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Punk rocker John Lydon talks life, music and politics in Birmingham

Pioneering punk rocker John Lydon talks to Graham Young about life, music and politics, ahead of his show at The Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire.

John Lydon with a Japanese audience in 1996
John Lydon with a Japanese audience in 1996

Interviewing John Lydon is a bit like holding a second-hand firework – you are not sure if the blue touch paper has already been lit by his alter ego Johnny Rotten.

Just when you think Lydon has become Mr Nice Guy he turns back into Mr Angry, the default position which created his own brand of infamy in the 1970s.

Today at the age of 58, he’s still a rebel without a politically-badged cause, ready and willing to stand up to be counted for whatever comes out of his mouth.

And to live up to the title of his new autobiography, Anger Is An Energy.

The London-born son of Irish-immigrant parents, Lydon’s mentality was rewired by the six months he spent in a coma at the age of seven.

After contracting meningitis he had to relearn everything.

Waking up and not knowing who his parents were, never mind himself, taught the young Lydon to become a man of sensitive trust and ferocious instinct – an extraordinary combination which fuelled alter ego Johnny Rotten’s remarkable rise up punk rock’s slippery pole.

First with The Sex Pistols and then with Public Image Ltd, the band he’s still touring with after almost 40 years as an “entertainer”, his first declaration to customs whenever he flies back from his LA home.

“I could never put singer on my passport,” John laughs.

After perfecting his style during the hot summer of 1976, Lydon arrived in the public eye by worrying MPs with the scream “I am an Antichrist,” the opening words to the hit single, Anarchy In The UK. “I invented my own note system and my own bunch of sounds,” he says.

“I quite like them because they do reflect, genuinely, how I feel about things. I can’t do that with ‘Do-re-mi’ stuff.”

Has he had singing lessons?

“Oh yes,” he says.

“I speak from experience. It did not bode well for me or the (singing) instructor.

“I had breathing lessons from athletes and I found that more useful to me how to keep the air in your lungs for longer.

“Though sometimes you get so excited with a gig you just run out there, throw it out with the first line and then you are just winded for an hour. That’s the fun of live gigs... the energy a mass of people can give you can be really excellent. Even if it’s negative, at least it’s energy.

“Heaven forbid I ever get polite applause and people saying: ‘Oh, he’s ever so nice’. That wouldn’t work!

John Lydon doing a jigsaw, aged six. As a child he contracted meningitis and was in a coma for six months.
John Lydon doing a jigsaw, aged six. As a child he contracted meningitis and was in a coma for six months.
 

“There is a need to be an attention grabber. That’s what happens.

“You don’t put yourself on a stage if you don’t want to be noticed , it’s all about wanting to be noticed.

“Every second of your life is part of a performance one way or the other, whether you are famous or not.

“The decision about what clothes you are going to put on in the morning... that’s all about presentation.”

Anger Is An Energy tells a typical story of serendipity in how the Pistols landed the world’s most unlikely rock ‘n’ roll frontman.

That Lydon is the only member still making headlines illustrates how he grabbed opportunity with both hands.

“The very first gig was at Central St Martin’s art college in November 1975,” says Lydon in his autobiography. “I think I pulled the band through on an enormous number of occasions. The more negative the response, the more positive my reaction.”

His book deals with the lean years without record deals and some serious family issues.

“My stepdaughter couldn’t handle her kids at 15 and they became runaways and came to live with us,” John tells me.

“It was a parent-teacher association scenario, which is all right.

“One of my favourite jobs was looking after problem kids.

“Life isn’t easy and I don’t want it to be. If it is, you should be thinking of correcting that.

“Energy is good, as long as you don’t turn it into hate.

“Keep a steady helm and be fairly consistent.”

Being a fan of Arsenal is a key component of the book, with club rivalries a tribal relative of on-stage punk tensions.

He prefers the old terraced days, rather than the professorial style of Arsene Wenger, the club’s manager for 18 years.

“It’s only a game,” he says. “Of all the things we choose to be in opposition to each other, sport shouldn’t be one of them. Or music.”

And yet John admits he really wanted Arsenal to win the FA Cup in May against Hull City even though it meant Wenger would keep his job.

“I loved that (win),” he beams.

“That was hobnailed boots that one. Bang old fashioned style football, I miss that kind of aspect of it. Modern skills are sometimes like a ballet. There’s too much money for the players. You can see it. There’s no thirst for it. The only fellow showing anything for me is Wayne Rooney, he’s got that muck and boots thing.

“I find that much more inspiring than contemplating your navel in your pink bleeding slippers.”

John is also keen to comment on politics and has no time for the Islamic State (ISIS) mentality which is currently dominating the news.

“I don’t like the doctrine of ‘my idea is better than yours as that leads to people doing terrible things’,” he says.

“I like open debate.”

John Lydon's Anger is an Energy: My Life Uncensored
John Lydon's Anger is an Energy: My Life Uncensored
 

Is he religious? “No,” says John, who has been married to wife Nora Forster for more than 30 years. The only thing that can come from religion is bad. One lot will try to dictate to another lot. It’s the human condition and it leads to an explosion of violence. Violence makes problems worse and then it’s passed on to the next generation.”

Would he ever like to try to make a difference by going into politics?

“No... that’s the world of compromise and lying,” he argues.

“It really is – they are proud to be deceitful. The entire shitsdom, as I call it, would have to change.”

Shouldn’t people like him be changing it from the inside? “Well, I think the world is going this way,” he says. “We’re starting to admire each other as individuals rather than block groups.

“ISIS are fighting for some kind of medieval feudalism and that world won’t work any longer. (Scottish) separatism is not the answer but that’s all that modern politics keeps on offering us.

“Mrs Thatcher was brutal and stuck to her path – I prefer that because I can’t work with people who are ditherers or u-turners, When she did u-turn, it was very disappointing.

“England has not been a success since she tried to alter the shape of the country and eliminate the working class in favour of one big middle class. She also tried to turn us into a nation of office workers, when people have to gravitate towards what they are naturally suited for.

“Someone has got to pick up the trash, but it you think that’s going to be a Polish immigrant then that is a bad attitude to have. That’s created all manner of dissension in the country and not united anybody at all. It’s stupid – bad, cheap politics.”

From today, readers will be able to discover for themselves that Anger Is An Energy is as funny as it is tragic, as inspirational as it is a cautionary tale and as provocative as it is entertaining.

Lydon also uses it to set the record straight on misconceptions. “I wasn’t an anarchist,” he writes. “I found that the written word could achieve far greater disturbance than planting a bomb in a supermarket.

“(And) never, never, ever, ever have I preached violence.”

He tells me straight: “Look, I’ve never been shy of fighting for my rights. I won’t roll over and die. I’m not like that. I don’t want my stomach rubbed like a cat.

“Luckily, I’ve been in a lot of situations that I’ve landed really rather well in – but I’ve also armed myself well and made myself readily available for whatever life can give me.

“That’s how I continue. I educate myself as much as I possibly can and there it goes.

“I hurt nobody in the process.”

* Anger is an Energy: My Life Uncensored is published by Simon & Schuster. An Audience with John Lydon will be held in The Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire from 8pm on October 14, hosted by BBC Radio 6 presenter Matt Everitt. Tickets bought online from www.thsh.co.uk are £22.50 plus £3 transaction fee.

Here’s Johnny with some home truths on Sex Pistols

The Sex Pistols in Einhoven, Holland, in 1977.
The Sex Pistols in Einhoven, Holland, in 1977.
 

Knowing that they ultimately needed him more than he needed them, John Lydon pays tribute to his fellow members of The Sex Pistols, regardless of their differing fortunes in the long run.

“You have to make the best of a bad situation, otherwise you would never survive,” he tells me.

“When you are putting a band together, it takes a while to get used to each other but, when you do, wow, that’s a marriage.”

In the book he writes:

“My enemies are not human beings, regardless of them liking me or not, my enemies are institutions.

“Steve Jones’s approach to guitar… is borderline falling apart, which I find thoroughly fascinating. How he just manages to pull it back.

“Paul Cook’s timing (on drums) – astounding, always has been.

“(Original bass player) Glen Matlock’s negativity... makes you try harder.

“(Bass player No 2) Sid Vicious was always brushing his hair, trying to look like Bowie, and it wasn’t working.

“What an oddball. Very funny bloke, great company, but dumb as a f****** brush.

“He would lie upside down with his head inside the oven with the gas on and the heat would make his hair stiff. He once caught fire that way too. The idea of hairspray or a hairdryer never occurred to him!

“Nancy Spungen was a heroin-addicted groupie from New York who I had the misfortune of passing on to (Sid). I thought it would end in disaster, but not in the way it turned out.”

Sid, then 21, died from a heroin overdose on February 2, 1979 – just a year after the Pistols’ last gig in January, 1978.

“Yes, he’s in the book, he has to be,” says John.

“Unfortunately, I’ve lost a lot of people (in the music business) that way even if it’s a case of some becoming mental retards.”

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