When he played guitar in the world's most notorious band, Steve Jones lied about his taste in music, and that was probably a good idea. He and the other Sex Pistols were billed as snot-nosed hellions and the scourge not just of parents but also of arena-rock acts, like Pink Floyd and Queen. Jones loved the songs of fellow punks, but he actually enjoyed some of the groups he was supposed to chase into oblivion.
"When I was in the Sex Pistols, I listened to Boston," he said one recent afternoon, citing the band that gave us "More Than a Feeling." "But I couldn't tell anybody, you know. I'd get lynched."
The secret is out now. For more than three months, Jones has been the host and star of "Jonesy's Jukebox," two hours of radio that runs Monday through Friday at noon, on an FM station here known as Indie 103.1. (You can tune in online at 3 p.m. EST at indie1031.fm/main.html.) Eclectic doesn't begin to describe this mix: On a given day, Jones will spin cheese-pop from the '80s, dub reggae from the '90s and goth-punk from two months ago. He might play three Prince songs in a row, or a track from an up-and-coming group like Franz Ferdinand, or an under-loved vintage punk band like 999. Outside the realm of college radio, shows with such fearless, anything-goes range are all but impossible to find.
But the music on the "Jukebox" is just half the fun. The other half is Jones, whose random musings, memory lapses and cockney accent -- nearly every "th" becomes an "f," so he calls the station "one oh free point one" -- are as entertaining as any song. It helps that Jones knows many of the artists he spins, and if he hasn't met them, odds are good that he's stolen their equipment. A drug abuser for years and a kleptomaniac for far longer, he routinely heisted stuff found in studios and then hawked it for heroin.
"I was addicted to doing it," he says of his crime spree, chatting off the air in a 45-minute interview. "I didn't care who it was. I just had a mission."
Recently, when he introduced a song on his show by the British band 10cc, he didn't just rave about the music, he also recounted the long ago day when he nabbed a pair of the band's guitars and the day, many years later, that he called up one of the group's founders to apologize.
"I've been straight for a long time now and one of the things I do is make amends to people I come across," he says. "I thought he would be upset, but he was frilled that I was straight." He pauses for a moment.
"Probably wasn't as frilled when it 'appened."
Jones is sitting on a stool in the darkened booth where he broadcasts, wearing a T-shirt and fiddling with a CD that just arrived in the mail. At 48, his once-long mane of hair is now clipped short and he has the soft, satisfied middle of a guy who isn't exactly counting his carbs. He looks like the sort of character you'd want on your side in a bar brawl, though there's an air of contentment about him that suggests his fighting days are over.
"I love what I'm doing," he says, beaming. "I could do it forever."
Until the radio show, Jones wasn't doing much, other than hanging around the house he owns in Beverly Hills, where he's lived for about 22 years. He's never been married and never had kids, and aside from a couple of tours with the reunited Sex Pistols and the odd job as album producer, little was happening in his life. Then, four months ago, his phone rang. It was an executive at 103.1 who once worked for a label that Jones recorded for in a post-Pistols band. When Jones heard the word "radio," he didn't wait for an invitation.
"Out the blue, I said, 'I want a job, I want be a deejay,' " he recalls. " 'Cause I was so bored! I wasn't doing anyfing. And the next fing is, this guy's over my house and two weeks later I'm doing this for the first time."
Jones's one condition: a free hand in devising his daily playlist.
"We just let him do what he wants and it seems to work," says the show's producer, Mark Sovel. "It's amazing how many stories he's got, and it's amazing how many involve stealing equipment. He was talking the other day about breaking into Roxy Music's van and taking a gold record and all sorts of stuff, like a fuzz box. A lot of it ended up being used by the Sex Pistols in the studio."
"We expected him to be controversial," Soval adds, "and he turned out to be hilarious and charming."
The Sex Pistols were Steve Jones's idea, and few ideas in the history of rock have rattled the world so hard. Formed in 1975, the band performed for just three years. Its entire reputation flows from a single album, "Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols." But nothing about music was quite the same after Johnny Rotten screamed "No future for you!" at the end of "God Save the Queen." The BBC banned many of the Pistols' singles, and when "Bollocks" went on sale in '77, many of the major chains in England wouldn't carry it. No matter. It was a bestseller, a countercultural shocker, and it popped the rivets right off music for a good long time.
"It was mind-blowing," Jones now says of the experience. "I knew there was something going on, but I had no idea what was going to happen."
How could he? Jones was 19 when the band started, and he swears he'd been playing guitar for just three months before the Sex Pistols' first concert. Before that, as recounted in "England's Dreaming," Jon Savage's richly detailed history of the band, Jones spent much of his time thieving from the homes of rock stars -- a fur coat from Ron Wood's house, a TV and some clothes from Keith Richards's. When Jones needed equipment to start his own band, the pace of the stealing soared. Two guitars were lifted from Rod Stewart's mansion and, in a now-storied burglary, the entire PA system and some top-dollar microphones were quietly escorted out of the Hammersmith Odeon the night before David Bowie was supposed to play a major concert in his Ziggy Stardust days.
With the aid of a clothing-shop owner and media-savvy manager, Malcolm McLaren, Jones assembled the Pistols, with Rotten added after an impromptu audition at a bar with a jukebox. (He sang over Alice Cooper's "Eighteen.") In interviews at the time, the band ranted about bum-rushing the musical establishment, but Jones now says his real motives were more mundane.
"We didn't come along to get rid of anyone. I wanted to be in a band because I didn't like my lifestyle. To me it was a way out. And Cookie [drummer Paul Cook], my closest friend, he wanted to be involved, and Glenn Matlock could play a bit of bass and we needed a singer and John came along. It just happened that we couldn't play very well -- I couldn't, anyway -- so it kind of gave it a unique sound. And John couldn't sing very well and that was it."
The history of the band, which imploded on stage in '78 at a show in San Francisco, has somehow overshadowed the music, even though the music is still as untamed, terrifying and yet easy to whistle as ever. The Sex Pistols are always mentioned in any list of rock's most essential bands, but the group is almost never heard on the radio and, amazingly, has yet to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"I don't care less, to be honest with you," Jones says about all this. "It's not every day you get to create a band like the Sex Pistols, and what it changed, on a musical level. I love that we've done something that was important."
Important and perpetually discovered by a new, if modest-size, audience. "Bollocks" remains a slow and steady seller, yielding a slow and steady stream of income.
"We do all right now," Jones says of the money he and his former band mates make from their music. "Unfortunately, the catalogue ain't that big. If we'd had the same amount of albums as the Clash, we'd be laughing. But we only have one proper album."
Listening to Jones for two hours is a reminder of how stale and gutless radio is these days, and it's enough to make you wonder who is behind the station. Here's the weird part: All the advertising is sold by none other than Clear Channel, the San Antonio-based radio conglomerate known mostly for stale and gutless programming. But Clear Channel doesn't pick the music on Indie 103.1. That job falls to a multimedia company called Entravision Communications, which makes most of its money through Spanish-language radio and TV stations.
Bedfellows don't get much stranger: radio's great Satan, a Hispanic corporation and a Sex Pistol. But the trio has undeniable chemistry, mostly because the corporate overlords in this relationship did what they are otherwise reluctant to do: allow some eccentricity on the airwaves. How eccentric? Well, here's what an hour of Jones's company sounded like last week.
He opened with a meditation about the weather, which somehow led to a meditation about jet lag. Which got him thinking about boats.
"I would love to get a boat to England. Not a love boat, surrounded by old women wanting to play bingo. A big boat, a merchant sea boat. It takes free days to go from New York to Portsmouth. In my past life I might have been a pirate. One of them sea blokes."
Then to the business at hand.
"Let's play a song." It's the Cult's "She Sells Sanctuary."
"Take it away, sunshine!" Jones yells to the producer, using his go-to song cue.
Next up is "Little Red Corvette" by Prince, followed by "Star" from David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust" album.
"The delicious sound of radio," Jones mumbles when he returns to the mike. Time for a highly personal dedication.
"I'm going to play this song for my mum. 'Cause I don't talk to her anymore, which is sad. It's not her choice, she just don't know how to talk about her feelings. I'm stubborn as well. I do love her, but I can't stand her. Her name's Mary. This song is for her."
"Mary's Prayer," by the '80s Scottish pop band Danny Wilson, plays. Then it's smooth reggae, "96 Degrees in the Shade," by Third World.
"You wouldn't think a guy from the Sex Pistols" would like that song, Jones says upon returning. "Who knows what you like if you're honest with yourself. I like pop. Pop goes the weasel."
He's rambling now. Then he's lost for a moment.
"What am I doing? I'm trying to put a record away while I'm talking. Never done that before."
He refocuses to introduce some schlock. "Don't Forget Me (When I'm Gone)," by Glass Tiger, a long-forgotten and sentimental Canadian pop band, here featuring a cameo on vocals by the deservedly maligned Bryan Adams, whom Jones defends as "pretty talented."
In the final segment, it's some high-fiber modern rock, with the Flaming Lips ("Fight Test"), followed by the Doves ("Last Broadcast") and Wilco ("The Lonely 1"). "God, that's a pretty song," Jones says, winding up the day. He signs off by announcing the winners of a contest and sharing the news that he's lost a CD case.