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John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten): The Current Q & A

October 31, 2012

Public Image Ltd. 2012: Bruce Smith (left), Scott Firth, John Lydon, and Lu Edmons. (photo by Paul Heartfield)

My first attempt at talking with John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, started miserably.

“Hello, Mr. Lydon … This is Enrique Lopetegui with the San Antonio Current. We have a phoner and …”

“No, you don’t,” Lydon replied. “Not today you don’t.”

“Well. I …”

“No, no, no … They never bothered to get any approval. You need to go back and tell them you need to get my approval. All right? Thank you!”

Click!

The publicist had changed the time of the interview, but also the day. My fault. The next morning my hand was still shaking when I dialed London again. Fortunately, this time Lydon was a completely different man.

“Oh, you tried to ring me last night, and I apologize,” he said. “It was difficult, because my wife was leaving for the U.S., so …”

And he went on saying that the conversation had been poorly planned, and apologized again. I stopped him, pointing out the fact that it had been my fault all along and that his PR people had done nothing wrong.

“Oh, you bad bunny!” Yes, Johnny Rotten had called me a bad bunny. It’s official.

But Johnny Rotten, the singer for the Sex Pistols, doesn’t live here anymore. The man I’m speaking with is John Lydon, whose band Public Image Ltd. released This is PiL in May, the band’s first album since 1992. They will perform 7:50 p.m. Saturday at Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin (Orange stage).

Here’s my full conversation with the man who will never forget Sid Vicious. Or Judge Judy’s eyes.

Being that This is PiL is PiL’s first album since 1992’s That What Is Not, does it have a special meaning for you?
Yes. This one’s completely independent, self-financed, on our own label. For 20 years I’ve had to deal with record contracts that were stifling and soul-destroying. [Those contracts] ultimately stopped me from being able to work or function. You don’t have a music press that really caters for you when you’re in that position. What I had to do was find work in alternative fields — nature programs and all manners of charity fundraising, what I thought was interesting TV ideas. But I’m back now, where I belong, as a songwriter.

And with the freedom to do whatever the hell you want.
Yes, but not the money do it with!

Well, touring should help…
As with any live band in the modern world now, touring is your money. If audiences don’t pay attention to that, then there may not be no new music in the future. Live music is essential. I come from live music. When I first started it was live music that inspired me, from any band, I didn’t care how different they were from me. The full range of music, so long as it’s performed live, is a great great thing to me. I see that our only competition, apart from live music, is mime artists really, that go on stage. I call them mimes because I don’t believe they are actually singing live. They have a great deal of dancers and exotic light shows and fireworks, but none of it really means anything. It’s all bravado but no content. For me it’s always been about the songs, you know. The lyrics have to mean something. It has to come from a human being and be directly translated through the human voice to other people.

Mmmm… That brings me to something I saw on Facebook today. Do you remember the Archie comic strip?
Yes.

Just today, I saw something someone posted on FB. It’s from Archie in 1972. Someone’s telling Archie…

Syncopated beats! (laughs) Public Image is smart enough. We understand that that could be important too. We are a very fine combination of live acoustic and syncopated electronica. We have no snobbery about genre, because all of it is capable of creating an excellent sound, ultimately. But when you just put all your eggs in one basket what you are asking is for the basket to be kicked and broken. Public Image has always been an experimental band. And in terms of electronica, we created many of these, shall we say demons, now that lesser acts don’t quite understand.

Is “Deeper Water” [from This is PiL] really one take?
One take, all improvised.

Man, it took some balls to go from the Pistols to …
I know. I came from the world’s most radical rock band to the world’s most radical band. That’s what it was, to jump from the Pistols to Public Image. It was very odd and bizarre to me that people were complaining that Public Image didn’t sound like the Sex Pistols. Why should they? Why should any two Public Image records sound the same? I do this because it’s a gift given to me. I was lucky to get involved with music. I’ve done nothing to be a musician or become a singer, but when it landed on my lap, I knew that I had to be honest to it and be honest to my family and my friends and get this clear in life, that here is this opportunity that for once I don’t need to tell lies. And I’ve followed that through now in everything.

Did you ever feel the need to prove yourself as more than just a punk singer, like, “I’m going to show these fuckers!”
That’s never been my agenda. [My agenda has] always been to create things that I found to be noble and worthwhile and accurate. Public Image over the years has involved some 49 different people. Every one of them has gone on to make great solo forms of music. I think all of the arguments of all Public Image members is really matters of style. The basic principle being though, that we create a new style, a new agenda. It’s a love of the individual, rather than going for the cliché of what’s selling currently.

Life could be easier if you had just stuck to the “Johnny Rotten” persona …
Tell me about it! I think I put my head on the chopping block now almost continuously. But that’s all right, it’s a good place to be. Just don’t polish the guillotine.

Is This is PiL your ninth or 10th album? Do you count Commercial Zone at all? [Commercial Zone is a PiL album released in 1982 by former (and founding) member Keith Levene; Lydon claimed Levene stole the master tapes]
No I don’t. I don’t know about [whether it is the ninth or 10th album] because I include live albums as part of my discography. I’ve done a lot of work secretly. I’ve always been involved with the dance world. I do like putting together dance records, but I don’t like putting my name to it. For me, it’s best if people don’t know it’s me. I think by the end of my life I will probably unravel this and a lot of people will be very surprised as to all of the angles I’ve covered in life and how detailed and varied my musical scope is. I love it all. All of it. Just genuinely. I love the art of the creativity of putting songs together. I love working with interesting people no matter how differently they think from me.

Maybe that’s why I always liked PiL, because no matter how experimental it’s always about the song.
I use many terms when people ask me to explain about what Public Image is. For me the easiest explanation would be: Folk music. It’s written by folk for the folk. I’m talking about my culture, my family, my friends, the people I know in life and the situations I have to endure, cope with, or create. In that way that is folk music. Rebellious, of course, but that is folk music. Unfortunately in modern times, people assume folk music is a hippie beard with blonde hair, an acoustic guitar, and a dreadfully long dress. But we are different, aren’t we? Los Lobos to me is folk music. I brought them in because there is a connection and I have a love for them. I understand their situation too. They’re folk music. The songs are absolutely relevant to the situation they live in. To me that is vitally important. That is good art. Whereas in Coldplay or Radiohead is not good. But then again, people born wealthy have a message too. It’s just not one that I can relate to. Because life is a struggle, from start to end, and it is how you cope with those struggles and how you pass that information to others and you do that best in song. I don’t think books quite relate it well enough. The written word can sometimes be a detriment. Or art, just colors alone isn’t enough. And music on itself isn’t enough. But when you put the combination of lyrics and music together you create something special in the human heart and condition. That is why we understand formats and regime in music and style and all of those things, but we tend to break away from them because it’s all about the accuracy of the song. For instance, if a song is screaming in pain and emotion on the loss of a fellow human being, you really don’t want to put that in a verse-chorus format. The same with joy. I don’t feel joy in a chorus. I feel joy in an exuberance of tones, sounds that blend that can sound quite crazy to an average listener but if they bother to take the time they will understand that that’s what happens in the brain.

Yet, I imagine that in the middle of a PiL trip onstage there’s always the guy who asks for Pistols songs. Does it bother you?
This still happens to this day and I love them very dearly for being there. (Laughs) I have no resentment at all. It shows a respect for at least partially some kind of work that I’ve done. Eventually they will catch up. But you know, not everybody works at the same pace in life, so I’ve got a generous soul for that kind of thing. I don’t have a generous spirit for people who are unnecessarily violent because I don’t believe violence resolves any issues. And unfortunately there can be the psychopaths out there that can mistranslate. You know, we call them politicians.

Oh, I’ll get into that, but first I wanted to ask you what are your memories, if any, of the Pistols show in San Antonio in 1978.
I thought my first introduction to the South was thrilling beyond belief. An amazing place, far more interesting than the industrialized north. To this day I think the South is never going to be completely understood until history is readjusted in the American school curriculum. They tend to look at you as primitive, whereas actually you’re far more human and less coincided and honest and decent and have a sense of loyalty amongst each other. Which I find very, very charming and beautiful. It relates to the culture I come from: Irish. Irish-English and how varied my family is.

Wait, but are you referring to San Antonio or …
I’m referring to the entirety of the South. All of it. And the differences between, let’s say, Florida, Texas, and Oklahoma, and Arkansas, and how beautiful it can get if you follow the Mississippi river up and all the way up to where blues finally ended up in Chicago. That can be a beautiful thing. All these routes I’m talking about is because there is a folk music that connects everyone. See, R&B to me is folk music. Of course, it got bastardized by an awful lot of English bands in the ’60s, when they blatantly copied the guitar lines and the soul and the influence of that kind of music and put a white face on it and, to me, that was daylight robbery and I’m very upset about it. English people should be presenting English culture and not a version of somebody else’s culture. It’s a cheeky thing. But I love the blues. I love reggae. I love everything. But I’m never going to make a deliberately direct copy of it.

Sorry to insist, but, specifically, do you remember the San Antonio show at all? According to some press reports it was mayhem over there.
I really don’t want to talk about the Pistols…

It’s not about the Pistols, it’s about San Antonio.
Ahhh, you…! (laughs)

C’mon, just tell me about Randy’s Rodeo, San Antonio, 1978.
Oh, yeah. I remember it being a wonderful gig and a brilliant relationship with an audience that had very little understanding of us, and I remember the only people that misbehaved and didn’t understand how great that gig was, was the British press who turned up just deliberately to write rubbish and create friction. When newspapers used to have the audacity to call themselves newspapers. In many ways, you know, the scandal-mongering of the paparazzi came from all of those times. In a weirded out way the Sex Pistols indirectly created that monster.

There is a video of that show where you see Sid [Vicious] hitting someone with the bass. What happened there? (the video wrongly identifies Randy’s Rodeo as being in New York)
I don’t remember. You have to understand something: Poor old Sid was a very weak character and had the tendency to over perform. And that is a great pity. But he did well and I miss him dearly. He was a very, very, very close friend of mine. I don’t really want to get into that, because it hurts.

Are you coming [to Fun Fun Fun Fest] with Bruce [Smith, drums], Lu [Edmonds, guitar and keyboards], and Scott [Firth, bass]?
Yes. They are my closest friends in all of music. When I had the position to put PiL back together again it was beyond doubt that I wanted to work with Lu and Bruce. And we needed a bass player who could encompass all of PiL’s range. And Scott was such a nice fella that we took him on without even hearing him play. His audacity and bravery in putting forth that he played with the Spice Girls was a wonderful aspect. He said outright: he goes from Stevie Winwood to the Spice Girls. “What do you think of that?” I said, “Fantastic, you got the job!” It shows that he loves music — no snobbery. Fantastic kind of person.

How do you rank this new album with the best from PiL’s first chapter?
I wouldn’t want to be doing that, other than to say that I’ve discovered that you can actually love your band members as really close friends and there would be no arguments between us. And for me, that’s the first time in music I’ve discovered that. Every other band scenario I’ve ever been in up to this point there’s been animosity and ego problems. Not all just me, not all just anybody else, but the point being that we-really-are-friends. The way we play live shows this. We take the songs into so many different beautiful terrains and areas because we are free of egotistical competition amongst each other.

Do you think the Pistols could do to themselves what John Lydon did to Johnny Rotten? With this I mean: could or should the Pistols evolve, become a more sophisticated, or just a different music machine? You were able to evolve, why can’t the Pistols? Not that I necessarily would want to see that, but…
I understand. A lot of people have this desire. But you have to be sensible. The Pistols is where I learned to write songs, but I’ve moved on. I don’t know if the other members of the Pistols have moved on. It’s impossible for me to look backwards. As soon as Public Image started, the songs began to expand and move into fresh areas, [so] for me at that point, the Sex Pistols were very un-fresh. I discovered a love and a joy for music, rather than a hate and an animosity for government institutions. I needed to write songs that expanded into abroad the universe.

Yet, the Pistols reunited for the Filthy Lucre Tour …
Yes, because we owed that to each other as friends, but we’ve moved on. We are still friends, but we’ve moved on.

I want to go back to “Deeper Water” for a second. When I read it …
(interrupting) Let me tell you what I mean when I say the song is one take. What you must understand is the way we, as a band, converse; to ask dialogue is everything. So when I put the words together and I’m doing that live on stage, I change and shape-shift the songs. But it’s all based on conversations and musical escapades that we’ve discussed amongst each other. It’s a finalization of a hell of a lot of thoughts. It’s not an accident. It’s a deliverance. We know where we are going to go as soon as we start. We are able to jump into it simultaneously. The understanding we have with each other is quite, I don’t like to use the word “psychic,” but yes, that’s probably what sums it up best. Intuitive.

But the way I read the song…
(interrupts) It’s about facing calamity and surviving.

Also hypocrisy?
Yes, all of that. And bad advice, and people misleading you and how you survive.

Which brings me to the U.S. presidential elections. That song makes me think of Mitt Romney, for obvious reasons. I don’t know if you’ve been following the campaign, and I’m not going to ask you about which candidate you prefer, but Mitt…
(interrupting, screaming) OBAMA! (singing) Obaaaaama! (laughs)

So have you been following Romney’s debacle? [the conversation took place before the first debate]
Yes, I have, and I just have one simple point to make. So far, every Republican argument I hear about replacing [Obama] doesn’t make sense. They’re accusing him of all of the things that George [W.] Bush created. In less than four years he’s been asked to resolve the damage that’s been done in eight by Mr. Bush. It’s ridiculous. You cannot replace a man for trying this good and this hard, and being genuine and honest. I know Texas won’t agree with a word I said, but…

San Antonio and Austin will! Obama won here.
You can guarantee empty seats in certain venues just because of politics. Which is a shame! For me, we should all love each other regardless of the politics. We all want the best for the world. But there are certain aspects of Republicanism that seem incredibly negative and hateful and, dare I say, racist to me. The Republicans have Kid Rock, which is a pet rock. I don’t know whom Obama has, but I definitely love the man to pieces.

He has Bruce Springsteen, at least.
I don’t know if that means very much. The day a musician grabs a vote for you is the day you understand what the Sex Pistols opened up here and Johnny Rotten is still continuing: question everything and don’t back the money. Because those with the most money are the most dangerous. No Romney, thank you. No Romney at the top. Which is a play on “no room at the top.”

Now, the last question is the hardest and deepest. Are you ready?
Yes! Ask! It’ll be great fun!

What were you thinking going into Judge Judy’s court?
Oh, I was very fearful. That was a real court case and accusation. For some bizarre reason the accuser decided to take it to TV. It was very risky for me because at that current time my visa situation wasn’t sorted out. It could have created a lot of negativity, but thank you, Judge Judy. I know many people think it’s a put-on performance piece or reality TV, but no, those are real cases. It astounds me to this day that people don’t understand that. Take a look at Judge Judy’s eyes. She ain’t lying.

She won’t take shit from anybody.
Nobody! And I tell you, man, she has the most beautiful eyes and they are utterly ferocious. It’s like trying to stare down a puma.

Anything else you want to add?
Yes. I do remember something else about San Antonio. This may sound odd and bizarre to you, but I went to a hot air balloon expedition in Arizona about five years back with a friend and we decided to take a bus to San Antonio. We were stuck at the train station there and it was the maddest, most insane evening. Really old folk, noisy bar full of bikers across the street, just this lonesome old cowboy station, and there we were with luggage. And I’m thinking, “This is how you die.” (laughs)

Thanks a lot for your time, Mr. Lydon.
May the road rise and the enemies always be behind you.

[His usual farewell, taken from the lyrics of PiL’s “Rise” and based on an old Irish blessing, “May the road rise to meet you/May the wind be always at your back.”] — Enrique Lopetegui

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