JOHN LYDON is happy—and something of a hippie. Huh?!
No, really. In a recent nearly hour-long interview with the man many know as Johnny Rotten, the sneering iconoclast turned icon who fronted the Sex Pistols during punk's first sputum-flecked flourishing, Lydon spouted bromides more in line with a woolly '60s rocker like Ray Manzarek. (By the way, Lydon likes the Doors.) One senses that the firebrand immortalized in Neil Young's "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" doesn't want to destroy passersby anymore.
Now 54, this London-born son of Irish-Catholic immigrants who suffered coma-inducing meningitis when he was seven years old seems like he should be a bitter geezer... or dead. But no. He lives in wedded bliss in Los Angeles with Nora Forster. His post-Pistols group, Public Image Ltd. (AKA PiL, which Lydon pronounces "pill"), lumbered back into life in 2009 with some UK dates, after a 17-year hiatus. They received generally positive reviews—some 30 years after they peaked with the landmark post-punk album Metal Box (retitled Second Edition after its initial run of three 12-inches packaged in film canisters ran out).
After flaming across the world's consciousness as one of punk's most provocative figureheads, Lydon could've coasted on the notoriety of his Pistols tenure and milked that persona for easy money. Instead, he ripped up the script and started from scratch with PiL, which initially included ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene, earth-moving bassist Jah Wobble, and a rotating cast of drummers, including Martin Atkins.
With their first three extraordinary LPs, PiL shook punk's stylistic shackles and forged uniquely caustic and stark variations on rock, dub, and disco. Their alien vibrations are still inspiring musicians and blowing listeners' minds today. Stereolab's Tim Gane, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, the Jesus Lizard's David Yow, among many others, are diehard fans, and critic Simon Reynolds proclaimed Metal Box to be post-punk's zenith.
So, why take PiL back on the road now? Two things prompted this tour: lack of money and record-company support, and the death of Lydon's father in 2008. The latter event "brought back to home a song I wrote many moons ago in PiL called 'Death Disco'—which is about the death of my mother," Lydon says over the phone from LA. He speaks in ALL CAPS and with crisp enunciation; dude's a bit of a ham, and though his answers sometimes come across as rehearsed, they're usually entertaining. "The same emotions just strung through me. I really need to get Public Image back out there. It was a band both of my parents truly appreciated.
"I've never been able to come to grips with the death of friends and family... or the death of anybody," he continues. "It's my nature, because I'm a pacifist at heart. If I have any philosophy to follow, politically, it would be Gandhi. [Hippie!] The only way to relieve the stress of those things has been the songs that I write in PiL."
This sounds like a good strategy. "It's not a strategy," Lydon counters. "It became a complete necessity. Otherwise I'd feel incredibly stifled. I just can't be cozy in a rock band and just coast. Although I'm always close to financial ruin, it doesn't really matter. The work I do in PiL is always 100 percent honest. Because of that, it's incredibly cutting edge. I'm not copying anybody; I'm singing from the heart and the soul. The musicians who wrap themselves around me are of equal billing and stature."
Those musicians for this jaunt—which is mainly happening due to money Lydon made from a whimsical and successful TV advert for Country Life butter (PiL are label-less)—include drummer Bruce Smith (ex-Pop Group and Rip Rig + Panic), guitarist Lu Edmonds (ex-Damned), and bassist Scott Firth. Lydon talked to Wobble about rejoining, but they couldn't agree on compensation.
"He doesn't understand that I don't have the cash to be paying top dollar," Lydon explains. "It's unfortunate, because I certainly helped him have a career." Wobble badmouthed the reunion in the press, but PiL's leader dismisses his gripes as "a load of fallacy."
Lydon remains unfazed by the setback. "I've worked with 39 different people over the years in PiL. The ones that I think work the best are the best. We ended up with the best bassist [Scott Firth] the world has ever offered—a man whose résumé stretches from Stevie Winwood to the Spice Girls is not to be balked at. That's the full range of emotions right there. That's the perfect person." (Lydon seems to be applying the sarcasm thickly here.)
"Bruce Smith and Lu Edmonds I've worked the longest in any PiL format with," he continues. "We're mentally so in tune with each other onstage that the songs have an amazing freedom. We're able to improvise things beyond the regular imagination of the more mundane out there. None of us are aggressive. I don't live in this world to propagate arguments. Public Image is a band that tries to resolve issues."