I have had the distinct pleasure and privilege of interviewing John Lydon — a.k.a. Johnny Rotten — a few times over the years. And it truly was a pleasure. Despite having a well-earned reputation as a tough guy to interview — you can find plenty of stories and videos online in which he berates, humiliates, mocks, abuses and hangs up or walks out on his interrogator — the provocative and controversial Sex Pistols and PiL frontman was unfailingly charming, polite and forthcoming whenever we spoke. Go figure. Anyway, since it’s his 63rd birthday today (I’ll let you do the math on that), I thought I would dredge up a chat we had in 2012 to publicize an upcoming tour — and expand it with several questions and answers that didn’t make it into print at the time. Enjoy.
John Lydon has hung up his pistols for good. The punk icon formerly known as Johnny Rotten insists he has no intention of reuniting with his ex-Sex Pistols bandmates ever again. And he’s not alone.
“I just had a very good conversation with Paul Cook, the drummer, and he was in full agreement,” Lydon says. “It would be time-wasting and kind of silly to go back out and do that stuff again. Neither of us can write any new material for the band, so it’s best we just put a lid on that coffin, because the carcass is starting to smell. And I don’t need to do it, you know?”
Indeed he doesn’t. These days, he’s happily occupied with his reunited post-punk outfit Public Image Ltd. The quartet — which also includes guitarist Lu Edmonds, bassist Scott Firth and drummer Bruce Smith — recently released their first album in two decades, the deservedly acclaimed This is PiL. And they’ve returned to the road on another North American tour. Speaking from a Florida hotel room where he was registered under his usual sophomoric pseudonym (which I am sworn not to reveal), the surprisingly courteous and jovial Lydon chatted about losing his stage fright, impressing Brian Wilson and turning down American Idol.
Last time we spoke, you were just restarting PiL and were excited for the future. How do you feel now?
I’m in a content place. I’ve made the album of my dreams. I’m working with people that I respect the most, and lo and behold, they respect me. We’re getting on like a house on fire. And we really enjoy the live work. That’s a first for me. These last few years, I really enjoy being on stage. I actually look forward to it rather than dread it. I had stage fright all my life. It used to make me quite sick. I think it was that I just didn’t have faith or trust in the people I was working with. Whereas now, I can’t wait. I’m eager to get on the stage, because I’m up there with my friends.
But you’ve also said the tension of stage fright helped you perform.
Yeah, that can be very useful. It does give you that energy, that kinetic kick. But that’s always going to be there. There’s always the worry of letting people down. That’s never going to go away. I don’t like people paying money and feeling they’ve been cheated. I don’t allow laziness to creep into my agenda.
Do your songs evolve and mutate over time as you play them?
Oh yeah. We’re beginning to let numbers flow into each other. We’re changing the set around constantly. It’s an enormous repertoire of songs we have at our disposal. Sadly, we’re behind on rehearsals because we’ve been off for a month. But we’ll kick back in well enough and quick enough. We’re the kind of band that even if we had extensive rehearsals, it wouldn’t sound anything at all like live. That’s very good. And I have great confidence and faith in us as a group. The way we can change gears almost instinctively in the middle of songs and shape shift, it’s quite remarkable. It’s always been an ambition of mine. I’ve always wanted PiL to be like this. But it’s happening now, au naturel. It’s not force fed. And it’s quite a brilliant feeling to be a part of it. The reaction with audiences all over Europe has been stunning. Playing very small nightclubs one night to 100,000 in a stadium the next day is quite dramatic. Both in terms of the size of crowds and the change of atmosphere. But we’re well able and capable to enjoy both types of venues.
What about North American audiences vs. European ones? Do different places treat you differently?
Some places do. I was very surprised two years ago with the reaction from New York because it was so favourable. Normally New Yorkers are always known to sit back and approach you with that, ‘I dare you to entertain me’ attitude. But it seems over the years that PiL has warranted a great deal of respect from people. They come to party. They come to dance. And that’s what it’s all about.
For those in Canada who saw you last time and are wondering if they should go again, what would you say?
I would say, ‘Don’t be foolish.’ It should be beyond question. See you there.
You famously used your pay from a butter commercial to help finance the PiL reunion. How do you feel about artists raising funds online via sites like Kickstarter?
It’s a little too whack for me. It’s too confusing and there’s pitfalls in it. I don’t trust it. I’d rather work the way we work, honest and open and transparent. I don’t want to get involved in other people’s schemes. I don’t get involved in schemes. Sooner or later, they all go horribly wrong. I found that out with the large record labels. There was a time there that I thought, ‘Whoopee, I’ve got a contract!’ Until it dawned on me just how awful a proposition it was. It’s really entrapment.
How did you feel with the way punk and the Pistols were represented at the Summer Olympics opening ceremonies in London?
Marvellous and wonderful. I actually went to meet (artistic director Danny) Boyle. And I got on really well with him. I liked his approach; it was very representative of the working classes of Britain and the National Health Service. And I loved that the Royal Family had to sit there in the stadium and hear Pretty Vacant for a minute and 30 seconds. That’s what makes Britain great; you can have that juxtaposition of events.
I understand you declined to perform.
Yeah. I wasn’t going to reunite with the Pistols for that. And PiL’s songs are too abstract for that. It was flashbacks to a pop history, and PiL doesn’t really fit well in that scheme of things. So it never really crossed my mind. I never thought about contributing to it in that way. I’m glad they used bits of the past, but I really didn’t want to be up there wasting my time miming.
I did see you perform on Later … with Jools Holland. Your voice sounded strong.
Oh my God. I did that with the flu. I’m serious; I’m still getting over it.
I’d hate to hear you at full strength.
I can make bricks peel off.
I believe it. In any case, while you were playing, they showed Brian Wilson snapping his fingers. What did you think of that?
It was brilliant! Quite amazing, really. For a vocal group like The Beach Boys to find any sense of rhythm in us is quite remarkable, isn’t it? Who’d have thought you’d see The Beach Boys snapping their fingers to Johnny f—ing Rotten? The irony is not lost on me. But to me it was a sign of respect. I like respect, because I think I deserve it. Of course, I don’t mind hatred and cynicism either. There’s more than enough of that to go ’round.
At some point, they must have asked you to be an American Idol judge.
Yes, there was talk about that a few years back. Discreet inroads were made on their part towards me. But no is the answer. I can’t support a karaoke system. I don’t care how much money it is. I don’t want it. It’s not worth it.
Your album’s been out for a while now. satisfied with the reception it received?
I was quite stunned, yeah. But then I’ve been quite shocked at the favourable reviews of the live gigs. I’ve come to see that at least the modern press is interested in being accurate, as opposed to being just plain hateful and negative — which has always been my experience of the media up until, say, the last two or three years. Maybe in time things mellow and the hatred dissipates. But when you stand up and get noticed there’s always going to be someone waiting to stick a knife in your back.
You? You’re a national treasure, sir.
Don’t you start on me! (Laughs)
Had the disc been thrashed upon release, would you have cared? Would it have given you second thoughts about continuing?
It would make no difference whatsoever. I’m sensible enough to know the true value of my work and that really doesn’t require other people’s opinions. I know when I write accurately and truthfully, and for me that’s it. That’s very, very important. When I buy a book I expect the author to tell it like it is. Otherwise it’s a pretty pointless exercise. that’s why I’m really not interested in science fiction and fantasy. I’m much more into in-depth analysis and accuracy. Because the only way I can pass on any message of value to anyone is to be absolutely as honest as I can be.
Is that getting easier as the years go by?
No, it hurts like f—. You know it does. You have relationships, don’t you? You’ve got to tell the truth from time to time. And it’s never easy. But it’s far more rewarding in the long run. Because it’s impossible for me to live with a lie. I just can’t bear it.
You’re in the worst possible business to be in with that attitude.
You’re dead right. I’m not very clever, am I? I’ve gone about it all completely wrong. (Laughs)
Have you ever been in therapy?
Absolutely not. I wouldn’t pay people to listen to me. I make them pay me, thank you. I think that’s for very weak-willed people — the self-deceptive with too much money in your pocket. That’s what friends and family are for.
How about vocal lessons? Ever had those?
I went for one day. It was during the Pistols. It was (manager Malcolm McLaren’s) idea and it backfired hideously. I don’t want to sing show tunes. And when you go to vocal coaches, that’s all they teach. It’s all Mary Poppins and show tunes and ghastly to me. I sing from the heart, if indeed what I do is singing at all. The way I use words and sounds is alien to that kind of teaching and instruction, I think. Well, I know so, because she told me. It ended in a glorious row. One of the best I ever had. It was so bad that she actually went on TV and did an interview about how bad I was.
You seem to have an almost perfect memory. Is that a blessing or a curse?
I tend to remember things almost photographically. In many ways it is (a curse), you know, but after I lost my memory to meningitis, I’ve tried to make up for things ever since. So I’ll remember the pattern and the weave in the fabric on a chair in a hotel from 10 years ago. Because I love that attention to detail. That’s why I love painting as well as I like writing. Usually I sell them as album covers.
Do you ever see yourself retiring?
I don’t believe in retirement. I believe that eventually I will die — but until that precise moment, it’s pretty much nonstop. And as long as I’m alive, I’m going to find my own life very interesting.