As Johnny Rotten, frontman of the notorious Sex Pistols, he defined punk, becoming an eternal icon of the movement, but it was with Public Image Ltd that the genius of John Lydon became truly apparent. PiL changed the face of contemporary music, influencing bands as diverse as Nine Inch Nails, Sonic Youth and Radiohead. Maligned, imprisoned, blacklisted and banished, it hasn’t been an easy ride, but after more than 40 years in the music business, Lydon is still standing strong. And today HUSTLER has an audience with him. Given that he’s sharp as a switchblade and doesn’t suffer fools gladly, we went in with a degree of apprehension. As it turned out, our concerns were misguided, Lydon was charming, warm, good-humored and engaged …but still sharp as a switchblade.
John Lydon laughs a lot. A thick, hearty laugh that is unbelievably infectious. He’s instantly commanding. It’s easy to see why he became such a focal point for the media when he exploded onto the London scene in the late ’70s amidst a haze of smoke, spit and swearing.
Lydon’s no-bullshit approach and willingness to call people out is something that he admits stems from his working-class upbringing. The son of Irish immigrants, he grew up in Finsbury Park, a culturally diverse council (social housing) area, where early on he acquired a love of music and the ability to hold his own in a tough situation.
Lydon has used his years on Benwell Road as the inspiration for a hellish painting depicting the British class divide shadowed by a fiery inferno. This painting is now on the cover of I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right, Lydon’s new book, in which he delves into everything from drugs to fame, Sid Vicious to squirrels and, perhaps most poignantly, caring full-time for his beloved wife Nora, who is experiencing the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The pair have been inseparable for the past 45 years, and Lydon is determined to take every step of their journey together.
The book is aesthetically gorgeous: a modern art piece, filled with vignettes and asides. It feels like a free and honest piece of work, something I am curious about, given that a more standardized autobiography was released several years ago. “I had such rows with that publisher,” recalls Lydon. “They wanted to twist everything or change the language, and the same with the second book. They just kept altering it.” Forcing strict grammatical rules and telling him that certain words he was using were “not English” irritated the experimental and creative nature of Lydon’s linguistic style. “It’s so alien to us as human beings and what we know as our constantly evolving culture,” he explains. “I understand the love of language because I have that. When I was young in school, the two things I loved were English literature and poetry, but the rulebook that goes with it is antihuman.”
Giving consideration to his statement, he adds a counterpoint: “Sometimes it’s very appropriate to stick by the rules. For example, to write a song with a verse-chorus-verse format. Depending on the subject, that can be the most relevant way to get your point across, but not always. You have to be able to mix and match and fuck with traditions. It’s vital, or else the culture doesn’t evolve. It remains stagnant.”