Sex Pistols frontman says he is a folk singer

Sex Pistols' (from far left) Sid Vicious, Steve Jones, John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten, and Paul Cook in their heyday. Bassist Glen Matlock is not in the picture.
Sex Pistols' (from far left) Sid Vicious, Steve Jones, John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten, and Paul Cook in their heyday. Bassist Glen Matlock is not in the picture.PHOTO: UNIVERSAL MUSIC

NEW YORK • The wild-eyed rock star who came to prominence telling his listeners they had no future has been spending a lot of time lately thinking about the past. John Lydon, the Britain-born frontman of Public Image Ltd - who also goes by the alias Johnny Rotten when he performs with his punk band the Sex Pistols - sat down last year and wrote out the lyrics for all the songs he has composed over a musical career of some four decades.

Now Lydon is publishing the results from this guided tour of his psyche, which took him about six months to complete, as a book called Mr Rotten's Songbook.

The book, which will be released on Friday, contains his handwritten lyrics for bluntly powerful Sex Pistols songs such as God Save The Queen and Anarchy In The UK, as well as more nuanced Public Image tracks such as Death Disco, accompanied by his scabrous cartoon artwork and other illuminations.

Lydon, 61, said Mr Rotten's Songbook helped him reconnect with emotions he felt at various stages of his career. "I'm a great seething ball of everything I've learnt in my life," he explained in a recent phone interview from his home in Los Angeles.

Here, he talks more about the making of Mr Rotten's Songbook and how his formative punk-rock misadventures shaped his perspective on current events. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Where did you get the idea for this project?

The offer came up to tour China. We thought: "Fat-chance hotel on that one." Because they insisted on a copy of every lyric I'd written, to analyse it. And then, shock horror, they actually approved us. So I immediately thought: "Where have I gone wrong?"

You published a memoir, Anger Is An Energy, in 2014. Was preparing for this book a different process?

For the last book, I had to investigate my childhood illnesses and that was something I never discussed with anyone, really. I managed to clear my head and became a better person for that.

So here's, my God, a huge pile of songs I've written over the years. I think it's 127 of them. It's intriguing for me to go back to the moments I wrote each one and what was flashing in my head. Sometimes it's just blocks of colours or squiggles. It's a part of my insane thinking process that's driving me slowly crazy. (Laughs.)

So when you're writing a song, you're not always thinking of what's immediately in front of you?

Oh, I'm not. With songs, I'll run them in my head, sometimes for years, before I commit them to paper. And it's at that exact moment that it all comes flooding back, usually in one solid chunk. I don't mean to grab any thunder from a man who I did respect as a comedian, but Robin Williams, my God - I'd seen him live once and he left such a great impression on me, that I'm not the only one who babbles inside my head at 1,000 miles an hour, in 200 different directions. It was nice to find a kindred confusionist.

Is it tedious to have to revisit your work with the Sex Pistols again?

I don't blame people for wanting to focus on that first, initial burst. The big bang. But I've done so much more important work since. That's what Public Image do. I would have loved to have been a writer, but the written word on its own was never satisfying enough. And music on its own, without me in it, is a little pointless. (Laughs.)

You wrote some very angry songs as a young man. Can you still tap into that anger now?

It's the same thing. It's a young person, and now a slightly older one - but not much, in terms of the space- time continuum - asking questions. What is this for? Does that work? How? Explain it to me. Educate me. That's all I'm doing, asking questions.

Do you want to tell your younger self, "Wait until you're older - then you'll really find things to be angry about"?

Oh, no. I understand where you're going but, believe me, I was fully angry. There was a whole world out there that was sacrosanct and untouchable, like the royal family. Excuse me. I have a valid opinion on these things. Shall I stand up and be counted? And look where that got me.

What soured you on punk rock?

It went horrible when it started to feel packaged and sold as a commodity, rather than a do-it-yourself act of independence. I found that I was quickly being turned into a pop star there and I was uncomfortable with that. For want of a better word - and I've tried to explain it, but even this seems to confuse people - I view myself as a folk singer.

Wait, really?

I'm one of the folk and I'm writing about what us folk feel. Thank God for Bob Dylan going electric - it's his fault.

You're a United States citizen now, but do you still keep an eye on the political tumult in the country where you were born and raised?

Frankly, I came to America because, yes, it (Britain) might have been the country I was raised in, but it was very fast becoming the country I was being erased in. The censorship, the police raids, it was absurd, and America seemed to have welcomed me. I became an American a few years back. I'm one of the few who beat the wall.

If you weren't taking my questions, what would you normally be doing on a day like today?

Hard work, because I've got a boiler repairman coming over and I'm supposed to know something about it. I've read the manual. It didn't get me no further down the road. (Laughs.) I hate the idea of someone doing something that I could've done myself and probably better, but, then again, I don't have a plumber's licence. I could put a toilet in all right, but as soon as there's any wiring, it's like, you know, John, you're making a bomb! (Laughs.)


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2017, with the headline 'Sex Pistols frontman says he is a folk singer'. Print Edition | Subscribe