WHAT’S IN A PUBLIC IMAGE? John Lydon

With the North
American PiL reunion tour finally having wrapped, let’s put the group’s
frontman on the Blurt examining couch.

 

BY RANDY HARWARD

 

In 2007 I spoke with John Lydon – better known as Sex
Pistols frontguy Johnny Rotten – for Blurt‘s
previous incarnation, Harp. When
representing the notorious punk rock band, Lydon (as he prefers to be called)
knows people expect a certain shtick from him. He’s in his fifties, but we want
him to behave like a petulant child.

 

The interview was for Harp‘s “Words of Wisdom” feature, which consisted
of a short introduction followed by the interview’s standout quotes. Rotten – Lydon
– seemed prepared for it, popping off chestnuts like:

 

“Years
ago I donated my body to charity. I hope some very fine trainee surgeons have a
field day operating on the carcass. They may find out a thing or two. I’m very
sensual alive. Imagine what I’m like dead! They should sell tickets for it.
Come and have a fondle!”

 

Even as he played to type, Lydon demonstrated a sensitivity
not usually associated with “Johnny Rotten.” Granted, Rotten wept for Sid
Vicious in the Pistols doc The Filth and
the Fury
, but it’s not like he’s a sociopath, immune to grief. It’s when he
waxes philosophical, almost breathlessly, that it seems wonky. For example,
Lydon appeared on the UK
television show The Meaning of Life saying, “Life is a series of lucky, lucky, lucky moments and incidences. And
sometimes, not. But you know, when you get the chance, grab it. You too could be
a Sex Pistol.”

 

Wot?! That kind of
Oprah mush, coming from the man that told the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to
shove its accolade, ain’t just wonky – it’s pod-people freaky. We do expect the
filth and the fury from Rotten and the Sex Pistols. Nobody ever put on Never Mind the Bollocks… looking to be
soothed. It’s angry, snotty, revolutionary music. But the notion that his becoming
a Sex Pistol could be soundtracked by Steve Winwood’s “While You See a Chance,”
like it was serendipity swaddled in pink chenille, is auditory ipecac. Blecch!

 

In a way, so is the idea that beneath Rotten’s gruff
exterior lies a real person. But he’s there, and it’s more interesting to see
him in three dimensions than in two – like in Harp, when he threw sentimental grenades in among his
thought-bombs.

 

“You gotta look at life with a smile. Let’s get off this “woe is me”
stuff. I’m not one to do that. I mean, I nearly died of meningitis when I was
young. I was in a coma for four months. But you won’t get my harping on about
it.”

 

It’s not fair to hold anyone to any perception – nor is it
rewarding. ‘Peel an onion,’ they say. It’s a cliché, but an apt caption to our
picture of Rotten, the crazy-eyed guy with the pungent personality. Except
there’s no real peeling necessary with him; it’s more ‘what you see is what you
get’ and, if you pay attention, Rotten/Lydon shows a lot.

 

Speaking with Blurt in advance of a Salt Lake City
performance by his reunited “other” band Public Image Ltd., Lydon fondly
recalls a 1992 antic he pulled when PiL performed at the Utah State
Fairgrounds. During PiL’s set, Lydon gleefully pulled up his T-shirt to reveal
a bushy thicket centered on his surf shorts, and repeatedly thrust it at the
audience. The gag referenced the cover art of PiL’s then-current (and, for now,
final) album That What Is Not, and it
got big laughs. Incidentally, the song was “Acid Drops,” a screed against
censorship that asks, “What is not dirty,
what is not clean/What should we not hear, what shouldn’t be seen?”

 

“I went on Dennis Miller’s show – before he became a
Republican – and he wouldn’t interview me wearing those shorts,” says Lydon. “It’s
ridiculous, isn’t it? The world we live in.”

 

The episode involving what Miller called “Johnny Rotten’s
fannypack” frustrates Lydon. He feels the comedian misplaced his sense of humor
– perhaps due to misconceptions about his guest. It was a gag, says Lydon, who
says he prefers to inject comedy into his work because “just being nasty and
violent” doesn’t get anyone anywhere. “I don’t live in this world to make
enemies. I certainly don’t like being judged, and judged erroneously.”

 

So if we must judge John Lydon, then lets not base our opinion
on who he was in the Sex Pistols, but rather in PiL. He enjoys a lack of
“animosity” and “doubt” among guitarist Lu Edmonds, bassist Scott Firth and
drummer Bruce Smith and says with the “right blend of personalities” in the
band he feels “supported,” and that there’s “a real sense of trust.” Creatively,
PiL is Lydon’s muse – the group made eight times as many albums as the Sex
Pistols and stretched far beyond punk rock into dub, Krautrock, and musique concrete. “[Pistols] songs are
so rigid… you can’t expand them. They’re great songs, but I like PiL. Much more. Because I can express such
deeper emotions and truer feelings.”

 

And personally, in PiL, the man who told Harp “Rotten. It’s as good a name as
any, innit?” can be more John Lydon –

 

“- than a caricature. Yeah. Rotten can become a caricature,
if I’m not careful. ‘Mr. Lydon’, that’s a human being, there. Harder work, but
more enjoyable.”

 

 

[Photo Credit: Viliam Hrubovcak / copyright Public Image Ltd.
2009]

 

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