John Lydon’s ‘songs from the heart’ propel him forward

Lydon Hands
Photo credit: Courtesy Abramorama - Photo by Paul Heartfield.

John Lydon, make that Public Image Ltd., because, as both the documentary and career-retrospective box set agree, “The Public Image is Rotten,” is in New Orleans, readying for the first date of the U.S. leg of the band’s world tour, celebrating forty years of all things PiL, and of course, all things Lydon. After the Civic Theater show Tuesday night, the band and crew load in to the tour bus for the overnight ride to Atlanta, and a show at the Variety Playhouse, Wednesday, Oct. 10.

Lydon is just waking up as we get set to speak, having been dragged out of bed — and out of the toilet — by his manager and lifelong mate John “Rambo” Stevens. Their time together goes way back, fifty years at least, when they were just children in the schoolyard. It’s that bond, that trust built upon over the years, that has allowed Lydon to accept him as manager and — perhaps, just a bit — as co-conspirator in business decisions. For all things musical, however, Lydon has his band of almost ten years now  — Lu Edmonds, Brian Smith and Scott Firth.

The travels and travails of Public Image Ltd. are long, from the early days of Lydon, Keith Levene, Jah Wobble, and John Walker, through the period when Martin Atkins joined the group, through Pete Jones replacing Wobble, until the band seemed to implode. When the dust settled, Lydon had Edmonds and Smith at his side, with John McGeoch and Allan Dias joining them.

“Two sides to every story,” John Lydon exclaimed in Public Image Ltd.’s debut single, “Public Image.” his first recorded work after leaving the Sex Pistols following that band’s a highly-calculated first U.S. tour. Lydon as Johnny Rotten was was picked to fill the role of lead singer in arguably the world’s first punk band, but he proved to be more dangerous than any of the tactics and P.R. schemes manager Malcolm McLaren dared to dream up to establish the band as such.

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Lydon, for all intents and purposes is, and has always been, his own person, one not wanting to take direction, but to look at the circumstances and deal with them in a way that best suits his needs. His whims. His moral compass. His instincts are what he’s always trusted in a business that for all it’s perceived freedoms is highly-structured and regimented.

Over the years, Lydon, being Lydon, has infuriated musicians and fans alike. If he hadn’t, chances are he wouldn’t be as interesting, nor as inspiring, as he’s made his way through the music business on his own terms. It’s all well-explained in “The Public Image is Rotten,” the new feature-length film documenting the forty years of PiL, that is slowing making its way to theater screens across the U.S. as Public Image Ltd. embarks on the U.S. leg of a world tour in support of the career retrospective box set, The Public Image is Rotten (Songs from the Heart).

In addition to there being “two sides to every story,” there’s the adage, “There’s three sides to every story — yours, mine and the truth.” Lydon attempts to make it clear at the beginning of “The Public Image is Rotten” documentary, that his side is the truth, and that all he’s achieved in his life is “through being honest.” It’s quite an interesting and telling film, one that includes interviews with all the major players throughout PiL’s illustrious history, along with many of those who the band worked with or influenced, Ginger Baker, Thurston Moore, Flea, Julian Temple, Don Letts and Vivien Goldman among them. The film, distributed by Abramorama, is not only a look inside PiL, but a look inside the workings of Lydon, a man whose memory was wiped clean by meningitis as a child, and needed the honesty of others to rebuild his fondest memories, even of his own father and mother.

“The Public Image is Rotten” is a quick view. A lot of people and a lot of stories are packed into its 1hour and 44 minutes, but the time goes by like nothing at all, reminding me of something Peter Tosh once told me, “A thousand years is like a day gone by in the search for truth.”

And the truth presented in “The Public Image is Rotten” (the play on words in the title says it all) not only recounts the past, but consecrates the present, providing a take on latter-day PiL that has me re-evaluating their work, and reassessing PiL as a whole. I remember seeing the first Public Image Ltd. U.S. tour thirty-eight years ago, watching from the side of the stage at the Agora Ballroom in Atlanta, wondering what Lydon, Levene, Wobble and Atkins had wrought on pop music — and I certainly never heard anything the same again.

Rising out of his New Orleans slumber, Lydon is quick to discuss the documentary, admitting that it was “very, very, very hard for us to relinquish responsibility into other people’s hands when it’s your own career,” but agrees “everybody involved did a really, really, really good job!

“Normally it’s about me, I’m usually barking orders. But everybody told me to shut up and just get on with it. And I did and it’s so much better for it.”

The documentary is so well done, I’m surprised it wasn’t released before the tour, to drum up interest for the shows.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I know what you mean,” he concurs, stopping to blow what some might consider trademarked Johnny Rotten snot out of his nose (it’s explained in the film), “but it’s impossible to coordinate these things favorably, because the film world and the rock and roll circus we all love and adore are not compatible.

“The two things are separate issues,” he continues. “That film started out, it was just going to be about the last two albums, but it expanded into this enormous, all over the place documentary. I mean its a full history now. And everybody who was anybody to do with anything, from the Pistols to PiL, was asked if they wanted to have a say in it. And that’s the grand conclusion of it. You either see it or you don’t. I ‘d rather you did, regardless of when we will be playing in a town near you.”

It paints a broad picture and it allows allows everyone to have their say, something I didn’t expect. It also offers a lot of insight into the latter days of the band that, maybe myself or others don’t find as interesting as the early days. It offers a lot of answers to previously unaddressed questions.

Lydon is in complete agreement of the assessment.

At the beginning of the film, Lydon discusses honesty, crediting whatever he’s achieved through being honest. That theme is reiterated when he recounts the honesty of his words to his mother on her deathbed.

Has he always been honest?

“With my Mom and Dad, yeah, but you know, all kids are naughty from time to time. I’m not perfect. I want to be. But I can’t bear total out and out horrible liars. That’s one of my major things. I’ll give you one or two or three chances, but if you go beyond that with me, you’re really just ... Get out. And don’t come back. There’ve been very few of those people in my life, but the ones that have been that way are obviously not there no more.

“I’d rather let the viewer work it out for themselves, rather than me lecturing,’that one’s a git and that one’s a chump’ ... because I don’t think any of us get out of it without a good hammering. All our warts and sores are there. That’s what, I thinkmakes it deeply funny.”

“The Public Image is Rotten” certainly offers a varied view of what was going on, rather than just one person’s opinion.

Lydon is proud of that. “It’s far more than what people expect. I can’t be boring the viewer, can I, with forty years of the ins and outs of daily activities?”

With the documentary and two autobiographies, “Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” and “Anger Is An Energy,” is there something Lydon wants to get across that maybe people have missed?

He’s quick to dismiss that thought. “I never asked for the documentary. They came to us. I hemmed and hawed in my mind about what that would mean — and what they would put together. But after working with Tabbert (Fiiller, the film’s director), I’m really, really pleased. He’s great! He’s wonderfully honest, in a different way than I am. Sorry, but there it is. Bloody excellent working with him. Hard work at times, too!

“You’re relinquishing the reins — and you’re letting someone else come in and poke around in your life. It’s a frightening thing!”

In the film, many of the interviews with Lydon take place in the kitchen of his and his wife Nora’s home. And throughout the many days days of filming, with Lydon seen in different clothing, the dishwasher remains wide-open. Was Lydon tryiing to make some sort of statement,  as if to say he’s allowing all of his dirty bits to be displayed out in the open?

Lydon laughs that mischievous and familiar laugh of his. “It’s broken!” he exclaims.

“If you’re an art student you’d come up with that!” he surmises, asking, “Are you an art student? No! The damn thing’s broken and I’m too fucking lazy to buy a new one!”

“That’s how I am, really, a house falls down around me. I live kind of a duffer’s life, really, but I am looking forward to the gig in New Orleans! Hopefully, I’ll get enough for a dishwasher out of this tour! You never know! I need one. I live in three different places, and, I just realized, everyone of them’s got a broken dishwasher! So keep on with that art student, you’re onto something!

“Three dishwashers. What does a dishwasher cost? I reckon about three hundred dollars, right? No, nine hundred. You’re going to spend a grand on something you can do quicker in your sink?

“So there’s PiL explained!” he concludes. “Why bother with an over-elaborate recording studio when you can use what’s basically a cowshed made out of bricks? That explains the last two albums nicely.

“I mean cheap and cheerful can be a very, very good outlet musically, it really can. I’ve worked in very fine studios and I’ve worked in rundown ones ... to me, it’s like a bad workman blames his tools. You get on with what you got to get on with and what’s available. And that’s half of, probably three-quarters, of the fun of making records. You enjoy the calamity of the situation a lot.

Is that sort of thought what binds together the PiL members of today?

“I think it describes PiL in all of its different functions and environments. And people-wise. I would have love to have kept a band more solid, but I’m not blaming record companies for their involvement or lack of involvement, or controlling the purse strings to the point of creating poisonous situations, but its kind of noticeable that for the last two albums, it’s the same people, and, to me, that’s historical. And now we’re touring, and here we are, celebrating forty years of all things PiL, and we’re in the middle of a third album, too!”

At this point, I surmise “congratulations” and “job well done” are in order.

“Yes, it is, really. But this workload we’ve taken on this year, it’s practically killing me! There’s so many personal issues too that I have to deal with. I’ve got some serious family health problems wrapped all around me and the pressure is overwhelming, but still, the gigs must count. My wife’s seriously ill, and it’s just getting worse. ‘And the days go by …’ It’s all the time pressure, pressure, pressure. Is it the gods that be, or Mother Nature, who deliberately brings these things on me so that I don’t get cozy and comfortable. I think that that would be the ruination, ultimately.

“You know, ‘stiff upper lip,’” he says, mocking the British belief. “Bloody hell! Be British? Not bad for an Irishman. Who lives in America. And, in fact, is an American now.”

Lydon claims that his path to citizenship in this country was two-fold, one, because he’s lived here for so long, two, “I quite enjoyed the potential of Obama’s years. Look at the rewards unleashed on me!”

Despite the health calamities surrounding Lydon, it’s good to see he’s still the fun-loving young man he’s always been.He certainly hasn’t changed in that respect.

“I’ve always thought that the best lesson you can learn in life is through humor,” the man who once sang, “God save the Queen, she ain’t no human being,” contends, “and boring intellectuals never get any way near it. Nowhere near the truth. The truth is in the comedy of it all!”

Years ago, first starting out as a young Sex Pistol, did Lydon make plans for this comedy of errors we call life?

“I don’t know if I made plans, it was more like wishes. I wanted some sense of continuity in all this and that’s really not what I’ve been able to achieve up until the last decade. But even with that, there’s still more issues that keep creeping in and make life very, very difficult. But then, if you didn’t make an effort, what would any of this be worth? It’s the effort and the struggle that count more than anything.”

Your philosophy in the early days of PiL was “not to worry about the money, just do what you believe in — and it will come.” You said that after plopping down a hundred dollar bill for a ten dollar breakfast, and telling the waitress to keep the change.

“Oh yeah. Never bother with that. In those days we had no chance of grabbing that purse string. Now, we’re running our own label and we’re kind of like financially responsible to ourselves.”

So that wasn’t just some youthful idealism or naiveté?

“No, there was a proper business plan in my head,” he admits. “All of this would function far better if we are responsible to ourselves and only to ourselves.

“That’s why the box set is coming out in such a professional manner,” Lydon explains of The Public Image is Rotten (Songs from the Heart), the five CD, two DVD retrospective, chock full of singles, b-sides, remixes, rare and previously-unreleased tracks, as well as live concert audio and two DVDs of performances, “because if we ever left it up to a record label, they would just turn it into some hokey fucking nonsense. We’re using the labels, but it’s to our benefit, our control. And so, the manipulation is on an artistic level rather than left to a bunch of accountants.

“I’d rather spend all the money raising the level of quality of the film work that’s available in there, and making sure that every track is the highest quality you can get rather than pocketing the money and and chucking it out in a very cheap, lackadaisical, carbon (copy) fashion. I’ve always been like that. This is the reputation I have earned from record labels, that I’m ‘difficult to work with.’ Well, yeah! Because quality to me must come first. It’s my life story. Why shouldn’t it?“

If you read the press being generated on this tour, many journalists claim Lydon took twenty years off, as if to say he led an idyllic life away from the the music industry, at home with his wife. That’s not the case.

“I didn’t take twenty years off. I had no choice in the matter,” he snarls, his blood pressure seemingly rising at the suggestion. “It was Catch-22, I owed them (the record labels) much money, and anything I did, the money must go automatically to them. And so I couldn’t even make the funds to open a rehearsal studio, because that money, they would want it immediately. I couldn’t tour. I couldn’t make any product … ousted from the only thing that I feel I’ve been any good at, and that’s “singer-songwriter,” he says with a positive, upward lilt and a laugh in his voice. “I’m laughing at the term, because I realize how pretentious that sounds! Well, fucking hell — that’s all I am good at! I’m not saying I’m the world’s greatest, but that is something I can do!”

To pull himself and the band out of debt, Lydon says he embarked on many different projects, TV shows, TV productions, internet broadcasts.

“All of these ideas collapsed because the manipulation started creeping in and I wouldn’t be told what to do. But it got me on the right foot,” he concedes, noting that without them, he wouldn’t have been asked to participate in the now-infamous “butter campaign.”

“One thing led to another and an advertising company in Britain spotted my activities and offered us the butter campaign, he tells the story, as incredulous of the offer as those who viewed the commercial. “I never thought of such a thing in my life. Me? Promoting butter? Well, the basic question I had to ask myself was, ‘Do I eat butter?’ ‘Yes I do! A helluva a lot of it, too!’ Hence, the body shape,” he chuckles.

“But it helped. It helped! And I was given a free hand in the script. The agreement was they’d have a script — and I could ignore it! And I thought that was a beautiful compromise. It worked for both sides. Sales of British dairy product went up by 87 percent! So, I did good all around for them. And the money from that, although not huge, we got enough where we could put some money towards the debt to the record labels and start rehearsing. And from that very first rehearsal, it’s been like smiles all around. And all of it handled wonderfully by Rambo! He knows what the rules are, but he also knows that three-quarters of those rules are for fools!”

How does Rambo put up with him?

“Well, you’d have to ask him!,” Lydon says, yelling across the room, “Hey, Rambo, how d’ya you put up with me?”

A deeper, rougher voice suddenly booms across the cellphone, “I don’t.”

“Short, sharp and straight to the point!,” Lydon laughs. “We’re mates, and there it is. We have arguments, you know, but that’s how things work. It’s not ‘bang the door on each other and vanish for the rest of your career’ — that’s what was happening, in early PiL.

“But, it was like a blackmail letter,” he recalls, “because they knew I was desperate. And so they were upping their prices, the bad bad members, but the good ones ... that’s why, when it came to PiL’s affirmation, Bruce and Lu were at the top of my list. And we really needed a good bass player ... because we hadn’t really had one up until this point. And Scott was purrfect. Yes, I know those words can bite!”

In the film, it’s apparent Wobble was considered to re-join PiL.

“Yeah. He was given the opportunity,” Lydon admits. “I talked to him. He was going on about dental chairs and and banjos. It all sounded like Deliverance, a pizza would be quicker. It was all grandiose. And grandiose goes way beyond his station. And that initially was his problem anyway. He was rowing really, really badly with other members, and all manner of disputes were going on, tapes were going missing ... I couldn’t cope with it. That’s not how a band should be. You do things because you’re loyal to each other.”

“He’ll always be a friend, because that’s what he was before, but how he misused that opportunity, well, that’s his own decision, and consequences to do matter.

Lydon gets a little wound up, or, maybe, he’s waking up. “They’ve all spent years being negative,” he says of past PiL members, “and here we go, now he’s in the documentary, and he’s not so negative after all. Hello!”

Despite whatever problems ex-members may have with Lydon, it is telling that none of them complain on the level one might expect. Were they just not wanting to appear confrontational?

“I don’t know. It has nothing to do with me,” he claims. “If you had asked me, emotionally, off the top of my head, I would’ve said, ‘No, don’t you dare film any of them swine,’ but, I think the decision was made more positively. Yes, you should have them in. And I agree with that. I sat down and thought about it long and hard and what can anybody say? They can either tell the truth, or they can lie. Either way, that’s a voyage of discovery, isn’t it?”

“I can be just as irrational as anybody else,” Lydon continues, “and sometimes, you know, that’s a problem for me. But it does make for some great song material later on down the line,” he laughs. “Sometimes, after many, many years of endurance, I can have a short fuse, but I’d rather not.”

The documentary, the box set, the world tour, it all seems to be big business for Lydon. Yet he doesn’t see it as crossing over to the other side. More to the point, “It’s all hard work. It’s seriously hard work. I really don’t have ten spare minutes. I didn’t quite think celebrating forty years would be the endurance course it’s turning into. But then, I suppose that is the only real way to celebrate forty years of hard work — one year of extremely hard work.

“The few times I’ve allowed myself to ‘party it up’ on this tour,” he admits, “I’ve absolutely destroyed myself physically. I don’t want to do that anymore. So, for the rest of this year, particularly now in America, I’m taking it ‘serious.’ Why, I don’t know? It’s too late. The damage is done.”

“It’s always good for me to look at the physical aspects of the tour, do I have the stamina to carry on? I think so. I force myself to strive a little bit further, otherwise, what’s the point? The older you get, the harder you should be driving yourself. This is what they’re all telling me! Majority rules! The democracy has out voted me.

“Of course, it’s all a matter of how you see yourself,” Lydon suddenly waxes philosophically. “Do you accept old age, the way it’s slung on you by society? I mean, I’ll know when I’m old, and I certainly don’t feel old! These lovely tours — when I feel myself every night in that bunk on that tour bus, that doesn’t feel old to me. Those wrinkles are wrinkles I’ve always had. (laughter).

What has the man who’s mere stare seems to have intimidated a generation, whose words have painted disarmingly brutal pictures of life, learned in his 62 years?

“Nothing comes easy unless you really bloody strive for it,” he declares. “And don’t stand there with your hand out, expecting an easy ride, because that ain’t ever gonna happen. Just do it yourself, nobody’s going to do it for you. Plain and simple.”

With that, Lydon says goodbye, but not without first gleefully admitting his anticipation of Tuesday night’s New Orleans gig. He’s looking forward to the first night of this U.S. tour as if his life depends on it.

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