He’s hardly the belligerent madman, self-immolating maniac, or animated buffoon that many have taken him for. By contrast, Sex Pistols co-founder John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) is witty, articulate, and spontaneous. But he can definitely be cranky.
He’s not intentionally difficult, but when addressing subjects he’d rather avoid, the punk legend gets impatient. Asked if he’s surprised that he’s still alive today, considering how decadent and debauched the punk era was, he scoffs, “No, because I wasn’t living a dangerous lifestyle. That would all be press waffle and nonsense.”
While Lydon annoys quickly, he’s just as easily amused, responding with laughter at the smallest provocation. After a pause in our phone conversation, he says, “Hello?” as if the line has gone dead. “Yeah, I’m still here,” I respond. “I’m just quietly laughing at what you just said.”
“Indeed, you must,” he replies in all candor. “Because I’ll tell you, in life I’ve found that comedy is really the best, best route to self-discovery. You learn more when you’re able to laugh at yourself and not to take yourself too serious, than you would do in any other form of expression.”
When Lydon speaks, he does so at a rapid pace, sometimes bouncing from one topic to another, as if there are more ideas in his head than he can express in any given period of time. As fast as he talks, he thinks even faster.
“When I first moved to New York, I went to the theater where Robin Williams was performing, and it was really eye-opening for me,” he says. “I realized the way his nonstop babbling about issues flitting in and out of his brain like machine gun bullets was exactly how it is for me in my own head. And I thought, ‘Ahhh, I’m not alone in this, after all.’”
In some ways, Lydon is true to the old-school spirit of punk rock. In other ways, he’s what Green Day might call “a walking contradiction.” There’s no question that Lydon takes pride in how significant the Sex Pistols were in the evolution of punk, yet he claims he’s not here to talk about “that band.” Fair enough, but after sardonically admonishing me about retreading a well-established legacy, he willingly goes into some depth about his role in the group, the progression of their career, and the circumstances that led to their demise. Then, 10 minutes or so later, he says, “This is all about the Pistols, and to be quite frank, I think I’ve moved on somewhat since then. I’m not interested in reviving my history.”
It’s a history he’ll never escape, much like William Shatner will never be remembered for playing T.J. Hooker or for doing all those Priceline.com commercials. Still, you get the idea that Lydon doesn’t necessarily want to escape the shadow of “Johnny Rotten” and only feigns a distaste for Pistols questions. After addressing how he has become an avid reader and vinyl record collector, he says he would never have had the opportunity to explore such ventures if it weren’t for his time with the Pistols. Then he launches into another short Pistols anecdote, after which he says, “There you go, whether you like it or not. I go back there au natural. You don’t need to lead me.”
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Sex Pistols’ milestone and only studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Ho-hum. Lydon would rather discuss his impoverished upbringing, the illnesses he struggled with in his youth, his Catholic school education, and Public Image Ltd, the band he launched in 1978 and reformed in 2009. That group continues to make records and perform to this day. Oh, and Lydon also wants to plug his new project, Mr. Rotten’s Songbook, a limited-edition collection of his lyrics and drawings.
“I love drawing and I can draw many, many ways,” he says. “But I love cartoon the best, because I think it emphasizes character, where still portraiture does not.”
Something else that emphasizes character is a nearly unedited transcript of a conversation with John Lydon about the anniversary of punk, the Sex Pistols, PiL, politics, and whatever he decides to talk about along the way.
YAHOO MUSIC: Can you believe punk is celebrating its 40th anniversary?
JOHN LYDON: Well, last year they were spouting this nonsense in London, and it seems to be happening a year later in America. I mean, that’s two years of an anniversary now I’ve had to endure. I’m very unhappy about that.
Could you have imagined the Sex Pistols would be so important to the history of music 40 years after they emerged from the streets of the U.K.?
If they are, then I’m very glad, indeed. It’s a big “if.” It’s not for me to judge. It’s like, I hope I’ve had a positive effect on the youth. [Laughs]
Did it feel like you were doing something important when the Pistols were tearing it up and having a blast?
It wasn’t like that. We had lots of contempt for each other. There was no fun to be had. For me, it was the first and only chance in my life where I could actually account for myself. And so I jumped into it very willingly and loved it! It was ridiculous to me that I realized very early on that the written word can have very serious consequences — and I mean in a very positive way. So, yippee! No looking back on that.
As destructive and hedonistic as you seemed to be, you avoided the trappings that led to the destruction of so many bands.
No, I’ve never been a despondent despot. I enjoy life, and I like living and I like getting up early and I like doing things. I’m not a self-indulgent, woe-is-me, don’t-you-love-misery type of person. That would not be my style at all. I always looked at musicians that were doing drugs and thought, “Thank God there were people like that,” because I could see that wasn’t going to be my way. You’d watch guys like Eric Clapton get himself a habit, and I thought, “What a fool he’s making of himself. I can learn from that. It’s not the way I’m gonna go.”
The Sex Pistols were your first band, but were they the first punk band ever? There was the Stooges and the MC5 in Detroit and…
People love to rewrite history and revise it incorrectly. Iggy and the Stooges weren’t punk. As far as I was concerned, they were a heavy metal band. Then people wanted to research deeper or find hidden meanings behind things. No, punk came along under the title that was given it by Caroline Coon, who was a writer for [the now-defunct U.K. music weekly] Melody Maker. She called me “king of the punks.” And that’s where “punk” came into it. And that word wasn’t used at all, ever, before then — and certainly never in a favorable way. But Caroline meant it well. I was offended by the word “king”!
Were you aware of what was going on in New York with the Ramones and the Dead Boys?
Well, of course — unfavorably so, I might add, because that’s what Mr. [Malcolm] McLaren would be waffling on about — a bunch of older people trying to be decadent and mixing it up with heroin. That’s my opinion of it. Though I liked Richard Hell. He was all right. He was just a mess, but a good mess. Occasionally, an addict can smile.
You used to hang out at Malcolm McLaren’s shop, SEX…
No, I worked there. I didn’t hang out. It wasn’t like that. Vivienne [Westwood] wouldn’t have loiterers.
Isn’t that where you first met the other members of the Pistols?
No, no. I met them at the pub. That was the first time I ever seen them. After midnight, we went to the shop and I howled to Alice Cooper songs. That’s what was on the jukebox, “I’m 18.” Only I wasn’t 18. I was 17, but I had aspirations.
Did you know from the beginning that if you injected a snottiness into your vocal, it would come across as contentious?
No, no. That was me trying to find my own voice. I’d never attempted singing right up to that very moment, that very point. That’s where I began. You’ve got to bear in mind that I went to Catholic school and we did everything to avoid the priests, which meant: Don’t join the choir and don’t sing in front of them, ever. And so that was my early childhood. It was an eye-opener in many ways, because I had to find my own voice. And I had to quickly do that. I was very unpleased the first time I had a monitor onstage and heard my voice coming back at me. It was frightening. It was a nightmare. But I very quickly found my own voice, and from that point in, there was no looking back.
Malcolm McLaren has been credited for putting the Sex Pistols together, for being their great Svengali.
Well, they were a band, but they weren’t doing much. They were more like pub rock. They had no angle. They had no approach, and they really couldn’t write lyrics. And so, yippee, readymade for me, really, being a learned chap.
Did you mold the Pistols into what they became?
No, I just let them borrow some of my clothes and that became an image. We were very mix-and-match, us lot. We were desperately broke. And to be quite honest, there’s no money in punk. There’s no money for music — not for my type.
Are you glad the Pistols only did one album and then broke up?
At the time, it didn’t seem like it, but in the long run, because of the way things are, you make the best of whatever the situation is. It worked out for the best. And we’re all very confident and happy about that.
How did you want PiL to be a progression for you and a new voice?
It’s more for soul-searching and exploring myself and finding out what was wrong with me. And I found writing songs helped me no end. It was psychiatry without a heavy bill at the end of it. It was free self-analysis. And that’s what I do now. I explore emotions. And that combination of music and voice — which I found from the very early days of working in the Pistols — really gave me a thorough insight. Because I always fancied myself as a writer, but I was never convinced by the written word on its own. It really does need substantial music to really emphasize points. It’s almost like a third language when you combine the two together. And I’ve gotta say, Steve Jones’s guitar [in the Sex Pistols] was wonderfully inspiring. He’d be furious at half the notes he’d be thrashing out, but I’d be wallowing in it. I like note-perfect [music], but I like discordancy ever so much more.
When did you realize that antagonizing the crowd could be rush?
I know that’s the implication, but that was never my ambition. I’ve always found myself to be naturally irritating, and that’s just the way it was. As a snotty-nosed little kid, I’m not supposed to know anything. I view myself as very far removed from stupid, and that’s a challenge. As society went in them days, I was unbearable. They’d go, “Where did he learn all that from?” Well, life. And there’s many more like me — the working class. We have a powerful voice, but we’re just not given the outlets.
The working class has a wealth of experience to express…
Yes, but we need the middle class’s instruments. [Laughs] And that can lead to all manner of repossession, shall we call it?
Is that where record companies come in — the capitalist entrepreneurs out to exploit the underclass?
Record companies in them days were great. They were fun and they wanted to take on challenging bands. They wanted to explore the universe musically. They turned into accounting companies very fast, and that’s where it went wrong.
When was that?
Around the time of PiL, they started to envelop themselves and became a tad too precious. But while the credit cards were flowing. I was having a wonderful time on the freebies. If you turned up at the offices, it meant someone would have to take you to lunch, which very quickly turned into dinner.
PiL struggled along the path of discovery. You went through numerous lineup shifts…
Oh, yeah, the financial restraints were appalling. It meant a lot of members just couldn’t hang on. There wasn’t the money there, and it was very hard to deal with the world that was still banning me just because I was me. We couldn’t find any venues that would allow us to play. And that’s, indeed, why PiL moved to New York. We had to. It was impossible to survive in England. And from New York, what we did was rent a loft and rented a van, and we would travel to all the nearby states and there would be no problems. “Hello, welcome.” America really helped PiL a great deal here and became a significant part of my life.
Was America more interested in the ideas you were expressing than the U.K.?
Well, the Pistols was a flash in the pan that happened somewhere else, I suppose. But PiL was a completely different agenda. We had a completely different sound, a completely different way of looking at things. It was still accurate, but it was a different side of the same coin from the Sex Pistols. And audiences were growing, too. It went hand in glove.
What brought PiL to a conclusion for the first time?
No, no, there’s never been a conclusion. Not as long as I exist. Members came and went. It was almost like a revolving door there for a time. I mean, I’ve tried to count how many people have been in the band, and I gave up at something like 49. But I view it like we’re more like a school of further education for a lot of people. When people left, they all formed their own interesting career, and so PiL was a good step up the ladder for them. And I’m quite chuffed for that. I’m even more proud of when they slagged me off, because that’s very entertaining. Ingratitude comes in such large slices. [Laughs]
Was it a mistake to put the Pistols back together for a brief reunion in 1996? Guitarist Steve Jones has said he wanted to kill himself at the end of the tour.
It’s very important that we sorted ourselves out, because the animosity was ridiculous between us. And we just sat down, the four of us, and said, “Well, let’s do it. Let’s do it for each other. Everybody’s talking toilet about us. Nobody’s getting it right. We’re the only ones who know what’s what. Let’s go tour.” And we did. And about halfway through that tour, we realized that we really don’t like each other. [Laughs] And all the reasons for separating in the first place were good reasons. It’s odd for me, because I get along better now, particularly with [drummer] Paul [Cook], than I ever did in the band.
What did you fight about in the band after you re-formed?
It turns into old animosities. “Remember when you said…?” You can’t help but go that way, because the pressure of touring lets the mind rot.
You can’t mention the Sex Pistols without bringing up bassist Sid Vicious…
The poor thing. I miss him. I miss anyone who dies, I really do. Even my worst enemies, I still have a place inside me for them.
You and Sid were close?
Oh, yeah, until the heroin took over. And that became unbearable. Once someone gets themselves in the position of addict, thievery is the next step, in order to maintain the addiction. I don’t like thieves. Things would vanish all the time. And you gotta stop that.
When he left, was that the beginning of the end?
I don’t know if he left. I was the first to walk out on it, and that was the San Francisco gig. That’s where I told the San Francisco audience, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” I’d had enough by then. That was it. Last show. Thank you. The whole thing was a misspent youth.
Maybe, but it was one that yielded incredible results among young working-class people who were fed up with the system.
Very seriously, it was effective to totally intrude with the British psyche at that time. And that’s all I knew about back then, because it was directly in front of me, and that’s exactly what I was dealing with. I don’t know if it translated well abroad.
I think there were many of the same issues in the States. There wasn’t the same division between the upper class and the working class like there was in the U.K., but there were some parallels, and the music struck a chord with American youths as well.
Hopefully, because after all, we are all part of the same species — although you wouldn’t know it from watching the likes of CNN, which likes to be divisive.
More so than Fox?
Same agenda. They both specialize in being shocked and appalled. It’s hilarious. It’s just deeply, deeply funny. Everybody’s claiming the high moral ground, and I look at both of them and think, “Well, morals is something I don’t have, because of its religious connotations. I have a set of values.” And I don’t think that’s what these corporations have at all.
Is the Donald Trump presidency a big comedy show to you?
I think it’s deeply hilarious. I think he’s deeply confused and possibly deadly. Let’s wait and see, shall we? It’s only been a little while. But I must say, he definitely has taken on an awful lot all at once. And the man definitely knows how to make an enemy, which is no small feat in the modern world. Most people are jaded now. That seems to be the fashion of the day. “Oh, it’s all been done before. Why bother?” Well, hello! Look who’s come to wake you up. He’s a really awful, awful, bad version of the Sex Pistols — the negative side — the side people think we were. [Laughs] The side the media led people to believe we were. It would be fun to find out he has Mexican in him, wouldn’t it? And I’m not talking about the butler.
Let’s talk about the other forms of art you’ve undertaken through the years. You’ve drawn, painted, acted, written books…
I’ve always drawn. All my life, I’ve been attracted to pen and paper. From the first time I’d seen my parents reading a newspaper, I was firstly fascinated by the shapes of the words and the headlines. And to understand that they came with sound was an amazing discovery. So my mom taught me to read and write. Between 3 and 4, I was already there. Fantastic! But then I moved into primary school at 5, which was run by the Catholic Church, so the teachers were mostly nuns and priests. And they were very happy to tell me that it was a sign of the devil that I was left-handed. So I was ostracized during my first two years of school, until I could learn how to write with my right hand, which is impossible for me. It’s never going to happen. It’s my DNA, and they were challenging my very nature.
And then you got ill.
At 7, I got meningitis. That put me in a coma. I was in hospital for a year, and I lost my memory for four years. It took me that long to get it all back. So, yeah, I had a great childhood. But it was the making of me. So I don’t look back bitterly or with any self-pity at all. I think it’s a major achievement that I got through that. So I’m quite proud. Whoever or whatever gave me those illnesses and diseases was really looking out for me in the long term.
Was there a point in your childhood when you learned about the power of provocation?
I was naturally that way, from being left-handed onwards.
Being ostracized or beaten down, you can either cower in a corner or lash back.
Oh, no, not me. No, no. Well, I was very shy. Sooner or later, these institutions managed to knock the shyness out of me. And of course, as soon as that happened, I was thrown out of school [for disrespecting the teachers]. And that’s the point where I met Sid and [Jah] Wobble. The same thing really happened to them! And that’s the making of PiL right there. We were all square pegs and only offered round holes.
If it weren’t for music, where would you have ended up?
Oh, a life of debauchery. It would be criminal, because that would be the only opportunity. There really were no jobs available. There was no potential in anything, and just by the postal code and the area you came from, you were dismissed as worthless. Hence, that’s where the British class system was and still is to this day. Although we’d like to pretend it isn’t, it’s still there. I’m still banned from the same clubs. And I’m all the better for it, too, when I see the a**holes that go to those places. I never got co-opted into it. So again, it’s me. No self-pity. No regret. I think they all did me a wonderful favor in the long run.
You said had you not found music you would have been led into a world of debauchery.
My life was all about music. It was my saving grace, absolutely. I was also an avid reader and record collector. I love buying records. Vinyl and books too. These are my only hobbies, really. So I’m fluent in librarian techniques as well.
The reality vs. the myth of John Lydon is fascinating. Obviously, you’re articulate and intelligent…
I’m Hobson’s Choice. It’s a very fine  film starring John Mills [which addresses characters who aren’t taken seriously by the society they live in and have to struggle to prove their worth].
You acted in the 1983 film Order of Death alongside Harvey Keitel, and you played a small role in the 2000 Stephen Kessler movie The Independent. Would you like to do more acting?
No, I hated it. I’m just no good at it. I can’t put on a false persona. It is what it is with me. And there’s no point in having me play myself. I do that well enough, and if that’s what I’m gonna do, then I might as well write a song and go back and tour again, which is what I do.
In 2014, you were lined up to be in an arena tour revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, playing the role of King Herod. The whole show was canceled a week before the first performance. What happened?
Wasn’t that fantastic? Did they resent me or what? I don’t know what the problem was. The promoter pulled out and that was it. The plug was pulled, the water drained, and the baby was left in the bath.
Was that a horrible experience?
Not at all. It was very enjoyable and, for me, a fantastic, fascinating piece of education. And I learned a completely different way of approaching music. The people there were very, very generous. I will always, for the rest of my life, have a complete respect for the theater, because I’ve seen it from the inside. There was great camaraderie between everyone. I was very impressed by the friendliness. I’d grown up thinking music was a life of adversary behavior amongst the performers, and I found that not to be true. And, indeed, reforming PiL has taught me that’s not the only way. It worked for me, but it’s not the only way.
Do you reach a certain age or level of maturity when the will to provoke or the argumentativeness just goes away?
No, that would be a nice thought. I don’t think a person like me will ever be able to call himself mature. I’m permanently living the childhood that was taken away from me when I became ill, and that way I remain innocent. “Yes, your honor, it weren’t me what did it.”
Like Michael Jackson!
No! C’mon now, that’s a bit creepy. [Laughs]
Why put out your music and lyrics project Mr. Rotten’s Songbook?
Because it’s a reminder to myself and the 1,000 people that might be interested in it that these things are valid. The idea came about because we were on tour a couple years back and the idea of trying to play in China was very interesting to me ’cause that was a closed hole for many bands. But when they asked to analyze every lyric I’d ever written, we sent that to them expecting to be rejected from the country, and they said, “Oh, yes, Mr. Lydon’s a very good songwriter. Please do come.” And I thought, “Wow, what are they reading? What is it that I’ve written here?” And when you see all your songs together, and there are some 127 of them or so, they don’t sing off the page quite as much if there are illustrations with them. So I went back and reminded myself of each and every single instance when I wrote these things. I was able to draw my emotions at that time.
Does Mr. Rotten’s Songbook complement your 2014 memoir Anger Is an Energy: My Life Uncensored?
Yeah, most definitely. But it’s closer to my scrapbook, which, again, was a limited edition of 750. I like doing these things in small numbers, because we can focus on the details and make the thing of the highest quality possible. And I’m always bearing in mind the memory of my mom and dad. I want to make them proud of me, so in my head, I’m imagining them looking at this thing and hoping they appreciate it? [Laughs]
Were they proud of you when they were alive?
Yes, of course they were. But that doesn’t mean they should cease to continue inside my own head, whether they’re dead or not.
Anger Is an Energy was a large, revealing memoir…
It was a very sad book, because I really had to go back into things there. Writing that book almost broke my heart. I have very troubling memories of the illnesses I had when I was young. That’s the first time I actually ever openly discussed that. And I found it brilliantly refreshing that I did. I felt uncontaminated and unguilty all of a sudden. And it has helped me no end in songwriting, because it’s opened me up to further possibilities inside my own self. I see myself as trying to be a perfect person. I’m definitely not there yet, but I’m working on it. So there it is. I did some house-cleansing. But it was a very riveting and hard experience. It left me quite numb for a certain amount of time and deeply saddened. But no self-pity. It’s the loss of others that troubles me.
You said it was cleansing and cathartic to address the pain.
Yeah, the closest cousin to that atmosphere I found myself in would be shout therapy. To realize that songs like “Dead Disco,” which I’d written years ago about the death of my mother — all I was doing there was screaming in agony. And so when we perform that song now, there’s quite a few times I break down in tears right in the middle of it. I can’t help it, because it takes me exactly back to that sense of loss. That’s somehow relevant to me, and I see it in the audience. I see in their faces that they’ve had similar experiences. And that’s the joy and privilege of what I do. I can share an emotion so deeply personal with so many complete strangers.
When many people are young, they act like they know everything, and the older they get and the more experience they have, the more they realize how little they know.
Yeah, I have a song about that, too. It’s call “Fat Chance Hotel.” [Laughs heartily]
What’s next for PiL?
Touring, which is what we live for — and, indeed, can’t live without, because that’s the money-raiser. Now that we’ve bought ourselves off the main label, Public Image is jolly well with itself. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve managed to keep the same band for two albums. And a third one is on the way sometime soon. So we’ve found consistency by avoiding the corporations.
When will you be digging into the next album?
Probably around Christmas. We made the last one just before Christmas in the Cotswolds and almost froze to death doing it. But what great fun. When you work with people that are really your friends, it’s terrific what you can achieve. The last two PiL albums are the proudest moments of my life so far.
Is it too early to know what you want to do with the next PiL album?
No, it isn’t. Like Robin Williams, getting back to him, songs are running around my head like a gang of skinheads kicking me senseless. I’ve always got ideas, and they’re just bursting at the seams for the opportunity to unravel. And it’s the same with everyone in our band. We run in and we just throw ideas at each other. There’s no Protestant work ethic in this. We’re doing this because we love it. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t do it. That’s what I’ve been searching for all my life, and I’ve finally found it. Now alls I’ve got to do is wreck it. You must never get too content.
Are there particular subjects you want to tackle in the next PIL record?
Well, I’ve got to say the political scene is definitely offering some topics. I’m glad in this respect, though. I think Mr. Trump has managed to get us all interested in ourselves once again The last few generations have really been quite indolent. This is a wake-up call. You can’t call politics boring at the moment. And that’s a thrilling prospect. Who knows what may come? I’ve lived my whole life on a knife’s edge. And every new project now is just icing on the cake or a cherry on the top.