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The Private Life of Public Image Ltd.: John Lydon Talks Childhood Illness, Marriage, and ‘Butter Wars’

·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
In this article:
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  • John Lydon
    John Lydon
    English musician
  • Afrika Bambaataa
    American DJ, record producer and rapper

John Lydon, the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten, is a legend who’s truly seen it all. And he has opinions on it all, too. His epic, exclusive interview with Yahoo Music was ostensibly arranged to promote What the World Needs Now, his new album with his seminal post-punk, post-Sex Pistols band Public Image Ltd… but over the course of our in-depth conversation, he covered everything from a near-fatal battle with childhood meningitis to his battles with record labels; from his happy marital life to his notorious commercial for Country Life butter; from his early work with the Pistols to his pioneering rap side-project with Afrika Bambaataa, Time Zone. And time just flew by.

Lydon’s fascinating three-part interview is available to watch in full here, but below are some of our favorite pull-quotes, straight from the icon’s Rotten mouth.

On his near-death experience at age 7:

“I think it’s right I tell people what my biggest sense of achievement was, and that’s surviving an illness that almost killed me: meningitis, which put me in a coma for nearly four months. When I came out of that coma, this was age 7, I had no memories. I had no body motivation. I couldn’t move any muscle, I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t communicate. A year of that, the physical side came back. But the mental torture of not knowing who I was and the feeling of not knowing I belonged to anyone at all, that took nearly four years to come back. The hospital let me go [home to my parents]; they sent me off to what was in my mind was complete strangers. I felt like I had just been bought.”

On getting his memory back:

“The tool they used to spur back my memories was anger. They kept me angry. This is what the hospital had devised me to do. Otherwise I might have slipped into some kind of passivity about losing my memories and my personality, and I might have learned to be comfortable and accepted that position. Then I would’ve lost myself completely forever. So they kept me angry, and the anger and the rage of that spurred the motivation to remember.”

On being with his wife Nora Forster, a woman 14 years his senior, for almost 40 years:

“Well, good luck to people that are flippant about their relationships and their responsibility towards their fellow human beings, but people like me and Nora, we spend the time and take the effort to understand each other. Then it becomes a life’s work in progress. And for my way of living, that’s how it want it to be. I don’t take commitments lightly. I don’t treat fellow human beings as tools of my trade. So there you go, I’m a loyalist at heart.

“I mean, look – I started in the wonderful world of rock ‘n’ roll and quite frankly, sex was thrown at you left, right, and center. No, it wasn’t for me… I don’t like that flippancy. I grew up having childhood illnesses, and somehow it left me feeling that there was something wrong with me, and I had to come to grips with that very quickly once I was thrown onto a stage in public. I was aware of people that were attracted to me, not because they knew anything at all about me – it was the fame and fortune. And those kind of people I don’t want around me.”

On the biggest misconception about him:

“That I was manufactured or created somehow. Or that the Pistols was a boy band manipulated by the shenanigans of a very clever Svengali figure named Malcolm McLaren. It was a very industrious behavior in the band, how we put the songs together. And we barely really understood each other. There was a lot of animosity and irresponsible, petty hatreds and jealousies formulated. But out of all of that, great songs came out. As Shakespeare said, 'You smile in the face of adversity.’ For me, I was so eager to get my voice out. This was the first opportunity of my life; I was at the point where I had the chance to stand up and be counted for having an opinion about anything at all. So fantastic – my love and adoration to my fellow Pistols, really.”

On moving on from the Sex Pistols to PiL:

“A lot of the damage to PiL came from the record companies. They really didn’t want to back me. They constantly wanted me to go back to this Pistols thing; they allowed the media to continuously yak on in that particular way, to keep me and maintain me in a Pistol-like setup, and it’s been an uphill climb to wash my hands like Pontius Pilate and move forth with my life.

"It’s a difficult thing, but look – I don’t want that kind of fame and fortune, and I walked away from it very happily because I knew that it was manipulating me into something that I wasn’t. I was good there [in the Sex Pistols] for a year’s piece of work, but beyond that, no… PiL is PiL. Sex Pistols was my mind and my body thinking – my instant reaction to anything that contaminated and restricted and confined me. Public Image is my heart and soul – the inner workings of me trying to come to grips with what it is to be a decent human being. And that is a job in progress. I’m only 60 years young. I need another 60 to work it all out.”

On whether he’s gotten his critical due:

“What am I gonna turn into here, Rodney Dangerfield? 'I can’t get no respect?’ I don’t look at it with an expectation. I’m lucky to be alive, from my childhood onwards. Everything that happens to me, one way or another, will be to my good. That’s my reward. I’m getting to do now in my life the thing that I was actually allowed to live for, and that’s songwriting. I’ve always wanted to write, but [my] writing wasn’t good enough until the novelty act of being in the Pistols gave me opportunity.”

On the petition among British fans to have Lydon knighted:

“Oh, yes. What nonsense that is. Like after all I’ve done and said in life, I’m gonna give the Queen the privilege of a sword on my neck.”

On his infamous butter commercial:

“[People said], 'You sellout!’ Sell out what? I’m in a recording industry that won’t support me to the point where I cannot function anymore. So I had to work outside of my own industry and do TV work and Internet work and radio shows and whatever. But that wasn’t really bringing in enough. Then along came this British dairy company that thought, 'We’ll have dirty Rotten as a spokesperson, he’ll be good!’ They said, 'We know you’re not going to take this serious. If we gave you a field full of cows, would you do an advert?’ It worked so well that British butter had increased its sales by 87 percent, and it improved the entire British dairy industry to no end.

"The downside, apart from the usual left-wing music journalists who don’t understand anything about what it means to live in the real world, was the problem I got myself into what is now known as the 'Butter Wars.’ The foreign companies that imported butter into Britain decided it was wrong of me not to back their product instead. But they never offered me in the first place! Many an insulting-like email was sent to and fro, and I never though that Johnny Rotten would end up in a butter war. I’ve got enemies in the wonderful world of butter! How careful are you supposed to be in a modern world? There’s always someone willing to judge you wrongly. And you just gotta ignore that.

"Hey, I needed the money, and I do eat butter. I’m a self-taught chef, and I love making curries, and one major ingredient in curry is ghee – which is clarified butter! And there’s nothing like a big pound of British butter melting in a pan.”

On his pioneering rap/rock project Time Zone with Afrika Bambaataa, and their single “World Destruction,” which came out two years before Aerosmith and Run-DMC’s “Walk This Way”:

“It was a really good rap song, but it didn’t have a hook, or a chorus. So I came up with the 'Time Zone’ refrain. And it was a great juxtaposition of voices between [Afrika Bambaataa’s] heavy [delivery], which we now find out is the rap ideology of presentation, and my squeaking up there like an angry young man. You put the two together and it made a beautiful record. But it was completely not liked when it first came out. The record label I was on said the same thing: 'There’s no place for this kind of music, it’s too different. You won’t get it on any playlists.’ Well, story of my life is, whenever I’ve done anything musically, it’s never been on any playlists. It takes years and years and years for them to catch up and then play it. Then, well, the bubble’s gone by then.

"And I think we spent $22 on the video. It involved a lot of ketchup. That was the dietary budget of the day: McDonald’s Heinz Ketchup for the blood smears. And it did work!”

On his many imitators:

“I gotta say, and I’m not being self-aggrandizing here, a lot of what I do is copied – like, blatantly… it is annoying, because the strings have always been held tight on me, and I see money spent as an investment on others [who sound like me]. But maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I’m looking at the bright side of this: Maybe I’m supposed to endure. It certainly keeps me alive.”

On the secret to maintaining artistic passion:

“Love of life. When you get it taken away from you at such an early age, every moment, even the bad side of things, is enjoyable. And it becomes part of my memory bank. I can constantly refer back to it to see what I learned from that pain or that joy.”

On the Bible:

“It’s a book written by sheepherders and goat-shaggers.”

On what the world needs now:

“Empathy.”

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