Anarchy in the U.S.: Johnny Rotten Is Now an American Citizen
Also, Public Image Ltd have a new album out.
Photo by Paul Heartfield
John Lydon is alternately sipping a beer and huffing a duke at an undisclosed location in Malibu. We’re poolside, of course—or at least at a picnic table on a sun deck overlooking a pool. Lydon belches loudly and says, “Jazz tones. Why didn’t I put them on the record? Oh, hello. I did.” The record he’s talking about is the latest Public Image Ltd. extravaganza, entitled fill-in-the-blank style as What the World Needs Now… Famed torch singer Jackie DeShannon would clearly replace the ellipses with “is love” as she did on her soapy 1965 hit, but it seems unlikely that the former Sex Pistol is leaning toward anything quite so maudlin. Then again, you might be surprised: A quarter-century of living in America and untold decades of listening to reggae can change a person irreversibly. As such, the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten isn’t quite the angry young man who hoisted two upright fingers in the Queen’s direction back in 1977. These days he’ll hurl his best epithets from sunny California, because Johnny Rotten is now a U.S. citizen. And he’s got plenty to say about it.
NOISEY: You’ve been doing interviews for nearly 40 years now. How do you feel about the process at this point?
John Lydon: I like it very much. The British being what they are, I had to get over a few things when I started. It was usually resentful intelligentsia trying to tear me down. But those days are gone, and by sheer endurance I’ve worn all that out. Now it’s more like really good conversations with people, and I learn as much from them as they do from me. It sets me up well with the world.
Even back in the early Sex Pistols interviews you gave as a very young man, you seemed to have a media savvy that most 20 to 21-year olds don’t have. What do you attribute that to?
Wow. [Laughs] Well, I have amazing defensive strategies. That goes back to surviving a childhood illness that almost killed me. I lost my memory and spent so long recovering who I was and finding my personality that I think it set me up really well for the future. To my mind, recovering from spinal meningitis between ages seven and eleven made me what I am today. It was a punishing regime to go through at the time, but in the end it was a reward. In life, I don’t endure self-pity, and I don’t like it in others. You have to win through whatever life presents you because the only thing you’re given in life is life itself. I don’t know if there’s any heaven, but I agree with Bob Marley: Heaven is on this earth. And I’m resilient internally. I’m physically dilapidated, but mentally efficient. [Laughs] Until that stops, the sheer enjoyment of life will continue.
I understand you recently became an American citizen.
Yeah, two years back. And I’m very, very glad. I’ll tell you what amazes me, though. Talking to American journalists, I’ve not heard, “Well done” or anything like it! It’s just this negative wall, and I want to know what that means. Because let’s face it: I’m no friend of any government in the world, but if the American government accepted me—of all the people in the world that could cause trouble for you—aren’t you happy for me?
Of course, but it is surprising. As an American travelling to the UK or Europe—especially during the Bush years—I got the distinct impression that no sane, politically minded Briton or European would want to align themselves with the U.S.
Oh, I would’ve never done it during the Bush years. The way America presented itself abroad—as greedy, egotistical, violent monsters—was horrible. And cowardly ones, too—always hiding behind missiles and far-fetched weaponology. But the reality is a little different now. America has the potential to be a nation that actually cares for its afflicted and wounded and ill and disenfranchised. That’s what Obamacare has brought into the agenda. So it was Obama that changed my mind. No matter how insanely the Republicans yak on about it, I don’t see how they can take that back. And you know what? I can vote now.
Yeah, I will. And I’ll vote properly. I’ll vote for anyone who will not dismantle all those goods that people need. I don’t mind spending my tax on my fellow human beings.
Photo by Paul Heartfield
As in the UK, you’re not presented with much of a choice here in terms of candidates.
In England it’s a small-time circus as opposed to the bigger clowns here. [Laughs] Do you really want the world run by a real estate agent who has a very low opinion of his fellow human beings but a very high opinion of himself? That’s worrying. As opposed to an old biddy who doesn’t know how to use a fax machine? [Laughs] I’m spoilt for choice, aren’t I?
On that note, let me be the first American journalist to welcome you to America.
[Laughs] In Europe, I’m being really ill considered for this because nobody stands up for America. But I do. I love the people here. It’s a new country, and there’s the possibility of changing everything for the better. You’re not riddled with feudalism and ancient calamities.
Monarchy. Religion. Well, you do have a version of religion, but—and I’ve been in America for a long time now—I think you also instinctively have an aversion to it. I can’t speak for everyone who lives in a trailer, but that seems to be the people who are listening the least. And that’s a terrible thing. We’ve gotta change that. It’s an education problem. Give people the facts and they’ll work it out for the better. So our new song “C’est La Vie” is my anthem to becoming an American. And then we have a song called “Bettie Page,” about a woman who was denigrated as a stripper. But I think she was absolutely emperor in her approach to life. She had to endure all manner of hell of on earth. I also threw in Mae West and Robert Mapplethorpe. I remember when I first came to New York he was so hated for his photographs. But I thought they were hilarious and beautifully done. What the hell—it’s just human bodies! What is the frightening thing about human sexuality? We’ve gotta get over that. It’s always the Republicans that are railing against this stuff, and yet it’s them that wear this [bondage] gear late at night when we’re not watching. [Laughs]
Just like it’s always the right-wingers who insist homosexuality is evil but then get caught smoking meth in a hotel room with a male prostitute.
These right wingers are just nonstop humor. They espouse family values but have no idea what that really means. My fellow human beings are my family. As long as you don’t steal from or denigrate your fellow human beings, it’s fine by me. Sexuality, who cares? I draw the line at child molestation and pedophilia, but everything else? There’s no harm in it, and it’s none of your fucking business, quite frankly. Even the term—gay, straight—it doesn’t make sense in the modern world. We need to stop thinking in terms of categories and clichés. We need to understand that as human beings, we’re all individuals. So there it is: Open minds. And if you’re lucky, open legs! [Laughs]
Is becoming an American citizen a subversive act for you?
No, I don’t think so at all. I’ve lived here for 25 years, so why not? I can’t carry on paying tax abroad while enjoying America. I now want to pay tax back to the country that’s giving me the joy I find in life.
What was it that drew you here 25 years ago?
Well, we couldn’t get any gigs in Europe because of consistent banning and—again—the class system. No matter what I did or said, it would never be listened to properly. It was always the same old media claiming the same old “filth and fury” nonsense and hammering me down for being an “oik” and an “ignoramus” and a member of the working class. So I found myself becoming a natural rebel—and if you think about it, America is the home of rebellion. Look what you did with the royal family! [Laughs] Hello, that’s the place for me. The only mistake of course was throwing all that tea into Boston Harbor. You could’ve flogged it, you know—that’s money down the drain.
The new PiL album is called What The World Needs Now… How did you decide on the title?
Well, the title has not much to do with the song called “Shoom” which uses that line in the chorus. That song is from my father’s point of view. It’s like a requiem for him. I’ve never written a song about my dad, but I miss him dearly. He was a very awkward fellow to live with, but he had a wonderful sense of comedy and humor that I only got used to in his later years of life. Actually, it wasn’t until he kicked me out that we became friends. [Laughs] I’m sure he’d say what the world needs now is another “fuck off.” But that’s his sense of humor. I don’t think it needs another fuck off. It needs an opening, a transparency, a sharing of thought and empathy. You don’t need enemies. Why keep making them?
What do you think the Johnny Rotten of 1977 would say the world needs now?
Exactly the same. I have a sense of values that won’t change because they’re based on my life experiences. For example, I will never vote Republican. [Laughs] Sorry, I just can’t consider that war-mongering philosophy as being of any use to me at all. And anything wrapping itself up in religious morality is a crime against nature. [Belches] They mean no good to any of us.
You made a behind-the-scenes video for the song “Double Trouble” that shows the band in the studio. You look like you’re having a lot of fun.
Yeah, that’s exactly the idea. That’s how cohesive and friendly we are with each other. That’s reality there. And that’s what Johnny Rotten of the 70s would have wanted, you know. But unfortunately he had to deal with the circumstances he found himself in. When I started PiL, I always wanted it to be this way. It took a long time to get here, but hello—landed lucky.
The flipside of the “Double Trouble” single includes a non-album track called “Turkey Tits.” We haven’t heard it, so what can you tell us about it?
[Laughs] Oh, it’s a wonderful jazz-fusion laugh. After dinner one night I went into the studio on my own and just laid down this rant which was kind of a summary of something we were discussing over dinner about that early period of punk. It turned into this devastating deluge on Vivienne Westwood. [Laughs] She put a book out, and she’s being sued now in Britain for plagiarism. Whole chapters are taken from other works. It amazed and amused me because she’d taken a lot of my clothes idea when I was younger and stuck her name all over it. So I was used to that from her. The song is the only time in my life that I would acknowledge the word “rant,” but it’s done with a kind of endearing humor because I still have fond memories of her. In my heart and soul, I just want to give her a big hug and say, “It’s alright. A bit of meat won’t do you any damage.” [Laughs]
Speaking of clothing, Sex Pistols t-shirts have become practically ubiquitous over the last 20 or so years. How do you feel about that?
This whole Sex Pistols industry is very dangerous because I have to keep a constant eye on it. It’s expensive to do this sort of monitoring, but I don’t want the legend and the quality of what we did to be denigrated into, say, what KISS so fondly seek. That’s great for them, and I love what they do because their records are rubbish and they know it. So they sell more rubbish, and that’s the fun of wearing a KISS t-shirt. [Laughs] You’re having a word, aren’t you? “Rubbish is good this year!” But the Pistols are something else. The challenges we threw up to society were so deadly serious and carried such severe consequences that I don’t want that to be lost in a quagmire of “KISS me quick” hats and seaside junk. I want to keep the younger audience aware of what we’ve done for them. A lot of the freedoms people now take for granted are things that we had to endure an awful lot of tension and stress for. I was openly discussed in the Houses of Parliament under the Traitors and Treason Act, which carried a death penalty. Now tell me who’s king of the punks? Pretentious moi? I’m not being pretentious. I was facing imminent death—or at least long-term lockup—and that is not about a joke key ring.
So what do you think of something like the Warped Tour, an annual event that touts punk values but seems to have little in common with the ethos that you espoused?
You’d have to explain what the Warped Tour is. [Laughs]
I’ll ask the question another way: Do you feel your legacy has been perverted?
Yes, it definitely was. One the one hand it’s become violence and thuggery and moronic behavior, and on the other hand you have Green Day, who are coat hangers for studded leather jackets. Both aspects are vile and terrible, and both resent me for being the very person who gave them the voice and opportunity. That’s a bizarre world for me to deal with. You start something with all the good intention you can possibly conceive of in the world and it becomes denigrated into this bottomless viper pit of resentment and dullness and blunt thought and macho nonsense. I was working class long before I was king of the punks, and my ideology has always been to improve my culture’s situation in the world.
Do you feel like you can’t be responsible for what the next generation does with your legacy?
I have to be responsible. I have to answer to it, because every time I run into one of these types of people, they’re very volatile with me.
In what way?
They’re plain outright nasty, and sometimes even physical, so deep is their resentment.
Why do you think that is?
The most basic instinct a human has—and the lowest—is jealousy. It is the root of the seven deadly sins. Which, amazingly, is fantastic subject matter for Public Image. So I’m mocking the situation, but I’m not really because it’s a reality of how human beings can let you down and not want to listen. They just want to grab the first thing they can imitate and then stick with that. But that’s not good enough. It’s unhealthy. There can only be one Johnny Rotten. Why would you want to be anything like me? Why don’t you share your life’s experiences with us? Don’t try to duplicate mine. It’s like devil-worshippers: Satan would be shocked and surprised by his followers. And they’d be so stupid as to not understand or accept him.
To what extent was PiL formed as a reaction to the Sex Pistols?
Not a reaction—an automatic indulgence, really. I just got fed up with the nonsense and the press that [Sex Pistols manager] Malcolm [McLaren] became so addicted to. It was a fiasco. He wasn’t taking it serious, and I knew what I was writing needed to be taken serious. I wasn’t putting these words together as flippant, glib acts of trivia. It was inevitable that we’d split, so we did. I needed to move on and not duplicate what I’d already done. So: PiL. I tried to involve my friends. It didn’t always work out. Some of those friends stayed friends and some of those friends became enemies. This is the lesson in life you learn. But PiL is heart and soul for me. It’s to tell it as it absolutely, truly is. And before I point the finger at others, I give myself a bloody good hiding and kicking for what I think might be my own faults. I have them, too.
You’ve been the only consistent member of PiL since the band’s formation in 1978, with a long line of ex-members between then and now. Do you feel like the last man standing?
I’ve called myself the last man standing, but that’s in reference to the punk movement. I don’t think the movement itself continued as a movement. It became very static and staid. It almost trapped itself in its own bubble and disciplined itself out of existence by rigid adherence to a strict punk look. Beyond that, [it adopted] the moronic idiocy of resorting to violent tactics rather than dealing with things intelligently. For me, the word is always going to be more powerful than the sword. [Belches]
One of my favorite guitarist, John McGeoch, was in PiL from 1986 to 1992…
Wasn’t he stunning? And that wonderful band Magazine that he was in. He was so good. He was a great friend, but we fell out because he got too involved with alcohol in such a seriously damaging and ridiculous way. These things happen. Sometimes people make mistakes and you do your best to pull them away from it, but they won’t have it. I’ve lost so many friends in music—Sid [Vicious], McGeoch—they become self-absorbed. You mustn’t do that. You’ve gotta have the capability to laugh at yourself. That’s how you get out of those entrapments and actually analyze yourself. When you can laugh at yourself you realize when you’re being a bit foolish. The ironic thing about John is that he could be very, very funny. But then he’d go morose as soon as too much alcohol hit him. He loved the martinis. Once he got up to six, seven, eight—that was it. Something in his character would switch and you’d have to get up and walk away from him. But I loved working with him.
Do you feel John and Sid’s deaths were inevitable because of their lifestyles?
No… well, it wasn’t inevitable that that would be their lifestyles, but once they chose that direct, easy way out, death became inevitable. They kind of pushed themselves into it. They cut off all their options—deliberately so. That’s very difficult to cope with. It leaves the friends, the survivors, feeling somewhat guilty and thinking, “What more could I have done?” That kind of suicide option is one of the most amazingly selfish things you can do. You so damage and spite your friends. It shouldn’t be an option at all.
Former PiL bassist Jah Wobble once said that most of the people in the band were “dislikable little shits, including myself.” Do you agree?
I’m sure that’s my quote. [Laughs] I think it is, actually. But it’s still applicable. It’s that sense of self-doubt you have. I think it’s a valuable tool, actually, to consistently question yourself so your ego doesn’t take over.
Does PiL mean the same thing to you today as it did when you started the band nearly 40 years ago?
It’s what I wanted it to be. It’s that inner trust and belief in the capabilities of your fellow passengers in life. There’s great comfort to be drawn from that because when you make mistakes, they’re there to pull you back up. I love the camaraderie of being in a band. It’s essential, really. I grew up as a bit of loner because of childhood illness. I didn’t really have any friends at all until I went to secondary school at age 11, and then things changed because it was entirely different people. But I discovered the school had a file on me carried over from my previous school saying nasty things about me because I wasn’t a good Catholic and I’m left-handed. [Laughs] That’s how serious adults run our world! It’s a good education, I’ll tell you. It hardens you up, solidifies the armor and prepares you well for the future. So I developed this incredibly brilliant suit of armor that allowed me to handle interviews with all manner of comedians and intellectuals. But now I’m 60 years old and I can’t be bothered with defenses anymore. I’ve got nothing to defend because I’ve done no harm to anyone. So now I just speak from the heart.
J. Bennett is more of an antichrist than an anarchist. He plays guitar in Ides of Gemini.