Recalling his hard, young life John Lydon writes, "Imagine the joy of eventually joining the Sex Pistols, and making the world a better place – in a very vengeful way."
Excerpted from Anger Is an Energy: My Life Uncensored by John Lydon © 2016, and reprinted by permission of Dey Street Press, an Imprint of HarperCollins. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
BORN FOR A PURPOSE
'Trials and tribulations!’ I wrote in the early ’80s, trying to come to grips with the chaos and confusion in which I entered the world. ‘When I was born, the doctor did not 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 did not love me.’ Three verses later you arrive at the conclusion that I was a very disgruntled baby.
That song, ‘Tie Me To The Length Of That’, I’m really proud of. At the time on TV, there were a lot of medical programmes where they were showing actual births. They were breaking new ground about what you could actually show, so watching all these babies popping out all over the shop, I was like, ‘Look at that, they’re smacking that poor little babby’s bottom as it comes out’.’ They do it with good reason, but I was just thinking, how traumatic must that be, from the sanctity of the womb to, ‘There’s a good slap on your backside, fella!’
My father was furious when he heard the song, because there’s a reference to him, the ‘stupid drunk – then the bastard dropped me’. This was a story my aunt told me, and one my mum later reiterated, that he turned up drunk, the proud father. He’d taken a day off work and, in the panic of it all, one thing led to another. I was born in the early wee hours of the 31st, in the bitterly cold January of 1956, and he’d been ‘panicking’ all night.
He was furious at his portrayal. ‘It whaddn’t loike dat! Well ... it moighta happened but not for da reasons yer t’ink!’ Poor Daddy. I wasn’t doing it to be spiteful or get back at him. As I say, I was just trying to translate into song the emotions I must’ve been going through as a newborn. That’s why I love writing songs; it’s absolutely researching myself to the nth degree.
There’s a picture from my own parents’ wedding which is of fabulous interest to me because there, in the far-right corner, is my Auntie Agnes holding a baby. The most likely explanation is that this baby must have been me. So: I’m a bastard! In recent years, I’ve even had to deal with other children apparently born to my mum out of wedlock. I never could get honest answers out of all of the relevant family members. None of them like talk, everything is hush-hush, and so everything is a mystery. Certainly, until I’ve sorted out the mystery in my own life and my own position, I find it very difficult to deal with other alleged family members.
I had no birth certificate, and I suspected I possibly wasn’t born in London because maybe my father was worried about being drafted for National Service, so he had to duck and dive a bit. For obvious reasons, I have to be vague about it, as indeed my mother and father were with information about themselves, or anything at all. It was like trying to get blood out of a stone. ‘Hello, am I a member of this family?’ ‘Well, ye know ...’ that would be my mother’s sense of humour, which was very hard to grasp when you’re young. It kept me in a constant state of alertness – to come back at things from another angle. So many games of noughts and crosses your parents can play, teasing their children. It all becomes very useful in adulthood.
It taught me to be sharp. Rather than them just ignore you, and tell you about the tooth fairy – it was a higher level than that. They’re not plying you with fantasy. It was obvious in our house that if Santa Claus tried to come down the chimney, one, he’d be burnt, and two, he’d be beaten to a pulp as a very suspicious character – a priest of child-molestation quality!
In them days, it was a little bit different to now. You didn’t trust no one. Mum and Dad were very backwards folk – not dumb, they were clever in their own way, because they were survivalist – but as to how situations in England worked, they always felt manipulated.
My dad, John Christopher Lydon, came from Galway, and he was used to working on all manner of heavy-duty equipment. He came over to London at fourteen, looking for work on the building sites, and he quickly got a licence so he could drive cranes and things. He’d never seen himself as a shit-shoveller.
His father was a violent, brawling, weird thing. He came to England before my father, and he lived nearby, but the two never liked each other very much. My dad was always over there at his place, trying to connect somehow. It was very grim. We used to call him the ‘Owl Fella’, as in the Old Fellow – he never looked much like an owl. He was a prolific smoker. He used to smell of cigarettes all the time, and he always had a fag butt sticking out at the corner of his mouth. He talked very guttural, and it was hard to make out what he was saying, because he was obviously a fully fledged alcoholic, and a definite playboy for the prostitutes. It was very odd watching their relationship.
My mum, Eileen, was very loving, but in a very quiet way. There wasn’t much said. That’s all you need when you’re little – attention from adults, but the right kind of attention. Mum always had something wrong going on health-wise. They were only seventeen or eighteen when they married and started having us.
My mother’s family, the Barrys, came from County Cork – a place called Carrigrohane. Apparently they met while he was working there. We’d have to go to their farm every summer holiday, all to please my mum, really. They could hardly bear us and, annoyingly, we had to tolerate them. They’d sit around not talking to each other. My granddad and grandmother from my mother’s side weren’t big talkers. In fact, the whole family would sit in silence for days, but for forcing words out of them. A very quiet way of being – very strange. That would drive my dad spare, because Dad was a talker, in his own way.
There was some kind of resentment buried about my father. They wouldn’t talk to him, but he endured it. I think it was all to do with ... he wasn’t good enough for her, which was a very strange proposition, because again years later we find out that my grandmother from my mother’s side was ostracized from her family for marrying Jack Barry, my mother’s father, who was something of a war hero, in the ‘fight for independence’, ha ha.
Apparently her side ‘had money’ – whatever that means. It’s hard to explain outside of Ireland, but money meant you owned the farm. He built his own farm after the war, when the South won their rights. So he obviously did well for himself, but he was pre-judged, and the Irish can be incredible snobs – much more so than anything in Britain, even with the class structure. It’s always lurking there.
Life for us in London was very inner-city and deprived. Everyone around us was piss-poor. We had no concept of what money really was. We lived on Benwell Road, which is where Arsenal have now built their Emirates Stadium. It was right by the railway bridge, in a Guinness Trust block called Benwell Mansions. There was a shop out front that was occupied at the time we moved in by a tramp called Shitty Tom. You went down a hallway, and we lived around the back yard in two rooms – a kitchen and a bedroom, with an outdoor toilet, which was available to the public. You’d find drunks passed out in it at night, which meant we had to grow up very accustomed to using the pisspot. There was also a bomb shelter there, but because people used it to dump rubbish, it was full of rats.
In the bedroom was Mum, Dad, me, and then my younger brothers, as they arrived – Jimmy, Bobby and finally Martin. Then it was six – four kids, two parents. We weren’t touchy-feely as a family; you really didn’t need to be. You imagine – two double beds and a cot, in a tiny room with an oil heater, and you’re touching each other all the time accidentally. The very last thing you want on top of that is huggy-poo. Because come winter you’re all wrapped under your old coats anyway.
The rent was £6 a month, something like that. To this day, when I hear that racial slur, like, ‘Look at them Pakis, eight to a room’ – I think, ‘Well, hello, not only are those the words of racist bigots, but I actually grew up like that.’ I know most people around me did too. We weren’t thinking it had anything at all to do with the colour of your skin. It’s economic deprivation.
When Shitty Tom died, we moved into the front room. That man never ever threw anything out, so you can imagine the pile. And the smell didn’t go away for a long time, because he was in there for a week before anyone found him. There always seems to have been stinky, smelly dead bodies around me.
I had to learn botty-wiping at a very early age for my younger brothers. It was through necessity, that’s just how it was. My mum was very ill for much of the time, and somebody had to do it. I’m not at all disgusted by it now, that’s humanity. I think it was a great thing that my Mum asked me, would I? And I did. I liked the responsibility of it. I knew I could be up at the crack of dawn, and I didn’t mind making porridge. I liked sorting things out.
Around our neighbourhood I think there was a lot of that: people looking out for the younger ones. These are all community values that are sorely being dissipated. I don’t mean that in a romantic delusional way, because I imagine things before the Second World War were, ‘I hate you more than you hate me.’ I don’t imagine there was much of a sense of community other than the incredibly arrogant Victorian toffs and the incredibly starving-to-death others. But after the war I suppose community was a different thing; it had to be pulled together because that was the only way to survive.
Dad was away a lot of the time. Often we’d go with him, wherever his work was. When I was about four, we lived in Eastbourne. What a hell-hole that was. My memory of it was terrifying, because our flat was right on the ocean, and listening to the sea at night absolutely scared the hell out of me. I just couldn’t help but think a wave would come in and drown us.
For the vast majority of the time, it was Mum looking after us. With Dad not around, I absolutely didn’t mind looking out for her. Somebody had to assume the role, and I liked it a lot. It’s instinctively in me to look out for people – that’s what I do.
My mother was always very worried. In them days, it’d always be the players trying to pop round, thinking, ‘Hmmm, a woman unprotected.’ There’d be a knock on the door, and she’d say, ‘Close the curtains, be quiet, wait till he goes away.’ We grew up very wary of strangers in that respect. Of men. Don’t trust them. I felt very, very protective of her. It’s the one area where I go into overdrive, when I think my family or my very close friends are threatened. A different situation comes on. That’s where Gandhi gets a bazooka.
My mum was always ill. Endless miscarriages didn’t help her none. I don’t suppose they knew much about safe-sex procedures in them days. Indeed, they would’ve viewed that as a mortal sin, as indoctrinated into them from on high – Catholic priests inflicting children upon you.
One time she had a miscarriage, and I was the only one with her in the flat. There were relatives all around, but sometimes you’re on your own, Jack. It’s quite a thing to carry a bucket of miscarriage – and you can see little fingers and things in it – and have to flush it all down the outdoor toilet. There wasn’t a phone in the house, so I had to deal with all that first and then go to the doctor, which was a long walk. That was quite a thing.
There were various other family members on hand to help out. Auntie Agnes, who’d married my father’s brother, lived in the same housing as us in Benwell Road. Then there was Auntie Pauline, who first came to live with us when we still only had the two rooms at Benwell. Looking back on it now that I’m an adult, I can’t conceive of how difficult that must’ve been for my dad and my mum in one bed, with my mum’s sister with me and Jimmy in the other. That’s up close and comfortable – not!
But I loved Auntie Pauline. She was like the big sister I never had – fantastically warm, but at the same time absolutely remote, in the Barry style. Once Shitty Tom died, we had an extra room for Auntie Pauline, which is where Uncle George came in. I loved that fella. He was so great.
At Christmas we had to go to church but Auntie Pauline refused. By the time we came back, she’d gnawed the heads off all the toy soldiers I’d just been given as presents. To this day, I don’t know why. When George came back, he’d bought me a house-building kit on the principles of Lego, but obviously cheaper. He opened that up and stole away my tears. I played with him all afternoon and I’ll never forget it, because he spent such a long time teaching me things and got me involved.
After a few years, he married Pauline and they moved to Canada. I was very impressed at the wedding for so many different reasons, chiefly for meeting George’s brother. I can’t remember his name, but he was an absolute Celtic hooligan with a 45-degree crevice across his face. He was like, ‘Aye reet. Ah goat hit wi’ an axe!’ Gosh, how impressive! That’s a fucking street fighter, mate. Wowzers!