The Story of Johnny Lydon
PiL/Pistols frontman and FFF Saturday headliner finds peace
By Richard Whittaker, 9:00AM, Thu. Nov. 1, 2012
John Lydon remains the sound of England's dreaming. In part two of this interview, the Fun Fun Fun Fest star explains his love of learning, how butter saved PiL, and what folk music means to him.
Austin Chronicle: A lot of small bands talk about having more liberty now because of the Internet. How do you feel about it?
John Lydon: Well, all I can tell you is that the reason I spent two decades unable to work was because of my commitments from the Pistols. See, the record contracts, they carried on. I could not break contracts, so I was consistently kept in a state of debt, to the point where they didn’t like what I was making anymore and decided to just say, ‘You either pay this debt, or you can’t work.’ So for two decades, I could not work.
Now I’m a singer-songwriter, and the very thing that I thrive on, what my whole existence is based on, was denied to me by the industry that apparently loved me well enough to give me an accolade at that stupid, ridiculous, pompous Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Well, hello? I can’t practice my music. What the fuck are you celebrating me for, you cunts? You starved me out of existence. And the only way I could break out of it was accidentally running into a butter campaign. And quite frankly I’ve turned down a lot of adverts, but at least it was a British product, and yes, I do eat butter. Bingo!
That was the only thing that managed to break the fucking cycle. And yet still there’s people in the music business saying I sold out. Sold out what? When the fuck were you cunts helping me? None of you. You gave me nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Left me out to dry. All the enemies, all the people who left me out to dry, of course they loved it. And that’s the position I found myself in.
So thank you, butter. I rub it on all over. I find it’s a great laxative. It’s a lubricant. It helps with the sun tan, and it makes for a good curry when you melt it.
AC: This idea of selling out, people get mad at a bands for selling more albums.
JL: I understand selling out. If you’re going to make rubbish music just for the money, that’s selling out. We have enough examples of that in popular culture, don’t we? But I’m John, and I just don’t do that. I write songs from the heart, from the experience, from the culture that I come from. I write songs about my mother and father. They’re dead now, rest their souls, but it’s always in the back of my mind when I perform live that I never do anything that they would be ashamed of.
That’s absolutely vitally important to me and my psychology and my class, my creed, my culture, my countries. My countries are several now: Ireland, England, America, and Jamaica because of my grandkids, and there’s Japan in my family now. The universe is always expanding. No man or woman or child is my enemy, but every politician seems to want to be.
AC: There’s a lot of class consciousness, especially working class identity, in your music that I understood because I grew up in the North of England. My dad was an engineer, my mum worked in a school canteen.
JL: And we’re doing alright, aren’t we? And do you really need salty buggers putting you down for your every move? Because they don’t understand what it is we’ve been through, what we come from, or what it is we’re trying to achieve. I could easily be a crook. I could have been a drug dealer. I could have been anything I like, but I decided not to.
AC: If the 10-year-old John could see you now, what would he say?
JL: He’d go, ‘Ello, you look good.’ I know he would. I know that young kid very well. He’s still in me. He doesn’t leave you. I think most human beings formulate their personality in the very early years of life, probably between two or three and about 10. Everything else on top of that is poison, but that’s when you develop who you are as a person.
AC: There’s that old idea that if you move somewhere after the age of 10, your accent doesn’t change because you’re who you are.
JL: I lived in Hastings because my dad worked down there too, so I developed a love of the sea. I’m always singing songs about the ocean. I can’t help that. Whenever we’d go to Ireland, my mother’s family farm was right on the ocean and I’d go fishing with my granddad in a very rickety row boat, way out to sea. Now I look back on it and it's incredibly dangerous stuff, but these are all experiences that you put together. They make you. They make you what you are. They were honest experiences. He wasn’t expecting me to read Shakespeare to him. He just wanted me to be able to handle a fish net off the back of a boat.
Those experiences, they fill my songs. That bonding, that culture, that sense of class. And I don’t mean class as in ABC. I mean the understanding of each other as human beings with less words said, but all the actions were important. Teaching you instinct, letting you be instinctive, letting you develop instinctively. Very important experiences.
Being thrown out of school at 14, and being underage, I had to make the money up because I wanted to continue my education, so I went to work on the building site. Very important experiences. In them days, way back then, it was mostly run by mad Irishmen. They didn’t let you off lightly. That was a He-Man experience. I passed most of my exams, and I was qualified enough to take care of problem children. That was my first job before joining the Sex Pistols. Perfect, really.
AC: You’ve kept your love of learning and growth, and that sense of adventure has always been there.
JL: I could read and write at four. My mum was thrilled that I loved pictures and I wanted to know what the shape of words was. I know it was a problem in my early years at Catholic school. The nuns, because I was left-handed, they seen that as the sign of the Devil. I was too clever, so I had to sit in the corner and wait for everyone to catch up, basically ostracized.
Then I got meningitis at seven, and that kept me out for a year and I had no memories, so I was dummy-dumb-dumb. So I had to relearn everything. I volunteered for the library, relearning how to read, relearning how to paint and draw, using all those outside of school activities that the wonders of the socialist government could supply in them times.
So I learnt and I learnt and I learnt, and I relearned my love of books and my love of the truth. That’s it. That’s the story of Johnny. It’s no big deal, I don’t surprise, but it's the truth.
AC: Lots of people stop being interested in anything, and just start turning in circles.
JL: And England’s full of it. It’s so terrible here. It’s so difficult. My peers from the punk era, they’ve turned into old housewives and worn-out housewives. They’ve got this, ‘Oh, why bother, oh, why don’t you act your age.’ What on earth are they saying to me? Jesus, thank God for California where no such thing exists. I’ll act my age when I’m 98, but until then, no, I’m not going to act at all. So repulsive here. The roll-over-and-die attitude.
And I hear it all the time, ‘Why don’t you come back and sort it out?’ Well, what the fuck have you lot done? Nothing. Do I really want to be hanging around with you lot ever again? No, not really. It’s hard enough trying to organize my own life. And I’ve never done it for waving the flag and everybody be like this. There’s something repulsively lazy in the British, and I don’t like it.
AC: At least there’s always something to fight against.
JL: I don’t need to do that. I lead by example. I do what I do. I get on with what it is. I write songs that are very valuable to me and my culture and my people and my family and my friends, and if the rest of the world isn’t prepared to listen to it in that way, then that’s not my problem. This, oddly enough, is why I connected myself with being a folk musician.
I knew I was going to annoy every folk musician in the world by saying such a thing, but actually I think the rest of them are fucking fakes. I don’t care how old the instrument is you’re twanging. That ain’t folk. You’re not talking to folk. You’re not talking about the folk. You’re imitating something from the 15th century. And, by the way, you’re not even accurate. Because Johnny has an enormous record collection, and knows what he’s talking about.
AC: That’s the thing. Folk music wasn’t retro. It was about contemporary concerns. Blokes who worked down in the mine sang about working down in the mine. It wasn’t, ‘Wasn’t it great when we worked down in the mine.’ It was, ‘Isn’t this fucking horrible?’
JL: Aren’t you just fed up with them all? Could we just do without all of them? They’re all a pile of nonsense. And these are the people who are judging me. Good luck.
PiL takes Fun Fun Fun Fest's Orange stage Saturday, Nov. 3, 7:50pm, at Auditorium Shores. For the first half of this interview, visit austinchronicle.com/music. For interviews, previews and live reviews, visit our Fun Fun Fun Fest page.