Electric Picnic: John Lydon
John Lydon hasn’t mellowed with age, finds Ed Power, as he spouts off about evil priests and why no one can stop him playing in Israel
John Lydon cackles like a pantomime villain. "Is the Pope a Nazi?" he asks, rhetorically as it turns out. "It's no use telling me he was young and didn't know what he was doing. A Nazi is a Nazi and those bastards would have exterminated the lot of us."
As you join us, punk's perennial enfant terrible is in the middle of a rant about the Catholic Church. Pontiff-bashing is a popular pastime nowadays, but Lydon -- never one for leaping on bandwagons -- has been at it for years. Second generation Irish, he was educated by nuns and priests in the Finsbury Park area of London, pouring his experiences into the early Public Image Limited song Religion (sample lyric: "Fat pig priest/ Sanctimonious smiles/He takes the money/ You take the lies").
"It was deeply unpleasant when I was young... going to Catholic school," he says, the levity evaporating from his voice. "If the nuns weren't beating us to death with rulers for trying to be left-handed, the priests were trying to grab us in the corridors. I was lucky enough to have been an ugly child -- it wasn't too dangerous for me. It was for some of my classmates. It's left very bitter memories. I never liked them... the priests, they always smelt wrong to me. You could get that scent. It was the same smell off the nuns. I would describe it as pure evil."
Lydon is on the comeback trail with PiL, his post-Sex Pistols art-rock band. At 54, he clearly hasn't mellowed with age. Or, if he has, he's determined not to let on. For instance, when the subject of his old nemesis, the late Pistols' manager Malcolm McLaren, comes up, his lips twist into an expression of lemon-sucking disgust.
"I think that man has said enough about himself," he says of McLaren who passed away in April. "It has been that way for some time. He never mattered much. He never did much. And I don't see what the fuss is about, plain and simple."
A life-long tilter at windmills, you might expect Lydon to be equally damning of Bono. Actually, he appears to have a sneaking regard for the U2 frontman, though it's obvious he doesn't regard him as saviour of all mankind.
"I've met Bono about twice and have had a good laugh with him. The thing about him and Bob Geldof, but Bono more so, is that they're in danger of sounding like pontificating twats. Bono's got to be very careful with the path he's treading. At the drop of a hat, he'll go over and kiss the Pope's hand. Well, he should be aware where that hand has been."
On paper, Lydon's comments may read like the screed of a bitter man, raging at a world that, largely, has ceased to care about what he says or does. In the flesh, however, he is warm, jolly even, with a distinct whiff of an eccentric great-uncle. You can see why a UK butter producer pays him a great deal of money to publicise its wares. Underneath it all, he's almost cuddly. Almost.
"They're fantastic," he says of the butter folk. "The friendliest people, the most professional people, the most open-minded. That's an amazing statement to make. You'd think the music industry would be the kind of thing that grabs those kind of accolades. I have found the music business to be stifling and restrictive, narrow-minded and limiting."
He was born into inner-city poverty in one of London's largest Irish neighbourhoods. His father, who died in 2008, was from Tuam, his mother from Garryvoe near Midleton. It was to East Cork the family would go each summer, staying in a tumbledown farm house with few modern conveniences, overlooking Ballycotton lighthouse.
"It was quite extreme and quite mad," he recalls. "At the time, I couldn't get used to it. It was six weeks at that and then back to the inner city of London. It used to leave me really, really confused. Years later, when you grow up and run these things through your head, you realise it fills you with quite beautiful memories."
Lydon and controversy have always been joined at the hip. In the past few years, however, things have turned steadily nastier. In 2008, people associated with the singer were accused of assaulting and racially abusing Bloc Party's Kele Okereke at a festival in Barcelona. In a statement, Okereke said Lydon became "intimidating and aggressive while his entourage responded with a racist tirade, including the statement, 'your problem is your black attitude'."
"It's hideous and really really unfair," responds Lydon. "If you say that, you don't know my background or my family or anything about me... My Jamaican grandkids were very sorely hurt by that. People don't realise that I come from a very mixed family. Anyone who knows anything about Finsbury Park should know that where I come from used to be known as the melting pot."
There was also a run-in with singer Duffy at an awards show where he was alleged to have turned the air blue and made her cry.
"The Duffy accusation... a girl jumps on my back from behind when I'm in the middle of an interview and then says I attacked her. I mean, fuck off. Show some respect."
The latest storm is over his decision to take PiL to Tel Aviv. "My songs have done more for mankind than if they were never heard," he says. "To try to put a gag order on me is absolutely missing the point. It's not the Israeli government that has invited me, it's an Israeli promoter and I will be playing to Israeli human beings, who are not at all directly responsible for the activities of their government."
He sits forwards to emphasise his point. "As a British citizen, am I a mass murderer because Tony Blair took Britain to war in Iraq? That's how I view it. 'No you can't hear my music because your government is a saucy fucker' -- that's not the way to solve anything. To the West Bank, I will be visiting. I want to see it for myself and I'll write a song about it and it will mean something and it will be accurate. And it won't be some 18-year-old arse waving a placard and calling me an apartheid supporter. It's absolutely insane, these dumb little kids that don't know their subjects properly, who don't realise they are being manipulated."
Middle East conflict is a subject close to his heart. Lydon and his wife, German publishing heiress Nora Forster, were booked aboard the Pan-Am flight blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland, by Libyan-backed terrorists in 1988.
"But for my wife being unable to pack on time, we'd have been dead," he says. "And for what? What cause could that possibly answer? Blowing that plane out of the sky solved exactly what? And now you've got the Lord Provost in Scotland releasing the main planner of it. I don't know where I stand on that one. That bastard tried to murder me. I don't care how ill he is. Lock him up until he is dead."
Lydon and PiLare one of the headlinging acts at the opening evening of Electric Picnic tonight. It will be his second visit to the festival -- the Pistols performed at Stradbally in 2008. He has warm memories of that concert, though, typically, can't resist stirring things up a little.
"I loved the atmosphere," he says. "Well, the atmosphere from the crowd. The atmosphere back stage was a little different. It was, you know, rock stars covered in vomit. I like a good drink. I don't like to see people absolutely lagging it and talking rubbish."
Didn't he moon the crowd at the end? "I don't remember such a thing. But if I did, I would think they should thank their lucky stars for seeing something so beautiful. Ha! Ha!"
Public Image Limited play Electric Picnic tonight