The one-time Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols was the most recognizable face and voice of British punk rock in the mid 1970s, and, as John Lydon, he went on to lead one of the best, most musically diverse and challenging post-punk groups, Public Image Ltd. (PiL), which has been a going concern off and on since 1978. This is PiL, the band’s first album since 1992, came out in May, and the group is playing Reno’s Knitting Factory on Friday, Oct. 26.
Is this John?
Hi, it’s Brad from the Reno News & Review.
The Reno News & Review.
You mumbled that again [laughs].
Sorry, it’s early. It’s 8:20. This is earlier than I usually get up. It’s the Reno. News. And Review.
Where are you right now?
I’m in Miami, getting ready to do a gig tonight.
It’s different. Every time I come here there’s a whole new bunch of high rises. It’s a strange place. I don’t know. I can’t relate to it. It’s like a lunar land base.
Where do you live now?
I live in Los Angeles.
L.A. is fine. I feel myself somewhat a Californian I’ve been there long enough. I love the variety and dexterity of Californians.
We’re quite close to California, we have kind of a love-hate—-
I know. I’ve been to Reno quite a few times. I went to go skiing from Reno up to Squaw Valley.
Have you played in Reno before?
Yeah, I have, years back. Years and years back. It was in one of those casinos, very strange. I don’t like doing gambling venues.
I don’t believe in gambling.
Well, why? If there’s such a thing as temperate as luck, I think it’s pointless putting money on it. I think it will either happen or it won’t. I think gambling leads to all kinds of social problems. And if you came from a British working class family, you’d understand that.
You live in California, so I assume you follow American politics pretty closely.
Well, you have to, because they relate directly to the rest of the world.
Did you watch the presidential debate a couple of nights ago?
I was very disappointed with it. I thought it was tedious, overblown and pointless. You’ve got one man yelling incorrect statements and another just like mumbling. It all seemed very silly to me. And both of them looked a bit haggard and stressed in the eyes, I noticed that.
Well, they’re arguing in front of millions of people, so it seems pretty stressful.
Yeah, it is. Something I know I can relate directly to. I call it concerts.
Are you disappointed with Obama generally?
No, not at all, just his performance there. I think what took eight years to unravel will take a hell of a lot longer to tie back up. Have you ever opened a Christmas present and tried to reseal it? Believe me, the paper doesn’t fold quite the same way, and as for the ribbon, forget it. And that’s the position he was put in. And that’s how I see it.
So, PiL’s new album came out not too long ago. How long ago was the last one? Twenty years or so?
Yep, I was under commitment to record labels there that were holding me back and kept a debt over me that made it impossible for me to function, so for nearly two decades, I had to try to raise money elsewhere. Finally, I’ve been able to independently raise enough to put some against that outstanding debt, and then reform PiL, to the point that I’ve been able to get off the labels and now form our own record company, which is a hell of a lot of work.
It’s also kind of empowering, because you have control over everything?
You’ve got full control, but you don’t have the access to the funds that you could quite get attached to [laughs]. Isn’t that a polite way of putting it?
Listening to the new album, it seems like part of the tradition of PiL, but a little bit of a departure too.
If PiL has a tradition at all, it’s that every album sounds very different from the one before, but there is a constant thread and that’s the character of me. I’m there. That’s the maypole which all this dances around, because, you know, it’s the story of my life’s experiences, and that’s the unification necessary for it to work. That’s the substantive matter, and of course my life story is very, very close to Bruce [Smith], the drummer’s, or Lu Edmonds or the bass player, Scott [Firth]. At the same time, we’re vastly different characters, but we’ve all been through the grind of what we know is humanity and life, and come out somehow smiling. The point being don’t let the bastards grind you down no matter what.
That said, you’ve had a pretty unique life story.
Well, you can say that about every human being on the planet, which is why I find us all as a species utterly, totally fascinating. No man could be my enemy, because anyone you sit down with—I don’t know, you go to a pub and sit down with a really old fella in the corner, his story will be fascinating, if you can get him to open up. That’s what life is to me. I’m interested in everybody’s life experiences.
Who are some of your favorite specimens?
Specimens [laughs]? I don’t very much like that … none of us belong in a measuring jar.
Yeah, even if they’re your favorites, you don’t want to quantify people.
Well, I don’t know, my father’s story—I wish I’d known more about it when I was younger. I wouldn’t have been quite such a horrible sod of a kid to him, you know? Always wondering when I was young why I could never get on with him. It was partially my fault too. He left England when he was 13, 13 and a half to 14, and drove lorries at 15, and formed a family. I did not know any of that until years and years later. And I would have respected him totally if I would have known.
You didn’t get along with him when you were younger, I take it.
Yeah, I don’t think kids usually do with their parents, until they realize that, you know, parents are people, too [laughs]. It’s so easy to just be the demanding, selfish brat, isn’t it? But then again, when I was young, I had some terrible illnesses which nearly killed me and that was very hard on them. I was constantly a sickly thing, so it was very, very hard for them. My dad was such a hard worker and he couldn’t understand how he’d sired such an unhealthy little worm. But what I lack physically, I make for mentally.
Meningitis, nearly died from it. Coma, the lot.
How old were you?
Seven. I was always before then. Physically, I’m a bit dilapidated. But mentally I’m very astute, so that’s what gets me through. None of us are born perfect creatures. None of us are born with all of the capabilities. This is what we do as a human being. We learn to get by on what we’ve got.
When you started out you were kind of an iconoclast, and now you’re sort of an icon …
I wouldn’t know the difference between those two words [laughs]. They sound similar to me! Either one of them really isn’t anything I’d looking out for. That’s the monikers that other people put on you, the labels. That’s all well and fine, but at the same time it’s all a bit silly, isn’t it? I’m just a human being trying to get by and tell his life experiences in the most honest way possible. Short, sharp, to the point and directly. I don’t have no time for lies and liars, and that’s something that only childhood illnesses brought out in me. But my mum and dad’s ethics were, you know, don’t lie. That’s a constant thing there, and I respect that, and I’m determined to stay that way. It’s the only healthy way.
Would you say that thing that you like least is dishonesty?
Where do you see dishonesty?
Every politician, every institution, and every political party, because once you get that amalgamation of juxtapositions, what they deal with then is compromise, and in compromise really lies the roots of deceit. That can be very challenging for me, because I don’t see the need for it. For me, the more varied we all are, the better it is. Why can we not agree to disagree? Some of my best friends don’t agree with anything I have to say on anything at all, and that’s fantastic company for me.
Because it keeps you constantly alert and aware that your agenda is not other people’s, and that can be fine. We’ve all got very many different interest or points of view or opinions, but when you open yourself to debate with people that have challengingly different points of view, it’s educational, because from time to time, you can actually learn that you might be wrong. And learning to admit that you’re wrong is one of your greatest achievements, it’s certainly been mine.
What are some times you’ve been wrong?
Off the top of my head, arguing at school with the teachers! But I found it very useful because I got to the answer at the end. I don’t like to lay down a proposition and it be based on just a belief system rather than a truth, and hence debate at all times. Songs are debates.
That’s interesting. How are songs debates?
Because you’re declaring your point of view or you’re trying to see the world through another person’s point of view, and you can either be wrong about this or you can be right about it, but either way it will spur other people into commenting. So what you’ve done is that you’ve opened a new subject to them. For me, the people that hate me and can’t stand whatever it is I get up to are just as valid as those that hero worship me. It’s about the same thing. At least they’re discussing something. That’s a hell of a lot more valid than just being called a nice person … that’s the worst insult you could ever face, “Oh, he’s really nice.”
I’ve always been curious what you think of that Neil Young song “Hey Hey, My My”?
On Rust Never Sleeps? Hilarious. [Mocking, sing-song voice:]‘This is the story of Johnny Rotten. The king is gone but not forgotten.’ I wanted to know what Neil Young meant when he wrote that song, and I was doing a thing on VH1 at the time called Rotten TV, and we rang up his management, and I wanted to interview him and talk to him about it, and the response from their office was that they had no idea who Johnny Rotten was [laughs]. So my knowledge of that song is exactly that.
That is so weird. So you’ve never had occasion to meet him?
I’ve always found—he would be one of my song heroes. I love the lyrics that the man’s put together over the years and the different approaches, particularly that album Zuma. Love it.
That’s a great record.
Yes, of course I would [like to meet him], but you always have to bear in mind that when you meet someone, you’ve built them up into something you may just be disappointed at what you get. The other week—I love the Beach Boys too, and we did a British live TV show and the Beach Boys were on and PiL, and I think there’s a YouTube thing of it floating around. But while we were onstage, and I’m singing, and I had terrible flu, so the voice was a bit honky donkey, and I was very aware that this was the Beach Boys, vocalists par excellence listening to me [laughs]. … And Brian Wilson is sitting there and he starts tapping and nodding his head and grooving. Just really heartwarming. I loved it, just really pleased. And someone in the band wanted to introduce him to me after, and he was the strangest man I’ve ever met. He seemed so dissipated and removed from reality. He said, [stilted, ethereal voice] ‘Is this the photo opportunity?’ Take the photo, like a robot, and somebody led him back to a chair, and sat down and stared into a screen. That was him. … I don’t want to believe that the fellow is falling apart because you know, I respect him highly. This is Mr. Rotten telling you, my musical tastes are extremely varied.
What are you listening to these days?
At the moment, for the last year, really quite frankly, nothing because we’re just too busy. We’re touring, and the last thing we want is a Brittany Spears melody to creep into a song [laughs]!
Well, you don’t have to listen to that.
You can’t help it, can you? Leave the radio on, something somehow will creep into your psyche. You know like those horrible ditties on game shows? That’s how a lot of the top 30 can be, and it can be pretty damn soul destroying. It can be quite pervasive when you’re in the middle of your big bad ego onstage, and suddenly you know you’re singing a game show tune.
Has that every happened to you?
Sort of. The idea is there. The fear is there, but at the same time, being me, I kind of like it.
There was a skate video you hosted a few years ago …
Oh yeah, the Flip thing! Great fun. A couple of the younger skateboarders had a big thing for PiL. One thing led to another, we met up, and I agreed to do a promo on a documentary for them. It was great fun. That’s like a PiL in California experience.
Do you ever skateboard?
Absolutely hopeless. I’ve got no sense of balance at all. I mean, none! Shocking bad. In a weird way, to the surfy lads and the skateboardwers, they found that kind of endearing. ‘C’mon, John, fall over again!’
A big part of your legacy is obviously the Sex Pistols, and I know you did some reunion shows in recent years, but it’s basically a band you were in for just two or three years 30 years ago, is it weird—?
No, no, no. It’s something I’m very proud of because I came out of the gates yelling and screaming in an inappropriate way. That’s where I learned to write songs, and it set me in good stead. But, as a band, we’re never going to get back together. We’re now in full agreement with each other. No one wants to do that. I can’t go back and write songs for that period, and the others feel the same way. We’ve all moved on from it. In my life so far, I’ve been in two great musical movements—Pistols, Pil. That’s a good thing.
I’ve always been curious about the formation of the Pistols—-
Not going to talk about them. Leave it alone, it’s gone!
That’s kind of what I meant earlier. Do you get sick of talking about it?
No, but it becomes too much. It’s over, you know. And of course I miss it from time to time, but not really. I miss the company of the lads, but that’s about it.