‘I know what it’s like to be frightened’: John Lydon on loneliness, lyrics and life as a Sex Pistol

After 45 years of picking fights, the former Johnny Rotten is squaring up to his ex-bandmates, director Danny Boyle and anyone who disrespects the Queen. But what’s really impressive is his capacity for love

“I always panic,” says an unexpectedly anxious John Lydon. He has had the challenging task of connecting to this video call, all by himself, from his home in California, and he seems surprised that he has managed it. “I’ve got bad eyesight anyway, so I don’t know what I’m looking at.”

The 66-year-old hasn’t entirely lost that love of riling up an audience that he first displayed with the Sex Pistols. Later, I will get a dose of his current pro-Trump, anti-woke outlook. But increasingly, he is a man with a degree of vulnerability laid bare.

It is not just laptop connections he has to contend with. When we speak he is preparing to hit the road with his band Public Image Ltd and the “stage fright, rack of nerves, whatever you want to call it” is starting to bubble up again. “The worry that I will let people down, forget where I am and mug it all up.”

Was he like this in the 70s with the Sex Pistols?

“Even worse then! It was all totally new to me. But over the years I’ve realised you need to go through it, because you’re charging the batteries up so you can go out and put your head on the guillotine and prepare to be sacrificed. You can’t disguise yourself out there. No, no, no … it’s bare bones, broken heart stuff.”

Nora Forster and John Lydon in 1986.
‘Lockdown was soul-destroying for Nora’ … Nora Forster and John Lydon in 1986. Photograph: Fin Costello/Redferns

Lydon has been out of practice as a frontman, spending the pandemic not as a singer but as a carer for his wife, Nora Forster, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2018. He has been married to the German publishing heiress since 1979 and they have lived in Los Angeles for most of the time since. Forster is the mother of Ari Up, the singer from the punk band the Slits who died in 2010; John and Nora became guardians of Up’s twin boys in 2000 after she struggled to bring them up, and later her third child, too.

“Lockdown was soul-destroying for Nora,” says Lydon. “She’s always been very gregarious so she couldn’t understand why nobody was coming around, and the few that did had to have face masks on. It was very bad. But she’s absolutely fine at the moment. My family is with her now; we’ve got a nice little unity going. The whole thing is to never let her feel lonely.”

If these are not words you would expect to hear from the former snarling punk known as Johnny Rotten, then perhaps you weren’t paying close enough attention to his music. “You couldn’t write the songs I do without having some consideration for your fellow human beings. The media at the time viewed my stuff as foul-mouthed this, that and the other … no, no, no, no, it’s all from a point of empathy.”

Lydon has been misunderstood for most of his life. At Catholic school in north London he was forced to write with his weaker right hand, and despite his love of reading and writing, didn’t really envisage an outlet for it. Career avenues for the working-class son of Irish immigrants were limited, to say the least, and he was stifled by both shyness and a bout of meningitis, which wiped out his memory for several years. It wasn’t much of a childhood. “I was ill for most of it, then went from illness to work to the Pistols – no time for fun,” he says.

Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones … the Sex Pistols in San Francisco in 1978.
Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones … the Sex Pistols in San Francisco in 1978. Photograph: Richard McCaffrey/Getty Images

Was being in the Sex Pistols not fun? In little more than two years Lydon, alongside Steve Jones, Paul Cook, Glen Matlock and, later, Matlock’s replacement Sid Vicious, released punk’s defining album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, caused national uproar by swearing live on the Today television show with Bill Grundy and upended the Queen’s silver jubilee with their anti-national anthem, God Save the Queen. More importantly, they showed an entire generation that they didn’t have to settle for the life mapped out for them. Surely all that must have been a bit of a laugh?

“No, it was too hectic,” says Lydon. “Too much condensed into such a short space of time. And it was very hard dealing with the band because they were so indifferent to me. They didn’t understand what I was doing – or much care.”

Lydon was only 19 when he was spotted on Kings Road in Chelsea wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt with “I hate” scrawled above the band’s name. He was swiftly introduced to the rest of the band by the Pistols’ svengali manager, Malcolm McLaren. Lydon had no masterplan to go into music, but he seized his opportunity when it came. “The band weren’t very capable, which made it easier,” he says with a devilish smirk. “A bum rhyme could go really well with a bum note. But they never paid much attention to the lyrics so I had a free hand.”

Rotten/Lydon with Malcolm McLaren in 1977.
On the town … Rotten/Lydon with Malcolm McLaren in 1977. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images

Things are particularly sour at the moment between Lydon and his former Pistols bandmates because of Danny Boyle’s Disney miniseries Pistol, based on Jones’s memoir Lonely Boy. Lydon says he was shut out from the process altogether and, after losing a legal battle over control of the band’s music, is unable to single-handedly veto any of the decisions made under the Sex Pistols name. He is particularly aggrieved that the band that once threatened to bring down the whole establishment are in bed with Disney.

“It’s dead against everything we once stood for. The only thing you’ve got of value in your life, and you’re going to cheapen that because you want an extra fiver? Not much of a human being there.”

The way Lydon tells it, the band kept everything secret from him until they knew he was at his weakest moment looking after Nora. “They picked the right moment to stick the knife in. My weakest point. I couldn’t focus on this nonsense.”

When we speak, Lydon has yet to see any of Pistol beyond the trailer, and that didn’t impress him.

“It’s karaoke, really. The voices, the way they’re talking … it sounds like a bunch of kids from Tring, all discussing the latest calamities! That ain’t it at all! It’s so off.”

Danny Boyle recently told the Guardian: “I don’t want [Lydon] to like it – I want him to attack it.”

“Oh, how fey of him!” Lydon shoots back. “It’s disgusting, really. How can you be truthful when you don’t involve the main frontman who wrote those songs and had to take the hidings and kickings and public admonishments?”

Lydon poses for a Public Image Ltd tour photo in New York, May 1983.
Spark of genius … Lydon poses for a Public Image Ltd tour photo in New York, May 1983. Photograph: Lisa Haun/Getty Images

With his inimitable vocal delivery and lyrics that exposed the drudgery of 70s Britain, Lydon was the spark of genius that made the Sex Pistols. But perhaps the most astonishing thing about his career is that during that fertile second half of the decade he changed popular music not once but twice. In 1978, the same year the Pistols split up, he formed Public Image Ltd with Keith Levene, Jah Wobble and Jim Walker, and released their debut album, Public Image: First Issue. A year later came Metal Box, a confounding and uncomfortable collision of glass-shard guitars, dub basslines and cavernous atmospherics that was a founding document for the post-punk revolution.

“And you’d think if you were making a film about a fella like that you’d wanna talk to him,” he says, not letting it go. “But PiL is where the real stuff is. I went into real emotions and the songs became ever so personal, between band and audience. It was about reaching out for the truth … and that’s a hard thing. With PiL, there are songs about the death of my mother, my father … these are tragedies that are really hard to cope with live. But there’s the audience, looking directly into my eyes, telling me they have similar experiences and that the pain is being understood and appreciated for its honesty. It’s why I say PiL is like a church but without religion, without God.”

While Lydon is touring the UK, his brother and sister-in-law will be looking after Nora. He says his own experience of memory loss has helped him to understand her needs. “I know that fear of isolation. I know what it’s like to be completely frightened and not know where you are. And so I know how to deal with it. What frightened me was strangers coming up wanting to hug me. That was terrifying, made the whole thing much more painful. No. I just look in her eyes and she’ll find me when she’s ready and that will bring us back. Don’t be telling them to do this, do that, and don’t ask questions … let them work it out. Never let anyone think they’re alone – it’s the evilest emotion of them all.”

It’s moving listening to him talk about Nora and the things that have made her diagnosis more bearable – the two of them dancing, laughing at old comedy programmes, even binge-viewing ghosthunting shows together (“You know, clowns running around in cellars with torches … hahaha!”). His recent appearance on the US version of The Masked Singer was done for her, too. “I wanted to see if she guessed and she did. She said, ‘Johnny, it’s you!’ It was one of the best experiences of my life: how rewarding to hear her talk that way and keep her from switching off.”

The Sex Pistols at Leeds Polytechnic during their Anarchy Tour, on 6 December 1976.
The Sex Pistols at Leeds Polytechnic during their Anarchy Tour, on 6 December 1976. Photograph: Graham Wood/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He adds: “If you just wheel someone into a corner, they lose through sheer sadness. I couldn’t let that happen to Nora – or anybody, really. My whole life I can’t bear the thought of somebody suffering.”

What does he think the secret is to having such a long-lasting relationship?

“Barefaced honesty,” he replies, instantly. “First time we met, we were at each other’s throats, looking for the faults … and we found a great common ground in that because we burst out laughing. The more ferocious the insult, the more fun you get, so we just take it to absurd levels.”

What’s the worst thing she has ever said to him?

“‘Oh, you’re really nice.’ How do you ever live that down?” He bursts out laughing.

We are, of course, speaking around the time of the Queen’s platinum jubilee. Forty-five years ago, Lydon was singing lines such as: “And our figurehead / Is not what she seems.” These days, he professes to be a fan of her majesty – in fact, he says, he always was. “As a human being, as a person.”

Even though God Save the Queen said the exact opposite: “She ain’t no human being”?

“But it was about the office of queen. I resent that, but behind all those screens of state is a person and she’s managed rather bravely and wonderfully for quite some time to contain the excesses of what royalty means. It’s near its end now and the poor old dear is going to die very unhappy, so I send her my love as a person.”

Lydon at home in Los Angeles last month.
‘Working-class lad has a point of view? It must be stopped!’ … Lydon at home in Los Angeles last month. Photograph: Daniel Gonçalves/The Guardian

To hear him now, it would seem a lot of Lydon’s viewpoints as a Sex Pistol were mischaracterised.

“I couldn’t help it if the press wanted to turn it all into filthy lucre, foul-mouthed yob stuff,” he says. “The giggle was: they hate us, so let them get on with it, eat themselves alive with jealousy and contempt. What was so shocking? Working-class lad has a point of view? It must be stopped!”

Back then, Lydon said the biggest divide in society was between the classes, and he credits punk with breaking it down. Nowadays, he says, the real divide is all about politics. “There’s no understanding, no empathy for another point of view. No room for being an individual. The internet has made people so volatile! That’s why it’s easy for me to say ‘I like Trump’, and see how that kicks off.”

For the past few years Lydon has disappointed some fans with his enthusiasm for the former president, even going as far to don a red Make America Great Again cap during interviews. So was he just doing it to shock?

“There’s that element, yeah,” he admits. “I’d be a fool not to find the fun in it.” But he also seems to genuinely admire Trump, reeling off a list of his achievements, most of which you might charitably describe as being “up for debate”, before our call unexpectedly dies and I can’t find a way to get him back on.

When we catch up by phone a few days later, I almost wish I hadn’t. It’s not that Lydon’s shy about his opinions, or that he has lost the ability to deliver them with withering disdain. It is just that they are largely incoherent.

So, yes, Lydon still backs Trump. But he dismisses our own Trumpian prime minister as a “Humpty Dumpty teddy bear” who can’t get anything done. Then he does another about-turn by hitting a rather Johnsonesque note about loving flag waving and his issues with “BLM and the woke and all of that – making problems that really were almost semi-non-existent”.

After all that, he then says he has no issue at all with the fight for transgender rights – “fantastic. If as an adult that’s what you’ve come to the conclusion of, then there’s every chance you’re right” – before following up with an amusing but completely misguided story from his own youth. “I remember going to the doctor as a teenager because one of my nipples, the left one, was a bit swollen, and I panicked, I thought I was growing tits. And I think now how, in the hands of a wrong doctor, that might have changed my future … I could have been Joan Rotten by misdiagnosis!”

I start to tell him that’s not quite how it works, but he’s off on various tangents now: Joe Biden’s cognitive decline, why we mustn’t remove racist passages from old literature, his hatred of the 90s era of “girl power” … This, I guess, is your classic Johnny Rotten persona, winding up his audience, an act as old as time for him. It seems pointless to get into an argument about any of it. Instead, I think about how this follow-up call was made possible in the first place: Lydon is speaking from his bedroom, where he has set up a video monitor so he can keep an eye on Nora. “She doesn’t understand who I’m talking to when I’m holding a phone, you see,” he says, before adding: “It’s not as bad as you would think. I don’t like to mope. I’m just happy she’s there and bubbling away and her natural personality is shining through.”

This, I suspect, is where the real John Lydon resides. The rest, as they say, is just noise.

PiL are currently on tour in the UK – for details and tickets go to PiLOfficial.com. Find out more about John Lydon’s NFT project at JohnLydon.com


Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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