three times in a row and then rolling on the floor in a gimp mask screaming “BEAT ME!” I turn up on page 296, Miss NME Hip Young Gunslinger with all guns blazing: “Burchill really went at me, calling me middle class and came out with the statement that Adam sang Nazi songs…I’m not violent but I came very close to knocking her block off that day.” Westwood calls Jordan to tell her that Sid has killed Nancy “and we both had a chuckle”. (She can be pleasingly bitchy: “The Clash looked like painters and decorators”; “You can’t imagine Vivienne having sex, but I think she sort of half-propositioned me that night.”)
She marries Adam’s teenage bass player Kevin Mooney, an act that Westwood deems so bourgeois that she sacks Jordan from Seditionaries (the renamed SEX) – though Honey magazine makes it wedding of the year. The happy pair turn their backs on Adam for being a sell-out, form the underwhelming Wide Boy Awake, spend their advance on drugs, have to move in with Kevin’s parents, and he sells Jordan’s clothes and jewellery after saying he’s putting them in storage. When he gives her cat brain damage it’s the final straw and she bails from both him and heroin, returning to Seaford to work with animals. It’s like a soap opera designed by Hieronymus Bosch, romping along in splendid style with the ghostly guidance of writer Cathi Unsworth.
The past is a foreign country and London is a lost, riotous one where young creatives dwell in flats with a view of Buckingham Palace, living on their wits (and tits) and eating at Salvation Army kitchens. It seems a mite childish now – Sid throws a tampon at Janet Street-Porter; Jordan gives her a trick toffee tasting of mustard – but to be fair we were just kids. If you’ve never read a book about punk, this is the only one you’ll ever need. Reading, I felt glad I’d been part of it – going from disbelief to acceptance and skipping all the bad bits, just this once.
Defying Gravity: Jordan’s Story
Jordan Mooney and Cathi Unsworth
Omnibus, 448pp, £20
This article appears in the 02 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, A very British scandal