John Lydon – former Sex Pistol firebrand and current anchor of the inventive art-rock ensemble Public Image Limited, or PiL – has heard all the tall tales of his notorious irascibility. But he simply doesn’t see himself as being any kind of belligerent instigator, let alone even modestly temperamental. As in, for instance, his bristly appearance on the late Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow show, in which he kept bumming cigarettes from the increasingly perturbed host, who finally asked the rocker to forgive him for speaking while Lydon was interrupting. Or that historic American Bandstand PiL performance, where he stuck the microphone in his back pocket and wandered into the teenaged crowd instead of lip-synching. “I’ve just always told it like it is,” the Londoner declares, phoning from his current home in Los Angeles, where he recently became an American citizen. “I’m just me. I don’t do things to offend or upset people – I’m personable.
“But for some bizarre reason,” the man once known as Johnny Rotten continues, “probably because of how good my work is, or jealousy factors, or the position of control that some interviewers assume – I’ll talk to anybody on a level basis. But if you start giving me attitude, it’s going to get really bad for you, you know? Because words are my weapons, and I know how to use them. But other than that, I’m very mellow in my approach to people, and I am, generally speaking, very shy. But I got painted that way maybe because the things I was saying hit home loud and clear, and opened issues that needed to be opened. Like discussions of the royal family,” he adds, referring to definitive Pistols single “God Save the Queen.” None of these things would ever have happened without me having a word on it.”
And that’s how an interview with the legendary Lydon starts. You have been warned. Or at least served none-so-subtle notice to proceed with caution, even reverent – and much-deserved – respect. He’s a calm, terse-worded thoughtful chap, happy to laugh at himself if the situation warrants, and so brimming with considered opinions that his sentences often continue on, long after you think he’s hammered his point home and finished speaking. Mistake a lengthy pause in conversation with him as some sort of finality, and you’ll miss the serious information he’s just about to impart. As with any tribal elder, it’s best to sit quietly at their feet and listen carefully to the wisdom, the transfer of knowledge. Here are five important things that Lydon would like you to know. If you’re remotely curious about understanding his true nature.
1) Creatively speaking, he’s firing on all six these days.
Public Image Limited has a new album out, What the World Needs Now…, and it’s a stunner, recalling – in some aspects – the band’s unexpected post-Pistols classic from its Metal Box, or Second Edition, in 1979. (A true shock to the system for anyone expecting the sneering, spike-haired brattiness of the Pistols’ game-changing punk masterpiece Never Mind the Bollocks in ’77; it featured the dissonant guitar work of founding member Keith Levene, the funky basslines of Jah Wobble, and Lydon’s distant, disaffected drone-vocals, meandering like a disembodied spirit over the surreal sonic landscapes of “Poptones,” “Careering,” and a rambling ten-minute” Albatross.”) It was recorded at Steve Winwood’s British studio Wincraft in the rustic Cotswolds, with ex-Damned member Lu Edmonds on guitar, Pop Group drummer Bruce Smith, and bass-playing former Winwood alumnus Scott Firth. Lydon says that he always loves his latest effort. “But this one is very, very special – the relationship in that studio was just magnetic,” he swears. In fact, Edmonds’ guitar actually seems to talk, the way Levene’s used to, on more concise entries like “The One,” “I’m Not Satisfied,” and the eight-minute epic “Big Blue Sky.” “Whatever tortures he drags out of these stringed things, they seem to work well with the voice inside myself,” Lydon says. “They were just instantly made for each other in music, and it’s terrific. And I feel the same way with Scott, and I feel the same way with Bruce. They all have very different musical influences, but when the four of us get together? Wow! Do we not create something great?! And well worth the long endurance course that has been my career.”
2) His songs were never mere screams into the void – they’ve always meant something deep and significant.
Much of the finer details are amply covered in Lydon’s new autobiography Anger Is an Energy: My Life Uncensored. After contracting spinal meningitis at seven, he literally lost four years of his life, as he slipped into periods of hallucinations, memory loss, even a coma. After being discovered for his edgy fashion sense by Malcolm McLaren in 1975, he was added to the lineup of the punk impresario’s new group he had conceived, The Sex Pistols, which was soon recording genre-defining singles like “Anarchy In the U.K.” “And with the Pistols, a song like “Bodies,” that was to explain the anxiety, the grief, the terror, and the rage of what an actual abortion means,” the vocalist recalls. “It’s a situation not to be taken lightly or discussed in a nonchalant way. And I think I hit it in the head – for my mind, that song is clearly telling you that it’s a woman’s decision.”
Similarly, on World, “Big Blue Sky” was a carefully-scripted composition that not only attempts to capture the ambiance of the desert,” he says, “but the harrowing plight of the indigenous populations, or the slaughter of the Indians, put briefly.” Current single “Bettie Page” (available, along with “The One,” on etched 7″ vinyl) is an ode to the famous pinup model, he adds, “a woman who stood up and represented herself very well – she had to deal with that moral right wing of evangelical nonsense and the Mafia , and that’s two potent enemies to be dealing with for a young lady. So I’m really having a dig at evangelism, and I’m glad to see people finally taking up that stance on religion, because it divides us, it separates us, and it steals our freedom of thought.” He pauses, the first of many. “And if there is a God, the one thing that God would want is for us to use our brains. And all religions tell you not to use your brain, so therefore they’re a man-made creation, and as far removed from God as you could possibly get. So I am religiously un-religious.” Additionally, the jagged-riffed song “I’m Not Satisfied” – with Lydon practically sneering the disgruntled lyrics in prime Pistols mode – goes directly back to his turbulent youth. “It’s really about losing my memory when I was young,” he explains. “And writing my book helped me a lot with some of those things, by having to discuss the past and what I went through as a child. It was oddly rewarding, and now I’m really capable of handling that in song issues.”
3) Lydon – who stays well-informed – believes he knows what the world truly needs right now.
Lydon remembers reading and writing at age four. But he temporarily lost those abilities at seven, until he regained them at 11. “And I’ve never stopped reading, and I’m smart enough to be able to read between the lines and connect the dots,” he says. “I pay attention to everything, written by anybody, about anything. And I go for the bigger issues – I don’t just pivot everything on one specific magazine’s declaration of how the world should be.” He listens open-mindedly to both right and left-wing news sources, and can discern from experience what politicians are secretly telling him. “And the more you learn, the better you get at this,” he chortles. “It’s all too easy to deceive a child. But most people don’t really put themselves in this position of educating themselves – they don’t pay attention, they don’t even understand what the words mean, and they’ll vote for whatever is making the loudest sound. And that’s just not healthy.”
Mention Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to Lydon, and he immediately goes into word-association mode. “Wonderful! Hilarious! A selfish, opinionated, negative, boasting braggart that thinks he can buy the presidency, without actually explaining – or even understanding – his position to anyone,” he snarls. “And if you dare question him on it, if you’re a woman, you’re a bimbo, and if you’re a man, you’re like an enemy of the state. What a ridiculous human being. And dangerous.” Still, he remains optimistic. He’ll be legally voting in the 2016 election, he notes proudly. And he will consider the candidates closely. But he doesn’t believe that mankind has doomed itself to extinction. He thinks that non-stop news coverage and the Internet itself has forced politicians to be increasingly transparent, and that humans the world over are learning to unite – not with some misguided nationalistic pride – but as a species.
“On the down side of that, of course, is all the gossip, the innuendo, and the spite that also goes along with freedom of thought,” he sighs. “So it’s six of one, half dozen of the other. But I’m favoring the six of one, thank you. And either way, if we combine our thoughts and processes here, we might achieve something positive. And that is what the world needs now.”
4) Other art forms inform each other, Lydon firmly believes.
That’s why the artist has started moonlighting as an actor. After appearing in a witty UK ad campaign for, of all things, Country Life butter, playing an exaggerated, wild-eyed version of himself (and appearing on the English reality program I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!, and hosting the Discovery Channel nature shows John Lydon’s Megabugs, John Lydon Goes Ape, and John Lydon’s Shark Attack he signed on to play King Herod in a recent re-staging of Jesus Christ Superstar, alongside fellow musicians like Brandon Boyd of Incubus, and he’s set to start filming a soccer-themed Football Kingdom soon, in the role of a club manager named Saul.
He won’t discuss the upcoming part, he says – he doesn’t want to jinx it. And he’s done that before, by bragging about becoming King Herod, right before funding for the musical fell through. At first, acting proved difficult, he admits. “But I’ve got a few friends in the business that give me advice, and they tell me it’s…well, whatever they tell me, I’ll see if it works, I’ll give it a go. But I find it very tiring, because you sit around all day long, stressed, and trying to remember your lines. And then you do roughly two minutes’ work, and that’s very frustrating.”
Plus, he says, you’re up at the crack of dawn each work day, not knowing when you’ll be called from your trailer onto the set. “So I suppose I’m trying to learn to relax before I’m called. And that’s very hard for me, because even in my own life as a singer, I’m stressed out all day long before a gig, and I don’t like to take on the same anxiety in another workplace. But it seems to me that no matter what I do, it’s fraught with anxiety.”
Except, perhaps, painting. Lydon enjoys coming up with a splashy canvas from time to time, whenever the mood strikes him. Or a pending PiL release date – he’s been doing the cover pieces for their latest albums, including the classic jester for What the World Needs Now…, based on a traditional Hopi Kachina doll. The figure, too, is significant. “In all cultures, there’s always the persona that’s the least understood, the least appreciated, that tells the biggest truths and is mocked for it,” he says. “And that’s the hokester, the trickster, the clown. But there’s a genius in it, because they’re the ones that mock pomp and ceremony and institutionalism and politics and religion. They take these subjects on, and they’re somewhat negatively viewed for that. But they’re telling you the truth, when most people don’t like to be reminded that they’re being foolish.” He pauses again. “Now am I considering myself that kind of character? Ehh…that’s up to you. But if you look at him on the cover, I’ve taken him from Hopi tradition, but he’s wearing my shoes.”
Don’t expect any gallery exhibits of Lydon’s work, though. “The art world is even more corrupt than any other industry I’ve had to endure,” he reckons. “There’s nothing about skill that’s admired – it’s really just about investment. That’s why corporate buildings are so full of what they allege to be ‘high art’ – it’s just an investment, like hiding money.” He goes off on a tangent, relating a tale of how pop icon Madonna accidentally bought a fake Picasso, but then discarded it once she learned it wasn’t the real deal; Was the painting any less aesthetically pleasing, simply because of that,? he wonders. “So I don’t ever want to contribute to the nonsense of that, like, ‘Is that a real John Lydon?’ Stop it. It’s all bollocks.”
5) Since cultures that don’t learn from their past are doomed to repeat it, Lydon has studied his own intently.
And he has not been afraid to celebrate it at certain career points. In 2007, he regrouped the surviving Sex Pistols for the 30th anniversary of Never Mind the Bollocks. And PiL – which he launched with First Edition in 1978 – was regrouped in 2009 after a 17-year hiatus. He tackles the subject on the new album cut “Spice of Choice.” What is his personal preference? “Never the same thing twice,” he replies. He won’t say he’s proud of every last choice he’s made. “But I certainly think that I’ve made the correct decisions. I’ve had to, because I’ve spent a lot of time processing what it is I’m about to do, or have done, or am currently doing. It’s important to me to get things right. I don’t want to be spouting nonsense, so the way I write is as truthful as it can ever possibly get. And until I’m 100 years old, I won’t know if I’ve been successful at that.”
But Lydon gleaned a couple of things from penning his autobiography. “I learned that I’m not so bad after all, and that what I am mostly is a survivor,” he summarizes. “And that there was a disease that certainly nearly killed me, and definitely stole my personality and memories for nearly four years. And I survived that. And – oddly enough – I think that that’s the greatest achievement in my life, and that’s why I have respect for all things living, including myself, and my philosophy that there is no need to lie anymore.
“I got a second chance at coming back and being a human being. And those lessons learned will not be quickly forgotten. Not for as long as I live.”