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.