The words are wistful, sensitive. Certainly not what you’d expect to come, measured and meditative, from the snaggle-toothed, trenchant maw of John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten. He doesn’t write essays for Chicken Soup books or compose Hallmark cards; he’s the crazy-eyed, loose-cannon singer of the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd.—the guy who on national television dropped two-thirds of the epithet triumvirate (“Fucking cunts,” he said!). His anarchism rivals only the Rapture’s Comin’ sect of Christianity in its scorched earthiness, and his foreign policy, well … his way or the highway.
Except he did cry about Sid Vicious in Julian Temple’s documentary The Filth and the Fury, and uttered those inspirational words on the U.K. television show The Meaning of Life, following them up thusly: “But you know, when you get the chance, grab it. You, too, could be a Sex Pistol.” Perhaps the Grinch’s heart has grown a size or three in the 32 years since he started pissing everyone off.
Or maybe not. Asked to expand on his lucky moments, Lydon sighs dramatically and contradicts himself in true Rotten fashion. “That’s a nonsense question. I don’t look at life like that, so forget it. Just being alive is good enough. All the rest is icing on the cake.”
He’s a crafty bastard, frosting the contradiction just enough to retain a dash of veracity. It’s why we love him, why we hate him. He’s everything and nothing we think he is—a riddle wrapped in an enigma and hidden away in his own arsehole.
It’s his sense of humor that tilts him toward lovable. Even when the existential line of questioning brings up a lucky moment—when Lydon cheated death by missing the doomed Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, he’s like a child, playfully refusing to give the satisfaction of agreement. “I wouldn’t say I cheated death. I was robbed of my death.” Even his laughter is complex: ironic, sardonic, sinister, cheerful.
“You gotta look at life with a smile,” he furthers, attacking the public’s predisposition to negative thoughts. “Let’s get off this ‘woe is me’ stuff. I mean, I nearly died of meningitis when I was young. I was in a coma for four months. But you won’t get my harping on about it.”
Seconds later, he goes against himself. “Misery becomes me,” he says matter-of-factly, then bounces back. “I’ve lead a tough life. I come from an extremely poor working-class background. Working-class in American means lowest on the rung, right? All right? I mean piss-poor.” It’s another setup.
“If I survived that with a smile, I can survive anything,” he sneers triumphantly. “I don’t like people who wallow in self-pity because there’s no time for it.”
Lydon speaks a convoluted truth, thereby appearing to be a gasbag and a guru. It’s divinely entertaining but also compelling. Lydon’s utter disregard for others’ opinions, at least of him, is charming. And if you let him rant long enough, between the contradictions, vulgarities (“I have a fine pair, yes! Are they where I left them?”), insults (“’Ow many wives ’ave you got?”), political advice (“Don’t vote for Mitt Romney … he’s creepy,” “Barack Obama is an intellectual lightweight”), no non sequiturs (“I must complain about American toilets. You know, the hairs do dangle in the water. You need bigger bowls!”), there are nuggets of wisdom.
“You’ve got to fully equip yourself from an early age onward,” he says. “Education is not something to sneer at. It’s the only thing I can see that is free. And I made it a point from a very early age of excelling in school because I loved that kind of work.
“I was a horrible student. The teachers hated me. But I never failed an exam. … I had to educate myself because the system was not there for my benefit. The teachers don’t really try. … why should they? It’s your challenge, not theirs.”
It’s here one realizes the depth of the man: He’s a petulant child, autodidact, armchair pundit, frat boy, punk, arsehole—pretty much any designation works, but only if it’s part of the larger list. To call him any one thing would be inaccurate. And though he claims there’s no insult to any word “except if it comes with a lie,” there’s one that gives him the red ass.
It’s not “sellout,” a word currently bandied about thanks to the Pistols’ recent reunion gigs, controversial sale of their catalog to Universal Music Group, and re-recording “Pretty Vacant” and “Anarchy in the U.K.” for Guitar Hero III. “I’ve sold out every gig I’ve ever done,” he deflects. “Anybody who thinks that we shouldn’t be connecting with video games doesn’t understand us as human beings. You know, we do play the things ourselves also, and Guitar Hero is wonderful ... Anyone who wants to badmouth us around that is talking shit—as per usual—because there are no flies on us. Ever. Never will be.”
Nor is it Rotten: “It’s as good a name as any, innit?”
“Haven’t I just [been called every name in the book]? Some of them deserving. Some not so. The worst thing ever said to me was, “Oh you’re really nice.” I found that highly offensive. [It] implies nothing at all. It’s bland. It’s mediocre. And I’ve tried not to be dull!” The bottom line? “If you don’t like the way I am, mind your own fucking business! Plain and simple. I ain’t gettin’ in your face; don’t get in mine.”