Former Sex Pistol John Lydon pops off on loving, living, and having been Rotten

“I don’t mind doing this at all,” John Lydon says, as he grabs another in the pile of several hundred books he’s in the midst of signing. “I don’t quite understand why people seem to come more for a signed book than to hear what I have to say—these grown men with their Johnny Rotten action dolls—but to each his or her own, I guess.”

Lydon, the former Sex Pistol and current Public Image Limited frontman and now memoirist, is sitting in a cramped third floor office of Manhattan’s Strand Bookstore, dutifully signing copies of his new book, Anger Is An Energy. Lydon is nursing a brandy. Unfortunately, he’s also nursing a dislocated shoulder that’s causing excruciating pain. Glancing over at the pile of books yet to be signed, and knowing there’s a standing room only crowd in the Strand’s rare book room, waiting for an imminent Q&A, with yet more books to be signed, has “given me something to complain about,” as Lydon says, but he’s also not letting it get him down.

“Can I have a quick smoke?” Lydon asks one of his minders, and off we head down a series of corridors to a secluded break room.

Several weeks ago, Lydon and I spoke for a total of nearly four hours over two sessions about everything from his love of old British comedy to the latest, and in his mind best, incarnation of Public Image, as well as his love of books (and libraries) and what got him thinking about tackling Anger Is An Energy.

“Well, after No Irish, No Blacks, the offers came in thick and fast to write another book,” Lydon says, referring to his excellent 1994 oral history of his Sex Pistols days, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs.

 When I commit to things, I commit to many things all at once. You get in the rev, the creative rev, and it’s a joy to be in that mode. “But no! I wanted time off from that. Putting a book together is such an epic journey into all kinds of self-analysis, fears, and phobias about getting it right, being mistranslated, having to deal with all those issues all over again. Also, there’s the problem of having to answer to the misdemeanors, shall we say, that negligent journalists are capable of. But I got round to it. Since re-forming Public Image Limited, it just felt right to do it. It came in between rehearsals for a brief tour, writing new material, and the Jesus Christ Superstar thing. But I knew it would be a shitload of hard work! And it was. But I seem to work well in that environment. When I commit to things, I commit to many things all at once. You get in the rev, the creative rev, and it’s a joy to be in that mode. There are times where indolence rules—a recharging of the batteries, very important moments—but that’s what I do. I work in bursts. Putting the book together, I had no time to fuck about. I had to go straight at it. But I’ve got to say, there were times when I’d get so bored doing it that I would rattle off on some fantastic Irish fantasy, just so that it didn’t seem like such laborious tedium to me. I can be extreme and excessive, but it all comes down to the book. You’ve got to tell it like it is.”

Anger is characteristically witty, charming, and at times, infuriating. Lydon would have it no other way.

“I have my own individual approach to life,” he says, willfully. “Humor is one of the elements that I use, and that can be misconstrued in many many ways. I use humor a lot in my life and work. Sometimes the written word is a lie, because it’s being misinterpreted quite literally. A sense of irony is sadly missing from the regurgitation process. That’s just a pity, but time will tell. You put a book out really to fill in more pieces of the puzzle, and to fill in as many as you can in hopes that the reader grasps that this is an endeavor to get things right, and not just an ego stroke.”

Lydon did, in fact, have selfish motivations for writing Anger Is An Energy, though. With the music business a shadow of its former self, and with his passion high for the newly reformed Public Image Limited, Lydon knew that whatever money he made from a memoir would allow him to tour and record on his own terms.

“The demise of the record industry brought some sense of glee, but a hell of a huge sense of loss,” Lydon says. “The development of young artists is gone. Not that the record companies ever spent a penny on trying to develop us, but they definitely helped many other bands. And I appreciate that, because that makes my record collection better. But that isn’t happening now. It’s really, really hard to trace down any kind of ground movement or groundswell in music, because there actually isn’t one. There’s no way for us folk to combine in any way at all. They took the bollocks out of music. So in many ways I’ve had to learn how to start all over again. We’re independent now, we are. We have to put it all together ourselves. We have to raise the money to do this by performing live, and by me doing things like writing this book. But it’s a constant problem of there just not being enough money.”

Still, Lydon—who by his own admission does love to complain—isn’t complaining about the position he finds himself in nowadays.

“The freedom is fantastic,” he says enthusiastically. “It’s utterly, utterly amazing. Now we can do absolutely whatever we want to, because we want to. That’s exhilarating. It’s very nauseating to anybody who wants to be creative to feel that there’s an agenda you have to adhere to. ‘Can’t you write some hit singles?’ That was the old line the record companies used to foist on us.”

Lydon is also uncompromising, seeing his way forward with the forward-thinking creative outlet that Public Image Limited affords him rather than via the legacy circuit with his “brothers” in the Sex Pistols.

“I could have stayed with the Pistols when we re-formed, but I wasn’t interested in that,” he admits. “We all sat down and just said, ‘This is silly.’ I couldn’t write songs for them anymore. I just didn’t feel it. But I’ve got to say, I do love those songs. And I love performing those songs live. But anything I have written ever since the original Pistols days has always been with Public Image Limited in mind.

“I’ve got to say, it would have been the easy money ride, but that’s just not enough,” Lydon continues. “It’s just not. You don’t feel too good about yourself realizing that you’re just becoming a pantomime. With all respect to my Sex Pistols brothers, I don’t like them musically, okay? I just don’t. They’ve not changed. And change is vital. You have to adapt to your time, and situation, and scenarios. I think that kind of explains my attitude about what music is or isn’t. It’s like, by all means, learn everything—and then forget it. That’s what music is. It’s creating and not imitating. Once you just stick to basic patterns and rhythms and clever little key changes and think that’s it… it’s not it at all. We’re supposed to be translating emotions to people. Always in my mind, I remember Sha Na Na. They were very entertaining, but they were a parody of something that had already gone. To try to bring back that rock and roll thing in that way was clichéd, and wrapped up in newly-formed ideas of what rock and roll was or was not. Terrible. So I don’t want to end up. ‘Oh, Johnny’s wearing a punk cliché hairdo! Fabulous!’ Or, ‘Johnny changes his hair on a regular basis!’ The only thing I don’t change is my underwear.

“Anyway, I couldn’t write for them,” Lydon says, bluntly. “If I did—and I’m always writing—I’d immediately put at the top ‘PiL song.’ Because I knew I wouldn’t be getting the joy of experimentation out of the chaps. For me, they’re too comfortable. Besides, I had every intention of using whatever money I earned from that—like I’ve done with this book—and focusing straight back into Public Image.”

Whether it’s writing Anger, or working with the newly reformed Public Image Limited, Lydon clearly has an artist’s approach to his work. Still, he takes his position, ultimately as a performer and entertainer, seriously.

“I answer to the people I’m working with and the audience,” Lydon says. “I cannot and will not let them down. I’m not going to turn up drunk and stupid. I’m not going to do that. I’m not going to put my wonderful idea of entertainment in the way of what this is all about. There’s a very, very important sense of empathy that Public Image has to have with its audience. That’s the best thing you can do for people, to break down the barriers. There’s an old line: open your mind, and your body will follow. I love that idea. Words to live by, for sure.”

Our conversation turns to Lydon’s long, roller-coaster career, and some of the business people—like the Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren—whom have haunted him over the years. Now, Lydon says, he’s careful. He makes choices for the long-term, and only allies himself with people he can truly trust—even if to the outside those choices seem unorthodox.

 “I’ve found that I can write songs in both positions of adversity and joy. There’s something for you. That’s something I’ve definitely learned. I can actually enjoy my workplace and write very excellent and creative songs.” “You’d like my manager,” he begins. “He’s my best mate. I’ve had enough of the bad ones, so a few years back I decided to work with someone I grew up with in (working class London). I never looked back. For me, the thing I’ve always sought in life is to find myself in a position where I’m working with people I can trust. It’s been a long journey, but it’s been worth it. That’s where I am right now. Ultimately, my faith in the human condition has been rewarded. At the end of the day, I’ve got to live with myself and my decisions. That’s what I do. I couldn’t live a lie. I just couldn’t. Back to my mum, you know? Just be yourself, John. So, there I am. Myself. And even when things haven’t worked out, it’s still good song material!

“It’s the truth, though,” He says with a hearty laugh. “I’ve found that I can write songs in both positions of adversity and joy. There’s something for you. That’s something I’ve definitely learned. I can actually enjoy my workplace and write very excellent and creative songs.”

For many people, John Lydon will always be Johnny Rotten, the young punk, but while those days—and that infamy—are nearly 40 years behind him, Lydon has no regrets.

“I’m in the difficult position of being more infamous than famous,” Lydon explains. “I find that the truth hurts. That’s an unfortunate indictment really on us as a species. We’d rather wax lyrical than tell a thing as it really is. ‘God Save the Queen’ as a record to challenge the authority of the royal family was absolutely unheard of. I wanted to know why. And back then I didn’t just pick up the phone, talk to a journalist, and create a situation. Those situations were created for me, and I responded. So even though I seem unguarded, I’m very careful and thoughtful about what I say. It’s just that sometimes people don’t like what I say ultimately because it’s the truth and they don’t want to hear the truth. But I don’t step into personal attack or gossip or innuendo, and I never have. There’s no bitter twisted agenda lurking behind here. It’s just the issues and how I see them. Make what you will of the facts that I present compared to the facts that are presented to me. What I want in all things is transparency and debate. I think that’s the way for us to survive into the next millennium. It’s the need for secrecy that’s really kind of dark and unwarranted in media and government.”

I point out, near the end of the nearly four hours we spent together, that Lydon is more of a loveable curmudgeon than his reputation allows. He doesn’t disagree, but he’s also aware that the world has gotten worse rather than better since he first became a cultural icon.

“I love life and I love everybody in it, but unfortunately there’s that one percent out there that would just like to kill us all,” Lydon tells me. “There’s not much you can do for them, but it doesn’t mean that you have to hate people. Hate is just not a thing used very properly. You know, when I write things like Anger Is An Energy, I’m not teaching you hate. I’m telling you how to use your anger internally and positively, so you can overturn a situation. It does not ever work when it dissolves into hate and violence. Those are not options. That’s for the weak-willed—the cowards who are not capable, or fear actually thinking a problem through. In the end, if you’re open to it, everything is a lesson. Everything. You learn from everything and you add it to your capacity for information.”

As we say goodbye, I ask John for his sales pitch for his book. He scoffs.

“Bear in mind, one of my favorite childhood memories was going to the library and pulling out books,” he says, before signing off.

“Recommend it to your local library!”

You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jeffslate. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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