Johnny Rotten: “Thank God I’ll Be in Philadelphia”

The U.K.-bred King of the Punks talks pompous pop stars, telling the truth and why the monarchy is a "waste of money."

Image by Paul Heartfield

Image by Paul Heartfield

John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, the king of the punks, lit the match for cultural revolution at age 20 when he penned the lyrics to the Sex Pistols iconic 1976 single, “Anarchy in the U.K.” and howled: “I am an antiChrist. I am an anarchist. Don’t know what I want. But I know how to get it.”

The Sex Pistols took on England’s Houses of Parliament, its monarchy and the establishment by speaking for the less fortunate who were stagnating in a quagmire of economic hopelessness and poverty. Johnny Rotten was hailed by young Brits as a cultural revolutionary. He was happy to provoke, make scenes, throw some punches and thumb his nose at the rules of convention. The MI5 declared the Pistols “subversive,” and they were banned from performing live anywhere in the U.K. But after only 26 months together, this seminal band was over. (Julien Temple’s documentary, The Filth and the Fury, chronicles the band’s chaos-filled rise and fall, including the fatal overdose by Sid Vicious.)

But Lydon didn’t go away after the band’s demise. The post-punk Public Image Ltd, known as PiL, formed in 1978 and continues today giving Lydon the freedom to say what he wants. The band’s most well-known tunes include “Rise,” “Public Image,” “Low Life,” “Death Disco,” “This is Not a Love Song,” “Seattle” — Lydon also had a big hit when he collaborated with Afrika Bambaataa for 1984’s “World Destruction.” At 59, Lydon is touring and promoting PiL’s new album, What the World Needs Now… , and this spring he published his memoir, Anger is an Energy: My Life Uncensored. The 544-page page book is riveting, profane and goes into depth about Lydon’s childhood years growing up in lower-class London and provides touching details that suggest why he became determined to never back down. He’s coming to Philly’s Trocadero for a performance on November 11th. 

We caught up by phone with Lydon who was in London on tour, where he was still taking jabs at the establishment.

Have you been to Philadelphia much?
I’m well used to Philadelphia, in fact, when PiL first went to America — because we couldn’t get booked in the U.K. — we used to drive out from New York City in a minivan, and played all the surrounding areas, including Philadelphia.

You’re playing on Veteran’s Day, November 11th.
How appropriate. I became an American citizen a couple years ago. I went for full citizenship. I’ve lived here long enough [in Malibu for the last 30 years] so I thought I’d rather become an American. I like the Americans. The country is new and exciting. It has a culture that hasn’t worked itself out yet. It’s not bogged down by the feudalism of European thinking. It’s a land of great possibility.

With all the terrible headlines in the news, what is the role of the artist in today’s world? Certainly not to be preachy. I really get angry when pop stars presume they have superior intelligence, and deem to educate the rest of us according to whomever they’ve been listening. I find it all very pompous, very self-gratifying, and ultimately it turns me off from whatever cause they are supporting. It creates more negativity. I particularly don’t like pop stars dabbling in politics. They create an ‘us and them’ agenda. In my world, we are all still friends. I have been doing charity work all my life, but don’t need to brag about it. That comes over rather offensively. I keep hearing multi-millionaires telling us what to do with our money. What I do is tell the truth of my life.

What’s the meaning behind your new album’s title, What the World Needs Now…?
It’s an open question. Each individual will have a different answer but what I’m looking for is transparency and open debate in the world, to eliminate secrecy that gives control to governments to manipulate us into ridiculous fiascos like war, which is such an enormous waste of human life. It’s a sickening tragedy with the [Syrian] refugees, and all of our politicians had to know that if you start a war, there will be refugees. They are creating these mindless situations in the Middle East. Where did they think those poor innocent people would go to avoid that devastation? You have your corporations complaining about lost economies, but the greatest loss of all is the humanity. Through the internet, in this modern world of communication, we now have the ideal basis to replace the need for government and think for ourselves as one world.

That’s a familiar rebellious theme from you.
It’s been a constant theme of my life. I’m a natural-born rebel.

interview-johnny-rotten-albumTell me about your drawing on the album cover.
I took it from Hopi tradition. It’s the trickster. Every culture has this character who mocks pomp and circumstance, assumptions and institutions. He’s the healthiest character of all, yet he’s ridiculed. You have to be able to mock others and mock yourself, and not take yourself too seriously. You get far better answers.

I know you’ve been touring in the U.K. already. Tell me about the shows on this tour and what fans can expect to see in Philly.
There’s a proper sense of community and one world, and our audience knows this. A PiL concert is a special event with an enormous variety of people: all races, creeds, colors, beliefs, all orientations are welcome. I’m not lying or fannying here, that’s the reality for us.

Will there be crowd surfing or a mosh pit?
Good heavens! Do you want me to draw you out a floor plan? There will be elephants in the foyer, a candy floss machine by the toilets. Some people love to dance, some people don’t. I appreciate both worlds. No one is here to hurt anyone else. That was always my sense of ethics from day one. We want the world to be a better place, not be a continuous disaster.

You’ve described yourself as the “Wizard of Awkward.” That’s surprising from the king of the punks. Why do you think of yourself as awkward?
I have a great sense of humor, Don’t take it quite so literally. But yes, I don’t fit in. I don’t go along with the norm. The norm isn’t working and never has, so I’m always open to corrective thinking. I want to learn. I’m open to transformation. I’ve spent my whole life searching for the right answers, but you have to know the right questions to ask. In general, most people lazily allow things to happen without questioning them.  

You wrote your first memoir in 1994. What will readers discover about you in this one?
I was dealing a lot with childhood in this one. I’ve never done that before. I endured meningitis, a childhood illness that nearly took my life. It put me in a coma for months, then stole my memory between ages 7 and 11. I’ve never mentioned it before, but that was the making of Johnny Rotten, not no music industry trick. I’ve always kept quiet about that side of my life. I wanted to be judged the same as everyone else. But I’ve finally revealed this and opened the door to the pain and torture, and my lost childhood. For four solid years, it was very painful, and that’s with me still to this day. It went into the making of me as a human being. It was great for character building actually. It may seem perverse, but it was a gift in disguise. It still sends shivers down my spine. I would be nervous just going to sleep not knowing if when I wake up I wouldn’t know who I was. As a child, it put me in complete isolation. That’s part of who I am and why I love humans. You were all stolen from me once, [laughs] and I’m not letting you go now!

You always want to speak the truth — then and now.
We were presented to the world through a media machine that had nothing but contempt for working-class people. Everything we presented would be sneered at negatively, and it is still lingering today. The media is poisonous. The record labels that weren’t backing us up then wanted to create chaos. I never spoke chaos or hatred. I was very forthright for my initial band, and the things I was attacking were not fellow human beings but institutions and those institutions judged me very negatively. It’s up to you lot to work out where I’ve gone wrong.

You famously wrote the anti-royal song “God Save the Queen” in 1979. What is your assessment of the role of monarchy today?
No opinions on it, but it’s a waste of money! It’s a very nice piece of amusing feudalism, but a waste of money. Why on earth should we pay for that when people don’t have jobs or places to live. That institution is a dilapidated poisonous anachronism of the bitter and twisted past that resulted in war and death.

This may be an unwelcome question. Sid Vicious’s girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, [the controversial and frequently despised drug addict who was allegedly murdered by the Pistols’ bassist] was from Philadelphia. If she came back from the dead, do you have any words for her?
No. [laughs] I miss everybody who’s ever died. Unfortunately none of them do come back, and if they did, well I have about two hundred thousand million people I’d want to see before her. I’d want to see my mom and dad again, of course.

My son wanted me to ask you what’s your football club?
Arsenal. Since I was 4 my father brought me. He said, ‘That’s your local club. Support your local.” That’s my working-class culture. You always support your local.

What are John Lydon’s words to live by?
Plain and simple: Just start trying to get things right and your life will improve and no more lies. And of course, with great reverence to my favorite comedian W.C. Fields, I say ‘Thank god, I’ll be in Philadelphia.’

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