John Lydon, of Public Image and Sex Pistols Fame, Comes to Terms With ‘Anniversary Rot’

The former Johnny Rotten talks Public Image's 40th anniversary binge, with a boxed set, documentary and U.S. tour.

John Lydon
Paul Heartfield / Courtesy of Abramorama

When John Lydon begins a warm and humorous conversation by saying, “Hello,  I am very much alive for anyone who is interested — don’t worry though, I’ve been working hard at not being,” you know he’s taking the piss. For all of his notorious snark and cynicism, the thing that comes through loudest in his post-Rotten, post-Sex Pistols career with Public Image Ltd. (a.k.a. PiL) is how joyful and hard-working he is, and how ebulliently he speaks of those who’ve stuck with him — including his wife, Nora Forster, and this longest-ever line-up of PiL (guitarist Lu Edmonds, bassist Scott Firth and drummer Bruce Smith), with whom he’s collaborated for ten years.

That unity hasn’t always been there, which is the point of the recently released and currently screening Lydon/PiL documentary, “The Public Image is Rotten.” Then again, it’s been that mash-up of musicians, old pals and frenemies that have made up what is 40 years of PiL, an anniversary celebrated with a newly-released box set under the same name (which adds the parenthetical subtitle, “(Songs from the Heart),” a U.S. tour, and the recording of a new album. Variety caught up with Lydon — an American citizen living in Los Angeles — while he was visiting his former home of London. Currently on tour in Europe, PiL hits America in October.

The last time we spoke, the last words you said to me were about Donald Trump being a headless chicken — it was right after he announced his candidacy for president. As an American citizen, how do you think the headless chicken doing?
I barbecued it last week! It was quite delicious, it was hefty. I left the feathers on, I’m saving the feet for a charm. That’s about as political as I’ve bothered to be as of late, under the circumstances. But let’s consider what I’ve done, shall we?

Okay. Apart from the money-grab of a live Sex Pistols album and tours, you’ve generally stayed away from the kind of retrospection you’re going through at present — boxed set, tour, documentary. Why embrace it now?
It really just came up without me realizing it. The Pistols, I know. I’ve dealt with them. But just like at the time of their original collapse, I needed to move forward rather than hark on laurels so lightly feathered.

That’s the second time you’ve brought up feathers.
Ha. Last year’s Pistols stuff, all that anniversary rot, reminded the busy bees of the PIL industry that we might put things together for our own anniversary, and so I’m quite happy doing so. We were touring anyway because we love to play, and that’s how we earn the money to make the next record, which we’ve started. The documentary has been something like an eight-year process, one that’s shapeshifted into many things. Luckily the two bubbles, box and documentary,  have joined into one at just the right time.

What made you go with a first-time director?
There were many people who volunteered. I was a fly-on-the-wall in the process, really. His was just the most direct and honest approach, which is probably why it turned into such a full-fledged and fully-rounded commentary on PiL.

Considering that the documentary and the box set touch on the band’s legacy, how do you view [estranged cofounders] Jah Wobble and Keith Levene, or longtime drummer Martin Atkins? You seem to value lifetime friendships.
Before we drove the juggernaut that is PiL, we had the Mini-Cooper that was Sex Pistols [which is where these friendships were built]. Listen, I never make enemies of anybody. If they want to view me in a negative light, that’s all well and fine, because it really only adds to my songwriting material in the long run. By my standards and values, the truth will out, no matter what. Lies be told, liars be damned. I have given an awful lot of people an awful lot of chances at a good career, with too few of them showing any gratitude. That’s not big-headed of me in any way, shape or form. It cost me a lot of money to be able to do that. Sometime it cost me record contracts.

Over the course of your career, label execs complained that you didn’t work with well-known musicians — and when you did, on 1986’s “Album,” you made the situation odder by not crediting them on the cover.
Yes. The label didn’t know that Ginger Baker — who I adore, it was honor to work with him in the studio, and have him be part of the documentary — was on the album. Or Steve Vai, Ryuichi Sakamoto or Tony Williams for that matter. Even though we had a hit with “Rise,” the label ultimately fired me for working with unknowns. (laughs) The irony of it all is supremely funny to me.

Something that gets lost in your sense of irony is how hard you work.
Oh no, I don’t fear hard work. I often consider myself incredibly lazy, but I do what I must. My life is a bit of an endurance course, you see.  I work in short, sharp bursts of recording and touring, which takes incredible stamina, then rely on longer moments of repose. Mentally, really, it‘s just about catching your own breath.

Is this year different, as you’re working on new material while dealing with the past work?
The new material touches on what it touches on. This year as we ‘re touring, promoting the box, the documentary and readying the new album. It’s different, as there are all manner of personal issues within the family that are weighing me down — many illness and life-threatening ones, to boot, it is very hard for me to cope with all this, but I have to push my way through. So maybe I get a pat on the back in which to endure. if I don’t, I might get pushed over a cliff instead (laughs).

So, what pulls you through?
Humor. I have found, in life, that finding humor in myself allows me to find as much in others. There is no point in being bitter, twisted and spreading poison pen remarks. That’s a challenge that I face.

Does it help having this band, with whom you’ve worked for so long, be a part of your trajectory as a person and as an artist?
Yes. They’re very close friends, and it works in an entirely different way than I was ever used to when I was younger. I guess it takes time. Because that is all I ever wanted: A trust, that deep sense of understanding each other.  A place and a situation where there is no competition, but rather the ability and desire to complement to each other always. After 40 years, that is the most astounding achievement for me.