Interview Magazine, January, 1991
Interviewed by Steven Daly
in a California combo of fluorescent shorts and suntan, and crowned
by a thatch of blond hair, the former Johnny Rotten answers the door
of his publicist's Malibu digs with a bottle of cerveza in hand.
The accoutrements may have changed, but the physical presence remains
a striking one. And that singular accent is still intact, the arch enunciation
mangled by a pronounced overbite, making it hard as ever to separate
personality from persona.
While presiding over the transfer of business to his American record company, John Lydon is residing somewhere near Venice Beach in a foreclosed apartment bought with Nora, his wife of twelve years. Although immensely appealing, the oft-promulgated image of the ex-Sex Pistol adrift in California lacks veracity; thanks to a $75 sulphate bust back in 1977, Lydon can spend no more than six months at a time in this country.
Without Johnny Rotten as figurehead, punk rock would have been a stillborn conceptual fancy, so it was to the singer's great credit that he jumped off the bandwagon as early as 1978 to build his own vehicle, the still-roadworthy Public Image Limited. The earth-moving might of the new band had an anti-rock rigor than rendered punk's shallow flailings suddenly quaint, but the following decade saw numerous others take up the torch of sonic exploration. Lydon himself appears comfortable with cult status, never straining for visibility, but he occasionally emerges from deep left field with a song like "Rise," it's monstrous grace reminding us of his capabilities.
In the midst of recording a new PiL L.P., Lydon incongruously contributed backing vocals to the album of a fellow client of producer Tony Berg, proto-hippie Edie Brickell.
SD: John, people are going to say you've gone soft!
JL: I hope so - I won't be limited by these stupidities. I question everything constantly. You have to be able to change all the time, because things change. The Nevermind the Bollocks album is not relevant at all now.
SD: Is the philosophy of punk still relevant?
JL: I don't think there was any philosophy then. In retrospect, it's very easy to grab something from it, which a lot of people do.
SD: There must have been something there, because that whole generation has gone on to re-create British media in it's own image.
JL: And I think that's very fine. I like Julie Burchill's newspaper column, and my favorite person in England is Janet Street-Porter, without whom all those music programs wouldn't have ever got off the ground. The problem is that they've tended to become the establishment, which is the risk you take.
SD: That will always be the way.
JL: It will, but there will always be people like me. I'm not the only one.
SD: Who would the others be?
JL: If I'm related to anything, it would be to people who have always been awkward and difficult, people like Peter Cook. And Jonathan Miller is someone I admire. He's absolutely glorious: there's a man who never stops using his brain, who continually questions people's perceptions, with his Shakespeare productions or his nature documentaries, or whatever. Normality is the threat, the thing that stifles creativity.
SD: The bands in this town bear that out.
JL: They certainly do. Look at Guns N' Roses - about the most they can do is give some silly comments against black people and gays, which is all just desperately looking for something to be radical about. They're just spoiled, white, middle-class youths playing very, very tiresome, old-fashioned rock n' roll. And looking like Hawkwind roadies! If being a cliché was a crime, all these bands would be in jail right now. Come back the music police - and I don't mean the band!
SD: At one point though, John, you were the music police.
JL: Which was an awful situation to be in.
SD: Your old Pistols sparring partner Steve Jones is doing the major hang with Axl and the girls these days, looking like Son of Sammy Hagar.
JL: Yeah. His hair tickles his testicles, it's so long! He did the Alcoholics Anonymous thing - which was apparently the best club in Hollywood, where all the stars go - and then he got into all this weightlifting stuff. He's become really huge - like Schwarzenegger in a Charles I wig. I like Steve, though. He's very, very funny; life to him is not to be taken seriously, ever. But I wish he'd stop trying to reform the Sex Pistols; that's something that'll never happen.
SD: So you get clammy midnight phone calls?
JL: No, it's clammy afternoon phone calls. This is L.A., dude - everything in the sunshine.
SD: But you've never been tempted?
JL: Never. The only temptation would clearly be money, and that would be the crime of the century as far as I'm concerned: I'd never be forgiven. People I know who've done things for money are completely soul-destroyed; they can't live normal lives.
SD: Billy Idol?
JL: I'm not so sure he's like that. I like Billy, actually; I think he's a tough boy, and he's always done what he said he'd do. He lives the rock n' roll lifestyle; he finds that intriguing - I don't - so he's true to his guns in that respect. The fact that it's earning him large amounts of money is, I think, neither here nor there with him.
SD: Malcolm McLaren's another member of the class of '76 who's ended up out here, relieving several film studios of their funds, if rumors are to be believed.
JL: You keep hearing these stories about him. He's managed to offend a lot of people, and not in a clever, interesting way. I mean really offend.
SD: Have you seen him lately?
JL: Not for a long time. I could never care less about Malcolm, and he never liked me; we've made no bones about it. We're not enemies; we've got a kind of mutual respect, though not a great deal of it.
SD: I can understand what McLaren sees in this town, but what does L.A. do for you?
JL: It's like pure freedom, and where else would I find that? To me it's a very insane Butlins holiday camp. You can move to any other town in the world and know what the basis of operation is, but here you're left completely on guesswork. There's no sub-structure to the place; it's up in the air all the time. So many disparate parts, so many attitudes, so many different angers.
SD: Do you partake in any of the beach culture down here?
JL: I just sit there on the beach like a lump of wood, really, feeling lonely and sorry for myself. Listening to disco on a cheesy radio.
SD: I hear you like to catch the odd wave.
JL: Do you think you're gonna get me hangin' on a piece of plywood, waiting out there like shark bait? No thank you.
SD: What's your local beach?
JL: I'm not telling you. I keep wherever I am a secret; otherwise, you get busloads of those boring British tourists pulling up.
SD: You might end up on one of those celebrity maps of Hollywood.
JL: I'm nowhere near Hollywood, thank you. Unless the big one comes - then, they say, you'll be able to surf all the way up to Sunset.
SD: Do you ever consider moving back East?
JL: I don't like New York; it's worn itself out for me. It's too grubby and it wallows in it's own pride, which I have no time for.
SD: After you did Order of Death, with Harvey Keitel, I'd have that you might have pursued a film career there. I can imagine you fitting in more with Harvey and Bobby and Marty than with the Mortons crowd.
JL: I like Scorsese. I think he's very, very insane, but I'm not quite sure he's the kind of person I'd want to make a film with. Years ago, when he was doing Raging Bull, he rang me up and asked me to come over to look at the slow-motion boxing shots. I couldn't believe what a nightmare it was. "Look at this, look at the blood spatter! Isn't it mad - isn't everybody mad! Look out the window, look at all those New Yorkers! They're all mad, I tell you, they're all killers! Everybody's a murderer!" Ouch! Time to go home.
SD: Have you looked for more film work?
JL: No, but I wouldn't mind. The only thing I was interested in was playing the character called Louis from Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles. That's something I think I could do, because he's a vampire but is very sad about it - I really love the irony of that. She's a great writer. I was gonna scrimp and save every penny I had to buy the film rights, so that I could script it. Apparently Elton John was interested in turning it into a rock musical along the lines of Cats or something.
SD: Musically, what are your ambitions now?
JL: To make the records I want to make. That's it, period. Game, set, and match.
SD: What criteria are you guided by?
JL: It has to have guts, dynamics, drama. With me, it's never, ever been about high-quality music. It's been about high-quality drama, attitude, tension, emotion.
SD: Does it matter whether these records are successful in a mainstream sense?
JL: It would be nice, but it might be an impossible battle.
SD: Maybe in America, where you don't have so much baggage, so much history...
JL: But you've got to understand the way America is at the moment: if you're not fashionable in England, you're not fashionable here. It's a wicked game, and one I've been losing constantly; it's not one I'm too interested in anymore, to be quite frank. I've not done anything for money in quite some time. Maybe that makes me stupid - according to my family, it does - but that's the way it's got to be. I've got to do what I believe in, regardless. I don't see myself as Macbeth, though; it's not a desperate ending-in-tragedy situation at all.
SD: Do you ever find yourself getting bitter?
JL: From time to time, and that's when I stop making records. I would never make a record from that sad-sack point of view anymore. I did that years and years ago - I think everybody does at some point in their career - but I got over that very quickly. It's not worth feeling sorry for yourself; it's a waste of time. I'm currently, and have been for some years now, looking for the better side of human nature.
SD: I noticed the ecological sentiments on "Don't Ask Me." What would the old Johnny Rotten have thought of that?
JL: He'd be in full agreement.
SD: He would?
JL: Absolutely. I know him well.
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