By Ken Sharp
Priest of punk… fearless musical explorer… social and cultural provocateur… cranky contrarian… icon John Lydon (nee Johnny Rotten) embodies all of those things and more. His new autobiography, “Anger Is An Energy” bears a fitting title that perfectly captured his spirited essence. Whether anointed public enemy No. 1 as Johnny Rotten leading the charge of misfits with the Sex Pistols, or his brave navigations as a sonic innovator with PiL (Public Image Ltd), Lydon channeled anger/rage/frustration to create a formidable musical manifesto. With an arsenal of songs like “God Save the Queen,” “Anarchy in the U.K.,” “Public Image” and “Rise,” he launched a mighty fusillade of musical grenades, all-sneering attitude, pointed social commentary dressed with dollops of piss and vinegar.
It’s all here in “Anger Is An Energy” — the good, the bad and the really ugly. Lydon has always had a way with words, and his new book does not disappoint. He is a masterful storyteller. The book is teeming with his candid insight and unique slant on the world. From his admittedly miserable childhood in North London to the formative years of the Sex Pistols through the various lineups of PiL, Pistols reunion and more, Lydon takes the reader on a thrilling warts-and-all ride through his colorful life. By the book’s conclusion, Lydon seems, dare I say it, happy, or at least content in the knowledge that he defiantly forged his own creative trail, hoisting a perpetual middle finger to his detractors. One thing’s for sure, in “Anger Is An Energy,” the punk prophet proves he still “means it maan…”
Goldmine: You grew up in North London in an area you describe in the book as “I come from the dustbin.” How did that environment shape your outlook and view of the world, and in turn your artistry later on?
John Lydon: Well, there are many of us that come from that similar background; there are many, many millions. It’s just every once in a while one of us manages to get a voice and say something about it, and I just happened to be that lucky one. You know, you don’t forget these things, but when you’re growing up in it you don’t know any better; that’s all there is and everybody else around you is in the same boat. Once you learn to expand your mind, of course, books can do that. But so can joining the Sex Pistols. Once you see the broader horizons, you realize that you’ve been hard done by.
Gm: In the book you speak about your natural inclination to help the disenfranchised and that’s true when you listen to the lyrics of many of your songs. Your viewpoint has always been authentic.
JL: Well, it has to be. I wouldn’t survive otherwise; that’s probably why I’m so nauseated by most of popular music because it fakes these scenarios. When you genuinely come from squalor and filth and depravation, it’s something that has to be dealt with properly. With a lot of the punk movement, a lot of them bands were faking it. They went down market. What I wanted from the wealthier background punks was to let me into their life, explain their life experiences to me and stop faking and pretending you’re part of mine.
Gm: Your new book is titled “Anger Is an Energy.” Discuss how you’ve tapped that fuel for your creative endeavors and used it to positively affect and not to incite violence.
JL: No, anger does not equate into violence and hatred; not with me anyway. I try to use these things positively. What I do in my songs is, I get a chance to explore many kinds of emotions and that includes (laughs) the Seven Deadly Sins… You have to indulge yourself into emotions almost, really, if you want to write properly in song form or poetry, I suppose. I wouldn’t consider myself a poet, more like I’m a realist, not a fantasist.
Gm: Can you create inspired work without it drawing from pain and anger?
JL: Oh yes, most definitely, yes. I run the full gamut of totally, completely happy senile delinquency to rage. (laughs) They’re all there, and I experience all of them. I’m not besides myself with depression. (laughs)
Gm: You’re a talented lyricist with your own unique take on the world. Discuss how your love of language helped shape you as a lyricist.
JL: I was lucky enough to be able to read and write before I even got to school. My mother would sit me down. I was fascinated with the shapes of words and I understood people looking at newspapers was deeply interesting to me ‘cause it was something I didn’t know about and I wanted to learn. So my mom taught me, and I caught on very quickly how to read and write. And that was a problem, of course, for the Catholic school that I was sent to because I was left-handed and that was seen as a sign of the devil at the time. (laughs) Hilarious, isn’t it? The foolishness of adults. Then at seven I got meningitis and that put me in hospital for a year. I lost my memory and I was senile, basically. They had to start all over again. I developed a real love for libraries at that point. That’s where I found myself again, really. It took about four years for me to completely remember who I initially was. It’s quite an odd thing. For the rest of my life I’ve been looking at myself from outside myself. The expression, “I’m beside myself” (laughs) takes on a whole new meaning.
Gm: You spoke about how growing up, books were your “life preservers.” Today, what books serve that purpose for you?
JL: I love books, I love it. That’s where people are the most honest with each other and I try to translate that into songs. The one thing that’s missing in books to me is the music. You’re imagining the melody of what you’re reading as you turn the pages. I’ve literally translated that into songs. That’s where I am and that’s where I am at my most happiest, when I’m writing and performing. And books are very, very important to me. To me, libraries are the citadels of humanity and everything else fades.
Gm: What were your go-to “life preserver” books growing up?
JL: Quite literally everything and anything – even a manual on how to operate a carpet cleaner could fascinate me. That’s how I am to this day. If I buy an amplifier, I’m more interested in the manual. (laughs) I love how words inform you of how things work or how other people work. The name Public Image Limited I took from the Muriel Spark book called “The Public Image.” She’s the person who wrote “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” — not one of my faves. (laughs)
GM: Books also solidified the idea that words can be weapons.
JL: Oh, absolutely, the best weapons. By inference, you can change people’s minds for the better; it’s much easier than a gun and with better results. The playground bullies never bothered me. I’d be able to whip a couple of sentences around them. (laughs) It’s a survival technique. But the more you read, the more you learn. There are people who say you can’t learn to live through books. Well, it’s a good start, and it makes you infinitely adaptable to whatever threatening situation you find yourself in.
GM: I found it quite interesting that in your childhood years priests dampened your love of singing. Do you revel in the delicious irony of how your life panned out as a singer? Is that the ultimate f**k you?
JL: No, but it works that way quite well. (laughs) It’s like a reward for endurance. I think that is the key to everything. It’s to keep at what you love to do and sooner or later, one way or another you’ll get to that place.
GM: When did the realization hit you that you knew what you wanted to do in life?
JL: Oh, I was always seen as willful (laughs) and purposeful. I mean, when you actually forget who you are, that’s quite a complicated world you have to deal with and to retain your sense of individuality. It leaves you with a sense that you’re an outsider; but then, as I’ve learned through the years and through everything, even in childhood, it’s that everybody feels that way. We all feel that we’re slightly outside of the norm. Well, there is no normal. I think the normal condition for a human being is to feel isolated.
GM: Can you recall the first music that you claimed ownership of as your own – not Mom and Dad’s – something that caught your ear and connected with you?
JL: Well, I’ve always bought records; that’s my hobby, that and books. I’m inundated with it and all kinds, too. I don’t narrow my outlook, I’m interested in everything that human beings get up to, almost obsessively sometimes, but it’s where I find a lot of joy and I like that. The best thing that ever happened to me was to be asked to join the Sex Pistols. From that first rehearsal onward, I thought, “Wow!” It never crossed my mind to do something like that. And if that was my luck of the draw then I was definitely fully equipped for it. The singing side came later. (laughs) I could write the songs and I knew what I wanted to say and I was given a brilliant blackboard in which to chalk out my future.
GM: Your musical tastes ran from Captain Beefheart to Alice Cooper, Can to Black Sabbath to Slade.
JL: To Peggy Lee, to anything…
GM: In what way did that broad mix of influences come to shape you as an artist with the Pistols and PiL?
JL: Well, it’s important because if you’re gonna try to understand yourself you have to understand everybody else first. At least that’s my approach.
GM: Let’s talk about your admiration of Todd Rundgren, another musical iconoclast who never stood still, always reaching and forging new ground. What was it about Rundgren’s work that impressed you?
JL: Oh, I really love Todd Rundgren. His whole attitude musically is thrilling. He does what he wants to do, therefore he gains maximum interest no matter what he gets up to, for me. I would say he was more punk than a lot of these wannabes because of the variances and the challenges he gives himself musically, which is massively entertaining. That’s inspiring stuff to me. People that don’t wear the uniform of genres will always thrill me.
GM: Many of us don’t appreciate our parents as much when they’re alive and only do so when they’re gone. What are the traits you inherited from your Mom and Dad that are part of your inner makeup?
JL: Well, with them gone they leave you with a sense of isolation initially. But I still have brothers and there’s a sense of family about us. I’m quite closely bonded with my brothers, very closely as it happens. There’s also my life with my wife, Nora, which is exceptional. Exceptional. I found an incredible individual human being who I worship in my own way. In childhood I thought my father was a bit on the cruel side, but now that’s he’s gone I can look at him more positively; that actually helped shape me into what I am, a person that doesn’t tolerate liars and doesn’t want to lie himself. I’m positive in my outlook. It may be something of a flaw but when I meet new people I’m generally trusting almost completely. I leave myself wide open and if they make the mistake of trying to f**k me over, well, bye bye. (laughs) No vicious hatred in it about me, but there’s a person that isn’t worth it. And unfortunately, there are a few of that kind out there. But given time they might change.
John Lydon is not as rotten as you think
GM: Can you recall when you first realized the Pistols were really starting to break and happen?
JL: Well, I never thought of it in terms of, “We’re gonna be a successful rock band.” (laughs) That’s clearly not an ambition that any of us considered was even possible. But we were enjoying what we were doing and we enjoyed each other’s company, initially a lot. Even though there were rows almost continuously, at least they were all open. See, I don’t mind rowing when the conversation is positive. You get to somewhere better. That’s all any of us are trying to do in life, which is to search out the reason why. Why anything at all? I loved that sharing things, so the Pistols taught me a lot; a group effort, a combined effort gets better results rather than individual nonsense.
GM: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
JL: It really is. As I went into Public Image later, that’s the philosophy I brought, that everything must be equal in the pay outs and don’t want to run away with songwriting credits, because you create an uneven balance inside the organization you’re trying to work with.
GM: When do you believe you found your voice as a songwriter?
JL: I think when I stopped panicking (laughs) and just let the fear go and got on with it. But that took some time, I’ll tell you. Some of those early Pistols gigs there was a lot of Dutch courage going on. You’d have a few pints of lager just before you hit the stage just because of the nerves. What I’ve done from those early days onward is I’ve learnt now to enjoy being that nervous. Again, it’s from reading books, autobiographies from actors talking about that stage fright thing. I was like, “Oh my God, look, it does exist!” (laughs)
What’s the back story behind the lyrical inspiration and title of “God Save the Queen”?
JL: Originally I had a jacket and I just wrote “God Save The Queen” on it. (laughs) I was full of sarcasm but mostly irony, I suppose. I was trying to be witty. One morning I woke up and I had the thing in my head and I just wrote it down. It took a lot of rehearsal but we got there in the end. “God Save the Queen” is a very odd song because it doesn’t really contain what you would call a chorus or a verse.
GM: You said it “breaks the rules of the pop song format.”
JL: Yes and oddly enough when you listen to it, it doesn’t come across as being difficult. At the time that was considered non-music because it wasn’t following traditional formats. We were oblivious to what a format was really, because we were all just learning and that was part of us learning with sounds and songs like that. So, I always look back to that period with the utmost respect, thrilling time.
GM: Musical primitivism can work to your advantage.
JL: It’s the most uplifting feeling, yes. Again, I’m someone who reads the manual, but that doesn’t mean I’m gonna follow it. (laughs)
GM: You had well documented differences with Glen Matlock, but putting that aside, as a songwriting team you created an impressive body of material. What made that partnership click?
JL: Well, all of us offered different elements. Just speaking for my own self, there were huge missing bits in my picture and the other three lads had those bits and maybe vice versa. But one way or the other we managed to create beautifully honest landscapes.
GM: Take us back to the sessions for “Never Mind the Bollocks.” In the book you state they were not to your liking, what was the issue?
JL: Yeah, when it came down to working with a producer (Chris Thomas), there was a narrowing of division. And if left up to my own devices at that time, it would have been an appalling fractious racket and would have probably ended up sounding very spiteful. (laughs) So I’m kind of in agreement with the lads that I needed my more excessive behaviors curtailed.
GM: You later wound up liking the end result?
JL: Well, I learned to appreciate the discipline and that’s a process you have to endure and go through, and then you learn there’s something good about that. Don’t just be negative to anything that’s outside of your previous experience. I mean, that’s helped me no end with songwriting ever since.
GM: You saw America for the first time on the Sex Pistols lone tour of the States in the ‘70s from the inside of a school bus.
JL: Listen, looking out the window and watching America whiz by was utterly amazing to me. Anything I’d known previously about America was from cowboy movies. (laughs) It’s true. Names like Tucson, Arizona; I’d be imaging John Wayne hopping off his horse. (laughs) The American landscapes and just the variance of America as a country was impressive. I mean, there’s some serious climate changes between the East and the West Coast. It’s like opening an atlas to me. So I’ve never lost that love of America. I based it initially on geography, and then I find America people to be very open. They’re very honest and very friendly with each other, and I found that to be a bit of a thrill. The British are not quite like that; if you stretch over to the other side of town you’re immediately viewed as an enemy or an outsider. England is just a collection of villages that hate each other. (laughs)
GM: From your perspective, what was the Sex Pistols peak as a live act, where you felt you were untouchable?
JL: Well, I never felt that. I never felt like we were untouchable. It’s not like that. It’s not like very romantic because it was very, very difficult and stress laden. It was early days and being so hated. (laughs) That was the general inclination of populations wherever we went, that we were vile and loathsome.
GM: And you enjoyed that?
JL: Well, you have to. You have to make the best of it. I was like, I’m annoying all these people; I must be doing something right. (laughs) If it was just a load of cack and rubbish that I was coming up with you wouldn’t be getting that kind of reaction.
GM: Moving from the Pistols to PiL, did the manner in which your approached writing songs change?
JL: Yes, I wanted to expand but there were some songs I’d actually written while I was in the Pistols. But I’d never work with that whole situation with that material. It was time to move on.
GM: What were some of the songs you wrote in the Pistols that PiL later recorded?
JL: Well, songs like “Religion.” With the Pistols, we had our season in the sun and then it was time to do something else and I didn’t want to particularly cash in on Johnny Rotten. I wanted to be John Lydon. And unfortunately, I had to become Johnny Rotten again because Mr. (Malcolm) McLaren was claiming ownership of my nickname, so that brought me back to that.
GM: “Public Image” was written very early in band’s incarnation. You described its creation as “the freest moment.”
JL: That song came together quite literally in week one of rehearsal as PiL, for the first time, and it just flowed amazingly. We knew we were off onto a different course from that moment onward.
GM: With PiL, did it free you up creatively to explore the wider range of your musical tastes?
JL: I think all of us did. I wasn’t gonna be Johnny Rotten imitating the Sex Pistols.
GM: As a singer with PiL you were able to…
JL: Shift gears.
GM: You described it as being able to “space shift” your voice.
JL: It came as a surprise to me, too, that I could achieve different ranges and notes and keys and I’ve always been there ever since. I’m not in any way trained as a singer, and I don’t understand when I watch American Idol what the f**k they’re talking about. (laughs) To me that’s like karaoke; it’s not really singing. It’s just learning rigid structures and abiding by them. As long as you can twee along like a gospel singer, that seems to be what everybody wants you to do. Well, no, my songs are from the heart; they come from internal. They’re expression of how I feel and that requires for me a completely different range. In songs like “Death Disco” it’s about the death of my mother. There’s no way I’m gonna do that to a disco beat properly. I’m gonna turn the thing upside down on its head, so that it jars and hurts and scathes inside the brain. It’s a song basically of screaming agony watching your mother die. I loved her very much. That pain will last forever. I’m pleased I got to play it for her. She was horrified and glorified, both at the same time. (laughs)
GM: With the Pistols you released one studio album. With PiL, you’ve created a large body of work. Why is PiL the perfect creative vehicle for you as an artist?
JL: Well, there have been plenty of band member changes over the years and every time there is a new influx, of course, there’s gonna be a new flurry. But generally speaking I don’t like to repeat myself and do the same thing twice, and I think that happens quite instinctively and naturally. I’ve never made two albums that sound the same and I don’t want to. And if I run out of ideas and I get bored then I won’t work. I’ll just stop because there’s no point in pandering. I’ve been given a gift, I think, in life and I’m not gonna f**k it up. That’s a difficult situation when you have that mentality with a record company who are just there to really earn money off of you by all means necessary. They don’t care if they break you mentally and emotionally; they want the cash! So I had to learn how to juggle between those two ambitions in order to survive and I think I did quite well. It’s quite amazing some of the records I’ve got away with. (laughs)
GM: PiL has gone through numerous lineups, is there a particular one you favor?
JL: No, not one lineup in particular; just all of it together. Although there were major rows with some of the people, I look fondly back on all of them. I do, seriously. With me, once I accept someone, I accept the warts and all. It’s just unfortunate that not many people feel the way that I do, and they’d just much rather hate than see a more positive side in things. And greed, of course, is a problem. There’s always someone who wants a bit more and that can break bands up.
GM: You worked with Ginger Baker in ‘85. Some might assume it would be a bad fit, but you guys hit it off. What made it work?
JL: Well, he’s another kind of fellow who does it his way and that’s it. (laughs) And that’s more than perfect for me. That’s no odd thing for me to be working with people like that. Of course, the legend of Ginger Baker overwhelmed me somewhat. But he’s a pretty damn hard fellow to like, too (laughs); he’s very, very different. But when he’s behind that drum kit, there’s the person. He’s stunning and that’s where he belongs.
GM: You must have fielded many offers through the years to put the Pistols back together.What made it right to do in 1996 for the “Filthy Lucre” tour?
JL: I suppose I’d cleared my mind with the first book (“Rotten”) ‘cause I’d put that off — putting it out — for quite some time. I just didn’t want to deal with the Pistols at all. It left a sad taste in my mind. But we got to talk and we looked back at it a little bit more fondly and wanted to redress the balance and not just end up despising each other for no particular reason that came to mind. So it was the right thing to do. A year later we found out we actually do really hate each other. (laughs) I can’t tell you anything more than that’s actually a positive thing. I’ve been talking with the drummer Paul Cook recently and we got on really alright so long as we’re not working together; so I’d much rather have their friendship than be forced into a position of writing songs that we wouldn’t believe in. Sod it; the money doesn’t matter to us, it never did.
GM: Back in the Pistols days you were dismissive of the old guard and someone like Paul McCartney in particular, someone Glen Matlock was a big fan of. But you encountered Paul in later years and your feelings about him changed.
JL: As a human being, lovely fellow. I don’t have to like his music, that’s my choice, but as people he’s a stand-up fella. Very friendly, very open, no conceit or deceit in him. Who could ask for anything more really? He was oblivious to my moanings about his work. (laughs) Just fantastic! I’ve often said in the past, if we were plumbers would we be upset if each of us didn’t like the way each of us installed a toilet? (laughs)
GM: Same goes for Pete Townshend, yet another big supporter of yours and who understood and supported the Pistols back in the day.
JL: Yeah, Pete’s a very open-hearted person. I’m very much impressed by Pete because the egotism of the music industry has not disturbed him any. He’s still true to himself, he’s genuine and he means well. And he really does want to help people out and he does this without any ego attached. He doesn’t come with a cartoon full of press agendas on top of you, quite discreet in his well-meaning. It’s lovely that there are people like that and it’s that kind of behavior that influences me much more.
GM: In discussing your work you said, “If left to my own devices 100 percent it would be chaos.” How do you find the right creative partners to navigate that chaos?
JL: Well, I’ve had to learn to discipline some of those more extreme excesses (laughs) because it’s no good to be just screaming for no reason. You have to fixate in your mind what it is that is making you angry, and that in itself is a discipline. But it also achieves an accuracy that’s much further reaching. For me, playing live, I like to look at people’s eyes and I see what’s being transferred to them if they’re grasping it correctly. That’s a wonderful way to work. There I am, this shy nervous clown before a gig and onstage it’s bang! I’m wide open. Come share!
GM: What led you to return to PiL to record “This Is PiL,” the band’s first album in 20 years?
JL: Well, I finally raised the money. I was left with an outstanding debt (laughs) and a butter ad commercial in England came up. It was amazing that they offered me it, but the money from that allowed me to pay off some outstanding bills and set up rehearsal. From there on in, bingo! And now we survive by what we earn playing and touring.
GM: There is a thread of positivity that infuses the material on “This Is PiL.”
JL: Oh, you’re gonna be very impressed with the new one. (laughs)
GM: Was that a natural byproduct of a change in how you see the world today or was it a concerted effort to craft positive material?
JL: No, I think it’s just the way it evolved. The feelings are really, really positive in this new lineup of PiL. It’s very different from any situation of animosity I had to get used to in my youth. It’s fascinating for me to know that I can now work both sides of the agenda of good and evil. It doesn’t always have to be each other rowing and being contemptible and all of us are guilty for that.
GM: Has your motivation toward making music remained the same through the years?
JL: Yeah, it’s about the joy of the product itself, the song. That’s where all the love is and being given the opportunity to expand on what you’ve recorded, on a live stage, is just amazing. I’m so grateful that I’ve got that in my life and we love to experiment with the songs onstage. We are so confident in each other’s capabilities and trust in each other that things can shape shift in an amazingly beautiful way. It’s pure transcendence. GM
John Lydon is currently on tour with PiL to support the band’s new album, “What The World Needs Now…”
Here are PiL North America Tour Dates:
New Orleans, LA, Voodoo Music + Arts Experience Festival, Saturday, October 31st 2015
Memphis, TN, New Daisy Theatre, USA, Sunday, November 1st 2015
Athens, GA, Georgia Theatre, USA, Tuesday, November 3rd 2015
Ft. Lauderdale, FL, Culture Room, USA, Thursday, November 5th 2015
St. Petersburg, FL, The State Theatre, USA, Friday, November 6th 2015
Orlando, FL, The Plaza Live, USA, Saturday, November 7th 2015
Washington, DC, U Street Music Hall, USA, Tuesday, November 10th 2015
Philadelphia, PA, The Trocadero Theatre, USA, Wednesday, November 11th 2015
Pittsburgh, PA, The Altar Bar, USA, Thursday, November 12th 2015
Montreal, QU, La Tulipe, Canada, Saturday, November 14th 2015
Toronto, ON, The Opera House, Canada, Sunday, November 15th 2015
New York, NY, Best Buy Theater, USA, Monday, November 16th 2015
Chicago, IL, Concord Music Hall, USA, Wednesday, November 18th 2015
Lincoln, NE, Knickerbockers, USA, Thursday, November 19th 2015
Denver, CO, Gothic Theatre, USA, Friday, November 20th 2015
Vancouver, BC, Vogue Theatre, Canada, Sunday, November 22nd 2015
Seattle, WA, The Showbox, USA, Monday, November 23rd 2015
Las Vegas, NV, Brooklyn Bowl, USA, Wednesday, November 25th 2015
San Francisco, CA, The Chapel, USA, Friday, November 27th 2015
Sacramento, CA, Ace of Spades, Saturday, November 28th 2015
Los Angeles, CA, The Fonda Theatre, Sunday, November 29th 2015