"I've had two near-death experiences in my life and I've come out both of them. Why would I not want to be alive? Pity is your worst enemy."
Previously unpublished interview with John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten (2014)
Congratulations on your new book, Anger Is An Energy: My Life Uncensored published by Simon & Schuster. I wanted to start the interview with asking about the very last spread in the book, the picture of Estonia Rock Summer Festival audience in 1988. I think it's genius that you have it as the last image. I was born in Estonia, but two years after this image.
Then you'll understand what that picture celebrates. That was before the wall came down and Russia stopped their influence. Public Image played a concert in Estonia. It was attended by enormous amount of people. It was, in my mind, one of our greatest gigs. The atmosphere was so overwhelmingly upbeat and positive and Estonia was looking forward to freedom. Whatever the word freedom means. Getting out of underneath somebody else's coat tails, eg the calamity we call Russia or the USSR in them days. So, yes, it's a celebration. It's always left a very good impression in my mind that time in Estonia.
You have been political throughout your career. Where does it come from?
The early Pistols, the politic side would be really me aiming taking a swipe at organized politics or religion or any institution that assumed they had the right to tell me what to do, think and who I was obliged to. I progressed from there, now in Public Image my work is more personal politics. It's more about finding out who I really am. Now the term Anger is Energy I've used in many ways in many shapes and forms over the years. I used it in a song called Rise to explain the horrendous situation that was going on in South Africa at that time. The term comes from something in my childhood when I had meningitis and I lost my memory. It took me nearly four years to find out who I was and who my parents were. It was a painful time. When I fully realized my original self, my mom and dad told me that the hospital said to them to keep me angry. It would be the best way for me to find myself again, rather than be allowed to slip and thereby probably becoming institutionalized. So they would do that. And they would ask questions always, they would never allow me to be lazy, to keep me guessing, to keep me trying to find out the research inside myself who I actually really was. So anger has over the years served me well. I think it's a good springboard for others to observe that anger does not mean violent. Far from it. It can be used in a very positive way. And the example of my life is one of those positives.
You have been banned from playing in many countries, in Finland you were even the first popular music band to be banned from performing.
I was banned in Britain, as The Pistols we were told we couldn't play so what we naturally did, we went into Europe and tried to play in the Northen territory in Scandinavia and we were banned there in some places too, Finland maybe had been one of them but they have lifted that ban since. I was also banned in Public Image performing in places like Italy in the early days, because of my, what they observed as anti-Catholic style. The word is a powerful thing and I think it can achieve a lot more than violence. It was happening to us very young men you know, we were young and for us if anything, it sharpened my pencil. You see, words are my bullets. I don't believe in killing anybody. It was just the sheer words of an 18-year-old to achieve massive bannings in different continents around the world, well, that somehow is constructive. That I was doing something right. For me it was an affirmation, not a disclaimer. I was doing something right. These institutions, these goverments were the problem. Not me. And their narrow backward way of thinking. If they are going to be opposing freedom and democracy, what is wrong with my opinion? I never declared hatred for any human being. I hate the institution, not human being.
How was the experience of writing this book different from your first autobiography?
Well I mean, the first book again I tried writing it, literally sitting down and writing it. But I think faster than I can write. Therefore it came to the position that I need a friend there to write this for me. It is basically a monologue transferred to paper. But that is the best way to catch how it is I think and feel. Basically, I feel very uplifted by being alive. Just being alive is one of my favorite activities. I have a great deal of fun being alive. Regardless of any calamities before me, I'm not the kind of person to wallow into self-pity. And indeed, from that entire illness when I was young, I mean both the hospital which I was in for a year and my parents would not allow me to feel sorry for myself. I think it gave me the inner strenght that I needed to find out who I really was. So I am assured in my opinions because they are cultivated. I don't just wake up in the morning and feel angry for no reason. Everything is driven by purpose. And the purpose being that I want the correct answers from everybody all the time. For me that would be a wonderful society to live in where it all would be extremely different and honest. We not need to resort into violence because it would be perfectly acceptable to that we all think differently. That is one of the most glorious features of the human race, is that we are very different. We have similarities, we have needs and feelings but it's how we alter them inside our own landscape that matters.
You are doing a new record with PiL.
Oh yes, I am going on a book promotion tour while recording a new album.
It's intense, and I'm performing live gigs in between.
Oh, I love hard work, I love it.
What keeps you going with the band?
Well, I found my place in life. It's doing what I do in Public Image. That's where I belong the most.
What are you looking forward to with the tour and making new music with Public Image?
Again, it's a celebration, the joy of life, of sharing this planet with fellow human beings. For my mind the human race is nature's greatest achievement.
Do you think musicians today are political enough?
I find in music, the closure of records stores which were great places of communication. They were clubhouses really, that's where we met people with similar interests. That side of music is slowly but surely being eroded away. And it's a shame. Music is I think one of the world's greatest levelers. It puts us all in a level playing field and allows us to accept other people's ideas freely and happily. Unlike any other source of entertainment, art or culture. I think it is the highest. And of course, naturally, music is a form of rebellion. It always should be. Currently the entire music structure is so wriggled with rules and mind-numbing regulations, eloquently it's a bit tough on the current generations but I have every hope something new would come out of that. That's how I see it. Until we are bored with the current situation we will replace it with something better. The current politics and rigid laws they don't work, because they are not bearing in mind the future. If you inhere in the past, there will be no future.
About the past. The book is so eventful as is your life. How do you remember everything?
When you as a child, I lost my memory for years, it took four years to fully recover, even my own parents I did not recoqnize them. Slowly but surely, all the things that went into my personality came back to me. Ever since then, every memory I had, I treasure. I love being alive. Even the bad moments, I won't let go at all. Every experience I encounter matters. It matters very seriously. My music reflects my life experiences.
How do you think where you were born affects your music?
Of course my cultural background plays a serious part in my life experiences. I mean, I come from extreme poverty. But everybody where I came from was in the same bucket. And so, people who are born into nothing and given no hope or chance in life of making it, according to the goverment and the education system and the class divide, I have great empathy for their plight. Being there, experienced it, I could have just as easily turned in crime like many people like me where I come from had to. I found another way. And I landed lucky. It was luck I got into the Sex Pistols, really. And I'm never going to throw that gift away. I see it as not only the way I am as human being but as a responsibility to tell the truth. I'm not selling anybody a pop imagery. This is the real me. It always has been.
In the book there is great photographs as well.
Well I hope what I am doing when I talk is explaining things almost picturesquely. I use my words baringly but pointingly so you can envision what it is I am saying, it comes with a complete landscape. A movie really. The transformation of moving pictures, that's how I write songs, that's the ideology in it all. It's to adapt accurately the time, translate by interpretation of emotions. And I know this works live because I can see it in the audience's faces, I can see when they grasp the shared emotion with me. It absolutely becomes a driving force in a live performance. On focusing on these people who are really feeling something sad about themselves and use that energy to Puplic Image live that's what we do. We are doing what religion does.
Some people like that, some people just really dislike what we do. Either way, I'm not gonna stop. You know. I am completely relentless. Over the years I've learned so many what we call the tricks of the trade, you know. With the Pistols onwards we were thrown into a deep end. We deliberately avoided cashing in on that lazy ass pop starism just to make money. I am not interested in the money. I am intrested in the accuracy and the quality of my life. I'm no good to anybody if I'm not myself.
As you said about the tricks of the trade.
I have to sell the records but as I choose not to go that way. I will tell the truth as close as I can ever get. As Johnny Rotten, I know how to put up a defense mechanism, I have to protect myself. But I prefer vunerability. It's a harderpath to follow but it's more rewarding.
How do you feel about critisism?
I don't mind critisism at all, nevermind. But it's the inaccuracy in some of those criticisms that really annoys me. It's that they don't bother to do the research in what it is to be a human being like I feel I do. So therefore the bitter remarks and insults, they just make me laugh because it's sad that someone would do that because it makes a point about themselves. It's difficult enough without. There are people out there who would jump on my back and try to put me down. I've done no wrong to no one. I've made a point of not being discreet, I made a point of being honest and open as much as I possibly can. Let me be! Get on with what I think is what I was born to do. Many people don't understand Johnny Rotten, well, they'll go with the cliches of the media. Listen to these songs, listen to every song I've ever written and you will find a real person there, not just a nasty caricature.
Writing your songs, you put everything out.
I saw emotions. Sometimes that could be very painful to perform those songs live. But it's a worthy journey. I'm looking for answers. And you can find those answers even in the same songs. We experiment. It's all research, all looking for answers. There is no completancy in what we do. We're not just a pop band that strut on stage and bash out the latest album and leave it at that. There is much more, there is much mor inner pain involved in what we do. All of us, Public Image, we need to research.
How do you think your song writing has changed throughout your career?
There was evidently two ways, I could have taken the fame and fortune route which would have always been very easy for me to do, but I've chose not to be like that. That would be dishonest. If you want anything from me at all, it's going to be honest. And of course that is a difficult concept for a lot of people. They don't like to admit when they do wrong. They don't like to analyze themselves and therefore naturally reject me. In itself, it's a work in progress and surely helpful. If somebody really awfully hates me, at least they are thinking!
Do you think there is difference in working in US?
The geography doesn't matter. It only matters because from being ill when I was young I'm very prone to certain illnesses so I want to live where the climate is a little warmer. That's how I maintain my health. My immune system is very weak, I am very prone to bronchitises, all kinds of lung illnesses and ammonias. I get them alarmingly. I try to keep away from that. Stay out of the damp.
UK is very damp.
Yes it is.
As you said, every night through your songs you analyze yourself.
I can't help but do that. You could put it under the category of self-doubt but self-doubt is a very constructive thing to have I find, for me. It gets me better results. I analyze where I am going wrong. I'm not surrounded by people that politely stroke my ego. Far from it. Very far from that. I am in a working situation and a life situation, where I am constantly questioned. And I find that to be very very useful. I don't want to be a bad person and I don't want to ever reside myself into being a bad person without realizing it. If I do bad things, I want to face the consequenses. That's how life works. Luckily I have the skill set to be able to write songs, so that's my outlet for that. So I could share those moments.
Your records have reached such a large audience of people. For example, as a teenager, I had to have the God Save The Queen record. How do you feel about reaching to such a large audience?
Well that was the flow of the time. The messages of the song is very very vitally important. The expression to be able to form your own opinion. And the end refrain, no future for you. Well there will be no future if you don't think of the future. If you don't think about what it is you now are currently doing. So yes, I am very very pleased that song hit home for a very large amount of people. But. The Sex Pistols became an imitation of itself somehow. The publicity machine that was manager of the side took it all too far and missed the point. And trivialized the message. I do a lot of work now in PiL where I explain what the message really is. And the biggest example is the lifestyle that I have. That's my education for you. You can go with that or you can want the Johnny Rotten of the magazines. He's a very nice chap, I know him.
But it's not the imagery I take serious because I am actually bigger than the image. The image is limiting. It doesn't explain I am fully rounded human being and I actually came from something. I've got a life experience to share. I had a childhood. I am now at middle age. These all valid substancial things not to be ignored or pretend they don't exist. They are very valid to find a reason for it all. Why are we living? Well I know why I am. I enjoy being alive. I've had two near-death experiences in my life and I've come out both of them. Why would I not want to be alive? Pity is your worst enemy. And that's something that I don't have. I try to explain that song after song, one way or another. I am asking you to look at things as honestly as you can and you'll find a better answer. Feeling sorry for yourself doesn't get the job done.
Thank you for the interview. Have a nice day.
Oh, I will
Every day is a good day to live and if you live properly, it's a good day to die too. Hugs and kisses my fellow human beings.