The making of a Rotten public image
To be told ‘I’m your mother’ by a complete stranger was a very, very strange thing, says John Lydon of the meningitis that cost him his memory and shaped ‘every single thing about me’
YOU EVER seen a woman pack for a long-haul trip? Outfits for every conceivable occasion – including, it seems, the possibility of alien abduction. Baleful thoughts were going through John Lydon’s mind in London on the afternoon of Wednesday, December 21st, 1988 as he watched his wife, Nora, pack for a trip to New York. Between his wife’s packing and the row that ensued, the couple had to dash to Heathrow to make their flight. Lydon was livid to find that they had just missed the final call for Pan Am Flight 103. One hour later he heard that Flight 103 had been blown up over Lockerbie killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew. “I just looked at my wife and we both almost collapsed.”
It was an eerily familiar feeling for Lydon. “The second time for me. I almost died when I was seven. I had meningitis and was in hospital for a year. When they thought I was dying from it, they gave me injections every six hours to keep me alive. I was in and out of a coma state. I had to have a lumbar puncture to draw fluid out of my spine. I completely lost my memory. I didn’t know who my parents were when they came to visit me. To be told ‘I’m your mother’ by a complete stranger is a very, very strange thing,” he says.
The lengthy recuperation, he says, turned the precociously clever at school, council estate son of two Irish parents into Johnny Rotten, punk icon and scourge of establishment Britain. “Because of the lumbar puncture I was left with permanent spinal curvature, and the meningitis also left me with a stare because what’s really going on there is I’m trying to focus. It was rough for my parents – there was no real British national health system then, so my mother had to sit me down and teach me how to read and write again because I had lost all memory. I developed, out of necessity, a sponge-like demand for information. I felt like my brain was going to literally explode because I had to learn everything again. And it was vital that people didn’t lie to me. I demanded the truth. If people lied to me, I would never recover from my illness. My whole being – every single thing about me – was shaped by almost dying as a child and losing my memory. The curve in my back, the stare, the need for the truth at all times – that put me on the road to Rotten. When the Sex Pistols gave me that initial kick, and when those gates were opened – I came out running and screaming.”
Back at school after his illness he was neither Lydon nor Rotten. They called him “Dumby Dumb Dumb” because he couldn’t even remember his own name. “I had an Irish Catholic education. Horrible nuns, vindictive and cruel. They hit us,” he says. “When the priests came, we used to run like mad. Even back then we knew what they were up to. I was lucky; I was the sickly looking boy – not what they fancied. I was thinking about all of this when I saw Sinead O’Connor on CNN talking about Irish clerical abuse. And to think people dismissed her as a ‘mad bitch’? I think the world of Sinead O’Connor.”
When his memory slowly started coming back, it was the Irish countryside that featured most.
“I clearly remembered this old farmhouse in Co Cork, it was like something out of the 15th century. I remembered all these insects crawling around the floor and chickens that wandered in through the door. Rich childhood memories of summer holidays back in Ireland. My cousins and the local boys would slag me off for having a Cockney accent. And I’ve had this all my life. My father is from Galway, my mother is from Cork but I, the son, still get treated differently for being born and brought up in London.
I didn’t ask to move out of Ireland. I’m an Irish citizen. I travel on an Irish passport. Don’t look down your f****n’ nose at me for having an English accent.”
Home was a rundown flat in Finsbury Park. “Four kids and two parents living in two rooms with no indoor toilet until I was 11,” he says. “You were either Irish, Turkish or Jamaican around our way. All of us in the Pistols were from council flats. We knew all about socialism. But we left all those dreary political opinions to The Clash. There was a real sense of humanity and humour to the Pistols – forget all the contrived tabloid headlines of the time – we certainly never took ourselves seriously. There were no vicious undertones, there was no nasty edge. We just saw ourselves as being like Domestos, you know, ridding the world of the stains of Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Rick Wakeman, who meant absolutely nothing to us. Later, punk turned into pageantry, it became a coat hanger for studded leather jackets and spiky hair – ‘weekend warriors’, we called them. That’s not punk; punk to us was destroying your idols and doing it for yourself. But then the Pistols got deified – which was a contradiction of all that we stood for and against. Then we had upper-class English twits writing books about punk’s ‘intellectual conspiracy’. For f**k sake, I was an 18-year-old lager-drinker when I joined the Pistols.”
He still gets belligerent about the band’s legacy. “I was the lyricist – the poor boys [Matlock, Cook, Jones] couldn’t put two sentences together, but they could make an appropriate racket. And I can stand by every word I said 30 years ago as well as I can today. I got it right, and that’s a difficult thing to say in this industry. And I fought off a lot of conceit and arrogance and grandiose opinions to get that right. We faced some serious traumas with our songs. For people to turn round 30 years on and say: ‘Well, it doesn’t seem so threatening now.’ You try it then, mate! Any freedoms you have now, we fought for them for you. So don’t turn around and sneer at us.
“Seriously, I just can’t deal with sarcastic a*******s. And that’s because of the meningitis, the life-threatening illness I had. But I never ended up a self-pitying drug addict – and not many can say that.”
When The Sex Pistols imploded in 1978, he formed Public Image Ltd (PiL) – still his first musical love. Whereas the Pistols might have influenced how many bands look, PiL have influenced how many bands sound – including, by their own admission, Massive Attack and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“I was a dub reggae DJ before the Pistols – not a lot of people know that,” Lydon says, “and I was well into bands such as Can. So I had lot more going on musically than punk rock. That year  my mother had died from cancer, slowly, in a hospital bed. It was horrendous. I wrote Death Discoabout that and realised that music, not press headlines, was what I was really about. Of all that I’ve done, I’m most proud of my work with PiL. We’ve been going on and off now for 32 years and we’ve had 39 personnel changes. PiL is a very difficult operation to run. It requires vast amounts of money. It’s what kept me bankrupt most of my life. But I think the music is excellent. No limits on our creativity – we have experimented with every single aspect of music. And we write great, great pop songs ( This Is Not A Love Song, Rise).”
Finding himself without a recording contract but still committed to the PiL musical cause, Lydon allowed himself to appear on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Herein 2004 so the band could keep financially afloat. A few years later he appeared in a series of TV ads for Country Life butter. “Those ads funded a PiL reunion tour – all the money from them went lock, stock and barrel into the band. I was drawn to it by the sheer absurdity of me fronting an ad for butter. I expected a lot of negativity, even a boycott of the brand. But sales went up 85 per cent. Such anarchy! I have gone, it seems, from being Public Enemy Number One – an anti-Christ even! – into a National Institution. And here I am still. I survived it all unscathed. I am” (and he pronounces all five syllables of the word individually) “irr-e-fu-ta-ble.”
PiL play at the Electric Picnic in Stradbally this Friday night. Details from electricpicnic.ie
Read Jim Carroll’s 10 acts to catch at the Electric Picnic in The Ticketon Friday
Lydon on . . .
The acrimonious break-up of The Sex Pistols in 1978: “The last gig was in San Francisco – it had become a farce. Sid (Vicious) was completely out of his brains; Malcolm (McLaren – their manager) wouldn’t speak to me; everything was supposedly my fault because I wouldn’t agree to anything. They left me in San Francisco with no plane ticket, no money. Then it was all just pointless law suits. God rest Malcolm though.”
The current million-selling US “punk” bands who claim him as an influence: “They’re just simpletons copying everything are wrecking the very thing they claim to be part of. Bands who are influenced by me sound nothing like me.”
Battles with the Catholic Church: “When my younger brother Martin was being confirmed, he wanted me as his sponsor. The church refused outright. They couldnt have the anti-Christ Johnny Rotten walk down the aisle. How dare they make a moral judgment on me.”
Being orthodontically correct: “I got the name ‘Johnny Rotten’ because of the state of my teeth. I was never vain enough to get them seen to. A few years ago, though, I started getting poisoned with mouth infections and my gums were starting to recede. $22,000 later, and they’re fine.”
The US “anarchists” who have tried to adopt him (he now lives in Los Angeles): “They are this group of people with designer clothes and mobile phones who fly from city to city to go on demos. They think anarchy is being against everything. But you can’t hate everything across the board – that’s just ignorance.”
Walking out of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here: “My wife, Nora, was flying over to Australia to meet me when the show ended. I kept asking the producers if her plane had landed safely but they refused to tell me. I was appalled, I couldn’t rest because of memories of the Lockerbie flight. I walked out.”
Being arrested and put in Mountjoy Prison in Dublin in the early 1980s: “I went into a pub on Eden Quay and the barman wouldn’t serve me. Words were exchanged and the police were called. I was arrested for attacking a policeman’s fist with my face and thrown in Mountjoy for the night. Some homecoming. The police and screws made a big deal out of me, they tried to shatter my morale – well, good luck on that one.”