I spoke to the man once described as "the biggest threat to our youth since Hitler" to learn that despite mounting evidence, John Lydon has no intention of mellowing out just yet.
“The Skinny? Oh God Almighty! You’re nicking London phrases.”
So begins forty-five minutes of impassioned, exhausting and wholly entrancing conversation with John Lydon. The artist formerly known as Rotten is keen to remind me that he’s never been afraid to “ruffle a few feathers” and accordingly, the exchange is peppered with quotable soundbytes, snippets of advice and well-aimed swipes at everyone from The Smashing Pumpkins to Radiohead (“I feel like I’m banging my head off a fucking brick wall.”), and from the Beckhams to vegans (“I’m sensible enough to realise that I’ve got two different kinds of teeth in my head, and they’re there for a reason.”).
But the man once described as “the biggest threat to our youth since Hitler” has seemed more likely to turn up on Loose Women than to destabilise the regime in latter days. He’s got a Hollywood smile to match his Hollywood home. His infamous stint on I’m A Celebrity… in 2005 was followed by a series of advertisements for Country Butter. But rather than view himself as a fading threat, Lydon considers these projects to be equally as challenging as his work with the Sex Pistols, and every bit as subversive.
“Oh God! I loved their bravery!” he beams about the adverts’ creators. “Butter: how politically incorrect for the lettuce-eaters. But you know, I like a bit of butter on me bread. I was more than pleased. I can see the good rather than the stupid pomposity of negating everything because it doesn’t seem at first to fit in to a lifestyle.”
Lydon’s articulate manner is contrary to his oft-projected image. He speaks with rapid consideration. His demeanour is more jovial than threatening. And he refuses to shrink away from any of the questions posed. His memories of reality television are less than fond, and his assessment of it is contemplative, but scathing.
Along with his wife Nora, he had been booked to fly on the fateful Pan Am Flight 103 that exploded over Lockerbie in 1988. By virtue of poor timekeeping, they missed it, but the moment has haunted Lydon ever since. An agreement was struck with the producers of the show which would ensure Lydon was informed once Nora’s plane had landed in Australia to greet him on location – an arrangement they reneged on.
“They did some very nasty things to me that I’ll never forget, and I resent them bitterly. That ate at me, because I have to know when Nora arrives anywhere on a plane. Then that bomber (al-Megrahi) being released, really raised an issue in my head. I thought, ‘Where do I stand on this?’ Someone’s dying, and yes, you are sympathetic. But that bugger could’ve killed me and Nora.”
Death and his own mortality are issues that have been playing heavily on Lydon’s mind lately. Last year, his brother was diagnosed with cancer and his father died suddenly after suffering a heart attack. The events have, naturally, had a profound effect.
“Luckily,” he says solemnly, “my brother’s cancer is in remission. But my father died. There’s nothing I can do to change that, but I can’t accept it. It’s almost like a childish reaction. I just do not see why we must cease to exist. I’m not on a great search for heaven or ‘hark the herald angels’: that’s a coward’s way out of understanding what life’s about. Life is here to live to the absolute fullest, until you get the bucket. And self pity and misery, you really should have no time for.
“I’ve seen so many people die futile, pointless, stupid rock deaths inside my own industry. And nobody seems to be telling them that it’s not an alternative. It’s not groovy and far out. It’s an act of grotesque foolishness. And ultimately you pay the bitterest prices for your self-indulgence. Death.”
Last year’s tragedies have inspired Lydon to take Public Image Ltd on their first tour in 17 years. He describes PiL as “a mental release, as opposed to The Sex Pistols, which is more of a physical release”, and the desire for such an outpouring not only inspired this tour, but also the band’s formation.
“The song Death Disco kept playing in my mind after the funeral,” explains Lydon. “It’s a song I wrote for my mother when she was dying in the late 1970s. The whole thing, it had to be resolved in my head and when I started playing the record again, I really got it. I thought: ‘That’s it... that’s why I wrote that song!’ It’s somehow a cry in the wilderness, but a release from pain. It’s one of the many ways I can describe what PiL is. It’s a release from pain… an escape almost from drug hallucinogenic monotone.”
Lydon’s pain of the past year has been accentuated by accusations of racial assault made against him by Bloc Party singer Kele Okereke. The pair were involved in an altercation in Spain last July, during which Okereke sustained severe facial bruising. Lydon, however, has been taken aback by the allegation, claiming he is fed up with the “disruption and petulant jealousy of other bands”.
“I’ve been going through a lot of pain with my family and I’m reading all this nonsense that I’m a racist. Of all the people in the world! It really, really hurts; particularly for my grandchildren… they’re Jamaican. How do you think they feel about that? I’ve deliberately kept my public image, all my life, limited. And yet this dirty arsed, Hollywood gossip is still trying to stick its claws in me. And I don’t think that’s a paranoid point of view, I think this business of behaving filthy is now pervasive in society.”
Lydon’s anger over the incident is plain, particularly in light of his previously affable nature. But as the conversation draws to a conclusion, his fury subsides, replaced by a gracious farewell and a throaty cackle. He is asked, if there is anything he wouldn’t advertise to raise money for the next PiL reunion. The response isn't long in coming.
“Tampax... how on earth would I get away with that?”
Video: PiL - Death Disco (on Top of the Pops)
Written for The Skinny