“The fact that I think these two are pretty much in love has nothing to do with my views on the royal family as a scam and an atrocity,” said the man with yellow spikey hair sitting across from me over a bottle of Corona beer and plate of fish tacos in a Marina del Rey café by the beach. It was a couple of days before the royal wedding in London and six thousand miles away on the California coast, John Lydon was not having any part of it.
(photo by Robert Yager)
“It’s a ludicrous proposition, having a monarchy in the 21st century,” declared the former Sex Pistol, who more than thirty years ago slammed English royalty in “God Save the Queen,” perhaps the first true protest song since Bob Dylan’s earliest musical bombasts. That little “ditty,” as Lydon refers to his songs, ripped and shredded its way to #2 on the UK pop charts in 1977 as a single released from the Pistols’ first album, “Never Mind The Bollocks.” It provoked members of Parliament to argue for Lydon’s arrest on the charge of treason, punishable by death, and helped add the category of “Punk” to the late 20th Century’s musical history.
Today Lydon has a new album with the latest incarnation of Public Image Ltd., the band he formed in 1978 after leaving the Pistols, and is embarking upon a European tour, with a stop in Italy at the Fiera della Musica di Azzano Decimo, Bergamo, il prossimo 8 luglio. Audiences looking forward to the wild antics of the man once known as “Johnny Rotten” can expect a full measure of rock n’ roll outrage and anarchic energy, despite the rocker’s fifty-five years. What they may not guess is Lydon’s unique intellect, deep morality , not to mention the basic decent human kindness of the man evident when he took out a pack of Marlboros and noticed the yowling infant in the stroller at the next table.
“Aw, a baby,” he said, tucking the cigarettes away. “I won’t smoke with a baby nearby.”
Returning our conversation to the subject of the grand celebration the British were preparing, Lydon backed up his anti-monarchist views with a bit of socialist reasoning. “It’s an enormous waste of money and focus where it could be better spent elsewhere,” he said of the royal wedding (which cost as much as $64M) . “It’s nice to have a tourist attraction, and I do like pageantry. As an Arsenal supporter I like to wave the colored flag. I’m all for that, you know, the malarkey fun side of it.”
He laughed, revealing his infamous gap-toothed grin, blue eyes throwing off the same devilish sparks that helped ignite the Punk era that overtook the post-Woodstock years, roared and raged in the dark years of disco, Margaret Thatcher and polyester leisure suits.
John Joseph Lydon was born in London on 31 January 1956, to Irish immigrants Christopher and Eileen Lydon. He grew up in Finsbury Park, a working class section of North London, the eldest of four brothers in a family barely supported by his father’s construction jobs. Battling with the neighborhood gangs and getting trouble in school, his life came to a complete stop at seven years old when he contracted spinal meningitis, spending a year in a hospital and another year recovering.
After years in and out of schools, during which he became pals with a fellow street kid and music club follower John Simon Ritchie, Lydon was living in hippie squats and hanging out at the Kings Road clothing shop managed by impresario Malcolm McLaren and fashionista Vivienne Westwood. McLaren had slapped together a band he called the Sex Pistols in an attempt to capture the new wave of music and style typified by New York groups centered around venues like CBGBs and the Mudd Club—bands such as the New York Dolls, the Ramones, and Blondie just making waves on the music scene.
Liking the torn t-shirts and spikey dyed-green hair sported by Lydon, McLaren recruited him as the Pistols’ lead singer. John Lydon became “Johnny Rotten,” bringing in Ritchie who became “Sid Vicious,” and the rest became history.
Squinting in the glorious California sunshine, Lydon raised his glass for a toast: “May the road rise before ye, your enemies always behind ye!” We were on our second round, and the conversation rambling, , touching on the upcoming tour: Yes, he was looking forward to being in Italy, enjoyed living there in 1982 while shooting “Copkiller” (his first and only starring role in a feature film) at Cinecittà Studios, in Rome and Lazio.
“I like Italy, especially their attitude to the church,” Lydon said fondly. “You’d think they’d be very religious—no! Not at all. And they have no guilt whatsoever about it, while the Irish are wallowing in it.”
An Irish passport is how Lydon travels, abandoning his UK credentials years ago because “I was continuously harassed every time I went back into England. So I thought I’d be clever,” he explained. “I’d come back as Irish and maybe they’d be a little back-offish. No—wrong! ‘Must be an IRA suspect!’ they’d say. Any excuse.”
He swallowed his beer and grimaced at the whole concept of national borders and life’s artificial boundaries in general. “It’s meaningless, really. I don’t see national pride as anything worth having. We should be borderless, country-less.”
Lydon’s citizen-of-the-world logic goes only so far, however, stopping at the border of his favorite football team.
“Arsenal? “ Lydon sputtered, eyes staring with hooligan pride. “There’s no logic when it comes to that! That’s separate, partisan all the way down the line. It’s that arena thing—us versus them. You’ve got to have an element of that in your life.”
Back to the subject of Irish ancestry: Does Lydon see himself as part of the rebellious Irish bardic tradition –Yeats, Joyce, the satiric Jonathan Swift, etcetera?
“I won’t be fit into anybody’s idea of a category or genre,” he says, firmly rejecting that context, or any context. “You’ve got to be outside of those things. You’ve got to be true to yourself. From time to time there are intellectual fools who will try to pigeonhole me that way and, no—it’s really a basic principle of being yourself, a human being. And to get away with as much as you possibly can before somebody catches you and you go to jail. Been there, done that. But I’ll have you know—I’m very innocent.”
He laughed, and it’s true—there is a charming sense of innocence about Mr. Rotten, and always has been from the moment he declared “There is no future.” I pointed out that there certainly was a future for John Lydon, because here he was, a well-fed looking bloke with a fine set of teeth (a dentist’s art) eating tacos and drinking beer in sunny California with a Rolling Stone writer.
“Ah, but if you don’t question, if you accept things, then that will be it,” he says, explaining the deepest meaning of his “no future” statement as more of a warning than a prediction. “You’ll get rolled over, used and abused, and you become cannon fodder and you will fight in wars that you have no clue about, and you will believe in lies and you’ll utterly destroy your only one chance for existence.”
Lydon traces his philosophical attitude to his near-fatal childhood episode with spinal meningitis.
“I was in a coma,” he recalls. “Lost my memory completely. Slate wiped clean.”
The illness left him with lasting effects. “I’m plagued with complications, sinus infections, any kind of physical exertion and I overheat, go over the top, boil alive. So I have to be really, really careful—which of course I’m not.”
The effects on his character were more serious, Lydon believes. Re-enter ing the world at such a young age, dependent upon others’ goodwill , forced to re-learn everything by taking people at their word, his critical faculties became sharply attuned to separating the false from the genuine.
“If there is a God I think he gave me a really good gift, a good slap in the head,” Lydon said. “Look at people, expect them to tell you the truth and if they don’t – fuck ‘em. That makes it very difficult to work with me apparently.”
That rowdy “public image” may be more a figment of Lydon’s imagination these days. For this is a man who was less than a minute late to our interview and still extended apologies because “the missus wanted the washing machine repaired.”
“The missus” is Nora Forster, daughter of a German publishing mogul and “Mrs. Rotten” for nearly 30 years. Since 1982 they have lived around the corner from where we’re sitting at the Mercedes Grill in this beachside community on the southern edge of Los Angeles.
I doubt he’s actually been fixing a washing machine, but it seems to be his way of saying John Lydon is a happily married man, who is comfortable with domesticity, pays attention to his family and the rest is bollocks as far as he is concerned—except for football.
But before going for that smoke, finally, Lydon had a few more words for the future King William and his bride Kate, and their expensive wedding: “If I paid for that, I want it back,” he snarled, “Start with the cake!”