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John Lydon: ‘I was an angry young man, and I’m an angry middle aged man, and I intend fully to be an angry old man’
The Queen’s Jubilee, 1977: In the living room, my grandparents are glued to their tiny TV, celebrating with the nation, blissfully unaware that in the next room my mum is having a celebration of her own, leaping around to the Sex Pistols’ seditionary God Save the Queen.
This moment sums up the genius of Johnny Rotten AKA John Lydon, folk devil and one man moral panic. As punk flooded late 70s Britain in a generation of anti-musicians with uncouth nicknames, Johnny Rotten stood out as the brashest and most bothersome, an effervescent anti-hero for desperate times. In the three plus decades since the Sex Pistols, Lydon formed and re-formed Public Image Limited, established himself as Britain’s most curmudgeonly celebrity, and became the face of Country Life butter. Expectations, like institutions, are clearly things to be toyed with.
This month, he’s appearing at Sheffield’s Off the Shelf festival to promote Anger is an Energy, his new autobiography. It was with considerable trepidation that I rang John at his home in L.A., expecting a brusque 15 minutes with an intimidating Fagin type; what I got was an hour with Wilfred Bramble’s sweetly lethal Steptoe – wily, working class, with no qualms about telling me off one minute (which I thoroughly enjoyed) and exposing his soft underbelly the next. And of all the celebrities I’ve met, he lampooned his own status the most mercilessly – at one point as I worried aloud about the size of my phone bill, he quipped, “I’d get onto my local MP if I was you, ‘That bloody Johnny Rotten’s cost me all this money!’”
VF: Hello John! You’ve got a new book out…
JL: It’s my second book and there’s been an awful lot written about me by lesser mortals in between. It’s to readdress the balance. I thought I’ll go into my childhood and show the world I was a human being before I was in a band. Some of you out there might find that very novel indeed. It explains how I write songs, why I write songs, where I stand in the world.
VF: You were seriously ill as a child. Did it make you an outsider from the very start?
JL: Well, it helped. I had meningitis, I forgot who my parents were, I forgot who I was, I forgot how to operate my own body or to even talk. That was a catatonic experience I don’t want to ever have to endure again. And from thereon in, I loved every second of life, problems and all. When it comes back, the guilt you fell about forgetting your own parents it’s almost unimaginable. On the positive side, I’ve had the experience of being outside myself finding out who I was and then combining the two back together again. And that’s why to this day I cannot bear people lying to me. I don’t want to inflict that on anybody else, not any other human being, not ever.
VF: Did it make it easier to come up with the Johnny Rotten character?
JL: I don’t think Johnny Rotten is a character, it’s a nickname.
VF: So he is you and you are him?
JL: Ooh gosh, no, I don’t want any of that Bobby Brown & Whitney Houston bipolar stuff going on, no no no! (laughs). And there’s no self pity in any of this for me either, I come from the school of hard knocks. This is where the terms ‘anger is an energy’ really comes from – the hospital advised my parents to keep me angry because that would jolt my memory, to not allow me to become institutionalised and accept that I was no-one or nothing. It’s a very very useful tool, anger. Much like poor old Johnny Rotten, oft misunderstood. When you’re facing a negative situation, give it a double negative (chuckles)!
VF: Institutions are crumbling all around, beginning with the corruption revealed by the Jimmy Savile scandal…
JL: Which I had to ride through in my heyday – these are the people judging me as having anti-family values and negative and nihilistic and yet child molestation was an institutionalised BBC disease! In the early years, it was like the Bureau of Buggering Children! When we went to TOTP, we knew what was going on with the DJs, everybody did, but it was a no-no, you weren’t supposed to talk about these things. I’ve been banned over the years by the BBC, but none of these DJs were.
VF: Would you ever form your own political party?
JL: I’d like to dispense with politics as is, I’ve never seen it work anywhere in the world. It’s not true democracy what we’re voting for – but do vote because it is the lesser of two evils…
VF: Russell Brand has been advocating not voting. Is that the wrong move?
JL: That’s lazy and stupid, like him and his humour.
VF: What do you think about the rise of UKIP?
JL: Oh is that the lot that are sieg heiling? Cor what an anachronism, huh! Foolishness, ten steps backwards into hate and separation and ultimately only really appealing to the unintelligent – the dumb, the moronic. They offer an answer but ultimately they’re a dictatorship. Everything in life should be able to be questioned – everything! Including myself, which is why when I go out to promote a book, I fully expect to be questioned and I fully expect to answer. Welcome to my world, it’s an honest and much better place!
VF: In a way, punk was one big question…
JL: Yeah, one that we never got any satisfactory answers to, which in itself was an answer.
VF: Was the act of asking questions enough?
JL: You must ask questions, all the time, it is your human right. Every child is born with questions. The second you start inventing fairies – the tooth fairy, Santa Claus – you’re ruining that child, you’re teaching them lies. Christmas can be a fun time, but why the dirty old man in the white beard creeping down the chimney? That sent shivers down my neck when I was young. In my neighbourhood, Santa would be stealing our toys, not giving us any! (laughs).
VF: You’ve often said that punk became a cliche. Where’s the punk spirit now?
JL: Well, I love the inspirational idea that we gave to people that you could do this yourselves, but unfortunately they all did it our way. Every Tom, Dick & Harry had a studded leather jacket and spiky hair and tried to pretend they were drunk all the time but well that’s just not good enough is it? I want to see the world of masses of good ideas, all conflicting with each other. It’s by our differences that we become united – there is no other way.
VF: You’re obviously very intelligent, but isn’t the Johnny Rotten persona the opposite of that?
JL: No, that’s absolute nonsense of ya. I’m a human being and that side of me is an absolute essential because of these institutions that presume the right to dictate to us. Mr Rotten quite happily stood up and said ‘Don’t think so!’ That’s not unintelligent. I’ve been discussed at the Houses of Parliament under the Traitors and Treason Act. (In a Rotten snarl) Yummy delish, huh? I knew what I was doing, but I’ve never in my whole life offered violence as an answer to anything. My political hero is Ghandi. For me, my words are my bullets and I’ve never seen violence resolve any issues not ever in the history of the world. Apathy is a very useful tool; it shouldn’t be a lifestyle though.
VF: We’re living in a talent show culture now, where everyone expects to become rich & famous.
JL: Why would you want to do that? What a dead end job (laughs). Over the years I’ve met very very many very very wealthy people and they all strike me as being intensely unhappy.
VF: What’s the key to happiness?
JL: To do what you find that you’re very good at. I found an outlet for my angst and that was songwriting. I was an angry young man and I’m an angry middle aged man and I intend fully to be an angry old man, but for me anger is not something that leads to violence. Anger is an energy. Anger is motivational speaking – it’s shout therapy!
VF: I read that your mum liked a lot of the same music as you.
JL: Yeah, my mum liked loads of music. My parents were very open-minded and had a seriously big record collection of their own. Music is for everybody, it shouldn’t just be selfish generational thing.
VF: So you didn’t mind not being able to rebel?
JL: Why would I want to do a thing like that when it was such an open-minded generous world? That’s exactly the thing I’m striving for in all other forms of life was that openness. You don’t rebel against the very thing that you know is good for ya!
VF: I can appreciate that – my mum plays Marilyn Manson when she cooks, so I grew up in that kind of environment.
JL: It’s healthy, there’s no fear involved in it, it’s not ‘Ooh you can’t listen to that, it’s dirty!’ (cackles). Before reggae was ska, there used to be an awful lot of very filthy lyrically-minded songs (laughs), things like Dr Kish: “Oh I don’t like the sight of your injection/He push it in/I pull it out”. I mean, it’s obvious what it was about (chuckles). That was at 5 years’ old and I’ve always remembered it, it made me scream with laughter!
VF: Humour has always been a part of your music.
JL: Yes, it has to be. Really, humour is the only way I managed to deal with the death of my family members. It’s an Irish tradition but it works a treat – you celebrate funerals and you cry at weddings. You wanna give people a really good send-off, if they’re going to some place better that’s all the more reason to celebrate. If they’re going nowhere at all, then you celebrate the fact that they had an existence at all. It’s a gift that my parents gave me – it’s done Mr Rotten no end of good. Cos once I got on stage, that’s it, I let loose. I drop all the shackles of pretence, of fear and phobia.
VF: Is death something that you care about?
JL: Having had two near death experiences in my life, yeah! I don’t know what it is, I don’t know where we go, if we go anywhere at all or is we cease to exist; either way I think it’s more sensible to enjoy your life as much as you possibly can and face the grim reaper when you’re good and bloody ready. But certainly don’t be pushing towards ending your existence any time early. No matter what problems you face in life, life is the better option.
VF: Is ending your life something that you’ve ever considered?
JL: When I was very very young, yes, in hospital. Not knowing who I was, why I was there or anything at all, yeah. It was a life devoid of existence. That was a very very hard thing for me at an early age. When I came out of the coma, I considered jumping off the balcony cos it was just too hard to deal with. How could I have forgotten everything and not know who I was? I knew there was something missing, I knew I wasn’t just born that day and this is it, and if that was all there was of me then that wasn’t enough to continue existence. But I fought that impulse off at an early age.
VF: If immortality is offered to you, are you going to take it then?
JL: Offered to me? I don’t want free handouts (chuckles). I intend to live for as long as I possibly can but, to quote Queen, who wants to live forever? That would be a bit too much and actually it’d be selfish. You have to at some point give up your space for others to follow. I don’t want to get to the position where my brain deteriorates and I’m incapable of existing without others, that would be very difficult thing for me, I would want it to end. Yes, euthanasia at a certain point, it’s a moral obligation actually – and I don’t like morals so I don’t like that idea very much (laughs)! You have to face it when it comes like a proper fella.
VF: Let’s hope it never happens.
JR: To quote Oscar Wilde, his last statement was “This wallpaper’s hideous, one of us has to go!” And then he died. I thought that was one of the bravest things I’ve ever heard. Humour is the ultimate wisdom, and I think by doing that he made himself last forever. I love to read philosophers but they miss the joy of the question not having an answer.
VF: Who’s your favourite?
JL: Only because of the name – Immanuel Cunt! (chuckles) Or as they say in the bookstores, ‘don’t you mean Quant?’ No, I mean that old Cunt! (chuckles). There’s still a kid in me!
VF: I’ll try that in Waterstones next time!
JL: They’ll see you coming. I’ve been doing it for years, I can’t stop it. I love those kiddie jokes, no harm in it, everybody giggles. And then 5 people ring up the BBC to complain!
VF: You always get those people…
JL: Yeah, but they’re the actual joy of it all. Without the complainers, all of this would be rather pointless.
VF: Is there anything that excites you artistically at the moment?
JL: Yeah, the new album I’m about to make. We’re going back to the Cotswolds where we recorded the last album but this time we’re doing it in the winter – so, November in the Cotswolds in a freezing cold barn with sheep bleating around! We tour to make money to record, but the driving force is creativity and answering questions in my own head that I haven’t yet fully resolved as a human being. And I share that problem with audiences, I can focus nightly on faces in the crowd and I can see what they’re experiencing, if they’ve had a similar pain in their past and I can divert the song automatically and instantly into their pain. That’s what we do live, we share.
VF: Has your audience always been important to you?
JL: Very much so. These songs are about them as much as me, about my life experiences which I have shared with an entire class, the working class. There is no class system that’s better than me and I will not be forced to adhere to anything that presumes my obligance. You have to earn my loyalty, but once you’ve earned it, it’s absolutely there for ever. You have to prove you care about me first and not just turn me into cannon fodder – (puts on a Johnny Rotten snarl) Your Majesty!
VF: Haha! Ok John, great to talk to you, I’ll see you in Sheffield!
JL: Alright, may the road rise, may your enemies always be behind you, may you scatter, flutter, butter and shutter…
Anger is an Energy book – John Lydon Interview by Vienna Famous
For more information visit www.johnlydon.com