Photo: PR Handout

The Rest Is Senseless: A Conversation With Citizen John Lydon

With a new PiL album and an autobiography out, the former Johnny Rotten looks back on his 59 years, calling them “strange” with “a serious learning curve” in his earliest days.

What the World Needs Now...
Public Image Ltd.
PiL Official
4 September 2015
John Lydon with Andrew Perry
Dey Street
April 2015

Affable is not a word that springs to mind when one thinks of John Lydon. Forget the early television interviews and that lot, this is a man who kicks off the new Public Image Limited album with the words, “What, you fucking nagging again”? But Lydon is a much more complex man than most give him credit for — he is through and through an intellectual whose curiosity stems in part from childhood trauma; he’s a longtime husband, a grandfather, and now, an American citizen.

Speaking early one morning from his home base in Los Angeles — there might have been a tea kettle whistling in the background and definitely a powerful drag from a cigarette or two during our 30-minute conversation — he calls to mind a chatty uncle, entertaining visitors with remarks on this or that, anticipating questions, and in the end, reluctant to let the conversation come to an end. “OK,” he says, “I suppose if you have to, I’ll let you go.” Or maybe he’s just being incredibly — wait for it — polite.

This year is proving an active one for the 59-year-old PiL frontman. His second memoir, Anger Is an Energy, a thoroughly entertaining read that is positively Dickensian in scope, was released earlier this year and now PiL’s What the World Needs Now… — the second studio outing from the band since Lydon reactivated the group in 2009, it features the same lineup as 2012’s This Is PiL — enters the world ahead of a lengthy tour of the US and elsewhere before 2015 is out.

This latest offering from the band was recorded at a studio owned by Steve Winwood filled, in Lydon’s words, “with really interesting equipment.” It was never a place for things to sound enormous but instead, intimate. “I love it there,” he continues, “there’s nothing near there, not unless you want an hour-and-a-half hike. But the atmosphere is so good. It’s a solid limestone, well, barn with a very high ceiling and side panels that open. It’s quite an exceptional atmosphere for us — we just take in the natural place and argue about where to sleep later.”

The arguing, he admits, was at a minimum — this group of players doesn’t just make great music together, they also get on well. “I always wanted a permanent band,” he says, “but for one reason or another — and usually the other — people don’t want to remain permanent. But it’s not a bad thing when you consider all the people who’ve been through PiL. They’ve all launched what you could call very interesting careers, musically.”

Indeed, those who have passed through the ranks include Lydon’s old pal Jah Wobble, as well as Martin Atkins (Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Pigface) among others. Some of his relationships with former PiL members are perhaps less contentious than others and Anger Is an Energy very often makes the case for which is which. This band works, in part, because the members are capable on the stage and in the studio — the former coming in handy when the group entered the latter to make this new offering.

“It’s as live sounding as we could possibly make it,” Lydon says. “Using the old-fashioned technique of recording a thing live seems to be paying off! I’ve always loved the monitor mixes before things went into post-production. The cassettes that I have from every time that I’ve been in the studio, those are things that I love the most because of the sprightly energy… the clarity, the song’s natural edge is there. Sometimes, later, in post-production that can be washed over with a mélange of different textures, which can be interesting but not anywhere nearly as interesting as this.”

The songs that comprise What The World Needs Now… feel as though they’ve been captured in the moment of creation. They play out almost as unfinished, and yet not incomplete, and one wonders if Raw Power might not have been an equally appropriate title for the album. Yes, never mind the bullocks, this is PiL. “We’ve got nice, big crisp tones. Nice solid bass. And a really good singer that we rented from a local comedy act.”

Some might notice crossover in the topics found in the album’s lyrics and in the themes explored in Anger Is an Energy — illness, family, and memory among them. “I don’t write the lyrics in advance, I carry them around in my head. I thought that that would have created a terrible confusion for me but lo and behold it’s the same subject matter, me, so one thing led quite easily into another. There were parts of writing the book — looking back at my childhood — that were quite painful, but there were some ideas that jumped back and I thought were worthy of exploration. You’re limited in a book to 500 pages shall we say. That’s just not enough. But a song can add that extra bit. Once we get a bit of music going I can really tear into the lyrics and I love it. I love it! I love the sense of fun that we have.”

Fun? “I love the sense of restraint that we have, too, instead of just rushing headlong into the enemy. It’s helping me develop in ways vocally that I never really had the chance to when I was younger. I find that I’m not so shy anymore about the creative process. I don’t hold back. I skillfully maneuver. In the Pistols,” he says, “I very quickly had to find my voice because I’d never considered singing at all. So that’s what came out. But there has to be more to me than just that. And indeed, I find there is. Through the years with PiL and the way we create it’s opened me up to many, many possibilities. It’s great fun. And if you’ve got a band that respects you even one eighth as much as I respect them, that’s a really healthy work lab that we have. I would describe it as a work laboratory. Because of the chemical balance.”

The human body is another point of fascination for Lydon and that comes to light on “Bettie Page,” named for the so-called Queen of Pin-Ups but delving more than skin deep into a variety of subjects surrounding the human form and American ideas about the human form. As mentioned, Lydon has recently become an American citizen and as such, he says, feels free to express ideas about what it means to be an American.

“I don’t find the human shape or anything that humans do to be repulsive or disgusting. For me, the most disgusting part of America is the religious moral right-wing,” he says. “They’re causing all the damage and creating a schizophrenic culture. Well, old Bettie, she had a word or two to say about that. She endured not only the Moral Majority but the threat of the mafia. That’s an astounding woman. And Mae West is also in there because Mae West is someone who’s always impressed me.”

Lydon’s US citizenship may come as surprise to some. He says that despite having had a home in the country for a while there was a simple factor in finally going through the legal process of becoming a citizen. “Obamacare,” he offers somewhat flatly. “It’s the first time ever that America’s showed any real care about the welfare of its citizens. For me, a country isn’t worth very much at all if it doesn’t look out for its disenfranchised, its weak, its crippled and its sick and its ill and its dying. That’s the value of the humanity there. So some moves were being made there to adjust this into a more sensibly balanced society and that’s thrilling. Absolutely thrilling.”

“What’s even more amazing is watching the right-wing Republican attitude about that — that’s just bizarre. Why would they resent someone receiving medical aid if it could possibly save their lives? Why are you making it about who’s got money and how doesn’t?” Anticipating further questions and reminding the listener of his political leanings, Lydon continues, “I’m very far removed from a socialist, so let’s not get that confused, but if you’re going to be paying taxes, I’d like them to be correct and to the people who need them, too.”

Lydon’s own health battles are never far from his mind. He says that he’s fearful that the meningitis he suffered in his childhood, which resulted in his curved spine, might return at some point. “I think about that every night before I go to sleep and it’s never ever stopped,” he says. “It’s a constant, constant reminder of how grim, awful and isolated and unwanted and completely and utterly alone I could be if I stopped remembering.” Lowering his voice in the way he does when he is serious, he continues, “That’s the thing. You have a sense of identity but you belong to no one. You know you exist but you don’t know why. I never want to endure that ever again. I’m always empathetic to anyone in any situation of crisis. Been there, done that. It’s the same with kids that are orphans or having problems. I’m there for them.”

He continues, “It’s like being orphaned. It’s the lowest feeling of my life and it’s never left me. I’ve never talked about it much because I didn’t want anybody to think, ‘Ooooh, self-pity button being pressed’! It’s not like that with me. Self-pity is something that my mum and dad absolutely instilled in me as being the worst tool that you could equip yourself with because you’re handing yourself into the hands of your enemy. You musn’t do that. You should always stand up and be loud and proud.”

Lydon remembers his father on the new PiL record with the song “Shoom”, marking the first time he’s written about the elder Lydon’s passing several years ago. He’d mentioned his father in live renditions of “Death Disco”, a song about his mother but, he says, “I wanted to give Daddy his own thing, too. He was a very contentious figure in my early youth. I could hardly understand what his sense of humor was, but once I did I realized what a clever sense of irony he had. He could have a whole pub in fits of laughter. He’d slowly spin you in and deliver the lines that could be seen as fraught with danger, shall we say? They’d be done with a sense of irony and the timing was so superb! Of course, if he could hear that song he’d hate it and he’d tell me so! While at the same time he’d be very, very proud of it.”

Not many years ago now Lydon and his wife Nora took on the task of raising their grandchildren — from Nora’s daughter Ari Up — children who were, at that point in their lives, essentially unequipped to function in society. The experience of raising those children but also having worked closely with children before has helped shape some of Lydon’s attitude toward education.

“A dumb society will always come back and haunt you. But a very mentally astute — and physically taken care of — society? Well, that’s going to reap endless rewards. Positive thinking, mate.”

Lydon’s own educational journey is chronicled in Anger Is an Energy . Having been kicked out of school, he was sent off to attend classes amid a group of ruffians (including John Simon Ritchie, later Sid Vicious) who were not as academically inclined as himself. Later, he worked at building sites to help raise money to pay for his education and eventually took a job working with problem children, where he taught them woodworking.

He adds that he had some interest in becoming an educator during that time. “That would have been a thrilling thing,” he says. “Working with those children was a great education for me. It set me up lovely for the Sex Pistols. What bunch of naughty children was that?”

His desire to learn stems from that aforementioned bout of meningitis — an affair that is well-chronicled in Anger Is an Energy. “I had my memory stolen from me,” he says. “I had to work to recover all of that. Anything and everything interests me. My brain won’t stop working. I’ve made the comparison to poor old Robin Williams. He was able to express that fully, almost all the time, completely. With me, that’s what’s going on internally.”

Lydon will turn 60 in 2016, having lived through some of the hardest economic times England endured in the post war years. He was present at the birth of punk rock and witnessed its decline. He helped create some of the most adventurous music of the late ’70s and continued to follow that through to the ’90s when PiL went on an extended hiatus. He reunited with his former mates in the Sex Pistols, authored two books, cried in filmed interviews, seen close friends and a stepchild die and buried both his parents. He’s lived through a tremendous illness, remained with the same woman for well over 30 years, and adopted the United States as his home. How would he describe his life to this point?

“Strange,” he says with his familiar warm laugh. “Serious learning curve going on early on. No matter what, I will maintain my integrity. There’s a lot of people in England who can’t understand me becoming an American. That’s because they’re so easily misled by the media. But I know why I’m here. I love America. I always have. I love the people. As for the politicians? Well, hello! I have the same opinion as most Americans. I’m not here to particularly rock the boat. But just by opening my mouth sometimes the truth will hurt.”

Lydon finishes our conversation by discussing one thing that remains on the horizon for him, one which had not happen until well into his 60th year: his opportunity to vote in his first American presidential election.

“I’m puzzled when I look at it as to what are the options! As far as Republicans go there’s really only for me John Kasich. I met him once so I know him to be true. He’s not one for dismantling Obamacare like the rest of them. He also has religion rooted in him but he doesn’t use it against society. So, I listen to him. The rest is just senseless.”