John Lydon of Public Image Ltd & Sex Pistols talks survival, punk rock, celebrity DJs, beards & more (a BV interview)
“I view anger not as an outrageously violent act but actually as a tool of discovery.”
At nearly 60, John Lydon a.k.a. Johnny Rotten is no less acerbic than he was as the 21-year-old from North London shout-singing his caustic anti-sermons as the vocalist for the Sex Pistols. While the well-known shit slinging unofficial sociological commentator is likely and thankfully never going away, the 40 years since the mythical debut that helped set ablaze an already sparked punk movement have, as age and experience hopefully do, given Lydon a certain kind of smartass positivity. Though not given to glitter bombs and kitten handouts just yet, Lydon is unabashedly more adept to appreciation as opposed to the abject nihilism with which he’s often associated.
In the same year that saw the dissolution of the Pistols, Lydon’s next project Public Image Ltd (PiL) would become for fourteen years the epicenter of his creative focus. After a ten-year hiatus, 2012 saw the reunion of PiL, and with it an immediate renewal in spirit for Lydon, who’d dedicated the time in-between to a brief Pistols reunion as well as his own solo release and, perhaps most notably, his own TV show which subsequently led to the very celebrity status that he’d always and vocally so despised. That said, Lydon was and is no stranger to the dark humor and cruel irony inextricably linked to fame, so it seemed completely natural in our recent conversation to hear him laugh just as much at himself as he did the ridiculousness of the world around him.
Public Image Ltd released their 10th studio album ‘WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW…’ in September and are now on tour. Tickets for the 11/16 NYC show at Playstation Theater are still available. One day later, PiL will appear on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. All dates are listed under the interview that starts here…
BV: You’ve got the new PiL record, you’re constantly touring, you’ve had your TV career. What keeps you going?
John Lydon: Well, I do this because I love it. It’s the only thing that I’ve ever found in my life that I’m actually any good at and that’s writing songs and performing them. I never ever wanna abuse that gift, and touring the way we do in the smaller size venues which we prefer is so infinitely preferable to getting caught up in that horrible circus of rock stardom that I’ve so bitterly despised all my life. Whatever my skills in my life that I’ve learned from birth onwards, it all seems to be molded towards this. Nature has co-opted me into this role.
BV: That’s easier said than done, though, which seems to be the name of the game now. Just be really good at rhetoric.
John Lydon: [Laughs.] I’m only as good as my word, and as far as I’m aware, my word is very good indeed.
You’re not as angry as you sometimes come across either in interviews or just the obvious associations with punk.
I’ve never really had that. I’ve had an awful lot to deal with in my life, and being a ridiculous adolescent has never really featured in my life. I had so much denied from me when I was young with childhood illnesses. I really had no time for that spoiled brat universe. Surviving a major illness that almost killed me and took my memories away for four years, that’s ultimately the biggest achievement I’ve ever had in my life. Everything else after that in my life is a reward. [Laughs.] That’s why when I write songs I want them to be as honest and as straightforward as possible. This is what I do, and this is the chance and the opportunity I’ve been given in life is to tell the truth. I know that may be exceptionally rare in music. [Laughs.] But it seems to be the best path for me. I have the memories of my mother and father, and what they had to endure too, and the trust they always placed in me. They knew me well enough that lying wouldn’t be my way, so I adhere rigidly to that set of values. I don’t have morals because the religious implications are far too disastrous for me to be interested in. Just be honest. It’s a difficult path that I’ve chosen, but it’s not impossible.
Is maintaining that kind of honesty and self-awareness something that’s a constant challenge?
Well, it’s taken me nearly 40 years to do it. [Laughs.] We’re now in a very good relationship as a band and with the people that work with us. We’re all very, very close, and the basic premise is: “Don’t lie or goodbye.” That’s it. [Laughs.] There is no need to lie, because everybody knows that we’re all on an equal playing field here, and integrity is vital for it continue in the way that it does. There’s no room for ego or any of that nonsense that I’ve had to deal with from previous band members for what seems like forever. You’ve also gotta bear in mind that all the way through this the struggles with the very large labels that I became connected to through The Sex Pistols. That was a constant battle to keep them at bay, and the demands they made eventually put me in the position where I couldn’t make music for nearly 18 years. That was insane for me and very hard to endure, but I did, and I had the patience, and I kept quiet. That’s when all the accusations of, oh, he’s sold out, or he’s done this or done that, came in. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, but I survived it, and I think I did really excellent TV work in that period. I came out smiling, really, because now we have our own label. We’re completely independent of what we call “The Shitstem,” and we’re tearing the house down with clubs and the proper people coming, and by “proper” I mean incredibly varied. All ages, all colors, races, creeds, beliefs, non-beliefs, and all being friendly in one building – that’s a huge excitement to me.
You mentioned The Sex Pistols, and it’s one of those things where a musician’s successes in the past seems to perpetually follow them, regardless of any kind of compelling work they’re doing in the present.
Well, there you go. I’ve always viewed myself as anti-celebrity and if anything, anti-pop star. But the media hook on, and they’ve never let go of that. It’s unfortunate, but at the same time it is a part of my life that I’m very, very proud of. To come out of the gate starting like that, it’s quite great when I look back at myself and think: Wow, well done, John. You got it right. But there’s more to do, you see, and I’ve gotta add that the record labels were not helpful here. They didn’t really support PiL in the way they should have. They made the endurance course far harder than was necessary for me. There were constant pressures from all of the labels wanting me to go back and do a Pistols this or a Pistols that, and that’s too time consuming and too negative. I did the reunion tour, but not because of record company pressure, but because as people we were losing each other as friends. Unfortunately the reunion went on too long, and we became enemies again. [Laughs.] Hello, world. Pay attention. Don’t do it. The last conversations I’ve had say particularly with Paul Cook, he said the same thing I did in that we’d much rather be friends than go back into that. What’s the point? None of us want to re-imitate 1978, and if I write any new songs at all, they immediately go into Public Image.
Which is also connected to the idea of nostalgia in the context of art and music. Listeners want that reunion until they don’t, and then the whole perspective of the band has the potential to be railroaded and often is.
Well, it’s unfortunate, but everybody wants their tuppence worth or two new shiny pennies worth. [Laughs.] I’ve moved so far ahead of that that it’s totally, utterly irrelevant. In many weird ways it seemed to me for a time that I was running at least three different careers all at the same time as a Sex Pistol, as Public Image, and also as a TV personality. [Laughs.] That was causing some kind of mental anxiety for me way back in the past, but I’m way beyond it now. Now it’s clearly and completely PiL, and the audiences that come know this. It’s very difficult, too, because we’re trying to take on the concept of reinventing the idea of people going to small venues and getting back into contact with live music, which is seriously dwindling. If we don’t make a stance now, these places will never come back. They’ll be no such thing as live music, and we’ll be reduced to DJs.
Has the way we value music both as artists and as listeners become somewhat eroded in the digital age with streaming services and the almost endless avenues of consuming music?
Well, it’s so easy to deceive the masses, isn’t it? All one’s gotta do is wave a shiny bauble, and I suppose like ravens, they just go for the shininess. They don’t realize that live music or the people that made the music that the DJs are playing are surely more relevant. It’s quite bizarre to me and laughable, too. One of the earliest things I remember doing was I was a DJ myself, and I’d play a vast amount of music, but I wouldn’t try to keep it secret or pretend it was all about me. I was just really proud to say, “Listen to this record I get to share with you,” and I don’t think that’s the business of this now. It’s where the DJ is the celebrity, and everything else is secondary. It’s quite hilarious to see in these venues now. A bloke on top of a pyramid with fireworks and all’s he’s doing is putting on a CD and waving his hand, and there’s 20,000 people all gleamed and glued into this absurdity that has absolutely nothing to do with entertainment or music or having a brain and enjoying yourself. It seems like brainwashing, actually.
Which is something punk was and hopefully still is vehemently opposed to, that notion of brainwashing or conformity. Is that spirit still alive for you?
I’m doing a fine job of that. [Laughs.] If there’s any more similar minded folk out there like that, come on board. [Laughs.] It’s trying to find bands now. It’s very difficult for us to even find support bands for what we’re doing. There’s too little of it. As for the punk ethos, unfortunately that got reduced to studded leather jackets. It became all about a visual aspect rather than the honor and the content and the integrity, which is how I began. I knew that the music situation was terrible, and I wanted to do something about it. Here it is now, and it’s worse than ever, and it’s very difficult to get young people to see what the problem is that they’re walking into so obliviously.
What is the problem they’re walking into? What should we as listeners and musicians be resisting and fighting against now?
To put it really crudely, it seems to be that they’re only willing to bend over and take it up the bottom. It might just be a generational thing. Things do happen in cycles. When they’ve had enough of bending over, they’ll learn to stand up. [Laughs.] If not, then the kids following them will say, oh no, we don’t want none of that. It’s this volunteering to go back into the shitstem, and maybe that’s an easy way out. Of course it’s an easy way out, and that might be an answer for some people, but it isn’t for me. I put the same problem on all these mindless fools wearing those horridly rounded beards, and those horribly gray tea cosy hats. [Laughs.] It’s so uncomforting to see conformity.
I have a beard, John, but it is well-kempt.
[Laughs.] Listen, two in my band have beards. There are a lot of them about, but you know the one I’m thinking of that’s too well-crafted. I see it as kind of a cowardice, really. Anybody that wants to look like everybody else is no one I’m particularly interested in. We’ve all got hair. That doesn’t mean it needs to be the same hairstyle.
You mentioned dealing with your childhood illness, spinal meningitis, and it seems that’s given you a kind of positivity – something generally not associated with punk or even you, really. Are you a positive person, John?
[Laughs.] Continuously so. From day one in my first band I’ve always expressed the love I have of being alive. [Laughs.] You know, I’ve survived something really major, and yet there’s still this want and need to push me into being a negative character. I’m quite the opposite, but there it goes. That’s the non-reality of record companies and media. They’ve created these false agendas, and both of them are actually collapsing somewhat. All I can say is that your best buy for this month would be a PiL ticket. [Laughs.]
Is there a point during all of this, your entire career, where you found yourself embracing a kind of vulnerability that changed your perspective of who you are?
Probably my last book, because it was the first time I’d opened up about my childhood. That led amazingly and brilliantly into the last album, which I think is, to date, my finest work. It’s a sheer joy to be able to perform brand new songs live, and the audiences get it. The words are there for them. It’s not just my experiences in life. I find the more I’ve performed over the years and decades, that those experiences are common in all of us if we just find the roots and somebody clearly needs to do that. Hello, I’ll open up because that’s what we all need to do most in life, is to share our experiences, and I think a PiL ticket is a hell of a lot cheaper than an analyst or a psychiatrist, and is much more worth it. [Laughs.]
Are you less angry now than you were in 1975?
Well, anger is something that helped me recover from my memory loss, so I view anger not as an outrageously violent act but actually as a tool of discovery. Anger is an energy, and I’ve used it in songs. For that to be misconstrued, I mean, what more can I say? The world is daft. [Laughs.] Well, the world may not be daft, but certainly a large amount of journalists are, and that’s a terrible shame.
Should I show myself out now?
[Laughs.] No, no. There’s always that one-percent, Jonathan. I hold great faith and trust in you.
[Laughs.] Well, I hold great faith and trust in the world, and I know we’ll resolve these temporary issues and backsteps. Simply think positive. Is your glass half full or half empty? Well, to me it’s both the same thing. [Laughs.] I don’t understand that way of trying to be miserable. You’ve got half a glass, haven’t you? That’s better than none.
Certainly, and if you don’t have anything in the glass, you can always break it over the bar and force someone else to share their water.
[Laughs.] Yes, you’re well aware of Rotten survival techniques. I am a survivor. Everything is there in the songs. I share everything in the songs. Of course that involves a great deal of pain, bringing up issues that are so harsh on me, but they’re all in there because there’s joy, too, and relief, discovery, anything you like, and I can see that having a really good, positive influence on people. There’s people now beginning to take this properly, and they’ll make the next step for themselves, and I can’t wait to hear or read or see what their work will be. That’s how I view it. I’m just like a conduit, really, but isn’t it about time someone said: “Thanks”? I mean, I’ve had my hairdo ripped off, my clothes, everything. [Laughs.] And it’s laughable because I’m just being meself. The concept of somebody wanting to imagine they could be me is extremely foolish, and shows that they’re not listening to what the message is which is: Be yourself. Trying to be anybody else is never going to be good enough. You have one life to live, a soap opera. [Laughs.]
PiL – 2015 Tour Dates
Sat 11/14 – Montreal, QU – La Tulipe
Sun 11/15 – Toronto, ON – The Opera House
Mon 11/16 – New York, NY – Playstation Theater
Tue 11/17 – Late Nite with Stephen Colbert (on TV)
Wed 11/18 – Chicago, IL – Concord Music Hall
Thu 11/19 – Lincoln, NE – Knickerbockers
Fri 11/20 – Denver, CO – Gothic Theatre
Sun 11/22 – Vancouver, BC – Vogue Theatre
Mon 11/23 – Seattle, WA – The Showbox
Wed 11/25 – Las Vegas, NV – Brooklyn Bowl
Fri 11/27 – San Francisco, CA – The Chapel-SOLD-OUT
Sat 11/28 – Sacramento, CA – Ace of Spades
Sun 11/29 – Los Angeles, CA – The Fonda Theatre