John Lydon is one of the most quotable men in the music industry. He's been considered one of the biggest instigators in punk rock history, but chatting with him these days, it seems as if Mr. Rotten has a heart of gold. I talked with Lydon last week about his new album, his D.I.Y. ethic, and his love for the Peabody Hotel in a conversation that was as interesting as it was inspiring.
Memphis Flyer: In 2012, Public Image Ltd released their first album in 17 years, but the band has been back together since 2009. What led up to the reformation? What clicked to make you want to start again?
John Lydon: The two decades out there in the doldrums were me arguing with the major labels I was on. I couldn't function as a musician, so I had to go and find other work. I've given a lot to the music industry, and they've taken a lot from me. But there's no self-pity involved in this. The time off allowed me to recharge my batteries.
How do you feel about people chalking you up as just a reunion act?
It's music, and, as long as you live, you have music in your soul. It shouldn't be this attitude of "how dare you [reform], go away and die." We do this music because we love it. Not much happens in the teenage angst years that is relevant to the whole experience. I view myself as a folksinger, and folksinging has no limitations. I'm true to my Irish roots, and we will continue to write rebel songs. As long as I live, I will rebel.
You've had complete control over this new album and the singles that are coming out soon. You funded the album, released it yourself, and drew the singles artwork yourself. How important was that to you?
It was worth every second of the effort. Most of my career was fraught with problems with the record labels because I absolutely refused to compromise. Patience is a virtue. Possess it if you can. I'm able to sleep well at night because I tell no lies, otherwise I wouldn't be worthy of my name. My culture would despise me. It's all family values to me, but I don't mean in a Republican way because, let's face it, all their families are fucked.
The drawings [on the singles] represent the prankster, the trickster, the joker. That's the person that mocks ceremony, the most excellent character that every culture needs. The clown is actually the most intelligent, as we know with politicians.
What are your thoughts on punk/post-punk music as a genre these days?
I want to listen to an original point of view. When I hear bands that are imitating a genre or a style, I lose interest. Variations on the theme don't come into my dreams; this is why my music collection is so huge. There are enough of us out there creating original music, and more than enough imitating, of which I'm not the slightest bit interested in.
I recently read an interview where you said you weren't going to cancel a gig because of a boo-boo on your ankle. What's the worst thing personally that's happened to you on tour?
I once had to cancel because I tore the back of my throat from oversinging. It has to be pretty damn serious for me to let everyone down. I was raised with proper Irish sensibilities to never let no one down. This is why our audience respects us. They have every right to demand that from us. We don't need light shows, or dancers, or fireworks. We aren't a Las Vegas production. The heart and soul of live music is connecting with the audience's eyes. It's the point and purpose of my existence.
What is the lyrical process like for you? Do you have ideas or fully-written songs before the music is written?
No, I never do it that way because we play so intensely and tour so extensively. In my last book, Anger Is an Energy, I wrote about things I'd never openly declared before, but now I can open the doors to that side of that me. I'm not looking for sympathy any longer. I wanted to see if I could survive in the world on just my merits alone. I endured one hell of a horrible childhood, but I'm still here, exploring now these painful areas, personal loss when your memories are stolen from you. We have to learn to share our pain and share our joys. I'm not interested in people who continue the spreading of hate. I never have been, which is what I've always been accused of. I've never written a song attacking a human being; I've attacked institutions because those are what divide us.
One of the earliest punk shows in Memphis occurred when the Sex Pistols played at the Taliesyn Ballroom. Do you remember anything special about that show?
Yes, I've heard that place is a burger bar now.
It's actually a Taco Bell.
Well, that's great I guess, if you're interested in getting diarrhea. Memphis is a very special town to me. My best friend and manager got married there, and I've always had a very fond attraction to the Peabody Hotel. The Peabody is not just a hotel. It's an absolute cultural icon, and without our past, there is no future. Everything is connected.