Former Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon—the sardonic, working-class rabble rouser once known to a generation of punk fans as Johnny Rotten—doesn’t do small talk.
Asked how he’s feeling these days, Lydon snaps in response, “I ain’t telling YOU. You’ll print it.” Then, as if observing the sharp-tongued figure that is John Joseph Lydon from a distance, he slips into the third person, cackling at some invisible absurdity that only he can see.
“He’s fine,” Lydon continues. “He’s alive.”
The fact that Lydon—today the 59-year-old lead singer for the band Public Image Ltd.—can claim to be on anything resembling an even keel might come as something of a surprise. After all, much of his life and various career turns (including, but not limited to becoming the Sex Pistols’ accidental lead singer who railed against the U.K. establishment with lyrics like “God save the queen/she ain’t no human being”) have tended to spring from, as he calls it, “happenchance.”
Lydon’s newly published second memoir Anger is an Energy establishes that there’s much more to the person than the public persona. Indeed, the book goes out of its way to present the hidden nooks and crannies in the architecture of Lydon’s psyche. He shares his adoration of his wife Nora, and the fact that he’s been faithful to her for the decades they’ve been together and eventually married. There’s also a touching reflection in the book from Lydon on attending the funeral of his father, the same man who once announced that his punk star son who dyed his hair green looked like a Brussels sprout. Elsewhere in Anger is an Energy, readers discover that Lydon’s something of a casual gamer, an ardent book lover, and a bit of an American culture junkie. He enjoys his U.S. citizenship and stares out of windows while on tour to take in the American countryside. He still apologizes to no one.
“The truth, I’ve found, is far more interesting than the tittle-tattle they fill history books with,” Lydon writes in Anger is an Energy, the title of which is a throwback to his youth.
As a child, Lydon spent almost a year in the hospital after contracting meningitis. It was a harrowing period for him, one that he says included memory loss and difficulty talking and communicating. As a means of helping his mind stay snapped back into place, he says the doctors told his parents to keep him angry.
Asked what he’s angry about these days, Lydon takes a philosophical turn.
“Anger is just a feeling, like love, which can turn to hate, which can turn to jealousy,” he says. “I’m angry about the disenfranchised, same as when I was young. People left outside the fold, where differences aren’t appreciated. For me, in life it’s our differences that make us all the more unified. I’m a positive thinker. Sometimes when you’re songwriting, unfortunately, you have to wallow in the dark side in order to see the light at the end of it.”
Time was, Lydon and co. were seemingly rooted in the dark side, their music synonymous in some corners with literal treason.
Within a year or two of the formation of The Sex Pistols, Lydon writes, an extraordinary wrinkle had emerged.
“I was discussed openly by councilors and parliamentarians who angrily cited the Traitors and Treason Act,” he writes in his memoir. “That was a deadly thing to be brought up against. It was a very old law, and actually from what my lawyer was telling me, it still carried the death penalty. Ouch! What? For using words? ...The whole fiasco aroused that naggy little git in me, the idea that words are actually weapons and are perceived as such by the powers-that-be.”
Today, Lydon is still exercising those rights while writing for, touring with and fronting the re-formed version of Public Image Ltd.
The band is preparing to release a new album in September called What the World Needs Now… with Lydon emphasizing the “dot, dot, dot” at the end.
“I’m not going to tell you what the world needs now,” he states bluntly. “The dots are for you to fill in. I’m not preachy-preachy, me. I just give alternative ways of thinking and stand back to see what you come up with. That’s why I love books, films, TV—anything human beings are doing is great, to me. Even the bad stuff can be insightful.
“I’m not handsome, you know. I think I’m actually quite ugly. But I’ve made good use of that. And I don’t run my life according to other people’s values system. I have a value system of my own, which I think is far superior. It doesn’t hurt anyone, tries to make space for everyone. There was a time when the media twisted me into this very bizarre, nasty character that would be great to play in a film but impossible to live as a human being. But Johnny Rotten won in the end. I’ve outlived all the prejudices.”
He then launches into a fit of coughing.
“Hold on,” he stutters through the hacking. “I just swallowed a gnat…Ugh, it’s summer here!”
Regaining his composure, he continues, “Anyway, the Pistols was a great beginning. What a boot camp training ground that was. It was right we broke up, though. Public Image Ltd.’s been my life’s work ever since. It’s where my heart beats best.”
Although he treads closely with that heart-on-a-sleeve statement, Lydon says that one thing he’s always tried to do is to stay away from rock clichés.
“They’re all about selfish indulgence,” he says. “That’s not my way. I don’t step on anyone to get anywhere. It was the same with the Sex Pistols. I never went out of my way to join a rock band. It’s never a career I’d have considered for meself, least of all as a singer.
“It was pure luck. I was hanging around King’s Road in my ‘I Hate Pink Floyd’ t-shirt. I attracted attention. I was asked to be a singer in a band that turned out to be the Sex Pistols, and I never looked back. I was fully capable of writing immediately, because books were my thing. Thinking was my thing. And I found meself.”
In a way, the incorrigible John Lydon is still finding himself, still happy to see what mischief he can make and what new lyrics he can get away with, no matter his age.
Not one to end phone calls with a simple goodbye, he punctuates his interview with a final Lydon-ism to serve as a farewell.
“May the road rise to meet you, may your enemies always be behind you, may you scatter, flutter, butter and shutter!” he exclaims, emphasizing the second syllable of shutter so that he ends things on an exuberant “shut-TAH!”