Mr. Rotten Runs His Mouth

by David Tanklefsky  |  03.09.2017

In 1980, Tomorrow Show host Tom Snyder sat down with former Sex Pistols singer John Lydon who had just recently formed his new, more experimental project, Public Image Ltd. The interview is a root canal. 

Sample Q&A:  Snyder: Where’d the name the Sex Pistols come from? 

Lydon: Some animal. I can’t remember. It doesn’t matter. It’s history.  

There’s another one in the late ‘80s in which an orange-haired Lydon in a yellow suit answers milquetoast questions from a Finnish journalist.  

Interviewer: Welcome to Finland. How does it feel to be here at last? 

Lydon: It’s just like anywhere else. Awful and it rains.  

Yet even in those train wrecks, there’s something refreshing, essential even about a man so completely at ease in making people squirm. It’s part of the winking dance Lydon always seems to be doing with his audience. Like a Shakespearean fool (Lydon recited lines from the bard within the first five minutes of our conversation), he’s a working-class commoner unafraid to offer up his view of the world unvarnished.  

What so many interviewers seemed to not understand about young Lydon is he wasn’t talking to them. He was talking to people on the other side of the glass who were just like him. Young people bored with the status quo, the pretensions of the establishment and even themselves thinking can you believe I have to explain myself to these dummies? 

If his sneer has (for the most part) disappeared, Lydon is still fascinating and challenging. Over the course of 45 minutes, we discussed the ascent of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote, his new illustrated songbook and how he did or didn’t celebrate his birthday. Forty years into his prolific career, he’s still winking at us with a contorted smile, beckoning us not to be afraid to come a little bit closer to Mr. Rotten. 

The following is an edited transcript of Lydon’s conversation with Daily Brief contributing editor David Tanklefsky. 

DAILY BRIEF: I saw your birthday was yesterday. Happy birthday. 

LYDON: [growls] 

Did you celebrate? 

LYDON: No, I just carried on working. I’m still finishing up the final touches on this lyric book.  

When did you conceive of doing a songbook?  

LYDON: I suppose it all started with me telling myself a lie, which was ‘Oh I must have written 400 songs over the years.’  

It works out to be not quite that much but still over a hundred. Then I decided to get to rooting through the drawers and found the different sets of lyrics. It just spurred on from there. I have a knack for drawing. I’ve always drawn the covers for [Public Image Ltd.] stuff and just one thing led to another.  

Where did the inspiration for it come from? 

LYDON: It all really relates back to trying to regain my memories as a child [at seven, Lydon suffered meningitis and lost parts of his memory]. Some of the songs I just burst out laughing when I think “I remember writing this in that situation,” and how I wanted to scream the words like an annoying neighbor’s dog that just barks intermittently for no point whatsoever. Because these are things I feel inside myself. My own tensions brewing and building and that’s amazingly refreshing for me to go back into them and research them like this. 

Is art something that you’re doing more of now? 

LYDON: I’ve always drawn. I find that to be a great soother. I’ve drawn ever since I could, the first time I ever held a pencil from one to two. It’s where I find myself. I like to be self-effacing and I can do that in cartoons.  

Can we talk politics? Are you interested in that? 

LYDON: No, not at all. There’s nothing really to discuss. There just isn’t. All I can say is it’s thrilling to turn CNN on because I don’t know what I’ll get every morning.  

Do you watch CNN every morning? 

LYDON: I think accidentally Mr. Trump’s made me a CNN fan.  

You spoke out against Brexit to some degree. 

LYDON: Yes, and I swayed the other way. I’m glad a decision was reached but now we’re watching politicians be indecisive about the public’s decision. As always, I’ll go with the mass vote. I don’t see it as isolation at all. I did at first but for selfish reasons, because an open E.U. is very healthy for musicians to travel. The lack of borders is very important. But you know, greed aside, Britain can’t be dictated to by strange people who have no faces.  

What about Trump? You were fairly outspoken about him last summer during the campaign. 

LYDON: He’s exactly the person I thought he’d be as president. Shocking. That’s what people voted in. There’s not much I can do or go against that. I’ll support the presidency until it becomes impractical which is anytime soon I believe. It’s all so very dull really. It’s like a mad comedy act gone wrong. A very unfair circus.  

Do you see any parallels between the social unrest that was happening in the U.K. in the 70s when the Sex Pistols came out and the disillusionment that people are feeling in the U.K. and the U.S. now? 

LYDON: Well, I’m in full agreement with just about everybody, really, that we’ve all had enough of politicians. Unfortunately, I don’t think you can replace a politician with a businessman. That was the wrong move. We’ll see this not work. It can’t possibly. Because business is all about self-aggrandizement and selfishness. And that’s no way to run a country.  

Do you enjoy living in America? 

LYDON: I love it. I love Americans. I love the openness of it. I love the fact that it’s a new country, relatively speaking. The prehistoric traditions I think lumber Europe into such a catastrophic trap: the class system. The only system I see here really is the financial system. Those who have and those who don’t. 

So you’re in the process of writing new material and then touring this year? 

LYDON: This year. Just putting the final little notes of it together and that will be of course again a serious slice of hard work and a lot of travel involved. The hiring of coaches is not getting any cheaper. 

Do you do all of that? 

LYDON: Yeah, we all do. It’s important and it’s relevant to learn the economics of these things. I’m quite good at organizing, but I’m quite rubbish on the details. 

It’s funny how much of touring is like herding cats. 

LYDON: That’s a very good way of putting it. When I re-formed PiL after an 18 year hiatus it was, “Who do I want to work with?” I picked the people who were the most mentally stable. Not particularly based on musical skill or anything like that but mental stability. Low and behold it’s proved to be very positive for me. I always thought that in bands you’re all just gonna hate each other and that’s the way it is, because that was my experience up until the making of the last two albums.  

I assume when you were 19 or 20 you weren’t making those same choices in the Sex Pistols.

LYDON: I don’t know if your brain is quite developed enough to understand that there’s a better way than confrontation. It’s a youthful purpose. That’s always going to be there but there’s other tools now in the kit. 

The initial image of you in those early days seems incongruous with who you actually are.  

LYDON: Well, it was narrowed and it became somewhat insular because of the way the media behaved. It was a particularly British thing. At that time in my youth I was dealing with a specific British problem. 

Which was what? 

LYDON: The law of the land, the institutions, the religions that were running the place and took for granted our obedience and I stood up and felt that I had something to say about that. It was instant hostility from the media from day one. I don’t think any band ever has been quite treated that way. And it was so empowering. As a young man, how can my words be doing this? They can’t be wrong. If they were I’d be laughable.  

Do you worry about free speech in a world in which we have maybe over-corrected for political correctness? 

LYDON: Always, whenever free speech is challenged. The people that are being shut down, those are the true disenfranchised and I will always stand up for them. Words can be used to create absolutely astounding achievements. The things we can think of that are not even practical in real life, and yet still highly informative. Fascinating world we live in. And anybody that tries to stifle human words is killing language, our greatest achievement. It’s what separates us from the apes. 

What are you doing right after this? 

LYDON: I’m going back to the book and then I’m preparing for this promotional tour. We’re gonna cram an awful lot into a few weeks and then we’ll be going out proper touring. Touring is one day’s rehearsal, six months of solid slog [laughs]. I love it though. I never used to when I was younger. Maybe it was just the situations were different but this is so healthy to do, with a proper gaggle of friends. It’s thrilling and it amazes me that I’ve been able to survive for so long in exactly the opposite universe. I don’t know how long this will last but this is an enjoyable bubble to be in. 

Did it ever quite feel that way with the Pistols? 

LYDON: No, no. The animosities were just too prevalent. 

But that’s part of what made it work. 

LYDON: I think so too, yes. That’s what fueled it. That was its energy. Negative or positive is energy. I look back with fondness even at the rows we had. It’s somehow important and relevant because they were all great clearing houses. And we rowed all the time. I think it’s very healthy. I know that in my personal life. Nora and me, we love our rows. 

How long have you been married? 

LYDON: Forty years. 

What’s the key to it? 

LYDON: Honesty, if you can imagine such a thing. To not hold things in. To just let them out as they are and realize halfway through an insult you’re being ridiculous. And being able to look at yourself and go, “Sorry. Get it.”

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