Wednesday 15 August 2018

Johnny B Bad

He may be 57 and happily married, but don't think for a minute that the former Johnny Rotten has mellowed

John Lydon and Public Image Ltd (PiL)
John Lydon and Public Image Ltd (PiL)
Public Image Ltd.
John Lydon.
John Meagher

John Meagher

The evening before I speak to John Lydon, I watch YouTube footage of an interview he had given just weeks previously to Australian TV. Within minutes, he had gone from enjoying a spot of banter with the hosts to lambasting the female presenter, whom he accused of talking over him. The interview was drawn to a quick conclusion and the target of his tirade was visibly upset.

Thirty six years after a flame-haired Johnny Rotten burst into the public consciousness with the Sex Pistols and the Londoner would appear to be as gloriously combustible as ever. So, I would be lying if I didn't feel a sense of trepidation as I dial his Los Angeles number. How long before he loses the rag with me?

He answers on the fourth ring. And he appears doubled up with laughter. "I'm only after knocking over and breaking the coffee table on the way to the phone," he says. "There is a bit of Irish in me, after all."

He pauses for breath, then bursts out laughing again. "I'll send you the bill," he says, between guffaws.

For more than an hour, Lydon turns out to be fantastic company. He is a brilliant raconteur with impressive powers of recall. His turns of phrase are as hilarious as they are colourful.

And he doesn't swear nearly as much as one might have imagined.

Four-letter words are comparatively thin on the ground. "Cameron and Clegg," he says, suddenly, mid-way through a long conversation about the "disastrous" state of UK politics. "What a pair of c***s." Yet, there's little malice in his voice, more incredulity.

What comes across most is the sense of a man who is clearly enjoying life.

"Yes, I know people think it's batty that I've been living somewhere as ridiculous as Los Angeles for so long, but I think they've had their fill of me in England. And, to be honest, the police harassment thing was getting a bit wearying. They were going to lock me up for something well dodgy. It appeared as though my head was in a noose and I was volunteering to be hung if I stayed around much longer.

"I am – when you think about it – a very lucky old pop star. I get to do something I love and people still want to see me do it."

He is a far-from-pensionable 57.

Lydon may have come to prominence with the Sex Pistols – and remains best known for punk's seminal album, Never Mind the Bollocks – but it's his work with the more cerebral post-punk outfit, Public Image Ltd, that he looks back on with greatest fondness.

"A bit more sophisticated," he notes, with a wicked cackle.

I ask him if he recalls his two previous Irish dates – both at Electric Picnic, with first the Pistols and then PiL. "Of course I do," he quips. "It's my livelihood. When PiL played Electric Picnic, everyone was paying attention and really got into the groove of what we were doing.

"But it was a very different story with the Pistols a couple of years before that. I don't think they even grasped what the Pistols were about and I think some of them had an issue that there were St George's flags on stage.

"A number of the drunken louts actually thought we were there to celebrate the royal family – despite all I've said and done about that institution over the years. And I thought 'Oh my God, it's true – the Irish really are dumb'."

He is unlikely to experience such a problem when PiL play the fourth instalment of Body & Soul at Ballinlough Castle, Co Westmeath, next weekend.

"Ah Ireland," he notes with mock-wistfulness, "how I love thee. They locked me up in Mountjoy for being a bold boy."

Lydon was incarcerated for four days in 1980 after being convicted of assaulting an off-duty garda. He poured his resulting anger into a PiL album, the experimental Flowers of Romance.

He didn't return to Ireland until 2008, for that fateful Electric Picnic gig with the Pistols. "Part of me feels Irish," he says, "just like part of me feels British – and after all these years living over here – a Yankee. But the nationality thing can feel very boring now and then."

Lydon was acutely aware of his Irish background while growing up in working class London and he didn't shy away from painting a stark picture of his formative years in his acclaimed memoir, No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish.

"They tried to make me sing in the church choir. I wasn't interested in singing like they wanted me to. But I was interested in being disruptive and, in a way, that paved the way for the Pistols. I needed an outlet for all the anger that had built up inside me."

His contempt for the Catholic Church would be expressed in the track Religion (I and II) from PiL's debut album, First Issue.

In words that would prove prophetic with the subsequent clerical abuse scandals, he asked: "Do you pray to the Holy Ghost when you suck your host? Do you read who's dead in the Irish Post? Do you give away the cash you can't afford?"

While Lydon had no problem sticking it to the establishment – not least when he was goaded into swearing on live television by the presenter Bill Grudy – few could dismiss his views if they paid his words proper attention. And, more than that, he captured that sense of disenchantment that many felt in the hard-hit Britain of the 1970s.

His anti-monarchy stance – encapsulated by the fury of God Save the Queen – would provide much of the soundtrack for Queen Elizabeth's silver jubilee in 1977, even if the BBC shied away from playing the song and record shops refused to stock the single or album.

He was struck by how "desperate" many of his contemporaries were to celebrate the monarch's diamond jubilee last year, including Madness who played a gig from the roof of Buckingham Palace.

"Yes," he drawls, "their behaviour was very – how shall I put it? – strange.

"I've just never been able to accept an institution whose members are seen as supreme beings that we must genuflect to – and they have done so much damage through the centuries. I suggested some years ago that we sell off the royal family to Disneyland and I got shouted down for it."

He despairs for the lack of true rebellion in song today. "I don't see many kids making the sort of statement the Pistols made back in the day.

"They're too interested in their video games and whatnot to get under the noses of the establishment. And it's not like there is a shortage of home truths to write about, are there?"

The most recent PiL album, last year's This is PiL, offered a jaundiced look at contemporary, Tory-run Britain from a man who has lived in LA for 25 years. "Sometimes, I feel like an outsider when I go back," he says. "And maybe that helps me see the problems there more clearly."

Lydon may continue to be a provocateur, but he is highly traditional in other ways.

He has been married to the same woman – German publishing heiress Nora Forster – for the past 35 years. "When I say something, I mean it," he says. "When I say I love someone, I love them for all eternity.

"They can say what they want about me," he adds, "but nobody – absolutely nobody – can say I'm disloyal."

Public Image Ltd play Body & Soul next Sunday. Tickets are still available

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