NAME: John Lydon
PROGRESS REPORT: World’s most curmudgeonly front man chats up his new book and gears up to record a new P.I.L. album early this year.
Thinking back over the course of my life as a semi-professional music journalist, there are few moments that spring to mind that are quite as surreal to me as picking up the phone on a weekday afternoon and calling John Lydon at his home in Los Angeles. Given his reputation as one of rock music’s crankiest figures and most infamous shit- talkers (and his propensity for going after journalists who somehow manage to offend him), it’s a somewhat daunting proposition. After 10 minutes of accidentally dialing the wrong number, I finally manage to reach Lydon, who not surprisingly starts our conversation by asking, “Why are you calling me ten minutes late? You do realize you are late, don’t you?” My immediate reaction was to apologize and hang up the phone, but I’m glad I didn’t, things quickly took a turn for the surprisingly friendly.
“Don’t worry,” says Lydon, “I’m already dying of a head cold, so I’m already aggravated. Another beautiful day in the neighborhood, I suppose!”
Given John Lydon’s portrayal in the media as a kind of living, breathing, fowl-mouthed and ill-tempered cartoon, it sometimes easy to forget just how important he really is. For better and worse, the cultural and musical impact of the Sex Pistols on the cultural canon is eternal. And regardless of what you think of John Lydon, his work with P.I.L. constitutes some of the most inventive and influential post-punk music of all-time. Having just come off a very successful tour with a reunited P.I.L. and in the midst of promoting his new book, Mr. Rotten’s Scrapbook, Lydon is surprisingly reflective these days. Listening to him talk about his childhood and reminisce about his parents, I realize how little most people actually know about Lydon. Even though his sneering visage has felt somehow omnipresent over the past three decades, he is, in fact, a deeply private person who has managed to keep much of personal life under wraps.
“Originally we were just going to make a scrapbook of images from the P.I.L. reunion tour,” explains Lydon, “but that seemed a little too shoddy, so we thought we’d give it a bigger story. Since there would be no Public Image Ltd. without the Sex Pistols and there’d be no Pistols without my earlier life, it ended up becoming my life story in a nicely pleasant, accurate, and personal way. I had to raid the pantries to find all of those photos and I had to ask all of my family and friends for their permission to allow themselves to be exposed to the media and the world. Up until fairly recently the media have been pretty terrible to me, but given the general good nature of the project, I thought we all might get off without a scathing. (Laughs) The book is very personal. It’s not an attack on anyone or anything, which is unlike me I suppose. It really shows the other side of me — the real side. The family side. The gentler side. It shows what kind of person I really am. People see Johnny Rotten on stage and think, ’What a maniac, is he like that at home?’ The answer is no.”
Mr. Rotten’s Scrapbook is a genuinely fascinating look into Lydon’s life — both personally and creatively. The book not only gives a new shade of perspective on the behind-the-scenes worlds of the Sex Pistols and P.I.L., it gives Lydon the chance to credit those who were influential and supportive to him along the way. Given that these days the Sex Pistols often seem more like a brand than a band, Lydon’s personal images shed a new and humanizing light on one of the world’s most over-mythologized cultural phenomenons. The book also gives Lydon a chance to show off his own personal artwork and, more importantly, publicly acknowledge his family, whom he claims have supported his creative endeavors “even when they were puzzled, shocked, and horrified.”
“I’m amazed when I look back on the past 30 or 40 years of working in the wonderful world of entertainment that I’ve been able to protect everyone and keep my personal life very private, he says. “I was very shy when I was young and loathed being photographed, which made jumping in front of the Sex Pistols quite a shock to the system. I got over my shyness, obviously. You couldn’t be a front man of such a volatile band and have a fear of cameras.”
A big part of what has made John Lydon so interesting — and such a tough nut to crack — is that he often hides behind the sneering, argumentative persona for which he is most well known. When I suggest that most journalists bait him — too easily — for a good quote, he is surprisingly agreeable. “They want some kind of nasty comment from me, which I’m often all-too-prepared to deliver,” he chuckles, “Obviously, I love a good verbal argument. But that’s not all there is to me. I wouldn’t want to only be known for that.”
It’s impossible to talk with John Lydon without briefly addressing the passing of Ari Up — lead singer of the Slits and Lydon’s own stepdaughter. After Up’s death in 2010, Lydon immediately placed himself on indefinite hiatus.
“It hurt us greatly,” says Lydon, “I don’t like to go on about death, but yes … it’s been a very difficult time. I would have been recording with P.I.L., but after that happened … there’s just no way I could have gone into a recording studio. I have to come to grips with all that and start working again when I’m good and ready. I hope people can respect that. My wife … you know, Ari was her only daughter. I just can’t leave her alone with the grief right now.”
Over the years, Lydon has proven himself something of a renaissance man. In addition to intermittently fronting two of the world’s most infamous and lauded rock bands, he remains a captivating media figure who has done tons of entertaining — and often very weird — television work in the UK. Most notably (at least to me), are a series of nature documentaries in which Lydon is dropped in various exotic locales and interacts with the local wildlife. Even when dealing with exotic insects, wild monkeys and great white sharks, Lydon often remains the most unpredictable creature in front of the camera. “I like explaining things about animals to kids” he says. “I went in with both eyes open and found that nature apparently really likes me. You can’t be aggressive when it comes to animals or else they will have you over. You can’t be nasty or they will literally eat you. I respect that.”
Those lucky enough to see the reunited P.I.L. in 2010 (and those who are bummed that they didn’t) can take heart, because in addition to sharing his feelings on traveling through rural America (“As extreme as the Sex Pistols were notioned in the press, we could still play in cowboy halls. I love the people in the South.”), the politics of playing shows in Israel (“People accused me of supporting a fascist government by playing there, which was the exact opposite of what we were doing.”), and Sarah Palin (“I watched her reality show. I thought it was hilariously entertaining. I don’t hate her just because of her politics”), Lydon is certain that a new P.I.L. album — and additional tour dates — are in the works for 2011. He also hints that the world might not have heard the last from the Six Pistols either.
“Because I’ve been able to get P.I.L. back together — and because I’ve really been in a songwriting mode — I can now look back on the Pistols and imagine writing with them, too. I wouldn’t have been able to think about that if I hadn’t gotten the P.I.L. thing going again. For me, there wouldn’t be a P.I.L. if it weren’t for them lads in the Pistols, so I feel responsive to their needs. If they want me to go out on tour with them I’m happy to oblige … until three weeks later when I’m not. (Laughs) That’s how it is. You forget the wars and the personal hates over time, until something happens … like a tour … and you remember all over again. You know, I don’t make friends easy, but once I do befriend someone my feelings are usually set in stone. You have to be a really bad bastard to make me change my views on you. And even bad bastards like me can be forgiven at times.”
You can order your own copy of Mr. Rotten’s Scrapbook here.
[Photo: John Lydon as a boy dressed in tartan, credit: John Lydon; P.I.L. Rehearsal Shot, credit: Andy Cantillon]