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‘I won’t let the bastards grind me down’: John Lydon on grief, feuds and being an unlikely optimist

‘I won’t let the bastards grind me down’: John Lydon on grief, feuds and being an unlikely optimist

There’s a term for people that live in Malibu – they’re called Malubians,” claims a cackling John Lydon. “It sounds like something that has to be cut off at an early age.” The artist formerly known, in his Sex Pistols days, as Johnny Rotten is speaking from his California home and seems ecstatic that we can hear and see each other on our Zoom call. “I am so fucked up with technology,” he laughs. “I’m as blind as a bat.”

Lydon, 67, is looking well, though, decked out in green specs and matching pullover, with his signature vertiginous hair teased into a quiff. The well-worn jumper was a gift from a fan “in either Bradford, Barnsley or Bolton; one of them”, who asked for it to be passed on to his late wife, Nora Forster. “It was very sweet. She can’t wear it now, so I wear it. It’s not about the monetary value, it’s the thought – that’s priceless.” His love for his fanbase feels completely genuine. On the wall behind him are a Samurai sword and an Afghan dagger given to him by diehards when his band Public Image Ltd (PiL) played behind the iron curtain decades ago.

Next month, PiL will release End of World, their first album in eight years. The promotion for it, along with preparation for an accompanying tour this autumn, has come in the midst of profound grief for Lydon after the death in April of Forster, his wife of 44 years. “It hurts so deeply,” he says. “It’s hard to get to grips with but I don’t want to let her down. That’s not healthy for me, or her, or her memories. So, I am gonna try and throw myself into working – as far as I could throw myself, considering my weight,” he adds with a laugh.“It’s an uphill climb, but I’ve got to get there. I’ve got to find myself again, because in all of this you can’t end up losing yourself.”

‘Don’t look for clarification in claret’ … John Lydon, photographed in his house in Malibu.
‘Don’t look for clarification in claret’ … John Lydon, photographed in his house in Malibu. Photograph: Dylan Coulter/The Guardian

Sadly, some online trolls, described by Lydon as “savage kittens”, have mocked his suffering. He cites one particular comment along the lines of, “Well, that’s what you get for marrying an older woman.” But this low form of viciousness just seems to bounce off him. “Funnily enough, whatever they meant by that, I found it heartwarming. That’s my nature, to make the best of a thing, not the worst.”

As much as he may be a glass-half-full type, Lydon has never been afraid of being candid about his shortcomings. Take his account of his recent struggles with alcohol. “I went through a rough time and gained some weight,” he says while nursing an alcohol-free cider. “Don’t look for clarification in claret. There isn’t any.”

Last November, Lydon also lost his former bandmate and PiL co-founder Keith Levene, also an original member of the Clash. Lydon had not seen Levene in “eons” and his memory of him is littered with the challenges that Levene had as an addict. “People will take this wrong, but the endurance you had to have to tolerate his drug habits was kind of overwhelming, and I can’t really separate that,” he says. “There were great moments when we were friends, but he really got into [drugs] just too much. It was a great pity because he never had much time to reflect outside of the haze he was in.”

End of World has been in the works since 2019. During that period, Lydon has not only had to deal with Forster’s worsening condition, but also a high-profile court case involving his former Sex Pistols bandmates Paul Cook and Steve Jones (Lydon was successfully sued by the drummer and guitarist after he had attempted to prevent the band’s music appearing in Danny Boyle’s Disney-backed TV series, Pistol). “It was pressure, on pressure, on pressure,” he says. “You never really get a chance to sort yourself out before some new inflammation turns up, like a boil on the bum! But with my irrepressible nature, I won’t let the bastards grind me down.”

After PiL initially swapped ideas over the internet, the End of World project really kicked into gear when the band – former Damned guitarist Lu Edmonds, ex-Slits drummer Bruce Smith (who both initially joined in 1986, left after a few years and rejoined in 2009), plus multi-instrumentalist Scott Firth, on board since 2009 – got together in a studio in the Cotswolds during the lockdown-free periods of 2020 and 2021. Lydon refers to the band as “a gaggle of mates … When we get together, our ideas just flow from that. I needed to be away [from Malibu] in order to write these songs properly. You have to make the space. As human beings, we all need those logical avoidances of daily problems.”

I ask about one new track, Car Chase. On a literal level the song tells the true story of a friend of his who has been confined to a psychiatric hospital for “his own good” and has tried to escape on numerous occasions. But the core of the song, he says, is “about excessive self-importance and the oblivion of that. Mainly through technology, people are beginning to think of themselves as the centre of the universe.”

This leads Lydon to bemoan a society where individuality is being strangled – a familiar critique of his. “It’s a rulebook that doesn’t accept questions,” he says. “It kills free speech and all creativity. The concept of equality has become the equally mundane. Don’t strive, don’t step out of your box.” On the spot, he comes out with a line that he says he may use as a future lyric: “If we create, we will irritate the state / And the state will eradicate all ideas that differentiate”.

As with its lyrics, sonically the album is typical PiL, its songs’ relentless rhythms interlaced with jagged guitar. There is one striking exception, and that is the tender Hawaii. The song came from Lydon hearing Edmonds fooling around in the corner of the studio. “[He] was playing Hawaiian guitar for a laugh,” Lydon says. “I thought: that’s so excellent.” The song would eventually be dedicated to Forster. In early February, just two months before his wife’s death, Lydon unexpectedly premiered Hawaii during Ireland’s contest to decide its Eurovision entry (Lydon has Irish heritage). Unfortunately, it finished fourth out of sixth. It was a difficult experience for Lydon. “Playing it for the first time was so hard for me,” he says. “I shed more tears for her before she died than after. It was that build up to her death, and that’s what that song is absolutely full of.”

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As well as his California home, Lydon maintains a place in the UK. He still loves British culture and retains movie and TV DVD collections in both locations. He reels off some of his favourites: Steptoe & Son; The Lion in Winter with Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn; the I, Claudius TV series with Derek Jacobi. It is fitting that Lydon has such a love for these classics of the 1960s and 70s, seemingly simpler times when art and culture were not at the mercy of rapidly evolving technology.

Quizzed on his views on the ever-increasing impact of AI on the arts – a much-discussed topic at a time when America’s actors have gone on strike in part over its use – Lydon becomes animated. “Who’s in charge and who’s feeding the information and giving the guidelines to these artifices?” he asks. “What or where is the moral code? It has infiltrated young people’s minds now to the point of total domination. What will this create?” His solution? “My advice is make small steps against this – and get that fucking Siri or whatever out of your house. It will ultimately make decisions for you, and that’s very dangerous.”

Sex Pistols
‘They are still stuck in my mud tracks’ … Lydon (second right) with the Sex Pistols and their
manager Malcolm McLaren in 1977.
Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images

He nods to that very public fallout with the Pistols, saying that there is another brand of AI at play. “It’s misrepresentation and the rewriting of history done so casually. I’ve got to deal with real human beings doing that, let alone artificial intelligence taking over. That’s the other side of that coin.”

One new track, LFCF (standing for Liars, Fakes, Cheats and Frauds), is an unapologetic dig at his former bandmates. Lydon sings: “I was willing and I was waiting / You cannot do what I do, so I left you / Give yourself a story, empty of history, wrap it up in Mickey Mouse … I love it when you slate me / But you cannot fake me”.

“The only way to deal with this is to be direct and don’t be coy with the words,” Lydon says of the song. “But also, make it somewhat of a comedy. Let’s face it, when I went on to form PiL, the world really, really noticed. They [Cook and Jones] don’t have that capability, and they are still stuck in my mud tracks.”

For all the indignation at his former fellow Pistols, Lydon’s passion for music – and PiL – burns as brightly as ever. “We’ve never limited ourselves to this tiny little universe called revolutionary punk rock,” he says. “It’s the wonderful world of sound and noise. If I could have a volcano exploding as a fifth band member, I would, but it would be very volatile.”

For all the bluster, it is clear that Lydon has a vulnerable side. He constantly battles with stage fright, describing it as “the scariest thing in the world. I’ve been given the gift of being able to go and do this kind of stuff; well hello: here’s the slings and arrows of this outrageous fortune. I would much rather have it than not, but the fear of letting people down is overwhelming. I don’t like to be misunderstood and there’s classic examples of me being misunderstood throughout my entire life, and judged harshly. Sometimes, with a tad too much jealousy and vindictiveness.”

John Lydon
‘It’s like going into a strange pub where everyone is inquisitive and friendly’ … Lydon on stage with PiL in London, 2022. Photograph: Jim Dyson/Getty Images

Some would find it difficult to have much sympathy. It could be argued that Lydon often brings it on himself. Take his oft-cited support for Donald Trump, which many long-time fans cannot comprehend. Lydon remains highly critical of Joe Biden and the Democrats: his latest gripe is over Biden’s unwillingness to take part in a debate against other Democrat nominees. While this isn’t an uncommon move for sitting presidents, Lydon sees it as a concern. “This is very dangerous stuff because this is walking us completely into dictators, where you’re not allowed to question someone who wants to tell you how to live your life,” he says, before pivoting back to his AI bugbear. “An artificially intelligent Joe Biden would be quite an issue. I find life quite hilarious.”

After the PiL shows, Lydon will head out on a spoken-word tour across the UK next year. He says he thrives on this two-way interaction with audiences: “It’s kind of like going into a strange pub where everyone is inquisitive and really friendly, and at the same time prepared to tell you their stories. It’s a good trade-off and completely rewarding.”

And with that, by way of a signoff, Lydon gives me the V sign, and launches into an uncanny impersonation of Lance Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army: “Peace … and if you don’t like peace, you can peace off.”

End of World is out on 11 August. PiL’s UK and European tour starts on 8 September in Sheffield; John Lydon’s Q&A tour starts 1 May in Brighton.

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