A peek into John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten’s mind | Music | Entertainment

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John Lydon of Public Image Ltd.

John Lydon of Public Image Ltd. (Image: Getty)

On the surface, former Sex Pistols singer John Lydon is one of the most controversial figures in the history of popular music.

Yet, for this punk rebel, there was nothing controversial about his long and happy marriage to wife Nora. The couple remained together for 44 years until she sadly died in April, following a long battle with Alzheimer’s. Lydon was so devoted to her that he now rules out ever finding love again.

“There will be no replacement for Nora, there can’t be,” he tells The Daily Express. “There’s nothing sad about that at all because, wow, we gave each other a crack of the whip.”

Nora, who was 80 when she died, was a German publishing heiress and also a trailblazing music promoter when the couple met at the start of The Sex Pistols’ career. She helped many punk bands, including Lydon’s, get their start in a tough industry.

Much more thoughtful and considered than his firebrand image, Lydon describes the emptiness of his life without Nora: “Life now is like being on tour all the time. It’s like being alone in endless hotel rooms, alone at night, but it carries on into the daytime too. But that’s the way it has to be.”

The 67-year-old has just released a new album with Public Image Ltd, aka PiL, the alternative rock band he’s fronted since leaving The Sex Pistols in 1978, when he was disillusioned they were becoming more known for outrage than for their music.

READ MORE: John Lydon sleeps with wife’s ashes next to him saying ‘some might be horrified’

Called End Of World, it contains more confrontational rock and inventive dance music – but also a tender ballad, Hawaii, which Lydon wrote about Nora’s illness. He says that getting back on tour will help mend his heartache, not least because his wife wouldn’t want him to be overcome by grief.

“Touring again will be a pleasure,” he says over a video call from the home in California he shared with Nora for decades. “The heartbreak in writing about Nora was before she died. That was hard and difficult, because of the dismal expectation of the end. Now that moment has passed, singing Hawaii is pure joy, because of our memories.

“It’s taken me a long time to get this calmer state emotionally. But that’s what Nora would expect and demand from me.”

Wearing a bright green shirt and sporting his famous orange hair in a quiff, Lydon then lets one of his trademark cackles. “Being German, Nora would want that discipline,” he adds.

Nora and Lydon moved to the US when they were newlyweds to escape the chaos of life in London where their home was regularly being raided by police. His new band PiL were unable to tour because of the ongoing backlash from authorities against The Sex Pistols.

Johnny Rotten, as he was known back then, and his Pistols bandmates Sid Vicious, Glen Matlock, Steve Jones and Paul Cook caused outrage from the very moment they exploded onto the punk music scene in 1975.

John Lyndon aka Johnny Rotten and Nora Foster

John Lyndon aka Johnny Rotten and Nora Foster (Image: Getty)

With their ripped clothing, prolific bad language and chaotic live concerts, they incurred opprobrium from the establishment and veneration from their young fans. They made headlines for swearing on early evening TV, while many of their concerts were cancelled for fear that fans would riot.

At home, though, Lydon and his wife lived quietly. He says of Nora’s death: “It seems right. She was suffering, so it was a blessing.”

He now intends to stay in their old house. “I don’t want to live in the haunted memories of our final situation,” he adds. “I’ve given Nora’s clothes to charity and her accoutrements like wheelchairs and walkers to good homes. But this is where we were happy.”

While Lydon may have reconciled himself to the loss of his wife, he is still angry about his former Sex Pistols bandmates. In 2021, guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook won a £2m case against him, after he’d tried to refuse the pair permission to use Sex Pistols songs in Pistol, a docudrama about the band made by Trainspotting director Danny Boyle.

Including bassist Glen Matlock in his contempt, Lydon fumes: “The others weren’t decent with me, not in any way, shape or form. They gave me eight days’ notice about that series, then took me to court for not agreeing with them.

“This was all during Nora’s illness. It was very difficult, expensive and harsh. I don’t mind that they were so callous, but they should have shown some concern to Nora.”

English punk rock band, Sex Pistols

English punk rock band, Sex Pistols (Image: Getty)

Lydon has said before that the outrage surrounding the band meant he could never have fun in The Sex Pistols. He explains now that their reunion tours in 2002 and 2007 were also joyless, stating: “It should have been fun, but the animosity was there. Mr Jones is a very negative person. He’s not very intelligent – it’s like talking to a brick wall. The other two are slimy and go with the flow. I don’t want to say a bad word about them: those are the good words. Talking to them again has zero potential for me.”

Ironically, soon after The Sex Pistols’ final concert in 2008, Lydon reformed Public Image Ltd – and their line-up has remained the same for 15 years since, comprising veterans of other alternative bands in guitarist Lu Edmonds, bassist Scott Firth and drummer Bruce Smith.

Of his love for the band, Lydon enthuses: “I like being in a room with people who’ll tell you: ‘John, that’s f***ing rubbish!’ I tried hard with the Pistols to form some sort of unity, but they always had hatred for me, because I didn’t turn the band into what they expected. Who knows what that was, because they never bothered to sit down and tell me.

“But I love being in PiL. We’re into sharing. To give and take is a fantastic thing. It’s how I like the human race to exist. In PiL, friendship comes before musicality.”

The sharing ethos bears fruit on End Of World’s unique musical expression. It includes the abrasive song Being Stupid Again, where Lydon sings of his dismay at the state of university education.

He reasons: “Students are very opinionated. That’s all well and fine, but they don’t seem capable of questioning their own decisions. Institutes of higher learning are putting out nonentities who are utterly humourless about themselves. It makes me think: ‘Please, be real about this. You’re my friends, don’t make yourselves enemies.’”

However, he is quick to distance himself from taking sides politically, explaining: “The opinions on both the left and right wing are shallow. There’s not enough common sense for us people who have to just get on with life. It’s ghastly and stupid to put ideology in front of humanity.”

Lydon’s individual outlook on life was shaped when, at the age of seven, he contracted meningitis. The illness confined him to bed for a year. Robbed of his memory, he used books and writing to re-educate himself, saying: “Putting my writing to music became an excellent, much clearer way of expressing what I was trying to say.”

And what about that infamous wide-eyed stare of his, which gazed down from thousands of punk posters in the 1970s? He attributes that simply to being left with bad eyesight from the meningitis. He may have looked confident when on stage but he has actually suffered with chronic stage-fright throughout his career.

“My stage-fright is horrific,” he reveals. “I have to deal with negativity, self-doubt and stress before I can go on stage. People who want to be negative about me assume I’m an egomaniac who thinks he’s fabulous, but that’s far from the truth. I’m riddled with self-doubt.”

So how does he manage to appear so self-assured? “Early interviews,” he laughs. “Seriously, the way I was dealt with in the ‘70s was quite shocking. I’d go on TV and face a wall of Spanish Inquisition-style hatred. I very quickly learned that words are my bullets.”

While he’s positively looking forward to Public Image Ltd’s tour next month, Lydon says he relishes time alone at home.

“I never get bored, that’s impossible,” he says. “What I do get is tired, physically and emotionally. I love the idea of having a day to do nothing. I enjoy hard work, but I also love indolence. My friends all know where I sit in the house, because my favourite couches all have a big lump in the middle. My mind is always wandering, but my body sometimes likes to stay where it is.”

Lydon’s tiredness is partly down to the deterioration of his eyesight. He says it makes it harder to write songs as he struggles to read.

It leads to one final slice of dark comedy from a man who loves sharing his anarchic humour. “My eyesight is just getting worse,” he cackles. “No disrespect to my lovely wife, but watching porno isn’t helping. It’ll make you go blind? Turns out they were right.”

  • Public Image Ltd’s new album End Of World is out now. They tour from September 8-30. See www.pilofficial.com for tickets.
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