John Lydon and His Rotten Past

Public Image Ltd. frontman looks back on Sex Pistols, Sid and the punks he inspired in a hilarious, surprising Q&A

John Lydon, who just released a new memoir called 'Anger Is an Energy,' onstage with the Sex Pistols in 1978. "The name 'Johnny Rotten' was hilarious," he says. Credit: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns/Getty

John Lydon, the man who horrified the world in the late Seventies as Sex Pistols ringleader Johnny Rotten, is in an especially good mood today. When Rolling Stone asks how he's doing, the 59-year-old singer exclaims, in a dry, British snarl, "I'm alive!"

It's a fitting reply since today's subject happens to be the entirety of Lydon's life. The singer has just published his second memoir, Anger Is an Energy: My Life Uncensored. The 500-page-plus monster covers everything from his youth in London's Finsbury Park neighborhood, where he survived a bout with meningitis at an early age, to the decades he has spent fronting post-punk experimenters Public Image Ltd., who are putting out a new record likely this fall. Where his last book – 1994's Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs – focused mostly on his time in the Pistols, the new tome places his whole life in context in his own, often-hilarious words.

"If anyone is even the slightest bit interested in my life, here's the research rather than the hearsay and fabrication," Lydon says of why he wrote it. "It's really unpleasant when someone else has rewritten your life for you. It's one of the bad perks of being unpopular and infamous."

With that, the singer opens up about all the uncensored details of his life so far, including memories of Sid Vicious and Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, as well as "smiling in the face of adversity" with PiL. But perhaps most surprising is just how silly he is about serious things and how he doesn't harbor ill will over many of the bad experiences he has survived. When Rolling Stone offers to help him set the record straight on his life, he rejoins quickly and wittily: "The records will be circular."

You had a rough upbringing. What was the hardest part of your early years for you to revisit?
When you lose your memory at age seven [from meningitis], it's pretty disappointing. It took many years for it to come back properly, but that's where my unwillingness to take a lie from anybody comes from. I so desperately depended on what adults were telling me between then and age 12.

It's a bit like re-programming yourself.
It is and it's a bloody strange thing to spend an important part of your childhood analyzing yourself and finding out who you are and what are you. But it hasn't made me bipolar.

When did your parents begin supporting your music career?
Oh, that took some time. I was a naughty boy [laughs]. I'm laughing at it now, but at the time it was all a struggle. My mum particularly knew that she could trust that whatever I was going to do was going to be right. They never grasped it initially. "You can't say those things, Johnny! They'll lock you up." [Laughs] Well, they tried to lock me up.

When you have the facts on your side, everything's easier.
Yeah. And I was being discussed in the Houses of Parliament. "Were [the Sex Pistols] traitors or treasonous?" I did a little bit of research on that at the time and they were looking to enforce such an old law that it carried the death penalty. I mean, how far are they going to push this against me? For me at the time, I could see the fun in it. Now people have started to question things like the monarchy. It was very important.

You do love the Royals.
I've got nothing against them as human beings, personally. It's just the system itself is bleeding the country dry. I just see a profit margin [laughs].

This year marks 40 years since you've been making music. . .
Is that all? God. It just seems like yesterday.

What did you learn about yourself from poring over your life story again?
That I didn't learn too much. How short life is and you best cram in as much as you possibly can. Once you're gone, you're gone and that's it. I'm doing things to the best of my disabilities. I have humor about it. There's no morbidity in it. There's no self-pity or whinging or any of that, 'cause that's incredibly unhealthy.

"Who the fuck needs a Lamborghini when you can have a Volvo?"

One thing that might surprise people is how you recall things so light-heartedly.
Yeah, well, it's important to not wallow in it and get on with it. Whatever I do in music is now really a part of my life. I got into it very early and I never looked back. That's the greatest thing that ever happened to me, and the Sex Pistols was wonderful for me. What a great start. My God. Arguments and all, everything. It was a real crash course in how to survive in the modern world.

Is there anything you wish you'd done differently with the Pistols?
No, 'cause hindsight is of no use. That's how it unfolded. I was lucky enough to be somewhat capable of writing songs for the first time ever. Animosities aside, the whole situation thrilled me. Rehearsals were great, [but they were a] place of incredible embarrassment. Still to this day, I don't like rehearsing because I'm very, very shy about that. But once I get into it and I loosen up, well, then you can't stop me yelling.

You've got to get past yourself.
Yes, the fear of letting people down. Same with concerts. I'm like that still. Before a gig, I'm a bag of nerves, something wicked. Can't eat, can't think, can't talk, just stressed out to the max, but I've found out stage fright, it wasn't just my special illness: it's what most people suffer from. Different ways of handling it, of course.

Some people deal with stage fright by taking drugs. In the book, you talk about doing speed, cocaine, heroin. How did you keep all the stuff from ruining you?
I view drugs as recreational, and I don't like them in the workplace. They clash severely. I learned that very, very early on. I tried to discipline that out of myself and actually enjoy being onstage. I don't want nothing to wreck that vibe.

You've probably seen the effects of drugs first-hand enough, too.
Ohhh, yeah. Haven't I? [Laughs] There but for the grace of. . .I could have quite easily slipped into that. There's too much self-respect, I suppose.

Sex Pistols' guitarist Steve Jones gave you the "Johnny Rotten" nickname because of how your teeth looked. Why on Earth would you let that stick?
Because it was funny! "Johnny Rotten" was hilarious! [Laughs] I didn't see any insult with it at all. I said that was great, yippee-ay-oh.

There was a time when you couldn't use the name.
I was going through a [lawsuit] with the management of the Pistols and they were claiming ownership of my nickname. That's the kind of childishness that really unraveled something that I thought was rather fucking special. And all the childishness really came from the management. It's a sad thing, but sometimes adults let the kids down – not the other way around.

Back to the topic of nicknames, what did Sid think of you naming him after your hamster?
Again, he thought that was hilarious. That's the kind of people we are [laughs]. You don't take these things too serious. There's no self-aggrandizement going on. If you're going to be dealing with the name Sex Pistols, you're fucked if you're gonna be taking it serious [laughs]. It's a shockingly silly name.

It's better than the band's name before you joined, "QT Jones and His Sex Pistols."
Yeah. [Sex Pistols] was a ridiculous name but it really gave us a good place to springboard off of. It was like, "All right. I'm not gonna write no love songs, this is the Sex Pistols."

"Sid's personality changed and shifted into a selfish, drug-hunting fucker."

There's a point in "Seventeen," where you sing, "I'm a lazy Sid." Was that just taking the piss?
Yeah. And it's absolutely true: Sid was very, very lazy. He had no white, Anglo-Saxon protestant work ethic [laughs]. You'd never call Sidney a W.A.S.P. [laughs]. He never learned anything. And by all accounts – people like Lemmy [Kilmister of Motörhead, who taught Sid bass] would tell you this – he had no aptitude for music at all. It's just kind of curious why I brought him in the band. It must've been some self-destructive element going on in there, but you know, I never had any [musical aptitude] until I started. And I thought, "Well, that's how it will work. You'll find your way." He got all the postures dead right. He could stare in to a mirror forever.

What do you miss most about Sid?
His humor. He was very, very hilarious, sarcastic. He loved to imitate people. And he could really put them down on it 'cause he was very, very good at it. I suppose it's that English comedy thing that he instinctively had, but that all went sour when the drugs came in. The personality changed and shifted in to a selfish, drug-hunting fucker.

You described his drug phase as zombie-like in the book.
Yeah, well, that's my impression of heroin addicts. I don't understand it at all. It kills passion completely. But it also kills fear and nerves, so you're trading one off for the other.

Did you try to stop his addictions?
Tried, yeah, but it was too difficult because his mother was a registered addict. It was like it was written in the cards. Although he would watch [his mom] when he was young, and know that that was the wrong thing, but I think fear took over. I didn't really know how much to tell him anything at all about handling fear and a lack of self-belief and doubt, 'cause I had all those problems myself. I don't suppose I was doing too well at the time.

How did you work past your own fears?
We were under an awful lot of pressure, all the time. Just being analyzed, continuously – and wrongfully a lot of the time. There was a lot of hate written, and it all got very much out of control. There was no support for any of us, except trying to support each other, and that didn't work too well. I always thought the management was trying to drive a wedge in between us, because indeed that's exactly what happened with that "us and them" mentality.

You said in the book that Mick Jagger helped out Sid when he was charged with murder.
He suggested a lawyer and got involved in that way, and that was all kept very quiet, so a great deal of respect to Mr. Jagger I have for that. He shows a good heart. . .Under Mr. Flamboyant himself, he's a person.

In the book, you explained your famous statement at the Pistols' final Seventies concert – "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" – by saying the band had become a betrayal of what you started out as.
Yeah, that was directly aimed at the management. The way the band was falling apart, there was no communication with Steve and Paul [Cook, drums]. They just wouldn't talk to me. And likewise, Sid was off in his delusionary frame of mind, and Malcolm was backing that and the whole thing became grotesque. The isolation of it, I tell you, deep loneliness on that American tour for me. But I loved the songs and I loved being onstage. They were just not very interested in doing things properly.

"I don't want the Pistols to end up like Kiss."

And the rest of the band wasn't interested in your new song at the time, "Religion," which you recorded with PiL.
Well, I can't blame them on that one. They had no real experience of it [laughs]. It was obvious that I was off to pastures new at some point. And we all knew this, but we fell apart for I think the wrong reasons. We didn't make that decision ourselves. It was taken away from us and just all fell apart. Very, very sad. And that's why years later, we'd do some work together but I couldn't write for them at that point and I still won't. For me, I've knocked it on the head and there's no going back on that. You just have to move on.

It's quite odd. I get on really well now with Paul. Now that we're not working, we can be mates [laughs]. And I think I value his friendship more than being in a band with him.

You wrote in the book that you'd reached out to him as a friend after the Pistols' last tour and hadn't heard from him.
No, I've talked to him since. We're still arguing over merchandise deals and what should the front of a T-shirt [laughs]. I don't want it to be ending up like all that Kiss stuff you see at the seaside towns, the endless bad knockoffs.

I noticed you left your reaction to Malcolm McLaren's death in 2010 out of the book.
Oh, that was terrible. I was really upset. Listen, I may have not liked the man, but I absolutely appreciated his space on Earth, annoying though he could be. Over the years, me and Malcolm had some of the greatest rows that we both kind of looked forward to continuing. It was a healthy disrespect for each other. And I miss the death of anybody, enemies or not. It's something that I don't get to grips with too easy in my life. I don't know where they go and I don't want them to go there.

After the Pistols, what were your goals with Public Image Ltd.?
I wanted to get away from attacking institutions, which was basically the job I allotted for myself when I joined the Pistols, and I just wanted to experiment inside my own head. You can't change the world if you don't change yourself first. So that was the ambition of it all. Very utopian in many ways but that's basically how PiL works.

No two PiL records sound alike either.
There's no need for them to. There's a great deal of conversation that goes into things, which gets everybody on the same page.

So what was it you wanted to do with your second album, Metal Box?
The confusion of the Sex Pistols' court case is still running rampant at the time. I wanted a different mentality. I wanted to challenge people. We weren't limited by structure. In the Pistols, it was a mentality of verse-chorus-verse-chorus–the end. Everything short, sharp and sweet. PiL? Well, we had no limits in that respect. The biggest limit, of course, is when you present the record company with 20-minute songs [laughs] on triple-albums. They found it very hard to like what I was getting up to. But you're only given one chance in life. Metal Box was the right thing to do at that point.

I'm sure then-Virgin president Richard Branson loved "Albatross" being the first song on Metal Box and running 10 minutes long.
[Laughs] I doubt it very much. But in hindsight he might have a different opinion, because he did sign very many bands after us that were moving in a very PiL-like way. It's always the first one out of the gate whose head they want to chop off, isn't it? [Laughs] I suppose the executioner's block is as good as anything I'll get in life.

You wrote the album's "Death Disco" for your mother, when she was dying of cancer. In the book, you say you played it for her, but you didn't include what she thought of it.
It very, very much moved her. It was like nothing she'd ever heard, but she knew I was screaming in agony, looking at her and couldn't be telling her, "You're gonna die." The whole thing is just so difficult to do live, but we still take it on. And every night it's different, and then there's the added bonus of my dad's death [in 2008] on top of it. And when both parents are gone it's remarkable how lonely you feel in the world. I miss them very much, and I miss particularly not being to say all the things I always wanted to.

What would you want to say to them?
It's your fault, not mine! [Laughs] Why wasn't I born in to a wealthy family?! What the fuck is this all about? Was I switched at birth? [Laughs] Am I the illegitimate heir to the crown?

Wouldn't that be an irony?
[Laughs] Wowzers. Ah, that would be so unbearably funny.

Around the time that you did Metal Box in 1979, you were auditioning for Quadrophenia. How was that experience?
I got on really well with Pete Townshend around that time, too, and indeed always will forever and ever. There's a man who does help people. I failed the audition, but that doesn't matter. It was a good enough thing to ask me to do, and I love that. And I got the idea for the film canisters for Metal Box from that. 'Cause they gave me my audition reel in a big metal can. Ah, fuckin' hell, that's fantastic! Not according to the record label, though.

Also in 1979, Neil Young released "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)," which was about you. You tried to get him on your Rotten TV show, but I don't think you've ever said what you thought of the song itself.
Well, I've always loved Neil Young's music so you know, like, wow. One of my all-time favorite albums was [1975's] Zuma. It's so close to collapsing [laughs]. I really loved the mood and tones he puts into songs and, uh, so there that comes along.

"This is the story of Johnny Rotten."
Oh, hilarious! I wanted to know what it was about. "The king is gone but not forgotten?" King? [Laughs] Gone? [Laughs] Well, it helped lurch him back into a career there somewhat.

You assembled some impressive musicians, including Ginger Baker and Steve Vai, for your 1986 release Album. Why didn't you credit them?
First, we call it "Album album." I didn't want to be rude to anyone, that's why I didn't list any credits. I didn't want anyone to feel that they were gazumped.

You wrote that the label was most surprised to find out who was on it.
Yeah, after dropping me [laughs]. Egg on face! But there we have it: The lack of foresight in large record companies, it was always alarming. But I missed their demise oddly enough, because there was something there for artist development. There was some good sides to it.

So you liked being on a major label then?
No, they hindered me, but through that hindrance, I found great comfort and joy [laughs]. I'm not one to sit back and go, "Oh, what's the point of it all?" To quote Shakespeare, "I smile in the face of adversity." Sometimes you need adversity actually, it is a very useful tool, like anger.

"Rage and anger can be very useful tools."

You dedicated a good portion of your book to your wife, Nora. What's your secret to a long-lasting relationship?
Bloody good rows. And then no secrets. Just say it like it is and clear the air. Some of the times, it's dreadful and shocking and hurtful but, the way we are, we always end up laughing. It's just a screaming fit and leading into hysterical laughter. How absurd a row could be. Actually, how enjoyable and refreshing. That rage and anger can be very useful tools. That pent-up anger and aggression and a wallowing in misdemeanors – that's the road to ruin.

Getting back to music, toward the end of the book, you wrote, "The one thing I hate the most about what I do – having to listen to the influence I’ve had." Do you feel punk has gotten stuck?
It's very much become a coat-hanger's nightmare. A lot of bands are coat hangers: just put a leather jacket on over the hanger and stand there. And I don't like rigidity and uniform anyway. For me, punk was everything. We'd grab everything and have everything and share the world, not isolate ourselves.

I always thought your vision of punk was individuality.
Yeah. And the treasure of course of four or five individuals in a band being able to combine and find a common ground. That's incredibly rewarding, while not losing your individuality. For as long as it works. When a thing stops working, you stop it and you move on. Don't get comfortable.

Many bands have covered "Anarchy in the U.K." over the years, especially American metal bands like Megadeth and Mötley Crüe. Do you think they "got" it?
I don't think they did it any better than the original, and I don't think that's me being too precious about it either. No, listen, heavy metal understood us, oddly enough. Although the fan base resented our music, the bands themselves liked us. And surely that's all that counts in the end.

Do you like Green Day?
No, I've never been a fan of them, I just don't understand it. I think it's kind of a tinny, two-bob version of something that was far deeper and carried more significance. And, uh, that for me, as a band, they're not very significant. They're a mélange. They're closer to Billy Idol than myself.

This year they entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Did they?! Oh, no doubt they took that [laughs]. Itchy fingers [laughs]. I don't keep up with those kinds of things, so I wouldn't know.

You dedicated the book to integrity. What is the worst lie you've heard about yourself?
That this is all some kind of an elaborate joke that I'm practicing on humanity. There was implications in the British press years ago that I was having a laugh at their expense. Well, no, I'm not. This is a damn expensive laugh to be having if that's the case. I've invested my entire life into this, not to mention my money, too. Everything goes into PiL. Everything. It's the center of my universe and I love and adore it and I won't let it ever become corrupt. I'm doing my utmost to maintain a purity, so integrity it is.

It doesn't seem like you've gone off to live an opulent lifestyle.
I'd be just too bored with that. Who the fuck needs a Lamborghini when you can have a Volvo? I don't need to impress in that way. You couldn't say that Mr. Rotten is a summation of his purchases – that's not him. You can find me in my music.