It’s hard to imagine what the landscape of popular music would look like without John Lydon. As the front man of the Sex Pistols, Lydon is forever emblazoned in the cultural lexicon as Johnny Rotten—the spitting, snarling antithesis to everything establishment and the forever face of punk rock. While his “Rotten” past will always be a pivotal moment in the history of rock and roll, the now 59 year-old musician is quick to point out that he is still much more than a Pistol. Last year Lydon published Anger is An Energy: My Life Uncensored, a surprisingly sentimental autobiography that details Lydon’s tumultuous childhood (including a harrowing, coma-inducing bout of meningitis at age seven that caused him to lose his entire memory), his equally volatile life with the Sex Pistols, and a sprawling career filled with controversy, music, and various stints doing everything from stunting on reality television, hosting nature programs (“John Lydon’s Shark Attack!”) and the arguably very non punk rock act of hawking Country Life butter in TV ads. This fall Lydon returns with What The World Needs Now…, an excellent new album from his other iconic band, Public Image Ltd. Given his reputation as one of the world’s great loose canons, chatting with Lydon is predictably hysterical and radically honest.
T. Cole Rachel: You’ve spent a lot of time this past year out supporting your book. Were you surprised by the way people reacted to it?
Lydon: Generally, yes. It deals with all those things in my childhood I never really wanted to be brought out into the public eye until now. The reason being, of course, I didn't want to be accused of self-pity or going for the sympathy votes and that somehow, that would've helped my career. I've had a very long career here without all of that stuff and now it's like: here's what's really going on. Have a bang at this number, babies!
Rachel: I love that about it. I know this sounds kind of preposterous, but the book is also very humanizing. I think it makes people see you in a different kind of light.
Lydon: I hope so. I haven't always had the easy life, but I'm not moaning about that. There really is no self-pity. For me, the greatest achievement in my whole life was recovering my memory. What can I tell you? Having to endure those four years of being outside myself looking in when I was a child, wondering who I really was or indeed, who anyone was, or if I even belonged anywhere or to anyone. That set me up really kind of well for the future. Without that, I don't think I could've been quite the Johnny Rotten I turned in to. My greatest achievement was that and then the Pistols and P.I.L. were just like cherries on top of a dreadful, torturous cake.
Rachel: When people meet you for the first time, are they're expecting to have the full Johnny Rotten experience?
Lydon: Which should be what?
Rachel: I don't know. Scowling, cursing, ranting…
Lydon: When you read my book, you realize there's ever so much more to that cartoon characterization that the sensationalist media headlines implied. As indeed, of course, there had to be. Nobody can be that two-dimensional. My life is not a post card.
Rachel: I just wondered if that reputation ever felt burdensome to you.
Lydon: No. I've got to say that in all of it, the negativity included, that I've got a great sense of fun that somehow in my life, I’ve basically managed to offend everybody all at once.
Rachel: You’ve lived in the U.S for a very long time now. Could you imagine living somewhere else at this point or you feel like this is definitely your home?
Lydon: No, I don't want to live anywhere else. I was shocked that America accepted me. The only reason that the American government wouldn't allow me to be a citizen for such a long time was because of the British, who kept an open file on me under the Terrorism Act.
Rachel: This new P.I.L. record is your 10th release with the band. Has your process changed much?
Lydon: No, it’s pretty ad hoc. Fly by the seat of your pants and hope that all those conversations leading up to the actual recording process were valuable and indeed, they always are. You can't make a record like we do unless communication has gone on before--and I mean in-depth self-analysis. What it is we try to do is study the human emotions-all of them, the good and the bad-- and try to find some sense of value by being honest about these things. I suppose what I'm looking for, which is what I'm always looking for in other peoples' work, is transparency-that I can see straight through to what it is they're trying to communicate. Sometimes words don't do that enough for me. There aren't enough words that are capable of expressing completely the human emotions. Sometimes has to come with sounds, texture. That being said, the classical orchestra to me is incredibly boring. It's where is the humanity? For me, the first musical instrument in all of nature is the human voice.
Rachel: How do you feel about your own voice?
Lydon: It's a work in process. It's far from perfect, but then again, it doesn't need to be. It's accurate. It accurately portrays what I'm trying to get across in the sentiment of any particular song. It affects me a great deal, performing them live, some of these songs. I'm not just talking this album, but all the way through my P.I.L. years and some of these songs break me down on stage and I will go into a full-on cry because they're so close and personal.
Rachel: In your book you are very candid discussing your own self-doubts and your fears about letting other people down. A lot of people wouldn’t think that about you, given how outrageously self-assured you’ve always seemed.
Lydon: It'll always be there. A lot of people avoid the issues of self-doubt through, well, drugs like heroin-the greatest substitute for that, but nothing good comes out of you on drugs. You lose your soul. I found that fear and self-loathing and all of these things that are wrapped around self-doubt to be actually useful tools. What that is is your body and your mind telling you to get ready to deliver something genuine.
Rachel: Writing a massive memoir requires you to go back and really examine your life, for better or worse. Was that hard for you?
Lydon: Let's say I didn't do it with rose-colored glasses. It's painful sometimes, but it's there and it exists. I lost my memory for something like four years. That was very, very painful, that sense of isolation. I was a walking zombie and feeling I belonged to no one and I didn't know why. I resolved that and that's why I will never tell a lie to people. I can't stand it, because I know what it's like to have to endure a lie and believe in it because you're so desperate to believe in anything at all that anybody tells you in order to find yourself. Don't lie. Don't inflict that on your fellow human beings.
Rachel: You’ll be on tour for much of this year. Are you excited?
Lydon: Yes, I am. I really like to push myself to the utmost Nth degree and drive myself almost slavishly to make up for those periods of indolence, which some might call a holiday. It's an odd thing with me; I'm like the world's laziest workaholic.
Rachel: That's good though.
Lydon: That's the influence of mom and dad. My mom, she couldn't care if the house fell down around her, and my dad, he'd be up at 4:30 every morning, no matter what, and he'd have to be brushing or cleaning or banging about for some reason and then off to work. He'd come home and he'd do the same thing all over again and go to bed for four to six hours, at most, and back at it. I've got a bit of both of them in me. It's in time you recognize these things, but in particular, once they've died and you really see them in you. Your parents never really die, they're constantly in there. I know my mom and dad are constantly telling me, "Get up, you lazy cunt…and don't tell no lies!"
The original version of this story first appeared in Man of the World No. 13