That a person could be in two hugely influential bands is rare enough, but John Lydon also became something of an icon for punk rock and experimental music. The Sex Pistols were instrumental in bringing punk rock to the attention of people worldwide, whether they liked the music or not.
Regardless of whether or not the significance that style of music and its attitude translated well outside the social context of late 1970s England, the Pistols made it seem both repellent and revolutionary, and Lydon was the band's primary spokesman.
As articulate as he has been provocative for his pointed but poetic honesty, Lydon was able to more fully express the musical ideas swarming in his imagination with post-punk pioneers, Public Image Ltd. All but defunct for nearly two decades, PiL came together again late last year for a string of shows, followed by its current world tour -- bankrolled, at least in part, by Lydon's unlikely stint shilling for Country Life butter.
We had a chance to speak with Lydon at length about his Country Life butter ad, as well as his humor, the legendary Judge Judy episode in which he appeared as well as the dark side of celebrity, when you dare to speak your mind beyond vapid platitudes.
Westword (Tom Murphy): Does it make you laugh to see that Country Life butter ad you were in?
John Lydon: I don't watch that kind of TV too much. I'm really proud of what I did. And, shock, horror, I actually do eat butter. And the idea of promoting a homegrown, British product made me feel rather proud. They treated me extremely well, and the money has helped me reform PiL.
I have no record company backing, to speak of. I'm seriously looking to go to pastures new, and with a bit of luck, this tour will make that clear to a wider audience. It's not been easy dealing with record companies and their lack of involvement over the years. They've done some really negative things on me.
I released a solo album a while back, and they kind of buried it. They absolutely showed no interest in even bothering to mentioning it existed. So it's made my life rather tough. But I'm me; I'm John, and I smile in the face of adversity.
WW: I always thought you had a fantastic sense of humor and did things to amuse at least yourself. What sorts of things amuse you the most these days?
JL: Well I've learned to laugh at funerals, haven't I? That's the Irish way. My dad died last year. That kind of helped push me into reforming PiL because I wrote the song "Death Disco," which is about my mother's death. One thing lead to another. How is this about laughter? I'm sure my dad would laugh like mad to see me crying my heart out on stage. And hopefully my mother too.
Joy and sadness are all kind of interrelated. The work I do, and the way I experiment with emotions in songs, definitely is teaching me that. Public Image, I think, go through the full gamut of human nature, and hopefully survive at the end of it. It's a roller coaster ride but anger requires just as much involvement as love.
Why waste it on the negative side of life? If you can't laugh, it's not worth it. In fact, this is my problem with most intellectuals: They seem not to require humor, and therefore, I think they miss the point. Whatever it is you're analyzing in your head, if it's not for the benefit of others, it's not worth it. When you lack humor, you lack empathy. What a dismal thing to have to have discovered.
I'm not judgmental on people. The only person I come down hard on is myself. If I don't do the best thing I can on stage, I'm bitterly, bitterly despondent. Then again, that's like time to sit down and write a song about it. I use everything I can in life. My songs are always about people in situations that directly involve me. From time to time,, I like performing other people's songs, but not as a rule. You can hook on to one or two samples from people here and there, and I don't mean sampling, just in case some twit out there misreads that -- "Oh! Johnny samples!"
Well you have to be careful. You do, it's a minefield. And with me, it seems to be, probably because the way I am, maybe I inspire it, but I'm over analyzed. Sometimes negatively, which I think is grotesquely unfair and disrespectful. I don't have to do this, and I do this, and I think it's for the benefit of people and not to their detriment. I try to tell it as close to the truth as it can possibly be in a song. That's sometimes personally very hurtful.
WW: Sometimes people can take it the wrong way.
JL: And do. I didn't know what my mother would think when I told her I was writing a song about her, because she was dying of cancer, and I told her it was called "Death Disco." She laughed. She was in a hospital dying of cancer, and she laughed! That's how it should be. Like we were saying, many people lack that fundamental humor. Too politically correct with themselves, and that's a dangerous thing. People who go for the jobs of politicians, they lack humor. They're dictatorial, and there's something missing in their brain. They become very destructive toward the rest of us.
WW: How did that Judge Judy episode make it to TV instead of being handled outside of a television program?
JL: My god, that there! That was a shock horror. It's because the person accusing me of assaulting him was a rather spiteful piece of work. Rather than trying to settle it a normal way, he wanted the TV coverage. He was being a musician. He'd seen the launching of a career.
I thought, "Well this is whack!" I've been accused of that being a fake and setting it up myself. That whole show -- I mean how mad can it get in life? And there it is. This alleged black belt karate expert is accusing me of beating him up. It was a complete fabrication. It really is hilarious because I'm well known for being a pacifist.
My hero is Gandhi, and yet, this kind of nonsense keeps creeping up. In America, being what it is, it's very easy to make an accusation here. It's not so easy or financially viable to defend yourself against that. It really is quite severe, and I have to watch myself when I tour or do any kind of work at all. I'm going to keep myself well-shouldered from the false accusations, and that is harming me, and it definitely is getting in the way of me being in contact with the people coming to my concerts.
Because I like to go out after. I like to sign autographs. I like to talk to people. I like to know what they thought, what their feedback is, because that's the payoff of all of this. It's communication with human beings. But you have to be so wary of that one lunatic fringe element in there that can spoil it, and there are so many of them, and they just keep coming out of the woodwork.
There's a stalker element in it too and you can never please them. Because their goal is destruction. It's a sad element of life. It's one that's very difficult to deal with but the system itself seems to protect them. I think you should be made to prove an accusation and not throw it out there willy nilly and destroy someone's life that way. It's so easily done, and it can be so easily stopped. But then again there are those that actually do commit those terrible crimes and they need to be stopped too. It's up to all of us really. Gandhi is probably spinning in his grave.
WW: I remember reading your autobiography, and I struck by how very candid it was.
JL: You mean No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs? You know, I was called a racist for that title.
WW: Do you mean people didn't get that that was a sign that used to appear in the windows of businesses? Or that you're Irish?
JL: Yeah, no. It's so twisted, the world. They just want to put a bad label on you. Freedom of thought is seen as disruptive by very many. Particularly by those who don't know how to think. That book, of course it's candid. That's me. That's my life. And there it is warts and all, and there are people in there contradicting me, which I think is essential.
That should be considered part of human nature. If you put three people in a room with one situation developing, all three of them will have a different interpretation. Each one equally valid and every possibility of being widely different. What's the difference between what is and what you assume? There's a delicious world of exploration in that. It's absolutely rewarding, I would be thinking, as my book explained.
WW: What do you think there was in Johnny Rotten Loves America that was too much for US TV?
JL: Ooh! [laughs] I think the fact that I actually do. I mean, many people do do these kinds of shows, but to my mind, they keep doing them wrong. There was one recently with Stephen Frye -- now he's an intelligent man, but in many ways, he likes to throw his intelligence at you, and it comes over rather superior. And I think that TV series he did, he didn't get to know anybody. It was almost flippant.
But he certainly didn't understand the South. He got that everybody is rather nice down there, but he still doesn't really understand the history of this country. He did the history of the Civil War. Still easily led by that idea that it was a war of freeing the slaves and all that nonsense, which it actually was not. You still have to explain to me how Lincoln's wife was the biggest slave owner in America -- all these contradictions. And how long it took black people to get a vote here.
Stop talking that Confederate flag is a racist flag. If you're going talk that, then talk about how all slaves were brought here under the United States flag. I just want the truth of it. Of course there's bad in it, there's bad in both sides. But you're never ever going to solve a country's problems until you stop lying about any of it. And particularly in history, which is the favorite place for liars to manipulate.
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It should be the one absolute where facts have to be checked. Otherwise we're just shooting into space with fanciful fucking opinions. That's not helpful. I was brought up in England: the Civil War there is a minefield, in terms of who did what and why. So I'm fully aware of what the problems are of finding out what happened in history. But basically, everybody got it wrong. And it's about time we all got it right. Any time there's a war required, that's everybody getting it wrong.
WW: What can we expect out of the shows on this PiL tour?
JL: Live, we're going to be playing the full range of PiL, every area and every aspect of it. And I might put in a few songs off of Psycho's Path, my solo album, because we've been messing about with them, and they sound great live. Leads it into all kinds of terrain and texture and wonderful fun. Make the road rise and peace off! Cheers.