In 2007, I spoke with John Lydon—better known as Sex Pistols frontguy Johnny Rotten—for Harp magazine’s “Words of Wisdom” feature. When representing the notorious punk rock band, Lydon (as he prefers to be called) knows people expect a certain shtick from him. He’s in his 50s, but we want him to behave like a petulant child.
“Words of Wisdom” consisted of a short introduction followed by the interview’s standout quotes. Rotten—Lydon—seemed prepared for it, popping off chestnuts like:
“Years ago, I donated my body to charity. I hope some very fine trainee surgeons have a field day operating on the carcass. They may find out a thing or two. I’m very sensual alive. Imagine what I’m like dead! They should sell tickets for it. Come and have a fondle!”
Even as he played to type, Lydon demonstrated a sensitivity not usually associated with “Johnny Rotten.” Granted, Rotten wept for Sid Vicious in the Pistols doc The Filth and the Fury, but it’s not like he’s a sociopath, immune to grief. It’s when he waxes philosophical, almost breathlessly, that it seems wonky. For example, Lydon appeared on the U.K. television show The Meaning of Life, saying, “Life is a series of lucky, lucky, lucky moments and incidences. And sometimes, not. But you know, when you get the chance, grab it. You, too, could be a Sex Pistol.”
Wot?! That kind of Oprah mush, coming from the man who told the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame to shove its accolade, ain’t just wonky—it’s pod-people freaky. We do expect the filth and the fury from Rotten and the Sex Pistols. Nobody ever put on Never Mind the Bollocks… looking to be soothed. It’s angry, snotty, revolutionary music. But the notion that his becoming a Sex Pistol could be soundtracked by Steve Winwood’s “While You See a Chance,” like it was serendipity swaddled in pink chenille, is auditory ipecac. Blecch!
In a way, so is the idea that beneath Rotten’s gruff exterior lies a real person. But he’s there, and it’s more interesting to see him in three dimensions than in two—like in Harp, when he threw sentimental grenades in among his thought-bombs.
“You gotta look at life with a smile. Let’s get off this ‘woe is me’ stuff. I’m not one to do that. I mean, I nearly died of meningitis when I was young. I was in a coma for four months. But you won’t get my harping on about it.”
It’s not fair to hold anyone to any perception—nor is it rewarding. The cliché “peel an onion” is an apt caption to our picture of Rotten, the crazy-eyed guy with the pungent personality. Except there’s no real peeling necessary with him; it’s more ‘what you see is what you get,’ and, if you pay attention, Rotten/Lydon shows a lot.
Speaking with City Weekly in advance of a Salt Lake City performance by his reunited “other” band Public Image Ltd., Lydon fondly recalls a 1992 antic he pulled when PiL performed at the Utah State Fair Park. During PiL’s set, Lydon gleefully pulled up his T-shirt to reveal a bushy thicket centered on his surf shorts, and repeatedly thrust it at the audience. The gag referenced the cover art of PiL’s then-current (and, for now, final) album That What Is Not, and it got big laughs. Incidentally, the song was “Acid Drops,” a screed against censorship that asks, “What is not dirty, what is not clean/What should we not hear, what shouldn’t be seen?”
“I went on Dennis Miller’s show—before he became a Republican—and he wouldn’t interview me wearing those shorts,” Lydon says. “It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? The world we live in.”
The episode involving what Miller called “Johnny Rotten’s fannypack” frustrates Lydon. He feels the comedian misplaced his sense of humor—perhaps due to misconceptions about his guest. It was a gag, says Lydon, who says he prefers to inject comedy into his work because “just being nasty and violent” doesn’t get anyone anywhere.
“I don’t live in this world to make enemies. I certainly don’t like being judged, and judged erroneously.”
So if we must judge John Lydon, then let’s not base our opinion on the person he was in the Sex Pistols, but rather in PiL. He enjoys a lack of “animosity” and “doubt” among guitarist Lu Edmonds, bassist Scott Firth and drummer Bruce Smith, and says with the “right blend of personalities” in the band he feels “supported,” and that there’s “a real sense of trust.” Creatively, PiL is Lydon’s muse—the group made eight times as many albums as the Sex Pistols and stretched far beyond punk rock into dub, Krautrock and musique concrete. “[Pistols] songs are so rigid… you can’t expand them. They’re great songs, but I like PiL. Much more. Because I can express such deeper emotions and truer feelings.”
And personally, in PiL, the man who told Harp “Rotten. It’s as good a name as any, innit?” can be more John Lydon “than a caricature. Yeah. Rotten can become a caricature, if I’m not careful. ‘Mr. Lydon,’ that’s a human being, there. Harder work, but more enjoyable.”