Johnny Rotten: “I’m an innie, by the way, not an outie”
John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten talks to ANDREW P STREET about the Sex Pistols, Public Image Limited, death, astronomy, Judge Judy and the secret world of international butter wars.
Everyone has their own idea of what John Lydon is like. For some, it’s the perma-sneering Johnny Rotten, fronting the Sex Pistols and asking the Winterland crowd if they ever get the feeling they’ve been cheated. For others, it’s the steely glare of the early Public Image Ltd albums, or the self-aggrandising author of No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish, his aggressively record-straightening autobiography. Or perhaps he’s the caricature punk used to market Country Life Butter, or appearing on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here.
The reality is all of them, and none. The voice at the other end of the phone belongs to a man who’s unexpectedly funny, candid, thoughtful and – and this is worth emphasising, since it gets forgotten a lot – enormously passionate about the power of music. On the eve of PiL’s return to Australia, the phone at Lydon’s house rings twice before ”’Ullo, this is John.”
I wasn’t expecting you to answer the phone yourself – there’s usually a factotum of some sorts in between with these interviews.
There can be, but times are hard! We’ve got to cut down on the superfluous and get on with it meself.
When you have to fund the PiL reunion through ads for butter – you’re a harbinger of the new economy right there.
Well, that’s a snarky way of looking at it; it sounds like it was all planned. [Laughs] But you know, catch as catch can in this world.
I was amazed that it was happening at all: it seemed like PiL was a lost cause of record contract legalities and lawsuits.
I’ve had a recording industry that’s made life very hard for me for two decades. At first it somewhat irked me, but then I became like a man possessed. I was determined to get back to making music, and no one has a right to stop me, regardless of their contracts and regardless of their accounting departments. I had to raise enough money over the years in order to put myself back on the map.
Were there contractual issues?
Everything; you name it. Every way to make life difficult, but would they let me go? No. It was a Catch-22 and there was nothing I could do to get out of it. I felt like I was left to rot on the shelf. I suppose it could leave a lesser person very bitter and twisted [laughs] … It could definitely lead to some strange songwriting moments, but I decided to move outside of that and write about what really matters to me: Articulate my life experiences so there you go. I’ve got 12 of them on what I think is a great record with great people. Of all the 49 members [of PiL over the years], Bruce [Smith, former drummer with the Pop Group] and Lu [Edmonds, former Damned and Billy Bragg guitarist] are my only options, really. They’re the longest standing members.
You do seem to go through bandmates like tissues.
Well it’s not like that, it’s a financial situation. If you can’t raise the money you can’t keep people on, it’s as simple as that. When I first started PiL a lot of the band members had become accustomed to a weekly wage. The funds ran out, and so did they.
You’ve had a few interesting bandmates – I remember your Judge Judy appearance with the world’s most entitled drummer [Robert Williams claimed that Lydon assaulted and fired him on the eve of a US tour, only to have his claim thrown out].
Oh, wasn’t he fun? And then to take me onto TV court! How spiteful can you get? But it all backfired on him. Common sense prevailed. The tragedy of that little scenario was that the British press decided that it was a fake show and I’d made the whole thing up to boost my career. That’s the kind of pettiness I have to listen to. It was real enough, and to be accused of assault – me, a pacifist – is quite some move!
It’s a ballsy move, to take you on in public.
If you’re lying, yes! And I’m afraid he was. It’s quite interesting, though. Apparently I must be some kind of fantastic fighter, because that bloke was a black belt! [Laughs] I’ll take praise any way it comes! I don’t need to be in these situations … I’m a quiet fellow, normally, I merge into the background when I’m not actually working. I’m not one for showing off in nightclubs or driving flash cars. So when these accusations come up, and they do because that’s the world we now live in, it astounds me, because I wouldn’t think that I’m the kind of fellow who would attract that kind of attention. The things people will do to make themselves famous at others’ expense is quite, quite astounding.
You do have a legendarily adversarial relationship with the British press.
Oh it’s great, it’s like cats and dogs. They’re the nastiest of the lot. It astounds me that someone like Piers Morgan can move to CNN – the man’s got a track record of bad behaviour [Morgan was criticised in the official findings of the Leveson Inquiry, a report into the ethics of the British press] and yet I’m the devil here. Michael Jackson’s running around with child molestation charges but I’m the one banned! [Laughs] There’s the world! Yippee! It’s hard to be despondent about it, because it just strikes me as utterly ludicrous. All I do is stand up and tell you what is and what isn’t, and I ain’t got no time for no lying about it, and that makes me a very difficult person, indeed. Well, yippee! Loving it!
“I’ve had a recording industry that’s made life very hard for me for two decades.”
Did you feel chickens were coming home to roost with the Leveson Enquiry in the UK?
That was fantastic fun … but my name didn’t come up in that, and yet I was definitely suffering some of that hacking and that nonsense that was going on at that time. But like all things there was no greater end result. They all forgot about it. Basically you’re talking about a conspiracy between the press and the police, with a few government officials thrown in. They’re all each other’s mates – what are you going to do? It’s time to get your wrist slapped!
Did this frustration fuel the writing of [2012’s] This Is PiL?
Indirectly. It creeps into a song that could be about a completely different subject, but you will always find a duality in things. Particularly in what I do, lyrically, and what we do as a band musically, we search emotions, we strive for that extra note that’s never been heard before, which actually tweaks something in the brain and makes you think differently. I’m not talking about just the compulsive rhythms that say “rave!” that they’re now trying to translate into music’s basic primitiveness, and somehow that will be the answer to the universe … I don’t mean it like that at all. I think we as a species are quite erratic in the way we think.
And that’s what you’re trying to get at in the songs?
The closest I could put to the way I think is Ulysses by James Joyce. I loved it when I read it when I was young, because it was so damn confusing! That’s exactly what it’s like inside my head. You know, how you jump from one thought from another. I’m having a conversation with you but I’m also making a cup of tea and doing 1000 things. It’s almost overwhelming, but I’d rather that than sit in a field and contemplate my navel!
You say that, but I don’t know about your navel. Maybe it’s fascinating?
No, it’s terrible! It’s going to stay hidden. [Laughs] And I’m an innie, by the way, not an outie.
How do you see the album fitting in with your back catalogue – and the current musical climate, for that matter?
We are subject-led. I don’t really sit down and try to ponder how it will sound in among everything else. That would be ridiculous; I know a lot of bands do things like that, but for me I don’t know if I fit into the music industry at all. I’m just not what someone will be giving an award to at the Grammys. I run a different kind of life. I’m trying to be as accurate as I possibly can to myself. I’m looking for answers to questions and that’s never going to stop, and I like to do that publicly. It’s almost putting myself in front of a jury, really, and asking, “Look, do you experience this also? Am I on the right track? Help me here…” It’s the most expensive psychiatry I can afford! [Laughs] I think that’s right, yes.
Around about Happy? ? you did come excitingly close to being part of the mainstream, though.
Around that time I was quite happy to explore a pop sensibility, but I can’t be there forever. It’s not how my mind operates. If I’m asleep and I’m in dream state; I have ways of controlling those dreams. If they seem the same to me, I nudge myself off into a different direction. It must be something to do with being in a coma when I was young for four months [Lydon almost died of spinal meningitis as a child], I’m sure there’s some kind of trigger in there that makes me that way, but I like to control things. I like the unexpected. It’s not a contradiction: I put myself into very challenging situations, both socially, onstage and in my dream state. I love living in a haunted house [laughs].
Being challenged must have been very much in mind with the Pistols reunion…
I don’t use the word “reunion”. That was after a very great deal of ugliness in the years in between, and we determined that we really wanted to work to sort each other out in a proper way, and come to grips with what was and wasn’t the truth of our past, and not let people keep writing these daft books proclaiming us to be this, that or the other. And for a while we did really well.
What went wrong?
It just went on too long, and I found myself unable to write songs for that band, because they’ve moved so far along. It wasn’t ever going to work for me so it fell apart, quite rightly. When I reformed PiL for this, someone suggested I could have done this [This Is PiL] as a solo record: But no, I wanted to go back to PiL, but I wanted to make it clear that once I’d gone back and started PiL, I’m never going back to the Pistols.
Is there a different mindset to writing [This Is PiL] in comparison to your solo record [1997’s Psycho’s Path]?
There’s been no rulebook so far. I don’t think I’d be able to work if I had to find myself a special writing desk. I’d never use it; I’d resent it! That’s my way. I buy these little voice recorders all the time but I keep losing them, because I imagine that a great idea will pop up and I have to quickly record it, but I find it frustrating to rely on the technology. I’d rather keep writing it in my head until it comes out ready to be finished. I’m writing all the time. I love the slowness of writing, but I love the pen to scratch the paper. I like the whole procedure of that. It’s like a tea ceremony for me. Because indeed, writing songs involves a great many cups of tea.
It puts me in mind of that Mitch Hedberg joke: “I sit at my hotel at night, I think of something that’s funny, then I go get a pen and I write it down. Or if the pen’s too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain’t funny.”
[Laughs] Yes! Fantastic. That’s the best joke ever told. That has depth and clarity to me! Fantastic way of thinking, yes! And the fact that he remembered that thought shows that the desk and the writing and the pen were superfluous anyway! If you don’t remember the idea, it wasn’t worthy of anything; it wasn’t a truth, really. Except I have trouble with my memory [laughs], but I really do, it goes back to childhood meningitis. Sometimes my mind will go blank, which is deeply frustrating. That’s the fun and the challenge of pushing myself and performing live.
So you still have physical problems that stem from your illness?
I’m aware that at any moment I could have a serious blank, or if there’s a strobe light on I could go into an epileptic fit just like that. To try to avoid that is a constant battle. Although we don’t include strobe lights in our set – in fact, we don’t include any lighting; we can’t afford it! [laughs]. But sometimes these venues put on a strobe and that will tear me up inside, it’s such a challenge to try to fight through with the song, to focus on the song and not go into a seizure.
“If you don’t remember the idea, it wasn’t worthy of anything; it wasn’t a truth, really.”
Um, if you’re epileptic, isn’t having strobes at all incredibly dangerous?
Well it happens in nature too – the afternoon sun between the trees going down a country road, that’s murder for me. So where did we choose to make this album? In the bloody Cotswolds, which is nothing but tree-lined country lanes with the sun setting in the distance! But I’m none the worse for it.
Given your less than stellar childhood, and the effects of your childhood illness, how difficult was it to dredge that up out of your brain for the autobiography?
I don’t think I told all of it; I kept it basically factual and laid off a lot of the emotional pain. I didn’t want the book to be like, “Oh for God’s sake, listen to this!”, and I’m aware of that about myself. Self-pity – I don’t tolerate it in myself or anybody else. I shy away from that. But sometimes in the songwriting, I’ll explore those more tragic aspects of human nature, of my nature, and I’m in a band that’s perfectly well-suited for that. It’s taken me a long time to get the right balance of people, to be able to let loose in the way I do now.
That was always the difference between PiL and the Pistols. It seemed to me that PiL wasn’t as limited by the format of the band.
I think we got boxed in. It was a very healthy band for the world, but for us as individuals, the experience of actually being in the band was torturous. It felt very unrewarding at the time. I learnt to write through them, so I have a warm spot for the fellas in that respect, even though they didn’t make it easy, but god bless them for that! It’s back to my favourite quote of Shakespeare’s: “Smile in the face of adversity.” I love it. [Note: the actual quote is from As You Like It: “Sweet are the uses of adversity/Which like the toad, ugly and venomous,/Wears yet a precious jewel in his head”]. That’s the way. You laugh at funerals and you cry at weddings – that’s the way too, that’s an Irish wisdom. I picked up these little tricks of the trade along the way, and eventually they do mould you as a human being. And life is an ongoing experience, and you should never stop discovering or rediscovering yourself until the day you die. Some of us, unfortunately, die long, lingering, painful deaths, and others get off easy. Shock, bang, gone. But all of it’s worthy of some kind of analysis.
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