76 minutes with … John Lydon

The former Sex Pistols frontman on singing through Cilla Black's tights, modern-day anarchy and maintaining marital bliss

How are you?

Fine. Can you give me a second? I've got to wash my hands. Johnny had a poo poo. Whatever you do, don't inform the British nation that Johnny wipes his bottom.

What's the view there? (1)

I'm looking over the rooftop at the ocean. I like America's diversity and its landscapes. They haven't done a Southend or a Blackpool yet, but they're working on it. Which is a good thing in many ways. I like Blackpool's working-class, couldn't-care-less sensibility. It's just very hard to deal with the drunken women. "Hello, do you know I've got no knickers on?" Yes, I do. There was a Pistols gig there years back. Cilla Black had a residency, and on her day off we got a gig and used her dressing room. There was a pair of tights there so I put them over the microphone and sang the whole gig through Cilla Black's tights. If she wants a full re-enactment, I'm available.

You're singing a lot about England on the new PiL album, even though you've lived in the US for three decades. Do the boarded-up shops of recessionary Britain remind you of the place you left?

I hope not, that was a dreadful place. I was banned everywhere (2). I left because of police harassment. But I no longer have that feeling about England that things will be there forever. Like, pubs are great social centres but they've been replaced by wine bars that are cold and expensive. I was in Finsbury Park (3) two weeks ago. The upwardly mobiles are moving in and bringing in middle class values, which don't work in a working class community. I'm sorry, but we swear and smoke tabs. All these alleged roughhouse communities – like Yorkshire and Glasgow – have always been friendly to me. They are my people and they get my humour. All the supposed hellholes. I do well in hell.

Does living in America give you an anonymity you had lost in the UK?

Well, people don't do that annoying English thing of standing in front of you and yelling at you. They give you freedom of space. I'm in England so often I haven't really left, but Americans aren't at all like they're misrepresented through their politicians. Evangelist Republicans believe you're poor because God doesn't love you. I've been satisfied with Obama, but how can you expect him to repair in four years the damage of George Bush in eight? But no one in British politics impresses me. I could never be a member of a single party. I want the best of all worlds, thank you. The only good political movement I've seen lately was Occupy Wall Street. They had no leaders, which was genius. But unfortunately it always ends up with some hippy playing a flute.

Is Occupy a taste of the Anarchy in the UK you foresaw in 1976?

I watched the British protesters being removed from Fortnum & Mason's on TV, and police and occupiers were bemused with each other. It was like Daffy Duck's day out. It's fantastic that police are now marching against the cuts. Understand that police are human beings too; so don't be willy-nilly throwing a brick at a policeman's helmet. That's not the real target. I don't believe in anarchy, because it will ultimately amount to the power of the bully, with weapons. Gandhi is my life's inspiration: passive resistance. I don't want to live in the Thunderdome with Mad Max.

There's a line on the single, One Drop, "We come from chaos." Is there a balance – are our lives too ordered now?

The structures that successive governments are trying to place on you are definitely to the detriment of creative thinking, and it's leading to all kinds of fake usurping of that agenda, like teenagers binge drinking. For me, drinking is a social activity. Drinking until you're crawling around in your vomit isn't much of an achievement, but I'm empathic to them. It's a form of rebellion. You can accept these foolish ways or utterly reject them. And I reject! Been in jail a few times. Accidentally, I assure you.

You famously weren't arrested at the jubilee boat party (4). How come?

I got away with that, because the police stupidly asked me: "Which one's Johnny Rotten?" I fingered Richard Branson.

When was the last time you had bother with the rozzers?

They kept an eye on me at my last visit to Wembley – Arsenal v Birmingham. I don't go in the celebrity boxes, and Arsenal are my team and I'm going to stand for them. They told me to sit down. They said: "We need a reason for leaving you here." I said: "We've all got haemorrhoids. Unless you can provide haemorrhoid pillows, we're standing!"

Is football an enduring passion?

They've changed the game. We're now watching 22 millionaires kicking a ball around. Not even for a laugh. They're bored. They don't play with passion, and the new Arsenal is not my Arsenal. I haven't been to the Emirates at all. I'm a seat holder but I give my ticket to the younger lads. The atmosphere was already changing when Highbury went all-seater. Arsenal had the best song ever from a football crowd. "We are Arsenal. We sing for no one." There's rebellion for you.

Your 2004 TV show, John Lydon's Mega Bugs, showed a side of you people hadn't seen before: a compassionate animal lover.

It was a side of me I didn't think I had. The offer came and I loved it. I don't understand what makes things exist or live, where that pulse of energy is. It deeply fascinates me. I don't believe in pets. I like animals to be wild and free. But I can sit and watch an ant run up and down the floor for hours. I use a magnifying glass to look at the beautiful shape of the thing.

You famously described human reproduction – sex – as "two minutes and 52 seconds of squelching". Does it get better with age?

Hang me for my loose lips. I've learned new techniques. When you're young, you're shy and nervous. Probably entering the wrong hole half the time.

You've had a very long marriage (5). What's the secret?

Don't make decisions lightly and, when you do, know it's the correct one. Be committed forever … and when you row, make it great. After you've gone through the angry bit, take the argument into the realms of the absurd. Then the humour comes back and you know you're back on the right path.

You didn't make much music for years, but now you're very active again, with PiL. What were you doing?

Well, a lot of activity was undercover. Also, Ariane's (6) kids came to live with us when they were 14, so I took to the parent-teacher association meetings with glee. I became something of a foster granddaddy. I've always loved working with kids. The Sex Pistols gig at Huddersfield for striking firemen's kids would have been a highlight of mine and Sid's (7) career. Having a birthday cake squashed into your face by young kids? Delicious. I always don a Santa suit at Christmas. Remaining childish is a tremendous state of innocence. Kids of my own? We had a couple of tragedies when we were younger, so it was out of the agenda of possibilities and we had to live with that. It reaffirmed the bond between me and Nora.

Ariane toured with the Slits not long before she died. Did she know she was ill?

Apparently she did, and kept it secret from us. When the final days came it was horrible. For Nora, it was punishing. No mother should see her daughter die like that. Poly Styrene too, terrible. As unbearably annoying as these people are when they're alive, God you don't half miss 'em. Malcolm (8) and I were never great friends, but we did have a giggle: great arguments. It was a friendly thing to get someone's jib up, heartwarming sometimes. I miss Sid like mad. But the drugs turned him into a miserable, selfish person. Sidney always had problems, because his mother had a drug habit. It was a very tough thing to face.

You've occasionally performed with the pre-Sid, Glen Matlock Pistols lineup, but have never made any new music.

I can't write for the Pistols. Emotionally, I'd be imitating myself, so respect it for what it was. PiL is expression of freedom, and you can't go backwards once you've done that. Any new ideas go into PiL. My inspiration is everything that the human being gets up to. I don't listen to any music when I'm in PiL-zone, because influences can poison your well. Otherwise, I listen to anything. I used to think I liked Kylie Minogue until Jason Donovan said he once went out with her. That can put the mockers on anything.

Do you still read a lot?

Yes, but not a lot lately. I'm having real problems with my eyesight. My eyes have deteriorated to the point where I can't see my fingernails clearly. I hope its old age. There's always the fear it's internet porn, which would be a terrible indictment on my life.

How would you like to be remembered?

As a person who respected the rights of others, and always stood up for the disenfranchised. My family and friends will remember me as a bloke who likes a good laugh, and I don't let the bastards grind me down. Oscar Wilde turned the world upside down and was able to laugh at it, and hopefully by the time I'm 120 and worn out, that's what I will achieve. I love being alive so much. When you come out of comas in your childhood, every moment awake is a joyous occasion. That's probably where my predilection towards amphetamines came from. While you're awake, you're alive! But all the illnesses and pain made me what I am.

What's been your biggest battle in life?

Teeth (9). I've learned to use a toothbrush. All my early childhood, I thought a toothbrush was something my Dad used on his work boots. A lot of ill health came from neglecting my teeth. I was poisoning my system, which is why I felt sick all the time, and I decided to do something about it. That took five years of serious work. I've had all kinds of abscesses, jaw surgery. It costs money and is very painful. So Johnny says: "Get your brush!" Or you could end up like me. Which isn't a bad thing after all.

• Public Image Limited's first album for 20 years, This Is PIL, is out now on PiL Official. PIL tour in July/August; see pilofficial.com for details.

(1) Lydon lives in Los Angeles.

(2) In 1977, the Sex Pistols were forced to tour under a pseudonym, the Spots (Sex Pistols on Tour).

(3) Where Lydon grew up.

(4) The Pistols launched 1977's anti-jubilee single God Save the Queen by sailing past the Houses of Parliament.

(5) To Nora Foster, for more than 30 years.

(6) Nora's daughter from a previous union, aka Slits singer Ari Up, who died from cancer in 2010.

(7) Vicious, the Pistols bassist who died from a heroin overdose in 1978.

(8) McLaren, Pistols manager-provocateur, who died in 2010.

(9) In the Pistols, John acquired the nickname Johnny Rotten on account of his poor dental hygiene.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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