Sunday Times, 1st December, 2002
Transcribed by Daragh Breen
© 2002 Times Newspapers Limited
Under His Tan, Something Rotten Lingers...
by John Harlow
Goofy had it coming as far as John Lydon is concerned. "He was in my way, in the way of my grandchildren, and I punched him out. Disney called their cops, yeah, but nothing else happened. So, yeah, I have been to Disneyland." Californian family fun, Johnny Rotten style. Once upon a time, in the dog-eared days of the late 1970s, this middle-aged step-grandfather was the catalyst for a moral panic that scorched middle England. For an all-too-brief 18 months, as lead singer of the Sex Pistols, the kings of punk, Rotten/Lydon was booed, banned and quite frequently beaten up. He left behind a handful of timeless pop records such as Anarchy in the UK, a dead friend in the ugly form of heroin victim Sid Vicious, and a lot of enemies.
Enough fans still feel sufficiently nostalgic about his legacy to have voted him in at No87 in the BBC's recent Great Britons poll. But today, at the age of 46, Lydon is a born-again Californian. He eats sushi and buys organic; he goes surfing. The sickly shy boy from Finsbury Park who became the face of punk has reinvented himself yet again - this time as a Los Angeles businessman, which is how he is described on his resident's visa. "I run an import-export business - funny for a so-called an-arrr-chist, innit," he rasps over a long lunch in his favourite sushi restaurant in Santa Monica. "I am Irish, I am English and now I am American. I would take up American citizenship, raise my hand in the pledge of allegiance, but they do not want me." Funny, that. "But they can't get rid of me that easily. Nobody can. When everyone thinks I am gone, I come back again. Like s*** on your shoe.
Most recently, he came back to Britain in another startling reincarnation: as a Radio 2 presenter. Last month, between the strains of Sunday Love Songs and The Organist Entertains, the former scourge of the Establishment presented a show about another one-time enfant terrible, the 1970s rock star and kohl aficionado Alice Cooper. Rotten, it turns out, began his singing career regaling passengers on the London Underground with Alice Cooper tracks while busking with the ill-fated Vicious. "Hey," he explains, "any guy can dress like a girl these days, but it took a real man to change his name to Alice and have it accepted as one of the most masculine monikers in the history of popular culture."
In the bad old days, Lydon was renowned for dressing in clothes fastened together with safety pins. Today, while still in tartan bomber jacket, green shoes and sporting a spiky bottle-blond 'do (albeit one shot through with a dash of Bournemouth Tory blue) the once-pasty threat to society is now a poster boy for the benefits of the Californian climate. Even the trademark teeth, for which he earned the nickname "Rotten", are brilliant white, although one step from Tom Cruise-esque perfection by his dentist defying front cavity. Yet, as always in LA, looks are deceiving. Last week Lydon strained his back lifting a 60in television monitor, a mishap that left him hobbling around in agony despite the benefit of painkillers and a lot of warm sake. When he mugs for the Sunday Times photographer, his more grotesque expressions stem from genuine pain. He was moving the television in his home studio, he explains, because he is trying to synchronise the soundtrack and film of the anti-jubilee concert that the reunited Sex Pistols held at Crystal Palace last July for a forthcoming video release. The band's single God Save the Queen, whose sleeve featured HM with a safety-pin through her nose, was re-released to mark the golden jubilee. Unpredictably warm towards the jubilee itself - "as long as Elizabeth keeps (the Prince of Wales) off the throne she's doing a good job" - he was also thrilled by the Pistols' live performance. "It was the best Pistols concert ever. Thousands of hooligans all gathered together, no trouble at all, which only goes to show that the working classes do not turn on each other, whatever the middle classes expect us to do," he proclaims.
Having lived in LA for more than 15 years, Lydon is unashamedly romantic about the English working classes, the same people who refused to let a room to his parents John and Eileen when they stepped off the boat from Ireland. No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, a common landlord's sign in the 1960s, became the title of his autobiography, which is being turned into an unlikely Hollywood movie. From the comfort of Santa Monica he rails against new Labour. "England has been betrayed again, this time by Tony Blair. But what do you expect from him? Norman Tebbit was horrible, and I hated everything Margaret Thatcher did but at least she stuck to her guns, you knew what you were dealing with, straight up. Not like that posh bastard Tony."
He would rather rave about Sir Winston Churchill, the people's choice (alongside more motley selections such as Lydon, and the Satanist Aleister Crowley) in the recent BBC poll. "Oh yeah, the right choice as number one, no doubt. He would have got my vote. In war times the English always turn to a Tory for real leadership." As for his own inclusion in the top 100: "I accidentally stepped into the pages of English political history and I like it." Even in LA, politics has got Lydon into trouble. He covered the last Democrat party convention in the city for an internet radio station which sacked him for being too rude about Al Gore. He was hired by VH1, a pop music channel, to run amok on the political scene for his own show, Rotten TV, "but then I realised they only wanted me to be nasty about the Republicans. When I started asking hard questions about the Democrats, they fired me. The Democrats run Californian TV companies".
Despite these journalistic setbacks, Lydon is, in a phrase he would hate, comfortable. He skis as well as surfs and is a familiar figure skateboarding or shopping for organic vegetables near his Pounds 1m home in Marina del Rey, an upmarket yachting complex where he keeps his cabin cruiser. When he's not sailing the Pacific coast, he's at his weekend getaway 20 miles north along the famed Malibu coastline. One shudders to think what Sid would have made of his Volvo. An ashtray, probably, or a home-made bomb. Yes, Rotten seems quite at home among the middle-aged middle classes. His home, he says fondly, is always full of kids. He has been married for 20 years to Nora Forster, a 60-year-old German media company heiress: they were introduced by her daughter Arianna, better known during the punk era as the dreadlocked singer from the Slits, Ari Up. Though he has no children of his own - a matter of bad luck, bad timing and regret, he says - Lydon helps look after Ari's children. "I love my grandchildren, they are everything to me.
And this despite the fact I have been accused of being a racist and they are as black as the ace of spades. And, no, I do not know what being politically correct means." But if you want to turn Lydon into the old monster that was Johnny Rotten, education is the trigger: he has an enduring anger about the British school system. Lydon was, in fact, set to become a teacher when fame, in the form of an impromptu audition for the Pistols - for which, naturally, he sang an Alice Cooper song - changed his life. As a child himself, he nearly fell victim to hapless teachers.
Against all the odds, given that his early childhood was spent behind fibreglass curtains in a council flat in East Anglia while his father was away working on the oil rigs, Lydon was reading by the time he was three. Then it started to go wrong. "At seven I went down with meningitis," he recalls, "and spent the next year in a coma. When I woke up, the school did not know what to do with me. They were no help at all, they just screwed things up, made them worse. But despite them I never failed an exam, got all my A-levels too." The system, he says, "mucks up so many kids, not appreciating what they can be, and I hate seeing hurt children. It hurts me", repeats the man once denounced by tabloid newspapers as "the worst threat to our kids since Hitler".
Now, he is considering working with kids professionally in Los Angeles. What would he teach them? "Basic values, like my dad taught me when he kicked me out of the house. Self-reliance, honesty, knowing who to trust - which is not any government, not any media, only your family and a few close friends. Nobody else." His mother died 15 years ago, leaving just his childhood memories of Crimplene and pungent perfume, but these days he talks to his father every week. "We fight like cat and dog, usually because we do not understand each other even now, but I love him." Over two hours and a dozen Marlboros, Lydon is, by turn, playful, satirical, smart, silly, generous, paranoid, evasive and disarmingly open. Given his extreme volatility it can be difficult to judge when he is genuinely furious - that famous pale-eyed stare daring you to utter another banality - and when he is being merely theatrical. Apparent rages blow out of a blue sky.
One such rage erupts when I suddenly ask once too often about life in LA, after the ninth bottle of sake. He puts on the Stare and ups the volume as he brands The Sunday Times a manifestation of the evil middle class - a conspiracy on a par with older generations' nightmares about masons, rabbis, Jesuits and Frenchmen. He glares, coughs and spits into an ashtray, revealing unhealthy white strands across a reddened tongue, and says: "That is for you, that is what I think of the middle classes." I freeze. Suitably encouraged, he menaces further. "I could come over at you right now, throw this table at you. Right now." An alarming vision of one slightly tubby expat hurling himself across the tuna platter at another out-of-condition middle-aged Brit in a hands-on demonstration of class warfare was touching proof enough that childhood fires still burn deep. I offered a silent prayer to the gods of back pain - while finding myself grateful that it takes more than a Californian tan to cover up the punk within John Lydon.
Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom)