On December 1, 1976, John Lydon – or Rotten, as he was then known – was instantaneously catapulted from metropolitan obscurity to national infamy just for uttering a single, mischievous profanity while appearing on a live, pre-watershed local television show.
|Saying “shit” to Bill Grundy, as a 20-year old, defined the subsequent course of John Lydon’s life. Forever ‘Rotten’ in the mainstream consciousness, he has spent the better part of four decades endeavouring to cultivate a more accurate public image than that of a foul-mouthed yob, gobbing nihilism and casually breaking Britain while unapologetically saying the unsayable.|
|**The first thing you did on leaving the Sex Pistols at the beginning of 1978 was make an A&R trip to Jamaica, funded by the Pistols’ label, Virgin. How was that? Did it give you the headspace to formulate your next move, the total reinvention that was Public Image Ltd?**|
|**Malcolm McLaren was a New York Dolls groupie-turned-manager when you first met him. Were they your thing as well?**|
|**Ultimately though, there was a clash of egos.**|
|**A nice place to be?**|
|**Your mother’s death in 1978 had a profound effect on you, which you worked through, very publicly and at the height of significant police harassment, with the PiL song _Death Disco_. Not long after, you left your dad and brothers in London when you moved to the States – another wrench…**|
|**What was your social life like when you moved to the US? You used to be a really social character when you were in London. Did that carry on in the States?**|
|**Why has your relationship with Nora remained so strong? I may be wrong, but I expect you can be a little difficult to live with. How have you not driven her to distraction? Does her presence change your behaviour?**|
|**The night you brought the _Album_ tour to Brixton springs to mind. People who’d paid to get in were delighting in forcing the band offstage. It’s like that was the show for them, that’s what they’d come for.**|
|**The fact that no one knew what you were going to do next had become your selling point. As if to prove that point, you went off to do 1984’s _World Destruction_ with the pioneering hip-hop DJ Afrika Bambaataa.**|
|**The biggest hit from _Album_ was _Rise_. Only an Irishman could have come up with that record. It’s very Celtic in both its sound and sentiment.**|
|**My God, you can’t win, can you?**|
|**What compelled you to take complete control with your first solo album, 1997’s Psycho’s Path, where you played all the instruments, as well as self-producing it?**|
|**And you had a right laugh with it, obviously.**|
And he wasn’t terribly supportive. When he sent you out on tour through the ultra-conservative southern states of America, he was notable by his absence.
Well, that was a good idea because we found it verydifficult to get gigs anywhere as the Pistols, and to tour the south just seemed extremely audacious, and proved to be a very, very wise move. Go straight into the heart of the alleged enemy and, Ithink, you’ll find that they’reyourtotal friends.
You’ve done the Pistols reunion thing twice. Is that permanently finished with now?
I wouldn’t call it a reunion; I don’t like that word. For us it was a make up or break up, and we made up and now we’ve broken up. We’ve got it out of our systems; now we can get back to being friends. It’s very important that be understood – I value them all as human beings far more than I do as me in a band with them.
And you really don’t want to become the Rolling Stones, doyou?
No. I don’t, no. Forever trotting out the same monotony? No. No, no. I can truly, honestly say I’ve never done this for the money. I think the evidence is overwhelming [laughs]. I laugh at it myself because if I go back and I look at my life, Ithink, “My God, you know, are you a bit silly? Youcould have tea-cosied there for a bit.” Nope, can’t have it. There’s just something in me that just says, “No, I won’t wake up and feel good about myself.” So there it goes. So integrity is the word Ihover around, hoping that that is indeed what it is, because there’s every chance, if you fully believe in integrity, that that’s not what it is at all. This is the trouble with over-thinking yourself. You know, I mean it when I say I’m my own worst enemy, so no matter what bad can ever be said about me, it ain’t nothing that I’ve not already considered.
Surely you can’t lie in bed awake all night worrying if you’ve got integrity.
Well, I can’t lie to myself. It took me four years to remember who I was and I’m not going to let that one slip, never, ever again.
Lu Edmonds and Bruce Smith have been members of PiL since the 80s. Why do you think you’ve been able towork so well together for so long?
Because Lu’s a bit nuts. I suppose he’s a bit like myself. He could have taken the easy road and just been a punk guitarist – of some good repute too, let it be said – but he got bored with that. His ideology is to explore every sound and find good in everything, and that’s very similar to me. When on stage, we’ll put in leading notes or drop hints and take the songs into other areas, and Bruce is very, very in tune with us in that respect, and Scott most definitely. After all these years we’re finally getting to where we want to be, so the pressure’s off – we don’t record just for the sake of it, and we don’t have to make commercial crap. We do what we do, we’re now fully independent and no one waves a finger over us saying, “No, no, no,” or“I’llcancel the cheque.”
Double Trouble, the lead single from the new PiL album, sounds incredibly contemporary. Put it next tothe Sleaford Mods and it sounds fresh as a daisy.
Yeah? I would have thought that was one of my more old-fashioned styles [laughs]. Well, there you go. You know, we do what we do. The sound and the attitude of it are completely appropriate to the subject matter, and that’s what you end up with.
And very appropriate to the time we’re living in.
Well, yes – if you’ve got a broken toilet, fix it. I don’t think I could get more political than that.
One of the worst things that’s happened to you in recent years was the death of Ari Up, the daughter of your wife Nora and former singer of The Slits, in 2010.
The death of Ari absolutely shattered Nora, so we’ve had a lot to endure. But the night before Ari died, we went to visit her in the hospital. I’d been refusing to go, because I thought it’s just going to be another row about not raising her kids properly [Lydon and Nora were closely involved in the upbringing of Ari’s three sons], but we got on really well and sang Four Enclosed Walls. The hospital staff let her scream her head off and she fell asleep happy and just stayed asleep. That was a lovely way for us to part. The only one who sang in tune in the whole thing was Nora [laughs].
I’m guessing Ari’s children must feel a lot like your own kids by now.
To me, yes, but they’re very, very difficult now. Stepdad is a very difficult position to find yourself in. Sometimes, no matter what good you think you’re doing, it’s always perceived as somehow wrong, and it’s very, very difficult.
Do you sometimes look at the children and think how different their upbringing has been to your own in Finsbury Park?
We might have made it too easy for the twins. We tended to spoil them. Can’t help it. I’ve always had kids wrapped around me. I’m one of those people that doesn’t mind children making noise on an aeroplane – it’s not irritating to me at all.
What’s your attitude to mortality? You made your feelings clear on Religion from PiL’s first album, but is there a small part of you that retains any iota of faith, and the afterlife that goes with it?
Afterlife? Well, that’s presuming there is such a thing as death [laughs]. I have no answer to that, no man-made religion is supplying me with anything like enough information. Out of the dust we come, back to the dust we go. It seems to be the rightful thing to do.
And there we leave him, even more buoyant than we found him: open, optimistic, gleefully self-deprecating, as far from the combative tabloid-created Rotten as it’s humanly possible to get.
“May the roads rise and your enemies always be behind you,” offers punk’s erstwhile firebrand by way of parting gesture. “May they scatter, flatter, batter and shatter,” he continues, cooling ever further toward a state that can only reasonably be described as contentment, before concluding with a forthright, exclamatory “Peace!”
Who knew the day would ever come when John Lydon would say it, let alone find it.