What can I say?
Johnny Rotten (Lydon) just likes to hang up on me.
He did it five years ago, at the end of a 20-minute conversation, and he just did it again last week in a phone interview to talk about the new Public Image Ltd. album, "What the World Needs Now…," and the tour coming Altar Bar Nov. 12.
I take it a little personally, but not TOO personally, because this is just something that Lydon does. In this case, I was able to get him back on the phone a week later, without him knowing (at least I think) that we had talked the week before.
The full story ran in the Post-Gazette on Nov. 12. Here is the raw Q&A:
Hello, John, how are you?
Alright, but you’re going to have to talk louder!
Is this better?
OK. Yeah, yeah. I can hear you now. Otherwise, I’d just be screaming into a vacuum.
Good to talk to you.
I wanted to ask you about the record. I really like the new album. Much of it sounds like it could be an early PiL record. Do you take that as a good thing?
I disagree with you entirely, and of course that’s not a good thing. Hmmph.
I mean in the sense of it sounding young, hungry, crossing the line between punk and post-punk.
If you mean it’s high energy, yes, that’s exactly right. The way I run my life, I don’t take the easy way out. With me, it’s always one hundred percent commitment. Even going to sleep requires a hundred percent commitment.
Maybe what I hear is certain chord progressions and guitar and bass sounds that were prevalent in that era.
God. I think you wasted your time and forgot to actually listen to what it is you’re supposed to be paying attention to. What is this: Are you trying to give me a music lesson or something? You’re way f---ing off the mark, fella. You’re talking daft sh*te to me. Chord progressions...what?!
Would you say you’re more confident now as a singer than you’ve ever been?
Is there any point to me answering questions like that? I mean, you’ve predetermined what your assumptions are. Really, do you want me to just back you up or something? Really, fucking O. What a nice time this is as an interview. You’re not going anywhere with me here, are you? You might be the problem with the music business as it is today. These predetermined nonsenses and assumptions, I can’t be f--ed with ya.
Let me ask you this then ...
No, I know you’re wasting my time and I certainly don’t want to waste yours. You’re just down a dead end there. Dull as dishwater … click
PHONE CALL TWO ONE WEEK LATER
Hello, how are things in Florida?
Uh, the same as usual.
Do you ever step out on the beach?
How are the shows going on this tour?
Very responsive and a very varied audience. It’s what PiL has always attracted but it seems to be now even more diverse than even I could have hoped for. And for me that seems to be the ultimate sign of success when your audience is so varied, from different backgrounds, different classes, different sexes, different sexual beliefs, different race, creeds and colors. It’s quite an achievement to see that combination of human possibility all in one hole and not hating each other.
The one thing you didn’t say is different ages.
Well, I’m not an ageist, am I?
Are you doing a lot of the new album on this trip and how does it fit with the older material?
Yeah, yeah, sometimes we do four, five, six songs, and it’s all PiL so it’s all very different from each other and all jolly good fun. Some songs are sadder than others, but they’re all poignant and relative to human experience. That might be the difference. We don’t just write songs for songs’ sake. They’re part of my life. I can only write from what I experience and that I try to do as accurately as possible. And I think the audience knows that and respects that. Certainly, many of them know every single word. Sometimes better than I do.
They can help you out if you forget the words.
It’s always great when someone raises their finger and goes, ‘Haha, you forgot the words.’ It’s always done with the greatest sense of fun. It lets you know your audience is attentive. It’s what my family and friends do, really. They let you know when you make an error. And I like that. I like to be kept up to the mark.
Is anger still a driving force for you, musically?
It always was, emotionally, and it was the very substance I needed to use to regain my memories when I came out of a coma when I was young. It’s all in the last book, for anyone who’s interested. It took me four years to recover my memories fully but anger is what the hospital recommended my parents use to not make my life spoiled or comfortable, but to keep me on a constant edge so things would return, so yeah,anger’s always there, but it’s a positive force. I never used it in violence or hate. I don’t have violence or hate in me.
You may have seen that in the crowds below you though.
No. Certainly not. Violence and hate is always left outside the building when we’re playing.
So, when you’re writing songs you can tap into those feelings from back then?
Well, I would hope so. When your memories have been stolen from you for such a long time, when they come back you’re never going to exaggerate them, change them, shape-shift them. You’re going to maintain them as accurately as when they first returned. It was a both a reward and a terrible pain that your personality could be stolen off you and for it to happen at such an early age. And then me keeping that a secret for most of my adult life.
Do you think it’s almost necessary for punk rock singers to overcome obstacles like that?
I don’t care what punk rock singers want. I care for my life and doing things as accurately and as best as I possibly can. Why on earth would I give a damn about an idiocy like a genre when I’ve spent my whole life avoiding categories?
Well, I guess people put that on you then.
Don’t blame me for the rest of them terrible sobs! It wa’nt me that did that, your honor!
What made you write a song about Bettie Page?
Because she is something of a hero. She stood up against an enormous amount of, uh, shall we call it religious moralizing and, of course, the mafias running the nightclubs. And she endured, and I think her legacy is rather excellent. She brought forth that the human body is nothing to be ashamed of, and that’s quite some time before we know it today when the way most people treat their bodies they’ve got a lot to be ashamed of.
Are you having to explain to people who she is?
No. She’s there in the heartbeat and pulse of America, really. Since I’ve become an American citizen now, this is what I’m doing, I’m exploring being an American and what it means. And it’s wonderful. There’s some good stuff here.
“Double Trouble” stands out as an thrashy rocker. Do those types of songs come to you often, or is it mostly the slower and more midtempo ones?
“Double Trouble” is about an argument I had with my wife over the repair of a toilet. Quite literally, and I translated it into a song. It was quite a full-on argument at the time and now my wife and I, when we listen to that song, we both burst out with laughter. What a knife’s edge a relationship can be and if we take it too far, you can insult each other to the point of no return. That is what the song is trying to deal with: double trouble. You take it so far but you must be able to recover from the brink, and Nora and I are very much like that, we’re very volatile. [laughs] There is always a resolve and there’s is always a possibility which we both love of being able to laugh at ourselves and realize that it’s not worth being so serious over something so silly. And I should have just have just repaired the toilet in the first place, because, as you know, a woman is always right.
How did “Shoom” take shape. Were you improvising in the studio over the riff?
The drum machine was broken and it was making that peculiar shoom noise. And just one thing led to another and we just experimented with that one sound. We’ve done something of a documentary on it which will explain it better when it comes out on YouTube. Basically, you take any opportunity and you fill it with enthusiasm and it will lead to something wonderful, and in this case, it led to what I call a requiem for my deceased father because that was very much his working-class approach to social behavior. Very witty, very up front and allegedly full of foul language. But no one in my family understands what anyone could mean by foul language. Every word ever achieved by a human being is worthy of adoration just by the creativity of it, which is what separates us from the animals.
Deep Purple and Yes were just nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. You went into the Hall of Fame, reluctantly ...
I didn’t go, at all! In my case this is a record industry that created nothing but problems for me, from my first band onwards. And even as Public Image, I had to spend nearly two decades out there struggling to raise enough money to buy myself off those record labels. How on earth am I gonna go cap in hand and say thanks to you, for anything? And it’s all so corrupt. It’s a secret ballot and it doesn’t do anything for anybody in any way other than stroke their ego. And then they ask you to pay for the privilege! You have to buy your own ticket to get in. What kind of craziness is that? That’s an insult!
Do you think it’s gotten any better with record labels, for you or for young bands?
No. There was so much good that came about of the large labels, initially, when people who owned them and ran them were very enthusiastic music lovers. Then, after the ‘70s, into the ‘80s, accounting started to take over, and they handed everything over to the accounts dept. and creativity just ceased to exist. From there on in, it was just a cold indifference and a lack of investment in the future, so we ended up with very bland bands and anyone who had any creative idea was pushed to the side and passed off as too expensive or difficult to work with. And these were the monikers that applied to people like me. And I contributed highly to the record industry. I certainly saved a couple labels over the years, but no appreciation came, so when things like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are waved at you, I didn’t see it as a carrot, I saw it as an insult. I don’t know they are. No one does. It’s a mystery. So as far as I’m concerned, it’s a mystery novel I don’t want to be in.
As an aside from that, were you ever a Deep Purple fan?
What on earth has that to do with anything? I know Sid liked ‘Fire on the Water’ or whatever that song was. That’s about as far as it goes. That was before he became Vicious. Ha ha.
I was curious about whether you were rebelling against those ‘70s bands.
Uh, no. A lot of those bands were coming from a rhythm and blues background and there was a bit of ethnic forgery going on in all them and us, we did not like that too much. We formed our own sense of rhythm and tune and based it basically on English working class music, rather than these progressive rock bands that were really fiddling around with Bo Diddley and the like and disguising it with volume. So we were seeing them as fake. That’s what a punk was, initially, a refreshing retake of our own culture and not trying to rip off something from the Deltas or the Mississippis.
No Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis in there?
Oh, I loved Little Richard, only because he was a nutter. So, I would never sit down and say, ‘Oh, that’s how I want to sound.’ Have never done that with anything in my whole life. I never wanted to look like anyone else or sound like anyone else. That had a lot to do with finding my own identity after losing my memories when I was young, and once I found my true identity, nothing’s going to alter it, least of all the influence of another human being.
Did you ever get to meet Little Richard because I bet the two of you guys together would be something.
I have no idea. No, I don’t really get to meet too many people in bands, but the few I have seem to be all right.
Oh, well, thanks so much for talking to me …
Please, may the road rise … and let’s get as many people to come along and experience something truly good in music as opposed to all the hatred and bias and nonsense that seems to be very prevalent these days, as indeed they were way, way back in my early past.