Tragedy, notoriety, illness and happiness have criss-crossed John Lydon’s life, but like the threads in a ripped cloth held together with safety pins, he’s a 57-year-old rocker who still hangs together.

An extraordinary intellectual with the gift of the gab, John the frustrated boy has never been an adult trapped by his “rotten” body.

Still carrying the spinal effects of a junior school year in bed fighting meningitis, he reveals his damaged eyesight means he’s always been in danger of falling off the stage during every gig.

But that’s the distilled essence of John Lydon/Johnny Rotten.

A one-man combo who has thrived by living life to the full – and on the edge.

Yet beneath the hair he still cuts himself at his two-bed, beachside home in LA is a sensitive soul with a taste for the old fashioned and people who stay true to themselves.

Despite having lived in the US for more than two decades, John’s awareness of British culture is still razor sharp.

“One of the 10,000 albums I’ve got at my home in London is a Ken Dodd album with the Diddymen,” he says.

“My mum bought it me one year for Christmas... and it didn’t go down well at the time.

“I tried to stack them all alphabetically but found it hard to read the spines because of my eyesight.

“I then realised it would be easier to find what I wanted by colour, so I’d go looking for something in the ‘red zone’.”

Born the eldest of four brothers to an Irish Catholic immigrant family in London’s Finsbury Park, John has been married to older German heiress Nora Foster for more than 30 years – a childless relationship that was strengthened, not weakened, by two miscarriages.

He would be a brilliant PR guru for anything with a bad reputation – including the Birmingham-made soap Crossroads which he loved even at the height of The Sex Pistols’ notoriety from 1976-78.

“I wanted to play David Hunter’s illegitimate son,” he laughs.

“After Meg and Sandy, having me in there would have been a right ‘whack-attack’.

“And, guess what... I got a negative response. But I would have done it in a heartbeat. Seriously.

“And it would have worked.”

John turns other city negatives into strengths, too.

“Birmingham has some of the worst dressing rooms ever, but then that’s the kind of environment I’m looking for to try to get ready.

“They bring you to reality that you are not in a five-star hotel.

“To get real so that you don’t let people down.”

Despite his reputation on it, John has always had stage fright.

“I am very shy before a show and I don’t like meeting people,” he says.

“I’ll arrive at a venue two hours early to get ready and then it’s like total panic until it stops.

“I have to create the energy to be open-minded on stage.

“After the show I’m very nice – for about an hour.”

John Lydon
John Lydon

Having always tried to play gigs in Birmingham, though, John says he is puzzled by the different reactions he gets.

“It’s a strange place which can leave me baffled. It’s like swings and roundabouts.

“But the audience of people who come to my shows are extremely varied and that, to me, is an achievement.

“And all of them know they are welcome.”

However he can’t always see who he’s playing to once he’s in the spotlight.

“Because of my eyesight I can’t read Kindles – the only screen I like is a good 54 incher,” he laughs.

“So I don’t always notice the edge of the stage. I can go straight off and into the crowd.

“But that’s all right. I was brought up on Norman Wisdom so if it happens it’s just part of the gig.

“People have paid money to see you and you don’t want to let them down.”

How long does he play for now?

“Hours!” says John. “Two-and-a-half, three...

“We like really long gigs, but fire officials cause big problems with their curfews.

“We’re still having to deal with people like that.

“Whatever you try to achieve, there will be some local officer with a clipboard, just like that old Pete Sellers film about the union guy called I’m All Right Jack (1959).”

Is he the Ken Dodd of rock then, never wanting to get off?

“Oh no... we’d only play for as long as the audience wanted us.”

Does he shower after a show?

“No, because I’m Rotten,” he laughs.

Autographs by the stage door?

“Yes, but I have to be careful. Because of the meningitis I can’t be exposed too much.

“I come off stage as sweaty as you can be and I am prone to nasal infections and bronchitis, so I have to be really, really careful.

“But you still do the gig.

“I think I’ve learned how to live through an illness and I try to eat healthily, except when I did that with vegetables I put a stone on in weight.

“When we come off stage there’s nowhere open, so you end up in a place eating pizza with a bit of pineapple on top and thinking that’s health food.”

Like many bands, John often has to tour in October and November just when the weather is turning.

“The promoters won’t put the money up for shows on in the summer because everyone’s away,” he laments.

The next gig dictates whether he spends the night in a city hotel, or has to try to sleep on the tour bus.

“Even there I have to be careful because it’s all air conditioned air,” he says.

“In the US the distances can be vast.

“The thing I treat myself to is a welder who can cut a vent in the bus so that I can breathe fresh air while I try to sleep.

“But what else could I do? I tried to work the 9-5 and was hopeless.

“Yes, we work odd hours and have pressure and tension, but you acclimatise to that so well it takes ages after a tour to wind down.

“You just can’t so it’s almost addictive.”

Rock and roll has always claimed victims... in different ways.

Sid Vicious was 21 when he died in 1979, a year after the Sex Pistols had played their last gig in January, 1978.

John had already gone his own way but he now has a legacy of survival of a different kind.

He and Nora missed the Lockerbie bombing flight Pan Am 103 simply because Nora packed late.

Sadly, his step daughter Ari Up – Nora’s child from a previous relationship, who became lead singer with the post-punk band The Slits – died from cancer in 2010, aged 48.

John Lydon with PiL.
John Lydon with PiL.
 

Now a grandfather of three children, Lydon says he is kept busy sowing “the seeds of discontent”.

“Two are twins at 30, and the youngest is 18,” he says.

So one of them might make him a great grandfather before he’s even 60...?

“That’s good enough for now, don’t you think?” he says with pride.

Family is one thing, but Lydon misses the social aspect of popping into British record stores and talking with strangers.

“Vinyl always had better sound and once CDs came out you thought: ‘They can’t make anything smaller...’.

“Oh, no! Things just got smaller and smaller and that’s such a great shame when music is a form of revolution.”

John’s hair today is less ginger, more the blond of old.

But he still cuts it himself – as he used to do with Sid Vicious.

“I have two mirrors in the corner of my room that are nearly facing each other,” he explains.

“When I put my head in there, I can just about make out where the back is.

“So there I am, a left hander looking at the negative.

“It’s not easy, but it’s like trying to do something right-handed in a rear-view mirror.

“I’m not going to pay to have it cut.”

Despite his showbusiness longevity, John says he’s not rich.

“When I lived in New York, the police harassment was far more terrifying than it was in London and they would come and raid me every week. I take that as some achievement as my working class rights.

“Everyone’s struggles in LA are purely financial – my house is just a small two bedroom thing and I couldn’t afford this in England which is outrageous, mind.

“I’m not one for Ferraris, Lamborghinis or a show-off lifestyle.

“I don’t have to be seen in a casino until 4am.

“Richard Branson gave us some serious backing, but moving from The Sex Pistols to Public Image Limited was a continuation of the same contract and they were trying to tie me down.

“But I do what I like. You either get me or not.

“So if you don’t get me, let me go.”

His cleverness and respect for honesty and plain-talking stems from having woken up from his meningitic coma not recognising his own mother and having to learn to read and write all over again.

“Mrs Thatcher?” he says as he moves on to politics, “At least you could depend on her when she started.

“And, when you couldn’t, that’s when it all fell apart.

“I always say better the enemy you know than the devil you don’t, even if she was the complete antithesis of me.

“I’d prefer her over Tony Blair any day.

“Where do people like him get the money from to live in £5 million mansions?

“From their power, their ego, their business contacts, favours, lobbying... they end up very wealthy people who can’t afford to ride on the Underground.

“Who don’t mind their children vomiting on the streets of London... and who don’t get fined like I would!”

But when it comes to musical history should John be listed among the greats? Elvis for the 50s, the Beatles and the Stones for the 60s, Michael Jackson for the 80s... and David Bowie and Johnny Rotten for the 70s?

“I don’t know about that icon building stuff,” says John.

“My life is far from over.

John Lydon with the Sex Pistols in 1976.
John Lydon with the Sex Pistols in 1976.
 

“I don’t want to be pigeon holed as that kind of thinking, to me, does more damage than good.

“Early in the Pistols we were booked to play in towns beginning with B, like Barnsley and Blackburn, where we played the Lodestar near Ribchester.

“These were venues with Teddy Boys in them... and somehow we made friends, we didn’t run.

“I was recently put somewhere between Nelson and Churchill, but they are dead. I’m not!

“I’d be like the guy in Oliver with the porridge: ‘Please can I have some more?’

“I want to be a hero of the working class.

“And I intend to carry on working until the day I die.

“I just want to live. It’s all I know.

“And I haven’t had enough of this Earth.”

* John Lydon will be playing with PiL on the penultimate leg of their UK tour at the Birmingham Academy on October 20. The Selecter are supporting. Details:
www.pilofficial.com and www.ticketweb.co.uk