John Lydon is telling me that he’s barely noticed lockdown, with Nora, his wife of 41 years. He wears a mask (“It’s about being generous. You might be contaminating someone”), but that’s about it. “Nora and I aren’t very social animals. We have friends, but we don’t go out much, so it’s no loss.” In recent years, Lydon, 64, has also been under a different kind of lockdown, caring for Nora, 78, who has Alzheimer’s. “There should be an anti-lockdown for John movement,” he says, with characteristic wryness.
We’re talking over FaceTime. It’s midday at Lydon’s Los Angeles home (which, he tells me, was built by Mae West). The former Sex Pistol and ongoing Public Image Ltd (PiL) frontman exudes spiky energy and good humour; wild hair springing over his forehead, a beer and a cigarette on the go. “I’m no good at this stuff,” he says, peering suspiciously into the computer screen. “It’s a miracle it’s working at all.”
Even when he’s not distrusting technology, Lydon has his signature intense stare – from poor vision caused by childhood spinal meningitis. The meningitis put him in a coma for months, and, when he woke up, he’d lost his memory. It helps him empathise with Nora’s Alzheimer’s, he says. “I know that feeling of not knowing who and where you are in a precise moment. It gives me something in relation to dealing with her. I can feel her pain, I’ve been through it.”
Their experiences with Alzheimer’s feature in Lydon’s new book, I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right, a collection of his “uncensored” thoughts. Apart from the odd day working with PiL, he looks after Nora (“Babbie”) on his own, full-time. He’s already worrying about not being able to take her on his speaking tour for the book (postponed until 2021 because of the pandemic). “It’s mentally damaging for her. She can’t cope with the airports, the stress, the bright lights, the crowds.” Nora requires around-the-clock care, and panics without Lydon to fill in her memory gaps. She’s burned down kitchens and fled from recording studios, convinced that people were trying to kill her. Lydon says it’s hard to find the right nurses: “She has to trust the person she’s with. Babbie has to come first and she has to be comfortable.”
It all sounds so daunting. I tell Lydon that I admire his honesty. “It takes courage, I suppose, to bring it out into the open. Thinking you can keep it to yourself, and it will somehow manage itself, it’s not the case. You’ve got to talk about it.” Lydon is militantly against “moaners”, a legacy of his tough working-class London upbringing, which he describes as “Charlie Dickens with motor vehicles”. His mother was often sick, and Lydon cared for his younger brothers while his father worked. “The main lesson I learned from my mum and dad is no self-pity. Self-pity was unacceptable.” Still, Nora’s suffering affects him deeply. “It’s very hard not to go into a tear-jerk about it. You don’t realise this about me, I suppose, but I’m quite emotional. I’m a passionate fella.”
I get to meet Nora. She unexpectedly joins us, smiling, friendly, chic, in a sundress and hat, waving into the screen and commenting on my British accent (she is German-born). I deliberated over whether it was right to include Nora in this article, but having seen her I have decided to mention her, if only briefly, because it was so revealing and touching watching her and Lydon interact, talking, holding hands, hugging and laughing. While Nora is obviously unwell, she and Lydon are playful, loving and natural, and clearly share a profound bond of trust.
Lydon can’t pinpoint the onset of Alzheimer’s (Nora was always forgetful with things such as keys), but he thinks the 2010 death from cancer of her daughter, Ariane (Ari Up from the Pistols’ punk contemporaries the Slits), was key. Before her illness, Ari was unable to cope with her then teenage sons and he and Nora took on their care, Lydon teaching the boys to read and write. He and the progressive-minded Ari rowed constantly (“I couldn’t stand all that bohemian nonsense!”), but there was love there.
“I’ve got very happy memories of Ari,” Lydon says. “I’ve got happy memories of anyone who died really.” He turns his computer so I can see a papier-mache dragon Ari made for Nora when she was 10. He’s thankful they were all able to be with Ari, singing songs together, when she died. “From then on, Ari dying, that’s when Nora started going into herself. Something so sad as the death of your own daughter, which she had to endure, no mother should go through that. That just tears the heart out.”
Lydon was always protective of Nora, and walked off I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! in 2004, when the show wouldn’t tell him she’d arrived safely in Australia (contestants’ relatives greet them as they are voted off). This was unacceptable to Lydon, since he and Nora narrowly missed being on the Pan Am plane that was blown up over Lockerbie in 1988. “The audacity of those people who wouldn’t tell me that she’d arrived safe. It gnawed on me. For a TV show, you don’t put somebody through that.”
Now Lydon is enraged when anyone speaks down to Nora: “‘[patronising voice] Are you all right, dear?’ Get out of it!” Which doesn’t mean he doesn’t get frustrated himself: “Now and again, you lose your temper and say nasty silly things, and you have to say sorry immediately afterwards, because you see it in her eyes: the confusion.”
He thinks there’s a distinction between the experience of having parents with Alzheimer’s, and couples like him and Nora, but gently corrects me when I say he’s lost his life partner. “I haven’t lost her, no, no, no. She’s going through some traumas. Bits of memories are fading, slowly but surely, and will probably all be gone eventually. But I’m making sure it’s a happy journey and not a sad one. She will never forget me, and I will never forget her, whatever else falls out of her earholes.”
This is a softer side to Lydon than people might expect. From his punk days, he’s built a reputation as a contrarian-provocateur, and in I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right, he doesn’t hold back. Among the domestic details (cleaning, shopping, feeding squirrels), the book is a polemical fireball: Brexit, Trump, the royals, his loathing of “dogma” (here, Lydon lumps together Catholicism, Islam, communism, identity politics and political correctness). “It’s to spur a conversation,” he says. “Have people talking like sensible human beings, rather than shouting at each other. I’m an individual – I think for myself – I think quite a lot of us are.”
Lydon backed Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but supports Trump (our conversation precedes Trump’s contraction of Covid) because of the economy. “I’d be daft as a brush not to. He’s the only sensible choice now that Biden is up – he’s incapable of being the man at the helm.” Lydon also supports Brexit and doesn’t seem to care if people raise their eyebrows at him as a US-based celebrity Brexit-supporter (Lydon and Nora, who’s been described as a “publishing heiress”, have a second US property, and a UK one).
In his view, the working classes have spoken: “They’re not going to be dictated to by unknown continentals.” While Lydon seems genuine, he’s not above liberal-baiting this Observer journalist. When I ask if he’s definitely voting for Trump, he cries: “I am!”, produces a MAGA cap, and gleefully dangles it in front of the screen.
Lydon co-wrote the punk standard God Save the Queen. Now he says: “My feeling about the royal family is one of sorrow. I’ve always felt they’re poor little birdies trapped in cages, gold cages, but they’re still entombed.” What about Meghan Markle? “Dreadful person. Very bad actress. But she’s in a masterclass now.” Lydon doesn’t agree that Markle suffered racism. “Stop being self-righteous and smug, that’s what she needs to do. She’s hopping on a cause. There are valid cases out there, genuine people who need help.”
Lydon appears to have started supporting Trump when the president was accused of racism. “I’ve been accused of the very same thing, so I’m offended for anybody who’s called that.” In 2008, Kele Okereke, of Bloc Party, said that members of Lydon’s entourage were racially abusive during a backstage fight at a reunited Sex Pistols festival appearance.
Lydon says he was “shocked” at being called racist. His grandchildren, from Ari, are mixed race. He supported Rock Against Racism. His first memoir was called No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. He championed roots reggae, worked with Afrika Bambaataa, and pushed Virgin Records to sign reggae acts. When I ask about the killing of George Floyd, he sighs sadly. “There’s not anyone I know anywhere that wouldn’t say that wasn’t ghastly. Absolutely! It doesn’t mean all police are nasty or all white folk are racist. Because all lives matter.”
I point out that when certain groups use that term it’s to diminish Black Lives Matter, but he thinks that’s a misinterpretation. “Of course I’m anti-racism,” he says, but adds that he won’t be dictated to by political groups or movements. For Lydon, it’s always been about fighting “dogma”. Catholicism blighted his childhood and education (“If you have no problem with the human race, then you shouldn’t be bothered about me challenging the disgusting negativity of organised religion”). We bang back and forth for a bit. Whereas once he couldn’t stand “bohemian nonsense”, he now seems to view all political correctness as irritating, self-righteous uber-leftie dogma. “My God!” he retorts. “Shouldn’t any sane person?”
OK, I’ll bite: political correctness may not be perfect, but isn’t its aim to empower and protect? “It’s taken too far, though. Death by committee, trying to slam your dictates into another person’s face. That’s not healthy.”
He thinks everything and everyone should be questioned, including himself. “If I’m wrong, I’m highly capable of correcting that. I’ve done that many times and I’ve had to. That’s why I love debate and conversation, because you learn from it. Don’t become entrenched in one opinion and get stuck there for ever.”
We scramble on to less contentious ground. I’d been wondering about the toll that caring for someone full-time takes on creativity, but Lydon seems unfazed. After several PiL personnel changes, he now considers the lineup since 2009 (Lu Edmonds, Bruce Smith, Scott Firth) to be “the proper PiL”, and he’s always loved performing live. “I feel like my true self on stage. I’m so not self-conscious.” Rejected from art schools in his youth, he loves to paint now. He’s even started taking a tape recorder to bed to catch random ideas that float past in his sleep. “I’ll have a song in my head and I’ll be dreaming it, and I’ll have my little recorder, and a thought will go in.” He says his mind never stops. “I have to be mentally busy in order to enjoy myself. I could never sit on a beach doing nothing.”
The Sex Pistols/“Johnny Rotten” changed his life (“I landed very lucky, there’s no doubt about it”), but he doesn’t want to feel trapped by it. The Sex Pistols reformed for the Filthy Lucre tour in 1996, but Lydon also did I’m a Celebrity and the Country Life butter advert (to finance PiL), and seems to prefer wearing his punk legend tag lightly. “I still have visions of Joe Strummer, poor sod. Bernie (Rhodes, the Clash’s manager) used to give them homework: ‘Sten guns in Knightsbridge – write about that!’ Joe would be scribbling notes, desperately trying to watch the News at 6. But I’m not a swotter, I can’t do things like that.” He’s amused by the late (diplomat’s son) Strummer’s working class stance: “‘[snooty voice] I’m down with the workers, bro!’ Share your life with me and we’re happy, but don’t parody me.”
Does Lydon still feel working class? “Yes, you can’t take that away. I earned those rights, I earned those wings.”
We move on to punk’s moment of darkness, when Sid Vicious (John Ritchie. Lydon’s former fellow Pistol) supposedly killed his heroin-addicted girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, dying of a heroin overdose soon afterwards. Lydon thinks Spungen was “malignant”. “She couldn’t help it, I suppose, she was just naturally poisonous.” These days, Vicious appears to Lydon in dreams, as do others who have died (his parents; Ari). “They all come into my dreams, yes,” he smiles. “In a great way, too, as regular conversations. It’s like being visited. I may be delusional, but it’s a wonderful delusion.”
What now for the very complex John Lydon? His own health doesn’t sound great. He shunned heroin because of his meningitis: “The fear of not waking up ever again was unacceptable.” However, he took a lot of methamphetamine, which left him prone to flu and pneumonia. “I go through the worst tortures. You’d think I had coronavirus. My lungs aren’t working at proper capacity. All the doctors tell me not to do this.” Lydon waves his cigarette at the screen. “But if I didn’t I wouldn’t be me. I can’t play the vestal virgin for my art. My art is the fact that I’m alive at all.”
Lydon doesn’t want to portray life with Nora as unremittingly bleak. “I’m luckier than most. The situation is more comfortable.” He thinks Alzheimer’s has amplified Nora’s true character. “She has such a good personality, that’s what’s coming to the forefront.” They laugh together all the time, dance to Fred Astaire, watch old comedies. When we finish talking, they’ll go to the beach while it’s quiet. “The weekend crowd makes it impossible. Too many people.”
Lydon never considered not looking after Nora himself. “I don’t make commitments lightly and this is my Babbie. When we decided to commit, that was it – it was going to be that way for ever.” Would Nora have done the same for him? He’s emphatic. “Oh yeah!” If Lydon put Nora into a home, “I would feel extremely betrayed about myself. People should have the right to go out with some sense of grace, not just be wheeled off. I understand that there are instances where people just can’t cope, they don’t have the capability. But at the moment, I do, and I’m doing the best I can with that. I’m actually quite happy.” He felt the same way about caring for his younger brothers. “It seems to be my nature. I’m a bit of a male nurse. I like helping.”
It’s clear that life hasn’t given Lydon anything he can’t handle. “Every problem at first seemed insurmountable,” he says. “Until one worked harder and harder at solving it. It’s a process I enjoy.”
This is love, the hard years, the big test?
“I try to say that in the book,” he says. “Everything is a test. You’ve got to solve these problems. You can’t just run away and hide, shirk your responsibility. You’ve got to meet it head-on, get on with it. Sorry, there it is. These are the cards handed to you and you’d better play the game. If you don’t want to, get out of the game, quick! Walk off.”
• I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right is published by Away With Media (£45). For details of Lydon’s autumn 2021 tour, visit johnlydon.com. The 2017 documentary The Public Image Is Rotten will be on major streaming services from 27 October 2020