When PopMatters’ Jedd Beaudoin interviewed John Lydon in 2015 for his memoir, Anger Is an Energy and the Public Image Ltd. album What the World Needs Now…, he described his interview subject as “affable”. Lydon’s good manners may fly in the face of any preconceived notions that readers may have for the punk rock icon alternately known as Johnny Rotten, but affable he is.
Reading through Anger Is an Energy, now out in paperback, is like having a candid conversation with the singer over beer in a pub. With the exception of a few details concerning his private life with his wife Nora Forster, he spills his guts like he might slosh his beer, complete with sloppy but delightful syntax and riddle-like onomatopoeias. From contracting meningitis at age seven to playing King Herod in an ill-fated production of Jesus Christ Superstar at age 58, the curmudgeonly Lydon is never too cool to share his true feelings. His recovery from meningitis genuinely made him frightened and confused, and the cancellation of Jesus Christ Superstar genuinely made him sad. Of course, there’s plenty to soak up in between.
Anger Is an Energy is an engaging read, but it would be misleading to say that this equates to a quick read. Sure, you do get a sense that the pages are flying by as you become engrossed in Lydon’s escapades delivered in his no-nonsense prose. But when you tally up every life experience that Lydon chooses to share, the book’s density can dampen your sense of progress while on a reading binge. It helps to create an impression of time’s passing, one that allows for both the struggles of a working class family in mid-20th century England to co-exist with participation in the television reality show I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! within the same life story.
Some memoirs are the subject’s attempts to find an arch to their life and/or career. If Lydon set out to do this in Anger Is An Energy, it’s not terribly obvious. The closest he comes to setting the tone is in the book’s early pages. In the introduction he defends the notion (and lyric to the Public Image Ltd. hit, “Rise”) that anger is indeed an energy, sometimes a positive and productive one. He uses South African resistance to apartheid as an example, seeing as it was the original inspiration for the lyrics.
After the introduction, Lydon goes on to describe his childhood bout with meningitis as a surrealistic hit of life’s reset button. Young JLydon learned to read and write at an early age and appeared to be proud of accomplishments like reading Crime and Punishment all on his own. So when meningitis came along and wiped his mind almost completely clean of all personality traits and book knowledge, he was understandably frustrated. The rest of Lydon’s childhood found him coming to grips with such substantial gaps rudely imposed on his memory and personality. It also appeared to give him the extra mental energy to unlock the part of his brain that allows him to write an unlimited number of songs.
If you’ve ever read quick biographies or full autobiographies of rock musicians, you’ll notice that they all stumble through a handful of struggling bands before ending up in the one for which they are most known. Not so with Lydon. One moment he’s hanging out with a friend he affectionately nicknamed Sid Vicious. Next thing you know, he’s falling in with the Malcolm McLaren/Vivienne Westwood crowd, making fun of them all the while.
This is where Lydon’s informal form of writing gets in the way of things. Yes, Vivienne Westwood had a fetish clothing shop and yes she was somehow involved with the future Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. But when Lydon is in command of a sentence, the subject can get lost among the various verbs and prepositional phrases. Two sentences into a paragraph, you’ll forget whom he was describing or discussing. For example, On page 88, Lydon set aside one paragraph to chastise Malcolm McLaren and the rest of the Sex Pistols for not giving guitarist Steve Jones any constructive encouragement in the band’s early days. The paragraph that follows reads “He seemed a bit of a handbag snatcher to me — a low-rent thief, crooked. He had a really saucy sense of play. A completely untrustworthy character, a proper Dickensian street urchin, like that Jack character in Oliver! — you know, ‘You’ve got to pick a pocket or two!’ Lydon was in the middle of criticizing four people leading up to this paragraph. This is one example of how the singer’s conversational way of writing can lead to confusion. Thus, the coming together of the Sex Pistols is a bit of a blur. It may have been a special moment for Lydon when “all the pieces fit”, but the pieces still feel scattered to the reader.
Much later in the book, when it came time for Lydon and Forster to tutor her Jamaican-born grandchildren, guess who specialized in teaching sentence structure? That’s right, the man who wrote these two sentences: “I can tend to fob it off with an ill-phrased expression. With me, the paddy can lurk in there and I’ll hum over the details.”
That’s the kind of book you get with a subtitle like My Life Uncensored. It’s foolish to entertain the thought that the singer sometimes known as Johnny Rotten would censor himself. In this case, the subtitle is more of a nod to the book’s lack of refinement. He likes to use phrases like “wowzers!” and “phwoar!” He spends more time criticizing Malcolm McLaren and Joe Strummer than he does recalling the untimely death of his stepdaughter Ariane Daniela Forster (known to fans of the Slits as Ari Up). Old bandmates like Jah Wobble, Keith Levene, and every other Sex Pistol can’t hide from Lydon’s gripes, giving you the impression that their personal shortcomings far outweighed their musical attributes.
Overall, these targets are probably the exceptions rather than the rules. Producer Bill Laswell, friend/manager John “Rambo” Stevens, TV host Tom Snyder, the Public Image Ltd. lineups from the mid-’80s as well as the present and even American Bandstand host Dick Clark are all cast in a fond light. Lydon is also able to recall an impressive amount of details surrounding the making of each Public Image Ltd. album. With the exception of 1992’s That What Is Not, they all sounded like fun projects (a side note to jazz fans, Lydon now believes it may have been Ornette Coleman and not Miles Davis who briefly visited the Album sessions).
Equally as entertaining are the exploits Lydon dabbles in while on musical hiatus. What was he doing between 1997’s Psycho’s Path and 2012’s This Is PiL? Well, apart from selling Country Life Butter and appearing before Judge Judy, Lydon dabbled in the natural world via reality TV. Apart from I’m a Celebrity…, he opted for a more edifying approach to exotic biology. He handled insects, interacted with monkeys, and dove underwater to find sharks. He claims that he and Rambo discovered, all on their own, that gaudy colored diving suits can actually ward off the sea’s most feared predators.
The book wraps up with Lydon preparing for recording sessions with Public Image Ltd. for the album that would eventually become What the World Needs Now…. This opportunity presented itself after the cancellation of a touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar in which Lydon was going to play King Herod. It may seem odd that a man like Johnny Rotten would become to crestfallen after being told he couldn’t perform Andrew Lloyd Weber songs while in costume in front of a formal, paying audience, but that’s Lydon for you. There’s much more to him than what you get from 12 Sex Pistols songs, and Anger Is an Energy makes certain that you don’t miss out on that little fact.