“When I say we aim to please ourselves, that’s what I mean, quite literally”: And we wouldn’t have it any other way. The punk and postpunk icon hocks, er, speaks into the phone for the BLURT readership about his PiL, his music industry travails, his record collection, and his “joyous empathy” for the world around him.
BY MIKE SHANLEY
John Lydon takes the stage at Pittsburgh’s Altar Bar, on Nov. 12, to a roar of applause. Host to everything from dance parties to the touring punk icons (Mission of Burma once played here too), the space is an appropriate venue for the former Mr. Rotten, considering it was once a church. But more on that later.
His outfit [see photo from show, below] could be an antiquated, black-and-white striped outfit worn by a convict. Or it could be pajamas. His salutation to the audience keeps that open to speculation. He doesn’t tell us to fuck off. No sneers from this bloke either. In a put-on, basso profundo voice, he declares, “I have diarrhea. I hope the Imodium works. Please bear with me.”
Thanks, John. Good to know. Or are you putting us on?
It doesn’t matter because, with that out of the way, he turns warm, if cheeky. “Good to see ya,” he tells us. After putting on his glasses, so he can read the lyrics on the music stand in front of him, he adds, “Now I can see ya!”
The current lineup of Public Image Ltd., in place for about the last six years, features original member Lydon, along with drummer Bruce Smith (once of the Pop Group and Rip Rig & Panic), guitarist Lu Edmonds (the Damned, the Mekons) and bassist Scott Firth. Fans of the band’s early days, when Jah Wobble created dub-influenced bass lines to support Keith Levene’s icy guitar lines and Lydon’s yowl, shouldn’t be disappointed by the group. In concert, Firth’s low-end rumble threatens to rattle the building’s foundation. During an extended version of “Religion,” from 1978’s First Edition, Lydon yells, “Turn up the bass,” repeatedly. My nasal passages feel it, as the soundperson obliges. Edmonds does a good job of taking the Levene-style guitar and building on the chorused-out sound. Smith could incorporate some of the punk-funk-jazz stylings of his previous groups, but his timekeeping is impeccable.
“Religion” sounds especially blasphemous tonight. The remnants of a cross on the wall above the stage — a throwback to the space’s previous incarnation — only adds to it, as Lydon chants, “Here come the priests,” repeatedly. (Think about it too hard and it starts to sound really creepy.) “Why should I call you ‘Father,’” he says to no one in particular as the band starts the heavy riff. “You’re not my daddy!”
Along with a few other vintage cuts like “Death Disco,” the set leans towards What the World Needs Now…, the band’s latest album, self-released after Lydon’s years of litigation with some of PiL’s previous labels. While it might not feel like Metal Box, the new album explodes with the same kind of raw energy that marks the highlights of the PiL catalog. If “Bettie Page” might not seem like a deep song, well, neither was “Albatross.” And both were fun.
Lydon’s bout with the runs isn’t slowing him down tonight. He’s pouring his heart and his voice into the performance. So you better believe that he expects a good reaction. He occasionally raises hands aloft, like an arena rocker who wants 110% from his fans. When the reaction isn’t loud enough, at one point, he taunts us: “You can be that quiet when you’re dead. And if you follow my example that’s a long way off.” Aside from a few too many mid-tempo tunes in the middle of the set, it’s a fun time.
A few weeks prior to the band’s visit to Pittsburgh, Lydon graciously took time out for an interview. The key word here is “graciously.” (A colleague at the daily newspaper wasn’t so lucky, since Lydon hung up on him, the second time this has happened to him.)
Although he’s now a US citizen (who praised the Affordable Care Act, which allowed him to fix his once-rotten teeth, during a World Café interview), he was back in England at the time of our chat. Earlier this year, Lydon published Anger Is an Energy: My Life Uncensored and did a spate of interviews, which revealed a reflective man, who even teared up as he recalled a childhood bout with meningitis, which left him in a coma and forced him to relearn how to talk. He stood firm during our talk but he devoted his attention to the conversation, even though it coincided with tea time.
JOHN LYDON: ‘Allo, Pittsburgh. I was expecting you. Well, sort of. The times got a bit changed ’cuz there’s daylight savings time in Europe. [You have a] fun town. Gonna be made even more fun once Public Image rolls through! We aim to please. Actually, we aim to please ourselves. Hopefully that translates further down the line. It’s the difference between us and other bands. Other bands compromise or go for the popular vote or the current trend. We’ve always been above and beyond that kinda nonsense. So when I say we aim to please ourselves, that’s what I mean, quite literally. Cuz we love creativity.
BLURT: In your current shows, are you playing old songs too?
Yes. A very healthy mix-and-match, which changes according to the mood of the evening sometimes. We do the best we can. Sometimes some songs, you know, they’re not right. You can feel it in the crowd. My best general way of approaching it is, if I can connect with the eyes of people looking at me, then I know what’s truly empathetic or way out for them. I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.
I never thought I’d ever hear you say that, John.
Some of the songs are rather tragic. And there’s no need to keep piling them on. You can see when people need a spot of— um… joyous empathy. And we’ll shift into something that will do that. This is what we do: connect with my human beings, not ignore them. That’s not at all the same as pandering. And you’ve got to be kind to your fellow human beings and realize we can’t all be on the same attention span at the same time. Some of us, including meself, are slower than others!
In listening to some recent interviews with you, you seem really on top of your game.
Well, when it comes to words, I’m happy, but don’t ask me to count. That’s one of the side effects of childhood illness. The mathematical side of my brain went right out the window.
[Calls to someone on his end of the phone] Sugar?! One or two? [Returns to our conversation] I’m doing the tea as we speak. My friends are all very, very lazy people! They must have been getting it from watching me watching Tv. Such is my influence in life!
In recent interviews, you’ve come across more openly than you were in the past. Have you been misunderstood all these years?
Well, I reckon! Deliberately so, from day one, don’t you? I mean, initially the outburst was, “Oh, dumb working class kids, what do they know about anything?” Then bitter resentment when they realized I actually had opinions that kind of meant something. To outright negativity and continuous hostility.
But at the same time, while I’ve been learning to smile in the face of adversity, there’s also been some people out there that started to pay attention, people from early on who understand what we really do. And so in life, it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. And if you expect everyone to love you all the time, then you’re a very, very foolish person who’s going to really have a miserable life. So there it is.
It’s better to get on with it. l learn that people by nature — this is why I love us all — we’re just born fucking awkward. It really is just a question of square pegs and round holes. We’re meant to be that way. That’s what character is. “I will not conform.” “Oh go on, John. Why not?” “’Cuz I won’t!”
I don’t need to adhere to other people’s rules. Those rules are not applicable. The only thing that makes sense to me is to not step in another human being’s space. Do not steal from them. Do not interfere with them. And as long as others behave the same with me, we’re going to have a very, very good life.
Do you feel like you were forced into being the voice of punk rock?
Forced?! Well, was there anybody else who had anything to say? Not that I know. Don’t mean to be a big head about that, but quite frankly, it looked to me that a load of people were behaving more like coat hangers than singers. Really not much lyrical value going on.
But that’s my thing. I had all this childhood illness to get out of. And the fact that I remembered how to speak and read and write again, I’m just thrilled with that and I always will be. That was the gift of that illness. That it gave me the thirst for knowledge.
And punk rock, or whatever you want to call it, it’s just like any other form of music. 98% rubbish.
The 2% is rising to the top.
And that’s where my record collection is, oddly enough. I’ve got 2% in every category and genre. And here I am visibly resenting categories and genres. So let’s just go for the 2%ers, shall we? I love my vodka slightly stronger.
Back then in the early days of the Sex Pistols and PiL, did you know [current PiL drummer] Bruce Smith when he was in the Pop Group?
Oh yeah, yeah, as long as I’ve been in music. We all started around ’78, ’79. It’s the same with Lu. And the newest member is Scott. He’s been with us five-and-a-half, six years or more. It feels like he’s always been there. We’re very tight with each other as friends. It absolutely shows in the music. I mean I’ve dealt with adversity and I’ve dealt with animosity and all them dark places. And I think I’ve dealt with them quite well. It’s intriguing to me [that], at this stage of my life, I have to deal with fun and joy. Well, you know, [chuckles], all good things come to those who wait.
Was it weird to realize it was fun now?
No. It took two decades of the record companies stopping me working [sic] and stifling me and telling me I owed them so much that I couldn’t perform until I put money against the debt. That’s really — coming out of that — the doldrums to my way of thinking, that was. And surviving that, there’s where the real joy and love of it is. I knew I’d have the patience to outwait that. As soon as I raised enough, indeed I bought my way off of them labels and here, we have our complete independence. And I’m back together with me friends. In the right way.
I suppose Jesus spent his time in the wilderness. [Laughs] I hope he didn’t waste it! I don’t want to make no comparisons, here. But I’m not planning on heading to me execution, mate! So let’s get that one right. One crucifixion is enough! [Below: PiL recently on the Stephen Colbert show, presumably not being crucified]
So you were in battles with the labels the originally released PiL?
It’s just the way the situation changed inside record companies, the emphasis shifted from artist development into accounting. And once the accountants started running the show, it all became about being in debt. There was no future. And this is why they collapsed or fell apart or had to rebuild and reshape in the way they’ve had to. They lost their true love and insight into what music was all about. And we all suffered for that.
I’m not the only band that did. Many, many bands have gone under because of it, and it’s a shame. It’s a shame that the term “reunion” is now sneered on. Well, hello! These bands were denied their own careers by these labels. It’s not a reunion – it’s a reclamation, where they belong!
Speaking of the term “reunion” I have to ask if there’s any chance that…
No, no, no, none of that. No need! That would be 10 steps backwards for me. [For the record, I was going to ask him about his PiL mates Jah Wobble and Keith Levene, and not Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook.]
So when you look back on the days of Metal Box, what are your thoughts?
It’s played ever so much better now! [Laughs.] Don’t ask me to be bitter. Indeed, I have no bitterness for any of… regardless. They’re all my friends. But I can’t go back and work with certain members because their wage demands and ego trips were just so far in excess of reality, it’s impossible to even consider their names in the same sentence as me now. For me, they shared an amazing lack of gratitude and behaved appallingly. Good riddance. Love ’em forever but good riddance, and take your egos with you. You’ll never be on the stage with me with that attitude. I’ve always played fair and equal. I don’t expect to be rubbed aside because of somebody’s swollen head. And that’s the truth of it. So can we move on?
How does songwriting work with the current band?
We’re very open in the way we write. It’s free flowing. But it’s based around the principle of live music. The instruments are always on, the microphones are turned on. Everything is about that live sound.
[He coughs and expectorates over the phone.] Sorry. You know, I am a singer and I will hack. It’s funny — the first thing to go is not the singing voice, it’s the talking voice. I lose the normal register, but I can squeak extremely high.
How do you maintain your voice? Do you drink lemon juice?
Oh yeah, I love all that stuff. You have to be careful when you’re on the tour bus. It will give you what we call “Botticelli.” And you’re not allowed to poo on the tour bus. And sometimes if it’s a really bad case of Botticelli, [kind of singing] you have to hold it in your pants till the truck stops! And that’s very painful indeed if it’s lemon-juiced based. It’s slightly too acidic.
That covers everything I wanted to ask. Is there anything you wanted to say that we didn’t touch on?
For me, I just talk with people and you do what you want with it. I’m just glad to have a conversation, really. So thank you!
[Another loogie has seen the light of day]
Wow! [We both laugh.]
I would like you to inform an audience that I never aimed that at another human being. I have a bin! That was another thing that them early journalists got wrong: implying that we liked to spit on each other. Sorry – no. I don’t know such foolish people!
He signs off with what sounds like a tongue-in-cheek Irish blessing: “May ye scatter, batter, flatter and chatter,” in which a brogue comes out. At Altar Bar a few weeks later he does something similar. The band kicks encores with a strong version of the song “Public Image,” and follows it with “Rise,” the closest thing that band has had to a hit on these shores, and something of a blessing that he bestows on all of us.
Above, watch somewhat fuzzy/bassy, but still not bad, video clip of the 11/12 Pittsburgh “Rise” performance. And then, go HERE to read an additional live review of PiL’s current tour, from Nov. 20 in Colorado.