This week, John Lydon of Sex Pistols/Public Image Ltd. fame was revealed to be the Jester on The Masked Singer, after giving one of the most bonkers (and, of course, one of the most punk-rock) performances in the series’ six-season history. While the punk legend’s decision to compete on a show that has featured celebrities like Nick Lachey and Donny Osmond may seem odd, Lydon revealed that he signed up to amuse his wife of more than 45 years, Nora Forster, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and for whom Lydon has become a full-time caregiver.
While the brief, doomed relationship between the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious and punk scenester Nancy Spungen became the subject of the acclaimed 1986 biopic Sid and Nancy, it is the enduring romance between John and Nora that is truly fascinating. Lydon met Forster, a German publishing heiress 15 years his senior, when he was in his early twenties; Forster was the mother of Ari Up, the teenage frontwoman of another pioneering British punk band, the Slits. The couple married in 1979 and have been devoted to each other ever since. In 2000, Lydon and Forster became the legal guardians of Ari's twin sons, and they became the guardians of Ari's third child in 2010 after Ari died of breast cancer.
In 2015 during a sit-down interview with Yahoo Entertainment, Lydon spoke about the many doubters who had assumed that his relationship Forster would never last this long. “Well, good luck to people that are flippant about their relationships and their responsibility towards their fellow human beings, but people like me and Nora, we spend the time and take the effort to understand each other,” he said. “And that then it becomes a life’s work in progress. And for my way of living, that’s how it want it to be. I don’t take commitments lightly. I don’t treat fellow human beings as tools of my trade. So there you go — I’m a loyalist at heart.”
Lydon further explained that when the Sex Pistols first exploded onto the scene, shortly before he met Forster, he had no interest in the casual groupie sex that became available with his newfound fame. “I started in the wonderful world of rock ‘n’ roll, and quite frankly, sex was thrown at you left, right, and center. No, it wasn’t for me… I don’t like that flippancy. I grew up having childhood illnesses, and somehow it left me feeling that there was something wrong with me,” Lydon said, referring to a battle with spinal meningitis at age 7 that caused him to spend a year in the hospital and to suffer from hallucinations, nausea, headaches, intermittent comatose states, and severe memory loss for four years.
Following his Masked Singer elimination this week, Lydon chatted again with Yahoo Entertainment about the bizarre TV experience and was still in a jesting mood, although he understandably became serious when discussing his wife’s condition — opening up about how his childhood illness was a “magnificent gift” because it helped him be more empathetic to Forster’s situation. The only time when we really got a glimpse of the rabblerouser’s famous anger-energy was when we discussed the topic of biopics – not Sid and Nancy, but FX’s forthcoming six-episode series Pistol, directed by Danny Boyle and based on Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones’s autobiography Lonely Boy, which led to a lawsuit over music rights that Lydon ultimately lost.
Yahoo Entertainment: Thanks for speaking with me! It is a honor to chat with the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten, formerly known as the Jester, and forever known as John Lydon.
John Lydon: Why “formerly”?
Well, you're not the Jester anymore…
Oh, I always will be, my dear. And I'll always be Johnny Rotten. No one else in the world can be them. They're endearing elements of my multifaceted personality.
I stand corrected! I just want to gloat for a minute that I knew the Jester was you from the beginning,
Well, that's all very good and well and fine for you. But I hope that when my wife sees it, she'll get it, or at least be entertained. Because I did it for my lovely Nora who's currently suffering from Alzheimer's, a disease that she's never going to recover from and it's slowly going to get worse. So, this should bring some great joy to her. And not only that, I think anybody watching it would go, “Cool. Blimey. That's a right, guv.”
Why did you think doing The Masked Singer would lift her spirits or amuse Nora?
Because she knows that that kind of character could only come out of me. There’s a part of my nature in there. In fact, on the last album I released (Public Image Ltd.’s What the World Needs Now… ), I used that imagery based on a court jester, but also interposed with a character called the Huckster or the Tricker from the Hopi Indian tradition. I found that every culture in the world has these characters. They're extremely well-informed, they're usually absolutely truth-saying, and are hated and feared because of that. And I find that that's kind of very homely, as a character, to me!
It looked like you had great fun doing the show, particularly when you did your second song, “Man of Constant Sorrow” by the Soggy Bottom Boys. You were almost like laughing your way through it, then were rolling around on the floor. You looked like you were having a blast.
Yeah, well, I go with the character and I improvise, but there's a great deal of research in my mind that goes into that. You know, there were choreographers, who were great people, but they just thought I was beyond the pale as far as to get me to follow to a script. It's never going to happen. I like to let nature take over when I'm onstage, and I hope that came across.
It absolutely did. I'm so sorry to hear about your wife’s illness, by the way. How is she doing these days?
It's difficult, because the decline will always be there, and it will always increase to the point of, well, dementia; I don't know what the difference is between the two. It's very hard for it to connect the dots sometimes, but we have comedy in common, my lovely Nora and me. And so I hope when she sees this, she just burst out laughing and goes, “Ha, I've seen you do that!” I did it with all the sense of fun and pathos I could bring into it, with at the same time having that constantly in my mind.
How are you holding up these days?
Oh, I get on with it. I'm not one to whinge, groan, moan, and complain, am I? And the more that life throws at me as adversity, the happier I seem to be. I’m just like that. My mom and dad warned me years ago, “Don't you dare get self-pity, or you’ll get a slap upside your head!” And I wanted no slap. So, there's no self-pity.
I'm glad to hear that. You and Nora have been together 45 years. That's rare in general, but it's certainly rare in rock ‘n’ roll. What's been your secret for all this time? Is it the humor?
It's not a secret. It's just that we know and trust each other so well. I can't speak for other people's relationships, and let me tell you, not everybody can find the perfect partners. It's difficult. and it's a matter of luck. I suppose. I don't want to judge other people breaking up after, what, six-week marriages? Was it Britney Spears? I don't suppose she meant to be flippant with it…
Well, her first marriage was something like 56 hours, actually.
Wow. Well, that's good — at least they found out quickly stopped wasting time! But you can't always have the perfect situations. Sometimes that's just how it is. But Nora and me were very, very lucky.
I wonder if when you guys first got together 45 years ago, given your age difference and your different backgrounds, people must've thought it was maybe going to be a 56-hour fling, or were at least skeptical about the chances of it working out long-term.
Well, I don’t care what other people think! It’s just Nora, and that's the end of it. We've never had that as a dilemma. Our relationship does not involve the opinions of anybody else. What they have to say about it is utterly irrelevant. We don't interfere in other people, so don't come interfering over here — or I'll get Jester on ya!
Well, I wonder if you actually knew early on that this was going to be a long-term thing. You were quite young when the two of you got together.
But my mum and dad always said I was an “old man born on young baby’s shoulders.” I was always questioning things, and I was lucky enough that my mother paid interest in me that I could read and write at age 5. And so things like this [Nora’s illness], I'm ahead of the course.
You suffered your own health issues when you were quite young…
Yeah, yeah. But all those major illnesses have done nothing really but help me — particularly the meningitis, when I lost my memories for like four years, I didn't know who I was! But that helps me now deal with Nora's Alzheimer's. It's such a magnificent gift that I've been given. Now, it's taken a long time to get to this stage, but I know what it feels like to not know who you are or who you are with. So it's, it's a wonderful, wonderful gift, and I'm ever so grateful for that. Thank you nature or the God or whatever it is. And I want to share that.
It's interesting — I never thought how that childhood experience of yours would create an empathy that other caretakers in your position maybe wouldn’t have.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Because not everyone is as lucky as me to be in this position. You know, I don't have a nine-to-five job, and anything in the music industry is fairly irregular, isn't it? So, it's hard to judge it, but mentally I have the capacity to understand and the empathy to understand what it is she's going through. And so I eliminate the fear, and I do that through comedy with her. And I think the Jester just brings that in buckets.
It was definitely one of the most fun characters in six Masked Singer seasons and I'll tell you, it was definitely up there.
You know, it's a really good show! to people. They were really good, friendly. I was expecting, yeah. I was expecting the usual torture that TV productions can bring your way not so that I found everybody's been really generous and friendly. Of course, they were alarmed that I wanted a mirrored codpiece. The conversation that went on was, “Oh no children might be offended and what about the parents?” Well, all’s they'll see it in my codpiece is their own reflection! Now, what's wrong with that?
How did you feel about some of the guesses? They thought you were Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or Simon Cowell, or Joe Elliott from Def Leppard..
Flea I could somewhat understand. But Simon Cowell? Howard Stern? Jack Black? Ozzy Osbourne? These are characters whose body shapes defies any logical thinking, if that's what you're coming up with. And one of them hilariously said Alice Cooper. Well, why would Alice Cooper go on and sing his own song [“School's Out”]?
You have such a distinctive singing voice. Did you try to disguise it on the show? You even did a Southern accent on the Soggy Bottom Boys song.
No, I wanted to the homage to that tune, “Man of Constant Sorrow.” You know, I'm feeling that from time to time with the, slow eminent decline of my wife. And so, it's somewhat appropriate. Regarding the singing of that, the original is just so incredibly, powerfully beautiful that I might as well try and emulate the very thing that drew me into the song in the first place, rather than turn it into a Cockney Barrow Boys song.
I figured out it was you from just listening to the clues. When they said you've “offended heads of state,” have been “banned from venues,” and were “one of the 100 most influential people of all time,” that was when I was like, “OK, this ain't Jack Black. It's gotta be John Lydon.”
And it’s not Joe Biden either, is it?
Oh, you're going there! You often talk about political stuff and you get yourself in trouble sometimes. It doesn't seem like you really care, though.
No, I think [politicians] get themselves into trouble and they leave themselves wide open for a cheeky sausage like me to just point it out.
Are you just poking the bear for fun, then?
I've never liked or trusted any politicians. And every time I have, I've been let down by them. So, I think as a species, they live outside of the human race. And that's putting it politely.
You've gotten in trouble, though. When you said pro-Trump stuff…
Oh, come on. I've been in trouble whole life, since I was born. I just can't help it. My mum told me I had an argument with the doctor when they pulled me out! I wrote a song all about it [PiL’s “Tie Me to the Length of That”]: “When I was born, the doctor didn't like me/He grabbed my ankles, held me like a turkey/Dear Mummy, why'd you let him hit me?/This was wrong, I knew you didn't love me.” Happy birthday, John!
But I do think there is a misconception about you. You actually said on The Masked Singer that you're really a big sweetheart.
I think there's a romantic, lovey side to me. Of course there is — I'm human. I've all these aspects. But I mean, over the years I've learned to have a magnificent defense against people who’ve attacked me. And I've had to do that from a very, very early age. When I first started singing, the resentment for anything I came up with and wrote was extreme and unnecessarily virulent and violent and spiteful. And so, I just learned how to very, very quickly use my words like bullets. Instead of bullets, words.
Well, I do want to bring something up. I know you're not happy about FX’s upcoming scripted series about the Sex Pistols, and I also know that you weren't particularly happy with how your character cast in the film Sid and Nancy. When is your biopic coming up? You’ve written two great memoirs about your life to work with.
Yeah, I know, but there'll be serious problems all around. Because Disney productions invested so much money in the court case, I'm basically wrecked.. There's nothing really to argue about. If they want to trash the legend of the Sex Pistols, it seems that that's exactly what they're going to go and do. They've put together this whatever production with Danny Boyle as the producer, but they've done some of that without any, any reference to me at all. Never asked me about one single thing, just blasted it all out in the media and then expected me to just agree with it willy-nilly. Rather spiteful and childish behavior on their part, and really rather absurd. Because when it really comes down to it — and I’m being really, seriously honest here — if you're going to be thinking of the Sex Pistols, how on Earth are you going to do that without Johnny Rotten, the lead singer who brought the entire image of that band and wrote all the songs? How are you going to leave him out? Why would you do that? What would you want to do that for? I've been preserving the quality and name of the Sex Pistols ever since we broke up, and I felt a duty to maintain the truth. So, it seems like those cohorts over there don't mind being a part of a Disney production and don't mind whether it's full of lies and nonsense. They couldn't give not the slightest care. So, there it goes. It's been a very, very difficult time for me, because I couldn't fight a case like that quite full in my head while I've got my lovely Nora in the position she's in. And they knew that, too. They knew that I couldn't take it on money-wise. I can't argue with an enormous company. There's no way.
And so you’re this would stop you from doing your own biopic based on your books?
Yes. Yes. Because [the other Pistols] would outvote me.
Well, I encourage everybody to read both of your memoirs, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs and Anger Is an Energy: My Life. And I want to say I’m sorry you're going through some hard stuff right now.
I don't moan about it. I always regard, no matter what aspect my life's going through – upturns, downturns – I’ll find the comedy.
The above interview will air on the SiriusXM Volume show “Volume West” on Friday, Nov. 12. Full audio of that conversation will then be available via the SiriusXM app.
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