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John Lydon is not as rotten as you think

John Lydon is taking PiL on the road for the first time in eighteen years. He's an awfully intense person but he may not be the bully you think he is.

by Pat Prince

John Lydon is taking Public Image Ltd (PiL) on the road for the first time in many years. Although it has been eighteen years since PiL last toured America, John Lydon does not want to call it a "reunion" for the group. In Lydon's point of view, PiL never broke up. The band is simply an "ongoing process."

Strangely enough, on the eve of PiL's tour, Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols former manager, died of mesothelioma. Closely entwined to McLaren in rock history, Lydon singled McLaren out as a consummate entertainer who will be missed. In the spirit of McLaren, the show must go on and flourish.

PiL's North American tour began at Coachella (Valley Music & Arts Festival) on April 16th. With Lu Edmonds on guitar, Bruce Smith on drums and Scott Firth on bass, Lydon is following up more than a month of American shows with a short European tour.

After touring, the band is looking to re-enter the studio for the first time since 1992's "That What Is Not." Without a record company's support, however, financing PiL has been tricky. In 2008, the U.K. press labeled Lydon a sellout for being in Country Life Butter commercials. Country Life Butter is a very Anglo product, but it was the money from those commercials that helped finance PiL's resurgence.

Goldmine spoke to Lydon just before PiL embarked on their North American tour. Many seem to be intimidated by Lydon's presence and reputation. Turns out, Lydon is more human than many. Yes, he's an awfully intense person but he may not be the bully you think he is.

Are you excited about this North American tour?
John Lydon: Yeah, but it makes me nervous, cause I always want to do the best I can. I'm a worrier by nature. And it's such a financial burden. Lack of record company activity, per usual – it's beginning to sound like a very old banjo I'm playing, but it would be nice if the label that apparently wants to make money from me would show some interest.

It's a big way to kick off the tour, with Coachella.
Lydon: Yeah, but, I mean, there's the point. There's never been a problem between me and an audience, it's just the record company in between, completely not understanding.

Yeah, well, the way the music industry is nowadays …

Lydon: Well, they can't say I haven't warned them. No, for thirty years I've been telling them they're all a bunch of silly sausages and … they are. (laughs)

Back to Coachella … I've heard you didn't like playing these festivals.
Lydon: Sometimes not. Sometimes they're brilliant. It all depends on the nervous condition I'm in beforehand. (laughs) Because I am a human being.

I always loved the atmosphere of festivals. You know, the original festivals, as they used to be, some forty years ago, they were entirely different events. These days they seem very corporate led. And you can't indeed use the toilet without a credit card. The only toilets you'll find empty and clean are the Mens at the Lilith Festival. (laughs)

I didn't know PiL played American Bandstand once. What was that like?
Lydon: Uh, hilarious. Because they expected us to mime. And there we are, we pull up, and we are expected to perform live and, 'No, no, no, no.' So, we mimed in the most inappropriate way possible.

That was a weird experience, I'm sure.
Lydon: No, we absolutely had fun, like not bothering with it at all. We just ran all over the studio. But, apparently, Dick Clark really liked it. So, he put us in his top 20 all-time performers. Even though we didn't perform. (laughs) Well, we did, but not according to their plan.

Did you get to meet Dick Clark?
Lydon: Yeah.

How was he? Was he a good guy?
Lydon: Well, he picked a decent wig that night. He had worse because I'd seen a room full of them. Believe me, some of those were beavers. (laughs) At least, he's a good-enough person. He gave us a chance. He knew, you know, what Mr. Rotten might be capable of. And I wasn't there to wreck anything. But I have to do things my way, which I think is the proper way. And I can't stand there, faking singing, it's impossible to me. You know, throw the microphone away and get on with it.

So, it's been eighteen years since you've last toured as PiL.
Lydon: It doesn't seem like that, even though many adverse situations cropped up, hindering me from keeping PiL together. I had kept myself busy, and I really like the work I've been doing.

I always thought there was going to be a PiL reunion. Sometimes the press made it sound like 'that's it' for PiL.
Lydon: They shouldn't talk like that. They shouldn't make assumptions that things broke up, fell apart, 'that's it,' and reformed. It's not like that. PiL is an ongoing process. Our biggest problem has always been finance. Without the record company's support, it's impossible to keep a band together. How you gonna finance it? You know, I've gone to Tampax. They're not interested.

I think this was after the Sex Pistols reunion …
Lydon: No. I wouldn't say 'reunion' there either.

Right. Or, as it was labeled.
Lydon: Yeah. The band (Sex Pistols) fell apart due to various, erroneous, managerial manipulations, and we decided to continue it in a proper true way. With a sense of respect towards each other.

Do you find you have to get into a different state of mind, emotionally, switching from the Sex Pistols to PiL?
Lydon: Yes. That's not impossible for me. Although, yes, it is yin and yang, left hand and right hand, and two bands in your brain at the same time, but one led into the other. The Pistols was my beginnings in music and from that I've learned what I'm able to do what I do today. So I am completely — always — eternally grateful to that band. They mean the world to me. It's truly an amazing inheritance.

I look forward to seeing PiL. I never got a chance to see PiL live, so...
Lydon: Oh, well, Wipee! Because, to my mind, this is the best PiL format ever. Ever. Finally being able to really zoom in to what matters. Egotists and the like, and the drug-takers, have all been well and truly eliminated. You know, the people that tend to drag you back in for selfish reasons, we no longer require them.

I've heard you say that one thing you desire now is a stable line-up.
Lydon: We're almost psychically in-tune with each other. It's quite brilliant the places we can go musically, live. And the absolute ability to be able to improvise and take the song into something completely, strangely different. Yet, always enjoyably return to the original refrain. The chance to be doing that live is an amazing thing, and you need people you can truly, truly trust to do that with. And people you generally like and love and respect. And that's how it really is. And the new bass player, Scott, he's molded into us so instantly well. He's just a genuine person. He loves his family. Loves his kids. These are people I like. I don't like tortured drug addicts.

Plus, you've been through all that.
Lydon: Yeah, and it's appalling, It's really just a cover-up for low self-esteem, all that self-indulgence. There's nothing brave in being a junkie. And certainly nothing to be respected. It actually shows an enormous weakness of personalty. A cop out. I mean, for me, drugs are recreational. They are not a predominant factor. Just like a bottle of beer. I like it to be there when I want it.

Are you going to re-enter the studio?
Lydon: Yeah, yeah. That is the point of this. To raise enough money to be able to get ourselves into a recording situation. Luckily, there have been a few new offers from record labels, definitely more than interested. There are people who want to do a documentary on this, and that all helps. So I'll get rid of those sad sack c***s that have been bothering me for thirty years. (laughs)

There was an unfortunate aspect that occurred in the British press last year, to the opening of this tour. One of them was this: Virgin decided to re-release "Metal Box" without any words to us, whatsoever. While we were planning this tour, they'd shown no interest in it at all. And then a certain journalist picked up on that and said that this tour was gonna be all about doing the "Metal Box." And we would be calling it the Metal Box tour. All completely erroneous. And it caused all kinds of problems. And then having to discuss issues with former members. And having to put up with their egos and arrogance about it. And people telling me what's what in PiL, it was unbearable.

The British press, they can be something else.
Lydon: If they could find a way to murder you, they'd happily go to it

They often paint you as this undesirable bully but your lyrics in PiL are anti-bully.
Lydon: Yeah, I know. 'Take the shit outta your ears,' you know.

And people who don't know you ... they expect you to be a certain way.
Lydon: And they don't want to either. I mean, I moved Public Image to America very, very early on. Because we couldn't get any venues in Britain or Europe. Nowhere would let us play. Couldn't get record company interest, so I moved to the States. Well, the result of that was the British media deciding I was a sellout. And resented me for allegedly becoming an American — which on reading I thought 'What a good idea!' And here I am twenty-five years later, proud to be an American. But if that is to be the reason to hate me and still carry on that festering spite, you know … I'm quite happy.

Don't get me wrong, the American press can be pretty bad, too.
Lydon: Oh, they can. But I've been always given a fairer crack of the whip here. And American audiences are far more open to something new and individual than you could ever achieve in England. It's quite strange. You would think it would be the other way around. But because you've got this media spite — which, of course, is financed by record companies — it's impossible to come out of it unscathed.

For my mind, too, the more and more energy they spend trying to wreck my life, and my career, and my good name, the more and more intriguing it becomes.

And they (the British press) dig up the most trivial stuff, whether it be this Country Life Butter thing … things they keep going on and on about.
Lydon: Yeah, and guess what? That money (from Country Life Butter) is what's reformed PiL. For want of a better word, reformed. You know, where am I supposed to get my finances from? And, on top of that, I was promoting, absolutely British product, which seems very unfashionable for the socialists over there at the moment. It's so ludicrous, and they don't sense of irony and true anarchy in promoting such a politically incorrect product as butter by Johnny Rotten. You should be on the floor dying of laughter. That's a coup d’état, surely.

That's a great way to look at it. (laughs)
Lydon: That's how I did. I jumped in to the prospect of that project because of those amazingly complicated situations involved in it. And, well, there you go. The utterly humorless decided to have another point of view on it. But at least they do have a point of view on me.

They do follow you quite often.
Lydon: Well, they should because I led the charge in music for so long.

Yeah, but I mean, for the wrong reasons sometimes.
Lydon: Well, that's jealousy, you see. Shoot the messenger, I suppose, is the attitude. It's such a shame that you have to explain everything. Sometimes people should shut up talking and start listening.

In American politics, it's the same thing. As I'm sure you've witnessed …
Lydon: It's hurts me a lot to see that. To see Republicans left with the only option they have, is to divide a nation. The bitterness and lying and hate, it's so self-condemning.

It goes back to the bullying part.
Lydon: Yes, it does, but this reflects very poorly on a political party. All around the world are watching. And they are not impressed.

Are British politics as nasty?
Lydon: They can be witty. But there's never a viciousness. And there's never an implication of violence in the language. Alright, because that would be completely unacceptable. I'm just a lousy old pop star, me, apparently, but if I'm accused of inciting a riot, that's a major thing for me. Yet, as a politician, that's exactly what some of these fellas are up to. And I expect the same law for me as them. That's why I live here. And if they want to take bullying out of schools they need to take it out of Congress first. (laughs)

I read a great quote where you said Miles Davis commented that you sang like he played the trumpet. To me, that is very accurate.
Lydon: I love "Bitches Brew," it's one of my favorite records and when he walked into the studio (for "Album") and stood behind me and started blowing his trumpet it was extremely off-putting. It would be nice to have had him on that record but we were doing the same lines. And that's when he said that. And I don't analyze myself quite that way.

I regard myself as a folk musician. And I regard jazz as folk music, too, just as much as a ballad from 15th century Ireland. And what I mean by folk is that what I sing is from the heart and soul. I'm not trying to imitate any other genre or style of singing. I'm singing as I feel it. I'm trying to be as truthful to myself as I possibly can. And hopefully that communicates to others. Through quite a lot of pain. It doesn't come ways but you have to find your own voice in the world like you have to find your own way. And it's a shame that music has that potential but so many bands clutter it up, with inadequate copyist versions of things. I've always hated genre hoppers. Ones that revise something from the past, it's all so easily set for them. They grab the uniform and the clothes of that period and they think that will do it. And it's not right. Each generation has to represent itself. And each individual has to completely represent him or her self.

The question is, is originality dead in rock and roll?
Lydon: No, not at all. There's just an awful lot of the other stuff, which I suppose there always will be. Not everyone's cut out to do what I do. I mean, I'd like to paint but I know I'm nowhere near as good enough. That's not my true form of expression.

Speaking of "Album," there were a lot interesting guest appearances on there. The most interesting one was Steve Vai.
Lydon: It wasn't so much guest appearances as people who wanted to work with me. And I thought it was a most excellent record. Love it to death. And I always wanted the song "Rise" to be monumental because that's how I wrote it and felt it, and I think we achieved that.

I was just going to bring up that song — and it's interesting what you said before about folk music and it's meaning. That song and it's phrase "anger is an energy" ... you sang it like a mantra. That statement has a sort of philosophical beauty to it. When you think about anger you can often think about violence but this expressed something different and maybe you want to elaborate on that?
Lydon: Well, that's definitely giving a nod and a wink to my Pistols days which far-too-easily misinterpreted punk into being a violent statement. Which it never was. Not for me. Many of the punk wannabe bands that followed on after, quickly went for the easy option of violence and negative imagery and, you know, back to the silly cliches of skulls and crossbones. And that's never what the Pistols were. And, yes, "Rise" is a true folk song. And deeply felt, that I do not like to see people punished or tortured or locked up.

Do you still listen to the old punk — the '70s punk?
Lydon: Begrudgingly, from time to time, yes, of course. There were some stunning bands that came out. It was a wonderful time. We gave inspiration to so many people to just do it yourself. Unfortunately, a lot of the bands tended to narrow it down to a studded leather jacket and spiky hair. And that became a cliche.

I recently saw the Joe Strummer documentary, "The Future is Unwritten." That was a great slice of that time. I don't know if you had a chance to see it?
Lydon: Yeah, what I didn't like about it was that it came across as slightly dirty. I got the vibe off it that those type of people didn't wash much. (laughs) And being grimy for the sake of it, like that mattered. In Pistols, or me in PiL, the image is transient. It doesn't matter what I'm wearing. And I have the freedom to wear what ever style of clothing when and where I want to.

I can see the movie coming off that way, with the squatting and all ...
Lydon: Yeah, so for me, a trifle false. Because Joe Strummer came from, like, wealthy parents. So don't be playing my working class roots on me like that. I truly do come from that. And it bugs me when they're trying to use that as some kind of edge to their career. And it became appalling with Joe. And God bless him, he's dead, and I never speak ill of the dead. But to be running around screaming 'class war' and 'kill the rich,' while living in one of the wealthiest areas of London, struck me as a little odd. You know, and bragging about taking the bus home. Well, 'that's fine, Joe, but the eight million pounds mansion you live in. (laughs) You know, get a cab. Employ someone. Put some money back into the system.'

I just have that common sense approach to life.

Looking back, what's your favorite PiL moment?
Lydon: There are so many but probably the best moment is yet to come. I'm not being coy there. I actually feel that. And I genuinely feel fifty years young and I can't wait for the next. I've always said this but one of the most foolish lines in rock written was by Pete Townshend, that 'I hope I die before I get old.' In many ways, that line helped me, when I was very, very young. I thought that was the most foolish thing. And it's proved to be true. Because for me, every day I learn something new. And I feel a better person for it.

Townshend was, however, one of the first rock musicians to actually say something.
Lydon: No, I'm in full agreement. I get on with Pete extremely well. I mean, he writes these things so that they can be debated, so I'm not pulling issues with him. It's a good bowl of contention we have. In the most joyous way. Believe me, there's been much I've said and done to annoy him. (laughs)

Well, there still is a lot of time left.
Lydon: Yeah, there is. All this, you have to do it by twenty one, is such a pile of nonsense. At twenty one, I now know looking back, there were things that I didn't know then that I most definitely could have made use of. But I think the point being, at twenty one, your brain is not developed enough to be that smart.

Not enough experience.
Lydon: Not enough experience. To ignore experience and despise old age is the most ridiculous thing that I recommend every teenager do. Because without doing that you won't fully be able to grasp the concept at a later age. And what it does, is it brings you humiliation. And we all need a little bit of humility every now and again. And that's what I do in songs, really. It's all self-analytical, a huge bunch of the time. And very self-effacing. And that can be very vital. It's kind of a cleansing of the head. You have to be able to look at yourself accurately and see what is going wrong. It's enormously painful but the rewards, coming out the other side, knowing you can be better, it's infinite. I'm far from a perfect person, but I'm damn well gonna give it a good go.

When it's all said in done, would you be comfortable being known in the mainstream as the singer of the Sex Pistols?
Lydon: Oh, that's not my ambition. No. I'm not looking for a chair position and I certainly don't want no Grammy. Or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, thank you. I think those institutions are negligent towards music. Well, listen, I come from a band that is infamous. I mean right from the outset. Once you realize early on in your youth that fame is a fickle companion, you're a lot better off for the rest of your life. So I'm in no need to strive that or crave indulgence from audiences. That's not what I do this for.

You never know. PiL might be inducted into the Hall of Fame one day.
Well then, that Rock and Roll Hall place doesn't really learn, does it?