|© 2006 Daily Mail / Lina Das|
|As the foul-mouthed frontman of the Sex Pistols, JOHN LYDON led the punk rock revolution. But, as LINA DAS discovers, he's a traditionalist at heart - who loves both Cliff Richard and the Royal Family, but is horrified by the woman who claims to be his half-sister. Main photograph Paul Harris|
The Sex Pistols exploded onto the music scene 30 years ago, but even these days, it seems, they are still creating a stir. Their notorious frontman, Johnny Rotten - now having reverted to his real name John Lydon - who famously sang: 'I am the Antichrist' and was once described as 'the worst threat to our kids since Hitler' is today holding court at a plush hotel in California, where he now lives.
The guests, initially bemused by this curious creature dressed in dungarees and a Union Jack shirt and socks, soon become enthralled as his conversation switches topic with all the subtlety of a Sex Pistols key change, And yet, every time he disappears for a quick cigarette break, guests keep coming up to ask who he is and say how entertaining he is.
His entertainment value was on show two years ago when his rough charm and intelligence first compelled, and then completely won over, the audience of I'm A Celebrity…, Get Me Out Of Here! When he left the jungle amid a stream of profanities, the show never quite regained its momentum.
'At the time, I didn't know that people wanted me to win,' he says, 'because after I finished, I went straight back to America, But when I was in England afterwards, the. reception I got was astounding, Grannies were defending me and I became the housewives' choice! Now, that's what you call breaking the rules, But, in the end, what does it matter? It was just a TV show that I did because I had nothing else to do at the time - although I loved every minute of it.
'I didn't want Razor Ruddock to leave - I thought we had a great chance to rebel on live TV, which we didn't take. I liked Jennie Bond, but when you see Jordan up close...' Lydon g grimaces, letting his opinion of the big-breasted model hang silently in the air. 'She was nice, but a bit confused about business. And that horrible marriage to that nice bloke, Peter Andre; I mean…,' he shudders. 'Does that need to be broadcast in such a public way? It all becomes very Monty Python, doesn't it?'
His hair is still resolutely, spikily blond but his once mangled teeth, which gave rise to the 'Rotten' part of his stage name, are now a gleaming testimony to the marvels of American dentistry, Lydon looks much younger than his 50 years. His appearance on I'm A Celebrity", certainly broadened his appeal to those who remembered him as a spitting, snarling youth, but his new-found popularity also brought with it some unwanted attention. 'I'm A Celebrity", did me in, in some ways,' he says, 'because if I hadn't done the show, then I wouldn't have all this.'
'All this' is the recent revelation that Lydon has a half-sister, who was adopted before he was born. Earlier this year, Janet Small, 51, from Chepstow; Monmouthshire, claimed to be the daughter of Lydon's mother, Eileen, born after a brief affair with a barman while she was working in London. Eileen was said to have given the baby up for adoption before she met Lydon's father, John Snr. Janet said she'd wanted to meet Lydon but that he refused, 'What really hurts me is the fact that he thinks I'm lying,' said Small. 'But this is the truth, and he's got to accept it.'
One expects Lydon to be brusque about her claims but, in fact, although clearly upset, he speaks candidly about his reasons for not wanting contact with Small. 'Well, I have this strange woman who's claiming to be my half-sister and the implication is that my mother was a trollop who slept around before she married my dad, which isn't nice. I was born before they married, too, but my worry about this is that she wants, somehow, to connect with me.
'I understand her feelings, but my mother is dead and if she was Janet Small's mother, then that mother is dead. I didn't grow up with her and she didn't go through the pains and experiences that my three brothers and I went through that make us family. She never had the hardships we did, and if I were to go, "Hello, new sister", it would make our lives together pointless because we would simply be tossing away our shared experiences and the love and respect we have for each other as brothers.
'I've yet to see some kind of proof and I'm amazed that someone can go straight to the newspapers and TV and rubbish my family like that. It's so damaging and the hurt we feel is incredible - that we're allowed to be interfered with by a complete stranger. My mother was the closest person to me on earth, and if anything at all like that had happened, she would have told me, But I feel sorry for her [Small] too. She's so desperate and lonely - but you know, get it right. She's been pushing for a conversation for some time and I'm sorry, but to me, this is an ugly situation that came out of I'm A Celebrity… About 28 million people had just watched me on TV and then it's, "Oh, look, there's my brother". Like you could mistake the motivation behind that. It's cruel. It really upsets me because everybody gets hurt.'
Janet Small has offered to take a DNA test to prove her relationship to Lydon's mother, but, says Lydon, 'DNA wouldn't prove anything because we're from the Lydon side and the DNA would be disputed. It's very strange to wait until my mum was dead, but then my mum died some time ago [in 1978]. She'd be much better off having a DNA test from my mother's family, but that hasn't been done and that's her decision. I'm not just going to open my door and give my blood to everyone who requests it. As an adoptee, she has access to all the relevant information and we can only question that information if she grants us access, which she has yet to do. But that doesn't stop her from going on television and talking about it. It's so upsetting,' he says, 'because that's my mum and it would be nice if that was her mum too, but guess what? It wasn't and if it was, then she couldn't look after you at the time and there it is. No woman on earth casually gives up her baby, but I'm sorry…" he trails off.
And what if DNA testing should prove that Lydon and Small shared the same mother? 'It doesn't mean she's going to get any money from me,' he replies, And if she merely wants a relationship with her brothers? 'She's not particularly interested in any of my brothers, only me. She can't wait to talk to Johnny Rotten. Doesn't that sound a bit phoney to you?'
Trust is clearly important to Lydon and that he should feel mistrustful of others is perhaps understandable, not only because of his bad experiences of the music industry and notorious Sex Pistols manager, Malcolm McLaren, but also because childhood meningitis left him with no discernible memories for several years. Born in London in 1956, Lydon was seven when he was struck down with the life-threatening illness, which left him in a coma for three months, 'I spent almost a year in hospital,' he recalls, 'and when I came to, I couldn't remember who I was, or who my mum and dad were. They came to take me home, but I felt like I was born without knowing anyone. Trust was the most important aspect of the whole thing because I had to trust people I didn't know. To be told, "I'm your mother", but to not actually know, was soul-destroying. I feel so sorry for my parents, that they had to go through that too. I didn't know what love was and I had no memories of it, and when I did eventually get my memory back after several years, the guilt I felt about forgetting who my parents were, and for hurting them like that, was enormous, You never, ever lie to a person again after something like that.
'The memories came back, but initially I was imitating love and so I know what real love is and also how to fake it. Realising I was faking love was a major force in my life and it's taken me till the age of 50 to get to grips with it. That whole episode, though, drove a chisel between me and my dad because he couldn't understand how I couldn't know him, and it breaks my heart, even now, to think of it. But I got ill - I couldn't help it.
'Then, when the memories came back, they were incredible. I remembered being in the park with my dad holding me and that the swings and roundabouts were frightening me, and my dad remembered it, too. It was fantastic to come back from that after feeling that I was born from nowhere, and related to no one, for so long. My dad and I are now as close as any father and son can be. He's as proud as punch of me, and he knows I've never let him down. He doesn't understand my flamboyance and he'll still say to me, "My God, Johnny, why can't you write a song I can listen to?'''
Once Lydon's memory returned, the slow process of recovery began. 'It took me a long time to catch up,' he says, 'and school couldn't cope - I was called "dummy" constantly. It was my mum who taught me how to read and write again. I read voraciously before I got ill and once I learned to read again, I read voraciously afterwards too. I've never really learnt the correct juxtaposition of letters in the alphabet; never understood the concept of order. And it was like that with music, too.'
It was a quirk that was to come in handy some years later. Expelled from school, Lydon attended Hackney Technical College where he met John Simon Ritchie, eventually to be dubbed Sid Vicious after Lydon's pet hamster. The two moved into a squat in King's Cross and, although Lydon intended to train as a teacher, in 1975 he met Malcolm McLaren, who said that he was putting together a band. Eventually, the Sex Pistols were born.
At just 17, Lydon, made over by McLaren as Johnny Rotten, found himself at the forefront of the revolutionary punk movement. With hits such as Anarchy In The UK, God Save The . Queen and Pretty Vacant, the Sex Pistols were viewed as the end of civilisation as respectable people knew it. Local councils banned them from playing and, when TV presenter Bill Grundy invited them to 'say something outrageous' on his live afternoon show Today, they blasted off such a barrage of profanities that Grundy was fired. During a disastrous tour [JL.Com: sic] of the U.S. Vicious murdered his girlfriend Nancy Spungen in a room at New York's Chelsea Hotel, and later died of a heroin overdose while on bail. After that, unsurprisingly, the band imploded after just two years.
'The Sex Pistols left me,' says Lydon, 'stranded in LA with no ticket, no hotel room and a message to Warner Bros saying that if anyone phones up claiming to be Johnny Rotten, then they were lying. That's how I finished with Malcolm - but not with the rest of the band; I'll always like them.'
His relationship with McLaren, however, has always been a lot trickier. Once branded 'the most evil man alive' by Lydon, McLaren has riposted by rubbishing his former band leader, and going to court to contest rights to the band's revenues. McLaren eventually handed over £880,000, claiming not to have properly contested the case because that would not be 'cool' . Unprompted, Lydon's conversation occasionally turns to McLaren, suggesting that, although their relationship was difficult, it certainly had a deep impact on both of them.
'I miss him in many ways,' says Lydon. 'He's a human being with a smart mind. I don't need to like him, but he makes you think, and that's a good thing. He's a sad man, I feel sorry for him, and he's terribly lonely and I feel glad for that,' says Lydon, suddenly laughing. 'But really, there is nothing hard in my heart towards him. I have hated him from time to time, but I respect any man who thinks outside the system. He's said some not very nice things about me but he doesn't mean them, you know. I love Malcolm, I do, and I'm sorry he's lonely, but he chose that life. I'd love to see him on I'm A Celebrity… squirreling away there with the bugs. Although that said, he would require Jennie Bond's make-up kit, I think.'
It was during the Sex Pistols' short and ill fated era that Lydon met his future wife, Nora Forster, a publishing heiress from Germany, some 14 years his senior. The couple have been together for 27 years. Although some intimated that Lydon married his wife for her share in her family's £50 million publishing fortune (Lydon has made his own not inconsiderable fortune on the property market), it's an accusation that he brushes aside. 'It doesn't hurt me at all because I figure there is always bitterness from people, and I know I didn't marry Nora for her money. I'm committed to Nora and, in my eyes, when you make a commitment you stick to it. I'm lucky, I don't need a sham Hollywood marriage. Other people can treat it lightly, but I don't.'
Nora had one daughter, Arianna, from her previous marriage to German singer Frank Forster, but the Lydons themselves never had children together. 'The biggest tragedy for as me and Nora,' says Lydon, 'is that we lost a couple of children. It wrecked us emotionally, it really did. But although Nora's miscarriages destroyed us emotionally, it didn't wreck us as a couple, even though those times were extremely difficult. We became stronger afterwards, and no, I don't wish that we could have had children because things wouldn't be the way they are now.'
Instead, Lydon and Nora provided a stable base for Arianna, as well as for her twins, Pablo and Pedro, now 23, who refer to the former Sex Pistol as 'Grandad'. 'We've always had the children around us. I used to go to PT A meetings for them because it was important, and because I cared about them. There was a time when Nora and I considered adopting, but then we had Arianna's children to think of. They were being brought up in Jamaica for a while, but the education wasn't too good out there and so they came back here. If we had gone through with the adoption, it would have been cruel for the twins because I think it would have made them feel not so special in some way, and we didn't want that.'
Just as seeing Lydon at one with nature on I'm A Celebrity… was something of a revelation (his sub-sequent forays into wildlife documentary presenting have been great fun to watch), so, too, has been my time spent in his far from boring company. He is a complex man, with, at times, surprising views, and there has even been talk of Lydon; the supposed arch anti-royalist, making a documentary on the monarchy.
'But I'm far from anti-royalty,' he insists, 'I'm simply for the reality of the situation. If I'm being asked to pay taxes to support an institution, then I want to understand exactly what that institution means.
'We've been asked to film a series on the monarchy and want to do it, but we want to do it the sensible way, not on the cheap, with a completely open-hearted discussion of what the monarchy means. TV companies talk to you about your ideas and suddenly they become their ideas - but I'll only get involved in a documentary about the Royal Family if it talks about the reality of their situation. It's a nightmare existence for them, like being born in a birdcage, and I don't want to victimise them or adulate them, either. Actually, I really like Di's kids, They're in a difficult situation and all God's love goes to them for that.'
There are plans to turn Lydon's own life story, from his time with the Sex Pistols to his success with his subsequent group, Public Image Limited (PiL), into a film - with Lydon wanting Tim Roth, Justin Timberlake, or even more bizarrely, Robbie Coltrane, to play him. And even more incredibly, the man who once proclaimed that 'Cliff Richard is a joke' reveals that there are plans afoot for the pair to work together. 'He's actually a friend of mine,' says Lydon, 'and we've been talking about working together.'
He refuses to specify what the project is, but insists, 'I like people who stand up for what they believe in, and Cliff's always done that. That's what punk is all about. In music circles, we're purported to be enemies, but we're bigger people than that, baby, and people are going to see that.' And with that, Mr John Lydon is off - Union Jack T-shirt flapping - and the hotel bar is suddenly a much quieter and less colourful place for his going.
The Best Of British £1 Notes featuring music from the Sex Pistols and PiL is out now on CD and DVD. John Lydon's Megabugs is also out on DVD.
John Lydon in Venice Beach, 2006 © Paul Harris
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