The VICE Interview: John Lydon
Talking Trump, class and then class again with the PiL frontman.
This is the VICE Interview. Each week we ask a different famous and/or interesting person the same set of questions in a bid to peek deep into their psyche.
Speaking to John Lydon as a former teenage punk is quite a daunting prospect. I mean, I have one of his lyrics permanently engraved on my skin, so I'm trying my best to be confident while dialling his US number.
Fuelled with a disposition to question everything from an early age and always ever so theatrical, Lydon basically invented the sneer when fronting the Sex Pistols, got a record discussed in Parliament and continued to revolutionise music as the frontman of Public Image Limited, a creative process he describes as "exploring landscapes, scenery and tapestries of the mind", rather than just stringing words together.
PiL's 'Metal Box' and 'Album' will be re-released with extras on the 28th of October, but now he talks about ghosts, Trump's possible new drug patent (The "trump bump") and Wuthering Heights.
How many people have been in love with you?
I have no idea. I hope they don't tell me, because I wouldn't know what to do with that. I was raised on insults, so I'd prefer that to continue, since at least there'd be some truth to it. My only great love is my wife, Nora, and that's it, cause I know that's real. A fanbase is not real love, it's a fantasy, and therefore very dangerous, so I keep away from that.
What would your parents prefer you to have chosen as a career?
I don't suppose they'd had too much hope of a career path of any kind for me, because such was the position of the British working class. The country was riddled with the class system, much more so than now, even though it's still around. If you're born on the wrong side of the tracks, that's where you stay. Those at the top aren't going to make any room for you, they're all chumming it up with their fellow grammar school friends. So you're naturally ostracised from some great possibility. Few can make it through. I managed to break through with music, so you know, the message is: Don't let politicians or religious leaders or spoiled public school boys tell you what to do. I mean, by all means, leave space for them to shout whatever it is that they're going on about, but never ever let them make you feel like they can turn you into their cannon fodder.
When in your life have you been truly overcome with fear?
Before I was rushed to hospital, diagnosed with meningitis and slipped into a coma, I was imagining dragons at the end of the bed, trying to eat me. I knew they weren't there, but my brain was telling me they were, so that was a lot for a seven-year-old to handle. But handle it I had to. I can still see them in my mind's eye and know they aren't there. It's kind of like looking at a thing from two different points of view, which years later now I find incredibly useful.
Do you think drugs can make you happy?
I think they're very nice. There's all manner of them isn't there? Some of these new modern chemical cocktails I wouldn't be recommending, though. They're poor substitutes for the more naturally-bound creations. If indeed any chemical can be natural. I mean is bread natural? It is not. I don't see a bread tree, not anywhere. Also, with drugs should come education, just like sex education should be an essential part of the curriculum for all children from an early age. Because if you're obsessed with keeping the truth away from your child, that child isn't going to love you any when it grows up to find something different. Can they make you happy? Maybe Donald Trump could sell drugs that would make people happy. Call it the 'Trump Bump' – "This will destroy your inner thoughts and make you paranoid forever and ever" – going cheap.
If you had to give up sex or kissing, which would it be?
Kissing. That depends what you're kissing, actually. I think that's a double-barrel shotgun there, you can't have one without the other. I said kissing instantaneously and then bitterly resented myself for it. I'd keep both.
What's the closest you've come to having a stalker?
I had quite a few over the years. They turn very dangerous very quick when they don't get what they expect from you. I don't have any stories really, because I don't want to name no names... It was dealt with privately and all sides left happily. One particular case in LA took a few years to sort out, but then she got a job in a TV station and her life turned around, so the obsession dropped. I suppose that with responsibility goes a lack of obsession.
Do you believe in any conspiracy theories?
I suppose they might be a nice fantasy to waste away an afternoon, but I've got no time for it. Most of them are nonsense because you realise through experience that most corporations and institutions are just headless chickens. They're not nearly as smart as the conspiracy theorists think they are. It's just legalese and attorneys and accountants that they'd need to watch out for, and to not try to pin it all on one personality. All the corporations have are machinations, they just grind on leaderless until they hit a bend in the road. Be that bend.
Complete this sentence: The problem with young people today is...
They don't realise that education is possibly the best free gift you've ever been given in your entire life. Apart from the sun and the moon. And oxygen. Education can help you get out of all manner of problems in your adulthood, so you should read a lot and let books have a positive influence on you. I did. Helped me. There'd be no particular book, but it did help when Muriel Spark came out with The Public Image. Fantastic little book. Not particularly well-written or anything of the kind, but just the concept of superstardom and the damage it can create to those around her. At the time I was forming PiL, I'd just walked away from the Pistols so I was giving up all of that superstardom... I wanted to start as an equal band member, so it wouldn't be The Johnny Rotten Roadshow. I mean in half the tracks I'd bury my voice because I wanted more bass. The trappings of pop stardom were never going to work with someone like me, I wouldn't really be comfortable taking in money if I didn't believe in what I was doing.
Is university worth it?
I mean, if the careers are out there after the education, then yeah. But don't be schooling yourself in business if all the businesses are going to collapse, give yourself some other alternatives. That's just common sense, really. Look at what we've got in Britain right now... the current Prime Minister Ms. May, yapping on about bringing back grammar schools. This is the wrong time to be separating the classes again. Then you've got the totally left-wing Corbyn who is completely mad into his socialism without looking left or right. It's very much like Britain was before it joined the EU. They're quickly running back into these old traditional formats that were ruining the country before. That's so foolish!
What have you done in your life that you most regret?
Plenty. Mostly things that I would've wanted to say to both my mother and my father before they died. That would be a major one. And of course friends along the way that died. Anyone that died really, even if it was someone that I'd only vaguely known. It's odd, we don't use the time we have and then we have all the time in the world to not be able to do what we should have. That's why I really can't accept death. It's unacceptable for me, mentally. Maybe that's why I still feel that my mum and dad talk to me inside my head, I feel them there. Not in terms of ghosts or anything, I've seen enough of those to be able to know. I've been in houses that have DEFINITE eerie atmospheres. You see things visually and you know that it's not the same as imagining dragons when you were seven. There's a different clarity to it.
What was your worse phase?
I am capable of seeing that if I'm going down a wrong path, so I can alter it. But my root core values and principles are the same because they are based in what I had to endure in my childhood and onwards, so they're founded on solid rock. I don't step in other people's faces and I don't tell anybody else what to do with their lives, because it's not my job. I don't expect them to tell me what to do either. I'll do it my way.
What film or TV show makes you cry?
There are films that move me. I can't bear any film where children are being tormented, I can't stand that. Wuthering Heights is fantastic, the original one. There's such great moodiness on it and such great pathos and tragedy, sadness. That kind of film I love. Because I can analyse the characters and see where they're going wrong and bring it back into my own life. Films that have incredible dialogues too, like The Lion in Winter which is Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn, seeing the families' inner workings from a working-class point of view. Obviously I never had the literary phrases but the emotions were there, the same. It's the turmoil of compact living.
What memory from school stands out to you stronger than any other?
Being caned. You don't forget that, because it hurts like hell. And back in them days you'd be caned mostly on the hand, and that really hurt. Being left-handed they'd always say "hold out your left hand" and I'd say "but I write with my left". Wouldn't be a good enough answer for them, though. The nuns tried to make me right-handed in primary school, but in secondary school I had many problems with myself from the meningitis that I had when I was younger, so I'd fall asleep without meaning to. I couldn't control it, but I'd wake up and they'd be holding my hand out caning away merrily. That was the answer to everything then. I mean did it make me any worse as a person? No. It probably made me better because it infused my hatred for these people, so I turned it into a positive energy.
PiL will reissue Metal Box and Album on 28th October ahead of live dates.
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