|©Copyright 2004 Times Newspapers Ltd|
Punky and Perky
|interview by David James Smith|
Unfortunately, the game was
not quite finished when we arrived at his home, and I knew immediately
this was a mistake. Hello again, I said cheerily. Ssssh, said John Lydon
without moving from the sofa or looking up. So we shushed for a moment
or two, while he finished watching his team, Arsenal, draw with Chelsea
in the Champions League. Thank God, I thought, Arsenal aren't losing.
Yesterday afternoon we had been round the corner at the Mercedes Bar &
Grill, where Lydon and his newly promoted "super-manager", his
old friend Rambo, had drunk close to their own body weight in vodka cocktails:
there had been 16 sea breezes on the bill and I had drunk two or three
at most at most! so the rest was down to them. Full of love
and vodka, John had insisted, against Rambo's better judgment ("John,
John, listen to me, you're not thinking straight..."), that we watch
the game together, either at his home or at a sports bar nearby, where
there was some Glaswegian bastard he might get into a fight with. Not
that he was really into fighting any more. I think he just likes mixing
it: talking the talk.
In spite of his bonhomie, he
had refused to be photographed. Perhaps it was because the elastic had
gone on his underpants, as he had shown us on returning from the restroom.
Perhaps, as he said, he just didn't look so good today. Anyway, we had
agreed to take pictures tomorrow instead. This was cutting it fine: Perou
had already been here two weeks ago, and the photographs he had been able
to take were somewhat limited in scope.
Then, finally, we were outside
and he was relaxing and playing up to the camera, clowning and mugging
and suggesting a picture in that nearby walkway "It's all
right if it's my idea" and generally being helpful and agreeable
and funny, grabbing the folds of his stomach with both hands, shouting:
His language was rich and ribald,
and scatological too. There was a lot of talk about bodily functions.
The fried oysters he had eaten reminded him of snot in batter, he said.
There was a lot of swearing. When he was talking about teasing the tabloids
it was: "Go on, c***s, munch on my old rug, keep munching, ya f***ers."
Swearing was just words to him. As far as he was concerned, he spoke genuinely.
He liked people who were real. He liked Elton John when he met him, because
he was real. And who'd have thought it? But back to the swearing: "You
take away our words and what the f*** have we got? Right. Nothing. Nothing.
You'll be telling me next what I can think, right? Those words are evocative
of certain emotions and sometimes there are f***ing c***s in this world
and there's no expression that sums them up better. It's just bang on
He smoked red Marlboros incessantly,
because it made him mellow: "I'm a bag of nerves." He only had
two gears, he said: flat out or FLAT OUT.
Today he was wearing his $20
Samsonite trousers with zips all over the place, plus his Dr Martens with
the yellow stitching, which he had cut away to expose the metallic blue
toecaps. Rambo had done John's hair, with four tramlines running from
front to back, leaving a series of cropped hedgerows dyed red and blue.
They spent a lot of time playing with hairstyles, John and Rambo, which
they believed influenced the likes of Beckham and other young footballers.
John and his girlfriend, Nora
Forster, bought the house cheaply 17 years ago. It was built in 1910,
he says, as a beach house for the actress Mae West, in the heart of Marina
del Rey, one of the quietest and most residential of the Los Angeles beach
suburbs. John thinks of himself as a pioneer in the area, having been
there long before the hip restaurants and shops came. Now tourists were
coming in growing numbers and he seemed to fear the idyll would be spoilt
and wanted to take an active role in preserving the way of life he had
enjoyed. His way of life had come under fresh scrutiny during and after
his appearance in the ITV reality-television series I'm a Celebrity...
Get Me out of Here.
He had been invited onto I'm
a Celebrity a year earlier and refused, because it was too short notice.
Then, late last year, he was getting bogged down with his solo album,
and Granada, the production company, called again and this time the timing
was right. He was worried he might "f*** up", get so angry,
or even happy, in front of the cameras that he would just lose control,
go nuts. Then he thought, so what? He had to be able to take on anything
and face the consequences. He was upset at not being billeted in the same
hotel as all the other participants they told him it was full
and thought he was being singled out, treated like an old has-been to
wind him up, which, if that was the plan, had worked a treat.
It did not look promising in
rehearsals, when he set light to his hair while trying to start a fire,
crouching down, blowing at the embers, as instructed, then getting caught
in the blowback. He was, he says, the only contestant who refused the
offer of a fake tan the night before the show (though surely Diane Modahl
didn't want it either, as a black woman). He went in as a spotty f***ing
Fatty Muldoon, he says, and came out as the white tornado, all trophies.
The others didn't want to wash, for fear of rubbing off their tan, and
that suited him too because he hates washing, never really learnt to look
after himself and was not taught how to by his parents. When John went
on tour with the Pistols or PiL, his wash bag always came back unopened,
his soap, his toothbrush especially his toothbrush unused.
He did his best to incite insurrection
among the other contestants before his abrupt early departure. He suggested
they could plunge the show into chaos if the evicted celebrity refused
to leave. But he couldn't get them to play along. So he amused himself
looking for the speakers that played the piped jungle noises, and the
back ways out where the security guards were hidden. Ex-SAS? Snort. Salvation
Army Socialists. In the end he was bored, bored, bored. There was no challenge
and he was annoyed too that they wouldn't tell him if Nora had arrived
safely in Australia. When he finally got out she wasn't okay: she had
got sand in her eye while swimming and had an infection.
John's only legacy was some
insect bites that wouldn't heal, probably because he kept scratching them,
causing bleeding, which he seemed to find fascinating, staring at his
red-coated fingertips. He loved a good squeeze of his spots, he said.
The leeches in the jungle reminded him of his penis. He had to be careful
not to get the two confused, especially when he was "pulling the
pudding", as you do under the blankets on 24-hour TV which
in itself was not easy, he said, when all you could think about was the
hideous liposuction scars on Jordan's thighs.
As he had feared, after the
show he was getting lots of ludicrous offers of work. There was the TV
show that wanted him to dispense with his domestic staff for a week and
do all his own cleaning and washing-up. Who did they think he was? He
didn't clean and he didn't have cleaners either. He lived in a dustbowl.
Anyway, he said, the jungle was just the appetiser for the main event:
he wanted to get on and do some serious shark-hunting, with the great
white sharks. That was his next project, with or without television cameras.
He would go down in a cage, but he would get the f*** out of the cage
and swim with the sharks, because he had studied sharks when he first
came to America, and took courses in marine biology. He was fascinated
by the sea and had always been a good swimmer, though he lacked stamina.
He and Nora had a second-hand boat, a 17-footer, which they loved to take
out for fun. Bearing in mind his origins on the council estates of north
London, I said it was hard to picture him as a yachtie, but he said his
maternal grandfather in Ireland had been a fisherman, and had taken him
out once in a rowboat, which had been scary but made a great impression
Over the years, John Lydon
has played cat and mouse with the tabloid press, creating or not bothering
to correct the many fictions written about him. Consequently, it was difficult
to know what was true. At the same time, it was hard to tell whether he
was untroubled or extremely vexed by the tabloid versions of his life.
Sometimes he seemed both at once. He told me that he and Nora had never
been married, though their wedding has been reported in most of the articles
ever written about him. He scoffed at stories of the millions Nora was
supposed to have inherited as a "German publishing heiress".
But there was a publication, a newspaper, that apparently provided Nora
with some inheritance, albeit more modest than had been suggested. The
paper was Der Tagesspiegel, one of several Berlin dailies. Most importantly,
Nora's money, such as it was, had never been exploited by John. "You
know, like, ÔHe only married her for her money.' Well, we never
married, we didn't need to. We married like that [he tapped the side of
his head], in the head; in the heart, right. A place that other people
seem to have forgotten about."
He met Nora in London in 1976
or 1977, he couldn't remember which, during his time as lead singer of
the Sex Pistols. It had not been love at first sight but something far
better: pure intrigue. She was fantastic, dressed like Lauren Bacall.
Cor blimey! Outrageous. Everyone else was in hippie gear, but she wouldn't
be seen dead in it, and he loved her for that. Nora is 15 years older
than John, who turned 48 in January. When they met she already had a teenage
daughter, Ariane, who was performing as Ari-Up in a band called the Slits.
Like many punks, Ariane embraced
reggae and Caribbean culture. She went on to have mixed-race twin sons,
Pablo and Pedro. John shows me a photograph on the wall of his living
room of the boys. They had long dreadlocks, which, he says, was because
of their mother's religion, meaning she had become a Rastafarian. "She
thinks she's Jamaican," he said, not quite disguising a sneer. Shortly
after the picture was taken, the boys came to live with Nora and John
in Marina del Rey. The first thing the boys did, he says, was shave their
heads, fed up with being taunted and having their hair pulled at school
in London. They were brought up from then on by John and Nora, for many
"weird" reasons: Ariane was still performing and travelling
and later had another child. It was about getting the twins proper schooling,
he says, giving them a base here in LA. Nora and John had lost a baby
to miscarriage back in the 1970s and, he says, could not have children
of their own afterwards, so there had been a gap in their lives. With
hindsight he thinks that being grounded by a baby would have been a problem.
It could have been a tragedy never leaving London, brain-wise. He needed
to get away from what was killing him and, at the time, it was his London
Instead he had become grandad
to the twins. Grandad. He had not liked that term at all at first. He
had thought, f***ing hell, he wasn't going to be able to handle it. But
parenting the twins had been wonderful. He had gone to meetings of their
school PTA; he had given the bleedin' teachers a lesson in how the English
language was properly used. But, with the whippersnappers around, time
had really flown by. They were 21 now and living independently. And they
were not interested in music. They hated the whole thing not least
the tabloid attention, as when Nora had been followed on a recent visit
to Pablo and had been accused by a reporter of meeting her young, dark
lover. The boy had been in tears, said John. How nasty and spiteful could
There was no routine in his
and Nora's life, he said. On a whim she would get up and fly across the
world. They had their own separate interests, which kept them sane, and
at the moment Nora was creating this amazing music. She thought John was
jealous, and he was, because she was the fastest rapper he'd heard in
his life, and with her German accent it was f***ing frightening. She had
been recording in their studio between the living room and the
kitchen and John's brother Martin, who lived nearby, would come
over to work with her. He was the engineer. It was bloody powerful stuff
and John was really, really proud of her. He loved her to bits too. Nora
had yet to perform or release any of this music in public. She was like
him, he said, in that way. It was great to make the music, but did you
really want to release it? Sod all that. You should do it for yourself.
He had just gone back to his
own solo album and was pleased with where it was. He had some offers for
it from record companies, but he would wait now until it was finished,
until he was happy that it was perfect, because otherwise people would
start interfering, fools who had no idea how things worked. If they wanted
Britney Spears out of him, they were looking in the wrong place.
PiL, Public Image Ltd, the
band he had formed after leaving the Sex Pistols, had been very much like
that, about doing it for himself. Even though PiL had been dormant for
over 10 years now, the band clearly meant more to him as a personal achievement
than the Pistols. Perhaps it was no coincidence that he had remained in
the US, where PiL continued to be more appreciated than they ever had
in the UK.
John seemed reluctant to take
any pleasure in the achievements of the Pistols. He would not be drawn
on his liking for any of the songs he had written, and said many of them
had, in many ways, been made up as they went along. Such as standing on
stage repeating the chorus of Pretty Vacant to a violently hostile audience
at a West Ham (enemy territory) social club in 1976.
He was always fascinated, he
said, reading biographies about actors such as Alec Guinness in which
they described their stage fright, because that had been his permanent
state throughout the years of the Pistols and beyond. The roar of a crowd
when you went out, he said, such as at Crystal Palace on the reunion tour,
was not inspiring or uplifting: it was ferocious and absolutely f***ing
terrifying. It made you feel like a little ratfink weasel who just can't
John Lydon thought Johnny Rotten
had been a nice bloke; he'd liked him a lot. But it had not been much
fun being Rotten. It had felt like the whole world hated him. He felt
that he had made an art form out of his own unpopularity. Once, at a gig
in Edinburgh, a girl had thrown a stiletto shoe at him from the audience
and the heel had lanced his forehead. Afterwards she had come backstage
to ask for the return of her shoe. Cheeky cow.
Even now he had a cycle of
depression, would go into one about every six months when he got so run
down and could no longer keep up the hyperactivity. It was almost like
being a manic-depressive, he said. But he could wallow in those bleak
periods. Woe is me! What he never could do was embark on the self-indulgent,
self-destructive route that others had taken. The excesses of drink or
drugs or both. That wasn't him. His arms bore the scars of cigarette burns,
which he said (was he being flippant? I don't think so) he had charged
people to do, a fiver a go, usually when he was so drunk he couldn't feel
it. Well, no, actually, it had been very painful but he liked the pain.
Looking back, it was most likely
a cry for attention, he said. That was probably how it was with the other
John one of that group of Johns who, with one exception, have survived
and remained friends from the 1970s: John Lydon, John "Rambo"
Stevens, John Wardle (Jah Wobble of PiL) and John Simon Ritchie/Beverley
(Sid Vicious). Sid Vicious was the practised self-harmer, cutting himself
with knives and other available implements; turning to heroin and becoming
embroiled in a damaging relationship with Nancy Spungen. Sid died of a
heroin overdose in 1979, while on bail accused of killing Spungen. John
says he never really got to grips with Sid's death. He didn't really understand
it, even now. Speed had been the drug of choice in those days, not heroin.
Heroin was a dirge of self-pity, a stupid, negative drug that John would
not directly admit having taken, except to say he knew what he was talking
about. He did not agree with those who said Sid was destined to lead a
short life (he was 21). Sid wanted the long haul of fun, he said. John
misses him still, and for a while afterwards felt he should've done more
to save him.
He had taken on Malcolm McLaren
in part for Sid, fighting an epic court battle to get the money that was
due to them all, the Pistols John, Sid, Steve Jones, Paul Cook,
Glen Matlock. Had he received any thanks? Had he hell. But that did not
surprise him. The rest of the band never knew what was going on, anyway.
They never even knew what the songs were about. They never listened.
McLaren seemed like a sad old man to John now, unable to resist making
snide comments about John from the sidelines.
John was developing a film
based on his autobiography. He had a director, Penelope Spheeris, an independent
film maker best known for Wayne's World. He had been going around saying
he wanted Justin Timberlake to play him, really just a joke, though Timberlake
had got wind of it and liked the idea, apparently. The only merit that
John could see in Timberlake was his good looks Rotten goes Hollywood.
He wasn't sure he still liked
the name Rotten, because at his age it was a bit childish, wasn't it?
But so what, sod it, who's telling him to grow up? He had never celebrated
birthdays as a child and didn't like celebrating them now. He did not
want to be reminded how old he was. On the other hand, he was really proud
that he was near 50 and didn't feel like an old fool. He might even learn
to drive soon, he said. He had tried once and driven straight under a
lorry on Gunter Grove in Chelsea, where he had lived riotously for a while
during the punk era, over 25 years ago. Nora drove their Volvo. They would
often go to their second home at Malibu.
I wondered how his life might
have turned out if he had not been parading on the King's Road in 1975
and been invited by McLaren to join his new band, the Sex Pistols. John
could not imagine this alternative universe. His father had been a journeyman
crane driver John had only found out years later, by chance, that
he had played the accordion in Irish showbands as a young man. His father
had not spoken to him much in his childhood. John had lost a year of his
life at the age of nine and nearly died after contracting meningitis.
He had not recognised his parents when he emerged from a long coma, and
had to be taught the basic skills of learning all over again. It sounded
as though John's father had been afraid of John's illness and perhaps
even afraid of his responsibilities as a father. John evidently had a
better relationship with him now, but you could imagine how his father's
retreat might have fuelled the anger that drove John in the 1970s and
which he still carried. John, I think, sees his rage as having class origins.
Those north London council flats, he said, breed angry people. His brothers
had been raised much the same way, he said, by his parents. Jimmy was
now a painter and decorator in north London, Bobby ran a caravan park
in Northern Ireland, and Martin was a househusband (and sound engineer)
John gave me a guided tour, showed me the fish mural he was painting for his brother's children in the bathroom. He was going to use a lacquer spray to make the fish shimmer and create the illusion of movement, he explained. There was a single gold disc on the wall in the back room. He said it was his last remaining piece of Pistols memorabilia. The rest he had given away to charity. He had also given part of his jungle-show fee to charity. The cause was monkeys in Sierra Leone he had seen a documentary on the Discovery Channel about them. The charity had invited him to visit, but he had noted there was a civil war on and thought he'd wait till things were quieter. There was talk of other charities, but John asked me not to go on about it in the article. He is not quite ready to give up being Rotten, just yet. But that's nice, isn't it?
Sunday Times Magazine cover, April 18th 2004 © Perou
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