Q Magazine
December 2005 (issue 233)

© Q Magazine / Michael Odell 2005

The Q Interview
‘I want to take the Sex Pistols to Iraq!’

Once upon a time he was public enemy number one. These days John Lydon wants to bring peace to the Middle East and build monkey sanctuaries…

© JAMES DIMMOCK 2005JOHN LYDON HAS barricaded himself into a toilet at London's Park Lane Hotel, saying he has drunk too much "ploppy-botty coffee". When he finally emerges, it is with a disgusting plan: why don't I take some of his diarrhoea and sell it on eBay? In Lydon's mind, filth with a subtext of swindle or con is never far away. "eBay are selling hankies people are claiming to have my snot on. Pathetic.
Fake. Sad," he sneers.

He has higher hopes of his retrospective album, The Best Of British £1 Notes, featuring the Sex Pistols, PiL and Leftfield & Lydon, as well as a taster from his forthcoming solo album, a bizarre, reggae-tinged Prodigy/Chas & Dave hybrid called The Rabbit Song. As the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten, such a retrospective would have been unthinkable. The past was abhorred. There was, famously, no future and as the ghoul-faced bringer of this bad news, Lydon excited not only a BBC radio ban for God Save The Queen's "treasonous sentiments", but at least one earnest attempt to stab him to death in 1977.

Yet somehow he's assumed the status of national treasure, and nowadays music is only one of myriad Rotten industries. Since uttering the word "cunt" on live TV during last year's I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!, he has been juggling wildlife programmes with his property interests, plans for his own channel, Rotten TV, and even a Hollywood biopic.

For the last week Lydon has been making a Belgian TV documentary attempting to explain the British. Yesterday he was at Stirling castle in Scotland singing Anarchy In The UK, backed by six men playing bagpipes. Today there is chaos in room 411. The ashtray is full of Marlboro stubs. Breakfast on silver salvers appears to have been vandalised rather than eaten. During all engagements outside the toilet, he is accompanied by childhood friend, veteran football hooligan, hairdresser and chain-smoking minder Rambo.
Taking a seat, Lydon works a bottle of sinus-clearing unguent into his nostrils. He's more charming than you'd imagine. The sneer and the truculent head-rocking are still there, but after a diatribe there's also a quest for empathy with, "Do you know what I mean, mate?" Except, that is, when you ask him about his dental work, Sid Vicious or being an estate agent...

You've been explaining the British to the Belgians. How did you find us?

Being a paid tourist in this country has been brilliant! But the grim reality is that the people are still downtrodden here. It hasn't changed. It's just a smokescreen of socialism over the top. It's a very thin veneer and getting thinner all the time. And as for that fucking war in Iraq, I mean, it's scandalous.

Do you have a solution?

I offered to take the Sex Pistols to Iraq last year. The American government stepped in on that and went nuts, right? They tried to curtail it into just playing for the troops. I said I'd play for soldiers on air bases or military bases in their own country. To do that in Iraq you are literally creating the atmosphere of an invasion force and denying Iraqis the right of any access to you, and I think that's an ugly, ugly scenario.

Do you think Iraqis are ready for the Sex Pistols?

I know they might hate me and stone me to death but... let them have the choice!

You really feel you have something to say to Iraqis, don't you?

Well, these suicide bombers... I'd be up for capturing them and finding out their thinking, their ways. What are the promises made to them to do such things? I think it has to be discussed openly, and reason will prevail in open debate. They will see they are in a no-win situation walking around with a bomb strapped to their backside. The promises of Allah's heaven are vague and shammy. They're crazy. These bombers are spotty nerds who are a bit chubby and can't get a girlfriend. More sex on the National Health and there'll be less bombers. I'm saying this in a light-hearted way, but there's some truth in what I'm saying.

Do you want to come back to England?

No. And yes. Oh, I don't know. It's where the work takes you. I was led to America by work and by police harassment. And also because I will catch anything going (Lydon is susceptible to illness, having caught meningitis as a child) and the climate really helps. (Steptoe face) I'm not a well man. I won't recover from it properly, ever. But the warmth and dry is good.

You really feel you have something to say to Iraqis, don't you?

You often come across as aggrieved, like there's a lot of respect due? You came to the Q Awards in this very hotel four years ago and said as much... I've never said I want respect, though. I've never had respect. I don't know what it is but if you're offering it, yes please, that'd be nice. What I do get is copied and imitated and ripped off, which has happened all my life, and I do get irritated by that. Watered-down versions of me, themes that were mine. Stuff I created...

Have you listened to Green Day's American Idiot?

[A deep sigh] Well-named. They got themselves right.

It wasn't that bad...

[Ultra-bored and in a contemptuous monotone] Wasn't that good either. Look, I'm sorry, they're a bit fake for me. They change their image. Fake mockneys. The London twang and vocal is a little out of place. Enjoy your own culture and stick with what you know.

But you're taking the Sex Pistols to Iraq!

[Annoyed] I won't be singing in an Iraqi accent. Keep up. I'll be me and if I get pelted with rocks then I'll die honestly!

I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here! - do you regret that?

I knew when I went in I could come out with egg on my face. But here's an important fact: I don't see myself as an arsehole. I see myself as an alright bloke. I think that came across. I did alright. You only get a problem when you've got celebrity arseholes trying to keep their distance from it going, "Oh, I wish we had some chocolate cake!"

The way you expressed your unhappiness in the jungle was interesting. You said the cellulite on Jordan's thighs put you off having a wank.

It was a laugh. Anyone who takes themselves that seriously needs to see a doctor. And why would you want to change your body? Absurd. Absurd! If you're changing your body to please other people then you're a slave to the system. Slave to the shit-stem!

But you've had a bit of work done.

Work done? Don't be ridiculous!

You had your teeth done in America. The signature "rotten" teeth all nicely done up...

Oh, I see, I'm not allowed to have teeth now, is that it? Don't be ludicrous. I have to eat! And it didn't work, look! (Lydon shows a tooth lost after biting a cherry stone) So, yes, it did cost some money, but after the pain of those fucking injections I'm never going back. But that wasn't cosmetic, right? It was medical. Brussel sprouts would get stuck in the rotten ones and I'd get food poisoning.

But you take my point. Silicon breasts, new teeth...

I can't eat a meal with fucking silicon tits, can I? I need these. What's she got those for? Breast-feeding? I don't think soooo. . .

Attracting a mate...?

Well, if you don't have a personality, don't bother. You know there's enough slappers out there queuing up already.

When I hear the Sex Pistols' Bodies ["Bodies! ...Screaming fucking bloody mess! It's not an animal! It's an abortion!"] it sounds like you have a horror, a fear of female bodies.

No. Quite the opposite. No, no. Early on I had an acceptance of what life really is. We lived in two rooms and we had an outdoor toilet. My mum had a miscarriage. And this isn't against my mum, but - this could have been a brother or a sister for me to play with and I had to flush it down the toilet. I mean, that strikes you. And that's like an abortion. I'm not anti- or pro-abortion. Every woman should have the choice when they face it. But that was a grim Steptoe & Son world. My mum was heartbroken. And if you construe that as being anti-abortion, then you're a silly cu... sausage.

Tell me about the film of your life [Lydon's forthcoming biopic, based on his 1994 autobiography Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs].

The script's going really well. I've got a brilliant woman as a producer. It's not for money or an ego trip. I want the facts of my life not the David Cassidy story. I want the truth of my life on screen and only I know the truth.

© JAMES DIMMOCK 2005That could be a little self-indulgent. Don't you need other voices?

My life, mate. Write your own.

Who will play you?

I want Jason [sic) Timberlake to do it.

Now I know you're winding me up. He's American! He's got nice teeth!

And he can sing! We're off to a good start, aren't we? I know it sounds odd and the market he comes from is screaming teen girls, but he's just the kind of bloke who would really, really make an effort. He'd be a workhorse about it. Discussions are in progress. It's from a line of true respect. Him or Robert Carlyle. Or Johnny Depp, who's a great mate, he might do it. Or me. I might!

Who'd play Malcolm McLaren?

A fat old woman. And I don't want a script. I want it ensemble-style. Lock them away in a pub in Finsbury Park and let them feel it.

Sounds like I'm A Celebrity... but with spit.

[Withering] To you maybe...

How will Sid Vicious be portrayed?

Like he was. A lovely bloke. Great sense of humour. Not nasty, not bad-minded. But then he got druggy and...

This is what I mean about "your" truth. Others might say he was a thick, violent idiot. ..

About as violent as me and what's that? Nothing at all, right? He wasn't bright but he was my friend. A very sad situation. That will have to be dealt with in the film. I don't like my friends dying. (Sadly, with a wobble to his voice) I do not. I don't like it at all I don't like murder either or trying to hurt other people…

So he didn't attack anyone with a bike chain?

Fashion accoutrements, mate. You go out in London you've got to accessorise...

But it wasn't always cosy with you two. You asked him to join PiL but he wanted to be the frontman...

Absolutely not. You see these things written by lesser mortals.

It's in your autobiography. You invited him to join PiL but Nancy Spungen said he should be the frontman.

No. Anyway, Sid couldn't learn anything. If he was alive today he still wouldn't be able to play the guitar.

You're a property developer, I hear.

I have used my brains quite well to make money when times were lean. You have to! I don't stop doing stuff if the recording industry lets me down, which it has many times. There's no crooked dealings, there's no gangster in me. I buy somewhere smaller and live off the money. And if the price market goes up, then great, you're lucky, but you're not ripping anybody off. I don't sit behind a desk saying, "I've got a lovely three-bed roomed cottage in Devon previously owned by Adam Ant."

Bet that won't be in the film... Johnny's property-development years.

No. Don't be a smart arse because I will defeat you. The film is about the early years. Then I'm doing another book on PiL. I have to. Otherwise people write about me. Don't! It's rude! Ask me. I'm here. But don't be profiting off me. Excluding me. Stop it. It's a cheek.

When were you last wrong? What are your faults?

[Sneering and looking sideways like a bad smell has assailed his nostrils] Look out for them in the major motion picture.

Be Malcolm McLaren for a minute. Where should the new punk be aimed?

Don't be silly. No, I won't be Malcolm. There's a man who likes to polish his tin cups, who's been greedy for accolades. He's fun and he's never been greedy about money but he takes it too seriously.

But the new punk...

I want to ferret into British TV and correct it. It's so duuullll. Fucking wake up! Doesn't surprise me I can't get backing so... hello, America!

Is it gratifying or depressing that you've become a national treasure?

Oh, don't be fooled. The grannies of Britain love me cos they saw me in the jungle. But five or six arseholes on a British street corner will always have a different point of view. People get jealous of me being a hate figure. That's why I have Rambo with me at all times.

You're a grandpa now [Lydon is married to Nora, 1.5 years his senior. Her daughter, Ari Up of The Slits, has two children].

Have the grandkids heard Never Mind The Bollocks?

They're 21 and they never liked it till recently. They felt ashamed and embarrassed by me. You know it's a pretty tough call at the school gates: "Johnny Rotten's your grandad?!" They're very quiet and they think I'm a lazy old sod.

You're not scary, are you? You give off a warmth. You want people to understand you and you seem to be enjoying yourself.

I want to enjoy things. Life should be fun. It is enjoyable if you let go and appreciate it all. When my mum was dying she'd go on about going to a better place. And these suicide bombers can do what they do because they believe in another better life, a better place. Well, one life's enough for me. Wanting more would be greedy. Heaven is right here on earth if you don't imprison yourself.

RAMBO IS GETTING annoyed at the metaphysical turn of our conversation. We end and Lydon the snarky punk icon further mellows to a kindly, solicitous luvvie. "Was it OK?" he asks. And, more curiously, "Are you warm enough?" He's protective of his punk legacy and dogged by a sometimes ludicrous sense of grievance, but it is obvious Lydon is now enjoying life as a multi-tasking punk vaudeville act.
Tomorrow he will return to America to continue work on his solo album. Tetchily he concedes that, yes, he will be attending local residents' meetings at his Marina del Rey home where they will discuss protection of the lovely local beach. It's charity work to protect the environment and wildlife, and he doesn't want to appear "an arsehole"..

He needs the toilet again now. But first the ever-attentive Rambo invites him to order sushi from a room-service menu. "Haven't we met somewhere before?" John Lydon asks a page of extravagantly garnished tuna segments and his bronchial, snaggle-toothed geezer laughter echoes down the hall.

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