Legendary Punk John Lydon on Public Image Ltd, David Bowie and Being Called a Trump Supporter: 'I'm Not Insane!'

John Lydon deserves as much credit for the punk explosion as any other living human. Not that he is eager for a formal title. “I don’t see music in categories like that,” the 62-year-old insists. “You should never allow yourself to be categorized or bracketed or contained or neatly packaged in somebody else's phraseology.”

As Johnny Rotten, the sneering frontman for the Sex Pistols, he mocked the queen, swore on live TV and incited concert mayhem. But he’s made far more interesting—and brashly anti-commercial—music as the leader of the pioneering post-punk group Public Image Ltd (PiL), which went from 1979’s abrasive and inscrutable Metal Box to an unlikely hit with 1986’s apartheid-inspired “Rise.”

Lydon’s improbably long career with PiL is chronicled in the new documentary The Public Image Is Rotten (out September 14) in which everyone from Flea to Thurston Moore materializes to laud the band’s long-tailed influence. Asked if the documentary tells the truth, Lydon tells Newsweek, “It's as good as anything else I've ever seen or heard.”

This interview with Lydon has been lightly edited and condensed.

John Lydon John Lydon, pictured on April 21, 2017 in New York City. The punk rocker says that using butter money to reform PiL was "the most anarchic thing I’ve ever experienced." Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Were you worried the new documentary would dredge up bad blood between you and your former bandmates? There was some drama within PIL.
No! Listen, if there’s bad blood there, it’s not of my making. And people who have poisoned the store—well, there’s not much you can do for them except laugh. There’s no point in people moaning about me. Quite frankly, I’ve given them all wonderful opportunities, and spent a lot of my own personal money on them to be in those positions. Anything negative to say about me would be an act of incredible unkind selfishness.

In the documentary, Flea reveals that he auditioned to be in PiL. I didn't know that.
Fine chap. Very good fun, him. He's open and human. I never knew he was going to be in this documentary. That came as quite a surprise to me, when his face zinged up on the screen.

The film gives a good sense of what really happened at PiL’s infamous 1981 New York City show, when the crowd began to riot.
If you could call that a riot! The softest silliness I ever seen. Of course, the newspapers would call it a “riot.” But it wasn’t. It was just a lot of confused people turning their confusion into some sense of fun. Nobody got hurt, damaged, murdered or killed. I would describe it as an insanely incompetent yet deeply funny fiasco!

There's always that element in the media where they want to twist a thing too far poisonous. And yet, when there are poisonous situations out there—and there are many—they tend to avoid them

Do you think the media twisted comments you made about President Trump? You were called a Trump supporter.
Yeah! It’s very odd. I came here, and I’m called a Trump supporter. I’m far from it! I’m not a hater, either. I feel like I’m watching one of those strange TV comedy series where you can’t possibly guess [Trump's] next one-liner. A comedy of farce! A comedy of errors! We all like watching those things. So that’s how I view it. Of course, I’m very frightened by the prospects of the end of it. I’m not insane.

Do you have a favorite PiL album?
No. Yet to make that. That's how ambitious I am. Working on making the perfect record. I don't know if any such thing could exist. I like the philosophy of Turkish carpet makers: They'll always make one bum stitch, because nothing could be perfect in the eyes of their god. That's a rather lovely philosophy to have.

Are you optimistic about the state of punk today?
As much as I would think about the state of, I don’t know, Nebraska.

I’m not quite sure what you mean by that.
I don’t see music in categories like that. I never did. And anybody that accepts the labeling in that way is really cutting their nose off to spite their face. 

Do you resent being called one of the founding figures of punk?
Resent? Hardly! Very proud of my achievements in life. I just resent the imitators that try to follow suit. Hello? I’m John, you know? There’s no need for another one! What’s your name? Why can’t you be what you are?

That was the only real ideology I’ve ever presented: Be yourself. By imitating anybody else out there, well, that’s no good. I don’t need a cardboard-cutout version of anything or anyone.

What do you think [Sex Pistols bandmate] Sid Vicious would be doing today if he were alive? [Vicious died of a drug overdose in 1979.]
I don’t know. You’d have to ask him! I can’t answer imponderables. It’s like saying, If pigs could fly, would there be pork in the treetops? I just miss him.

John Lydon John Lydon of Public Image Ltd performs during the 2013 Glastonbury Festival. Lydon says the band is "working on making the perfect record." Ian Gavan/Getty Images

We’ve lost so many punk and rock icons, both in the 1970s and very recently. Do you feel like a survivor?
There used to be that expression “Dying like flies.” Unfortunately, for me, it’s turning into “Dying like peers.” It’s very sad, and it upsets the hell out of me. I don’t view myself as old. I don’t even understand the concept of old. Unless you’re a bit worn out in the brain and you need to relax a little more. That would be fine if it were happening to me, but it isn’t.

There’s a horrible phrase that goes on in England. It’s called “Act your age.” You shouldn’t be aware of your age! Unless you're physically not up to it. But then nature tells you what to do. Follow your nature, not society. Society doesn't think naturally. It thinks politically or religiously, which are two alien invaders to free thought.

Was David Bowie’s death upsetting to you?
It was shocking. But I think the man died so reasonably regally. Wonderfully brave, to just go quietly and let the work speak for itself.

And he made extraordinary music on his way out.
Well, he tried. Let’s put it that way. I can’t say I’m a great lover of all of it. The fact that he magnificently soldiered on, I think, is power! For the rest of us to absorb.

You’ve had remarkable longevity in music. What’s your secret?
I avoided the showbiz industry that leads to ultimate corruption. You end up in all them silly gossip magazines and your private life torn apart. If you stay away from all that, you’re saving yourself an awful lot of money. I think if you’re doing anything with an artistic lean, you need to be doing it honestly. Hence why I’m allegedly difficult to work with [when it comes to] large record labels. I think the truth is the other way around: It’s them who’s difficult for me to work with!

Is that why you prefer to use your own money to fund PiL?
Yes, of course. To stay out of what we call the “shit-stem.” I’m very proud of the fact that the butter industry of Britain threw a load of money our way so that we could reform PIL. I came to terms very easily with myself: Well, look, they’ve offered me all this money, and I do eat butter. Yippee!

You're referring to a 2009 Country Life butter commercial that you statted in. In a surreal twist, you used that money to reform PiL. 
It’s the most anarchic thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. At the time, my head was rolling with it: “Wow, this is so insane! And twisted! How on earth could they think I’d be promoting butter!” It came to meetings, and I found them to be really open. It was the friendliest form of communication I’ve had with any corporate way of thinking, and it got me out of the debt with the record labels. Basically, it boiled down to: “There’s a field. There’s some cows in it. What do you think you could do, John?”

Why did PiL's lineup change so much over the years?
When record companies interfere—and they do—they love to spread little gossipy rumors between band members. That can cause all manner of friction. On top of that, record companies resented the fact that I was bringing alleged "unknowns" into PiL. It's very hard to remind them that the Sex Pistols, all four of us, were unknowns!

What’s a typical day for you  these days?
Just nice quiet lifestyle, my missus, Nora, and me. We don’t “go out” much. We keep each other company. Quietness, really.

You stay in and cook?
Well, have to. I don’t trust restaurants. I don’t like being forced into fashionable places.

Sex Pistols The Sex Pistols perform in Copenhagen on July 27, 1977. Frontman Johnny Rotten has gone on to a long and strange career with the experimental band Public Image Ltd. Keystone Features/Getty Images

Why don’t you trust restaurants?
I’m not interested in other people’s menus. Nora and me, we’re the kind of people who open a fridge and we see what’s in it and we juxtapose everything available into something edible. And oddly enough, that’s the way I write songs, too. All our songs really are about emotions. You can only use the experiences you’ve had with those emotions to put that song together. And by the writing, that creates other blends and flavors of emotions and you learn in the process. And you take that out live, and the song naturally expands. Because an audience is informing you of their take on those emotions. That’s sharing.

Speaking of songwriting, one of the most impactful songs you've ever written was "Rise." Were you surprised how many people were moved by it?
It meant something very deeply to me, and I'm quite proud that it had such a positive effect on other people. I don't think I'm responsible for songs that have created negativity in anyone's life. Even the more morbid among them are still refreshing reminders that even in self-torment, we're looking for answers.

You worked with guitarist Steve Vai on that song.
Amazingly enough, people like Steve just volunteered and came running at me. I never thought those kinds of allegedly wonderful "genius" musicians would ever want anything to do with me. I thought they'd all view me as incompetent or stupid. It really changed the way I viewed myself. I became less punishing to me. Because negative press, whether you like it or not, can fucking drag you down.

Your publicist is telling me we need to wrap up. Thank you, John, for your reflections.
May the road rise and your enemies always be behind you. May they scatter, flatter, batter and shatter. Alright? Peace.

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