The Sunday Times Magazine
18th April, 2004

 
©Copyright 2004 Times Newspapers Ltd
 

Punky and Perky

 
interview by David James Smith
 

Sunday Times Magazine, April 18th 2004 © Perou He was the punk Antichrist, the snarling face of youth rebellion. Now he's a Los Angeles landowner, a grandfather and a charity fundraiser. But will John Lydon always be Rotten at heart?

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.
Next morning, the morning of the match, Rambo had phoned early. Listen, me and John'd like to watch the game on our own, if that's okay with you, so why don't you come round when it finishes at half one? Alas, at half one, the game was still in injury time. The sofa John now occupied was the same sofa he had refused to leave two weeks earlier, for the photographer. This article was supposed to be about John's life in California, but sitting on a sofa indoors, of course, he could have been anywhere. The game finished and John challenged Perou to explain what pictures he wanted. Perou showed him a Polaroid of a possible setting in a flower-shrouded walkway nearby. John rejected this because it was too close to his home.

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: "Charles Fatlas!"
He kept up a constant barrage of talk in his theatrical, singsong voice. You could not quite call it a conversation, any more than you could call our hours of interview quite an interview, in the regular Q&A sense of the form. He did not always listen or respond to what was said. He just talked, zigzagging through topics at breakneck pace, a monologist on speed, cackling like Norman Wisdom, hawhawing like Kenneth Williams.

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 the money."

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.
As we walked past his house, John pointed to the stuccoed exterior wall that, he said, had been made by Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was first in Hollywood as a jobbing builder. John had been at home nursing a hangover one Sunday afternoon in about 1996 when the doorbell rang and there was Schwarzenegger on his bicycle: "The Terminator and that bitch of a wife of his, Maria Shriver. They wanted to come in and see the house. F*** that. I wouldn't let them in. This was my Sunday." Looking back, he supposed he was too embarrassed. Now, he said, Schwarzenegger owned half the property in the area.

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.
While audiences were being unexpectedly engaged by his presence in the Australian jungle, tabloid reporters had descended on Marina del Rey, quizzing neighbours, shop assistants and restaurant staff about him. They had found no dirt, he says, because there was none. He was not a love rat. He was not even, as he himself had wickedly told The Sun, a property developer. That had given him a laugh. His fear now was being thought of as nice. Nice was the kiss of death. Johnny Rotten is dead. Long live Johnny of the Charities. Johnny Showbiz.

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 on him.

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 life.

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 you get?

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 match up.
He was awkward. If there was a wire, he would trip over it. The microphone stands had cast-iron bases and he would jump on the base and catapult the microphone into his mouth. It was, he recalled specifically, only three gigs after the guitarist Steve Jones had called him Rotten, because of his 'orrible teeth, that John smashed his own teeth in with the microphone. He finally had his teeth done in the States just a few years ago, had them capped and replaced — all but two of them, the surviving originals at the bottom (one of which had now rotted and also had to go).The dentist had advised him against doing them all at once, because the pain would be too great, but John had insisted, to get it over and done with.

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) in California.

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?

 
 
 
Picture Credit:
Sunday Times Magazine cover, April 18th 2004 © Perou
 
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