John Lydon: ‘Without punk I would have probably become a drug dealer’

The former Sex Pistols and PIL front man, 61, on Brexit, losing his memory and picking his nose

I know what losing my memory feels like. I caught meningitis at the age of seven and couldn’t remember anything for a few years afterwards. It’s the thing that scares me most – losing my memory again. As a child it was tough. But as an adult, I don’t know if I could take the loss.

Without punk I would have probably become a drug dealer. That’s what everybody else in my area [Holloway, north London] did. Of course, I would have liked to have become a teacher. Or a rocket scientist.

I was running a minicab service by the age of 10. Just booking the cars on the weekend. I’d not long come out of hospital and it helped sort me out. I was looking after mad Irishmen and even madder Jamaicans. It must have been appalling for them thinking that a 10-year-old was booking all their appointments, but I never screwed it up.

The perfect Johnny Rotten was being moulded from an early age. I’m left-handed, but my Catholic school wouldn’t accept that. It was seen as the sign of the devil. I was made to sit alone in the corner, because I couldn’t learn how to use my right hand. I should have been a very angry young man!

I’m very shy. At school I wouldn’t want to ask to go to the toilet. I’d sit there until, well, you’d get a poo-poo explosion. What can you do? It was very Victorian the way they ran Catholic schools back then. You had to wear shorts in winter. Diarrhoea was common because we were all so cold.

My worst habit is picking snot out of my nose. I do it with tweezers, a magnifying mirror and a torch. I get very dried boogers up there.

I was angry when Scotland released one of the Lockerbie bombers. We were booked on that flight, but because Nora [Forster, his wife] couldn’t get the suitcase packed in time we cancelled it. Everyone who knew us thought we’d died. We didn’t, but it still affects me, really seriously, deep down.

I got attacked as a Sex Pistol, but everybody gets attacked. The things that hurt the most are when you get attacked verbally. Words can be incredibly damaging. They can hit you in the soul, in places you thought were private.

Brexit was the voice of anger. And it hadn’t been acknowledged for a long time. I think it’s an incredibly open-minded decision to want to go it alone. I would have voted to stay in, but you have to maintain an open mind: we’ve got Brexit, so let’s exit.

Permanent arguments are the secret to a happy relationship. I’ve been with Nora for more than 35 years and we are open and honest about everything. My advice is simple: Don’t. Let. Things. Fester.

My parents were never worried for me in the Sex Pistols. My mum would say: “Oh that’s Johnny, he won’t be telling no lies.” They had complete trust in me. I never went on holidays with them from a young age so they knew I’d be capable of looking after myself.

I’m not as emotionally dead as people would like to believe. Things upset me and I cry. When I see children suffering on TV, it really gets to me.

Mr Rotten’s Songbook is out on 31 March. For more information, go to


Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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