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John Lydon Ages (Sorta) Gracefully

John Lydon / Photo by Paul Heartfield

Belying his Rotten reputation, John Lydon is actually quite the sweetheart. Not that you’d guess after listening to Public Image Ltd.’s first new album in 20 years, June’s fiery self-released dub-punk opus This is PiL (distributed via Redeye). But in conversation, the ex-Sex Pistols frontman, 56, is gracious and good-humored, even while addressing some very contentious issues. On the phone from his home in Los Angeles, the native Londoner chatted with SPIN about label hassles, encouraging compassion over group-think, and how to evolve into a genteel firebrand.

I grew up thinking that music all comes from a place of verbal warfare, and it doesn’t.
I learned to write songs with the Pistols. And good on them and all that, but we were always in some kind of animosity — of course the gossip mongering that the management spread didn’t help. But I’ve discovered over the years that music can come from somewhere really good, somewhere honest.

You have to get out from underneath contractual obligations that are stifling you.
I was still under contract until the last two years with some of the original labels, and they wouldn’t release me. Until the debt was recouped, I couldn’t release any new music. For two decades, I was more or less in a stranglehold, a Catch-22 really, and it was murderous. A record company used to be a very good thing, but they ended up soul-destroyingly trapping people in the accounting department. And you couldn’t get any further, and the heads of each department were changing all the time, so you couldn’t have any permanent relationship within the corporation. I had to learn the patience game.

Being very open naturally leads to songs.
The sentiments in the songs [on This is PiL] are not just mine. This is us as a band, the way we sit down and confront issues with each other. The songs all come from talk and discussion and tour-bus anxieties. I can trust [guitarist-multi-instrumentalist Lu Edmonds and drummer Bruce Smith] implicitly, and they’re both very, very different. We’re all very different characters, but we know we mean it when we say something. None of us have any room for lies. For me, the new album is like a happy-go-lucky love song.

Sometimes, you have to admit faults within yourself.
It’s kind of difficult. I had childhood illnesses that kind of helped me with this to no end — better than any therapy, oddly enough. I lost my memory when I was seven-years-old to meningitis, and that took some four years to sort out. I didn’t even know my mom and dad were my real parents. And I had to learn to trust them, and so for me, when anybody tells me something, I want to believe that it is true. Many people in the past have found that very difficult to work with. Pity them.

You have to deal with politics. All the time.
No matter what you experience in life, it incorporates political tendencies, and in so many ways. Dealing with relationships of friends and family all leads into the same thing: You have to be well-grounded and have a good set of values. And for me, I think those values are coming through in the new songs, because I’m not about hurting anyone or taking anything from anyone. I’m in this world to share it. This is my space, and I respect your space. Don’t trod on mine and tell me what to do.

If you leave huge bunches of children with nothing to do, they’re going to do something.
Going into record [This is PiL], there were riots in England. They started in London, and many people got killed. It was terrible. Nobody seemed to be able to control them, because all the alleged leaders — the head of police, the mayor of London, and all the top political wigs — were all on holiday. No one was in charge of anything, so you had a pretty damned-near aimless police force out there wandering around, not knowing what they’re doing, and it just ended up with kids trying to nick TVs and sneakers. The disenfranchised going, “Oh, I’ll use this as an opportunity.” You gotta bear in mind, the youth — and this is just in Britain alone — have nowhere to go in the evenings. They’ve closed all the social centers. There’s not even a patch of grass to kick a ball on.

Don’t let the bastards grind you down into thinking that life has to be miserable.
I think as a species, we’re a wonderful creation, and I will be no man or woman’s cannon fodder, plain and simple. I attack institutions for the benefit of all of us, and to hell with the consequences, ’cause I mean no harm.