“The greatest gift you can give to any other human being is to tell it exactly like it is.” – John Lydon
John Lydon just might be one of the most truthful men in music, as he’s seriously made a living out of being honest. As frontman for the Sex Pistols, Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) used his now infamous vocal sneer and anti-establishment attitude to help ignite the British punk movement, a retaliation against the fakeness and commercialization of music in the late ‘70s. Lydon continued as the voice of rebellion in his post-punk band, Public Image Ltd (PiL). And recently, he even found a candid way to do a tv ad. As the spokesman for British Butter, the flame-haired contrarian simply appeared as himself, earning a check that freed him from label debts dating back to the Pistols days. Now with This Is PiL, the band’s first album in 20 years, Lydon runs the show with his own label, PiL Official. Below, John Lydon talks to The Aquarian about music, liars and so much more:
The commercial you did for Country Life Butter helped you re-form Public Image Ltd., fund a reunion tour, and subsequently, record This Is Pil, the band’s first album in 20 years. Can you talk about that experience?
It came along at a very good time in my life. It was an incredible campaign to work with people that didn’t lie to me. The money that spun from it helped me break away from my record contract and re-form PiL in the rehearsal mode. It helped us finance ourselves independently. I’m still paying back money owed to record labels, but the crippling side to it is gone. And now we’re able to earn the money from our live performances. So what we’ve done is funded our own label. We’re finally free of the shackles and chains.
Let’s talk about the record. On “Human” you sing, “Who are your leaders/ They’re not good enough for you.” You’ve talked a lot about leadership over the years…
That’s because politics has become the art of compromise.
What makes a good leader?
Well, I don’t see compromise as an approach. And I don’t see dictatorship and complete 100 percent belief in something to the detriment of truth to be beneficial either. I tend to attach myself to people who think clearly and leave room in their thought process for other thoughts in the future. It’s like the American Constitution. It should be a constantly changing, shape-shifting thing. If you’re going to stick to something written two centuries ago, you’re stuck two centuries ago.
You often defend the voiceless and disenfranchised. What makes this role important to you?
My respect for my fellow human beings. I will defend to the death, probably, anybody’s right to say what they believe in. But if they start to turn around and think I should believe in what they believe in, that’s when they become my enemy. I’m all for open debate on all issues. In my own life, I expect to learn from the thought processes of others. When we share our thoughts we make each other better people automatically. Or you can just be stuck in a position, which is a terrible thing that America is suffering from now. You’ve got democrats and republicans both completely entrenched in the rulebook. There’s no common logic, except compromise, which is unacceptable. What I want to see is the rules and manifestos thrown out so that common sense takes over. Where the practicalities of day-to-day living dominates. Compromise doesn’t do that. Compromise means you’re giving up something that’s vital to you as a person.
What does the line, “We are teenagers/ We are the ageless” in “One Drop” mean to you?
That I can’t accept generation gaps. I think that it’s a ploy, a marketing device, unfortunately perpetrated by my good friend Pete Townshend (laughs). I’m always ragging on him for that. And there’s another line he has, “Hope I die before I get old.” Well now he’s old (laughs). But there [are] no 60 year olds. It’s all in the mind. Once you decide what the proper path in life is, you’re boundless and you’re not cracked down by such restrictions.
Our country does tend to age people before they’re ready.
And some people are actually late developers. Some people take longer. Others come out of the starting gate screaming and yelling and shouting. But sometimes that can be vacuous. It all has to have meaning and context. On this planet we’re all in it together. We really don’t need any class divide. We don’t need any racist divide. We don’t need social divide. And we certainly don’t need to be ageist.
You recorded This Is PiL in a barn in the English countryside. Was that a nice change of pace?
I’m not exactly out of place in the country. Loads of periods of my early childhood were on a farm in Ireland. So I do recognize one end of the cow from the other. We could have recorded this in a city but we needed to break away from that. I didn’t want my sole ideas to just be about traffic jams. When you put yourself in an environment like that, where there’s nothing but quite literally 20,000 sheep for inspiration, you tend to analyze the subject matter that you want to deal with in a more correct way, because your environment is cleansing you. But it isn’t always going to be that way.
Sometimes I will require a city for writing or whatever. A change is as good as a rest. Plus, it was cheaper than any studio in town (laughs). There are financial restrictions and burdens here. And it requires stamina from us to put our own writing together and to try and formulate this into a viable business project where everybody would be paid on time. It’s complicated. But it’s not impossible. We proved this to ourselves, and hopefully the world, that it can be done. You know Public Image isn’t just the band. It’s all the people that work with us right down to the crew. We view ourselves on equal footing. There’s only one rule we have and that’s, “Don’t lie.”
What does truth mean to you?
Transparency, I call it: You should love and respect the people you work with and I learned that when I was a child. I had a terrible illness where I lost my memory. I had to rely on the fact that what adults were telling me was the truth. I didn’t even recognize my own mother and father. I believed them when they told me, even though I didn’t recognize them. So any adult who lied to me in that period, I’ve never forgotten. And I’ve never ever spoken to them since—aunts and uncles and things that would tell you a lie when you so so needed the truth. So that’s my mantra in life. And that’s what I sing all these songs around. They all come from that place. That need to be honest with each other. And it needn’t be difficult. It’s the most rewarding thing. The greatest gift you can give to any other human being is to tell it exactly like it is. Even though sometimes that might make you look bad. But you know if you make a mistake, fess up to it. Honesty is its own reward. It comes from the soul. And that’s what these songs are and always have been in PiL. They’re from the heart.
How did a second chance at life after illness change you?
I’m eternally grateful for coming out on the other side of a life-threatening illness and still being alive. Yes, it is like a second chance. And with that in mind, that’s why I so love anything that’s alive. That’s why I’m not a violent person. I never could be. I don’t know what the pulse of life is, but when I see anything—an ant, anything—I love them for being alive. And I understand it. And at the same time that doesn’t make me a vegetarian. I’m aware that I have two sets of teeth in my mouth. Even though half of them are false (laughs). I know what their original design was for. And I have to be true to my nature.
Since the last PiL album, you’ve raised children yourself. What’s one of the hardest things about being a parent today?
I’ve always had involvement with children. I used to look after problem children. That was one of my jobs before the Sex Pistols. And I’ve always had kids around the house. My father, after my mother died, would look after orphans on the weekends. It’s something that runs in our family—to be generous with children. For me, a house full of kids running around screaming is not a distraction. I find that very comforting. Even though my wife and I had problems and we couldn’t have children of our own, kids will always be there. Is the world a better place now with the internet and videogames? No. It’s left children more dissatisfied than they ever were in the past, because their communication skills have gone. The culture is gone between adults and children. It’s been eroded and dissipated by stupid pop magazines selling you a functionless lifestyle; I say our children because that’s how I view it. They’re our future. They’ve been completely abused by commercial conmen in advertising. If you had a government that really cared they’d limit the advertising on television.
I think a lot of those problems come from the lack of parenting.
That’s absolutely true. You have parents that don’t know how to parent. Nobody’s told them. That generational thing has been eroded. The simple swinging ‘60s, all independent of love from your family and of old values was a real red herring because it left a lot of people completely dumb as to what to do with the kids. And what they’ve done is create monsters. It’s no fault of the child. But at some point the child has to make the decision not to be a monster. It’s six of one and a half a dozen of the other.
Flashing back to the ‘70s for a second, what’s one of your fondest memories of your Sex Pistols years?
Starting PiL (laughs).
What’s one world issue that’s at the top of your mind today?
I’d like to remove the religious dogma and stigma from illnesses and let science find a resolve to life-threatening diseases, rather than declaring anything as an act of God. Keep God out of it. That would be a good start. And then remove politics. For me, intellectual freedom is one of the major things that I’ve been fighting for all my life. The fun of intellectual freedom is that somebody can stand up and expound on something really deeply stupid and irrational, and just giving them the freedom to say that gives us the freedom to point out the error of their ways. That removes violence and hatred and animosity, and therefore we’re all learning and sharing in an experience of a new discussion. That’s a wonderful thing.
What was the creative process like on this album?
There’s a great deal of integrity in this band. I’ve worked with many people over the years, but these are the best people I’ve ever worked with and it shows live.
What’s one of your greatest hopes for people for the future?
To be open-minded and kinder to others. To be generous. And realize that it’s our differences that make us better. Otherwise we’re in danger of becoming one big shopping mall.
That’s a worrying idea.
It’s a very worrying idea. I can’t wear anything out of a shopping mall (laughs). I’ll have to be au naturel for the rest of my life. Which is a very frightening concept that you should all be very wary of. I’m nothing to look at.
PiL will be at Philly’s Electric Factory on Oct. 11 and NYC’s Hammerstein Ballroom on Oct 13. For more information, go to pilofficial.com.