It’s Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, which means John Lydon, the artist formerly known as the Sex Pistols’ infamous rabblerouser Johnny Rotten, is glued to the 55” flat screen TV in the Malibu home he shared with his beloved wife, Nora Forster, until she passed away in April after a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Lydon remained deeply devoted to his wife of 44 years — who was also mother of the Slits’ singer Arri Up and heiress to a German media/publishing empire — refusing to leave her care to others.
The once enfant terrible of the ‘70s “Anarchy in the U.K.” punk era turned to music as solace, re-activating his long-running group Public Image Ltd. for their 11th album since 1978, “End of World,” out today (Aug. 11), with U.K. and European tours on tap for the fall. The veteran band’s long-running lineup includes bassist/multi-instrumentalist Scott Firth (who joined in 2009) along with ex-Damned guitarist Lu Edmonds and ex-Slits/Pop Group drummer Bruce Smith, both members since the ‘80s.
The release of “End of World” was preceded by a series of singles earlier this year, starting with the aching elegy to his wife, “Hawaii,” recounting an idyllic vacation the two once spent there.
With lyrics like “Don’t fly too soon / I need to cry in pain / You were loved,” it’s a far cry from the commonly held image of the man formerly known as Johnny Rotten, yet he remains as half-seriously cantankerous as ever, supporting the idea of Donald Trump, if not the individual, and, as this conversation with Variety shows, continuing to take contrarian positions all over the socio-political map. He remains just as lively onstage: Last summer’s Cruel World Festival in Pasadena found him mugging in a suit “wider than a barn door” (“It was my homage to Talking Heads,” he cackles).
You’re one of the few lead rock singers that consistently makes me laugh. You never take yourself too seriously.
Certainly not. If anything, it’s the Irish in me, which is always self-depreciating (sic). But mostly, it’s British music hall. You get up and have fun with people. Anybody can hide behind a mask of intellectualism. But it’s much easier to share a message with people through humor. It’s always been my route, no matter how dismal my surroundings — make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh! There’s no business like show business. It takes a lot of nerve to get up there and do this. I’m dying beforehand. You’re mentally bollock-naked when you go onstage, and that’s the way it should be. It deserves all the panic and fear and phobias that the world can throw at you before that moment. You leave your ego in the dressing room and from there on in, it’s a free-fall.
“Hawaii” evinces a newfound vulnerability you’re not necessarily known for.
This one particularly terrible situation in my life I had to deal with up front and personally. There was no other way. I had to show no cowardice when it came to respecting my loved one. Not too hard to write, but very difficult to coin the phrases so they would be poignant to her before she died. And I think I’ve got that, so there’s some joy in the grieving of it all. I’m not the only person in the world to suffer a loss, but this one hit me the hardest. I’ve lost both my parents. I’ve lost friends to stupid drug nonsense, overdoses… This was difficult. We got to perform it live on Irish TV, and Nora hadn’t died at that point. I was aware she’d be watching this with me when I came home. Very, very hard to hold the tears back. Now that she has passed, I find it easier to deal with. It’s taken seven years to watch her slowly dissipate, but I’m kind of relieved for her. And I have to not be shocked with myself for feeling that way, because everything is a minefield of problems. People will judge harshly how I approach this particular situation. The song has taken off in ways I never thought would happen. So many who have lost a loved one want to connect with us, and that’s fantastic. Because I’ve had to learn so much just to be a 24-hour caregiver. How much anxiety goes into that, and how relentless it is. But I would never give her up to strangers. I know there are other people who can’t cope with it quite the way I did. I’m not judging them at all because it was very hard, financially, too.
Are you using recording new music and the upcoming U.K. and Europe tour to channel your grief
Oh yeah, definitely. I’m sitting here alone and it’s driving me crazy. I’m sure my lovely missus wouldn’t want this for me. She’ll come on tour in my head. I need to get out and do other things and not just wrap myself up in self-pity. And the only way I know how to do that is go out to share with others. It’s always been a very enjoyable give-and-take with PiL and the audience, because we shape-shift the songs according to what I’m feeling from people. I can tell in their eyes if it’s getting in there and meaning something personal to them. That’s how it should be. Without them, what’s the point? It’s like a church…. without the religion and the hero-worship.
“Being Stupid Again” sounds like your comment on woke culture.
It’s a friendly hand — “Come on now, let’s laugh at this together,” rather than just be in direct opposition to anything that contradicts your indoctrination. The schools of higher learning are certainly turning out robotic AI creatures. It’s frightening to me they can’t bear the concept to debate issues so very important to members of the working class, which I still view myself as part of. I don’t want an “us and them.” I want an “us” in the world. Many of my friends have very different opinions about these things, but we’re friends because of those differences. And I’m finding that is being slowly and surely taken away from all of us.
You’ve dubbed yourself the Donald Trump of rock ‘n’ roll.
I’ve made that comparison, yes. When you keep pillorying, victimizing and accusing someone for so long and so intensely, there has to be a subversive methodology to it. He’s a thoroughly unpleasant fellow, no doubt about it. But he’s not a politician and I hate politicians! Screw the lot of ‘em. I’d rather have a maniac…a real estate land shark. There will be no world carrying on as long as we keep enforcing dogmas. They’re not really our own to enforce.
Are you an anti-vaxxer?
I was very worried about the vaccination because of Nora. I didn’t want her to have one because it was too risky in her condition. Of course, the authorities insisted and threatened, and she eventually got Covid. They wanted to move her out, but I wouldn’t let them. If she was going to die, she was going to die happily with me. I’m not particularly anti-vaccine. I’ve got some hopes there’s something good in it, but as the information is coming out. Trust science? I think I’d rather trust my sweaty socks. We must all make these decisions for ourselves, but let’s just have some correct information, please?
Given your history with the monarchy in “God Save the Queen,” you had a very unexpected reaction to the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
It’s a human being. That was the point I was trying to get across. Don’t agenda-ize it; have feelings. That person has family. Have empathy with them and don’t trod your opinions all over the top of it. I had a very nasty argument with the remaining Ex Pistols about that. Of course, they wanted to cash in and release “God Save the Queen.” But it’s her death: Where’s your humanity? This is how I am. Institutions I resent, but human beings, never, never…
When it came to Charlie’s coronation event, I kinda connected that to celebrate Nora’s death, like an Irish wake. Where we laugh at funerals and cry at weddings. I had her favorite teddy bear propped up on a stool and threw a coronation party for some close friends and neighbors. We wrapped ourselves in Union Jacks for 24 hours, quaffing ales. You can’t turn down a party. She would’ve loved that. In my heart, I was enjoying myself with her.
The Sex Pistols sued you over the use of the band’s music in the Danny Boyle biopic series, “Pistol.”
It was a remarkably unfair thing to do when they turned the screws on me. I felt rather set up by that. Putting me up against Disney wasn’t fair. I lost two million pounds on that, and that’s money I could have spent making Nora’s life more comfortable.
What did you think of it?
I thought they threw away the genuine, real story for this fabricated, pseudo-middle-classy twat-ism. This mockumentary shows us sitting around in the student union discussing the social issues. Fuck off. Never happened. They took three years to make it and gave me eight days just after Christmas to give it my OK. I wasn’t allowed to see any footage or comment, but they let me know it would be appreciated if I was favorable.
Shame on Danny Boyle for being that subversive about it. When it comes to real people and real emotions, he took the scallywag route. Imitation is not the greatest form of flattery. It looked like all the actors had taken ballet classes, tippy-toeing around. Just nonsense. This was a band that was a serious threat to society. Let’s not forget that. I took on all the institutions. I was called out by Parliament as part of the traitors and treason act. That carries the death penalty! How can you ignore that?
Do you have any current relationship with Steve Jones?
He’s never liked me and never will. He’s not very intelligent and doesn’t seem to know how to learn or progress, beyond basic prejudices. A very ignorant fellow. Very sad. It’s been like that since the beginning. The things he’s been saying and doing behind my back for so long, it’s pretty hard to see how I can compensate for that.
Any regrets about how you dealt with being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
None. Fuck ‘em. They hold a secret meeting to decide who gets in and who doesn’t. Get out of here! I want names. It’s an underhanded kind of compliment. It’s to suck you back into what we call the “shit-stem.” It’s like Oliver Twist, going hat in hand. “Please sir, can I have some more?’ You’re fucked! That’s my common-sense approach to it. I didn’t write these songs to turn into museum features. That’s so cold and indifferent. And I’m very much still alive, you fuckers!