Spending time listening to John Lydon is life-affirming. He’s joyous and ribald, tender and kind, spiky and funny – damn funny, in fact. Lydon is one of life’s natural empaths, a man who radiates kindness, despite the wonky media portrayals.
Prior to lockdown, he began work on a new book: I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right. A riotous sojourn through his thoughts and ideas, his values and his philosophies; it’s visceral, a raw and uncut journey through unchartered terrain. He doesn’t tell his life story, dwelling on the Sex Pistols, his iconography or God Save The Queen – he’s done all that before. This time, he’s set loose, free to adjudicate on life’s travails.
“I’ve spent all my life being censored,” he says. “So this is me, untamed and unscripted. This my lingo, right or wrong. It’s straight form the horse’s mouth, warts ‘n all.”
A limited edition of 5,000, I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right was published on Thursday and each individually numbered, boxed book features an authentic signature from Lydon.
Lydon is pleased that his ideas haven’t been in any way diluted, that neither editors nor publishers have tried to water down strongly-held views.
You know the story. Lydon’s parents were working class emigrants from Ireland who moved into poverty in London. His dad was a ferocious hard worker and Lydon grew up in the shadow of Arsenal FC, in a two-room Victorian flat. His mother was ill and Lydon, the eldest of four brothers, looked after his siblings. At the age of seven, he contracted spinal meningitis and spent a year in hospital. He suffered from hallucinations and a severe memory loss that lasted for four years. It was the first step to Rotten.
Lydon says: “I wasn’t aware of being poor, I wasn’t aware of poverty. That’s just what it was. There were no thoughts of economics. If you wanted some money for something then you had to get a paper job and get the money for it yourself. That gave me an incredible independence.
“I didn’t seem to have much humour then. My dad was very dry, but now that I look back on it I realise he was hilarious, really hilarious with everything. There were poignant one-liners that I was missing. He was trying to lighten me up. But it took a long time for this sourpuss to lighten up.”
Once he’d recovered, Lydon got work with a taxi company. He was still a kid. But he quickly learned to organise taxi drivers and plan routes. The money rolled in. He was 11. “It was exactly what I needed. In reality, I probably made a horrible mess of it, but in my mind I was absolutely the best businessperson in the world. I needed that self-accolade, really.” Libraries gave him power. He bunked off school but spent time reading. Decades on, he remains grateful to the librarians who opened his mind to a world that he might otherwise not have discovered.
“The librarians were wonderful for me because they could see I was desperate to get back something that I’d lost. They’d shove books in front of me. They’d be saying ‘you must read this’. And the idea of reading non-fiction at the time was beyond me. I just wanted the picture books. But they taught me ‘no, no, no’. The most fun is in here (your head). And it’s bloody true. The best pictures are in your mind. That’s so true. To find out how other people think is the greatest reward. You gain so much insight into your own laziness, and that’s what people are looking for. Although if they’re that lazy they are not looking at all.”
He learned the importance of fear. As a kid, he’d get into scrapes and more than once he took a beating. School was tough, too. He learned that the pen – or, rather, his words – were mightier than the sword. His quick wit and quicker tongue kept him safe.
“I’d immediately jump to football hooligans; it’s the fear of getting absolutely pummelled, that’s there all the time. The marauding little gangs in days gone by who were really pushing an envelope inside, they were exploring their own individualities en masse. But how many could you rely on to stand with you? It was very good breeding grounds; testing grounds for your own position in life. That’s what kids do.
“It’s important to go through the bully system at school. None of us liked it but we needed it. There were times when you need to be woken up and alert. I found comedy. That made people see the fun in the situation of being bullied. I’d turn it around with words, you know. A few clever sentences and those against you are suddenly with you. ‘Oh, you’re alright. I never thought about that’. Words can throw a spanner in the works. If that don’t work, well, you know, it’s a lot better than running because people like me can’t run. Physically, I’m not prepared to. Stand and take it, that’s the story of my life really.”
In I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right, Lydon talks about fashion and social history, how he taught misfits and weirdos and how he grew to love music. He connected with outsiders, railing against the police and their hob-nailed boots and identifying with those on the margins. A natural contrarian, he had no time for teachers or authority. He thinks his ideas, more even than his music, will be his legacy.
His love for his family comes through strongly. Lydon speaks about his mother and father – two very different characters – with genuine affection. He has learned the lessons they taught him, he fondly remembers their idiosyncrasies, they’re still with him every day.
“You get wise to the ways of the world and you have your own defences and I had a beautiful suit of armour to protect me and that was my words. Some comedian on a TV show would try and tear me down and I’d rip them a new one. And I got to like that kinda position. I was glad as the years droned on that I found a way around that by just killing people with kindness and not betraying myself to anger and frustration, which were initially the first tools that came out of the bag. I didn’t like the confrontation on TV work with the media, no.
"They just seemed oblivious to what we were drawing and so what, I thought eventually. It was like crabs in a barrel. If one crab looks like it’s about to make it out, bang, the rest of the crabs pull it back in. Terrible thing, but that’s what the human race is. I found my way to be far better than to suck up to the nonsense and go: ‘Oh well, you know, you’re right.’ I’ve never been one of those kind of people.“
He experienced tragedy. There was Sid and Nancy, of course, not to mention the heroin that washed around London during the late 1970s. Record companies ripped him off, at one stage keeping him in a perpetual state of debt, so that he couldn’t move forward.
“Regrets – of course I have regrets. Whatever they are. It’s mostly about hurting other people, which is not something I like to do. But sometimes when somebody gets too much in your face, they have to be stopped. I don’t mean physically, but mentally – you just ditch them at that point. You move on and you move away from them and then you regret doing it after because you took the easy option.”
Through the culture-changing era of The Sex Pistols and the creatively-exceptional decades of Public Image Ltd, through commercials selling butter and still-memorable TV appearances on I’m A Celebrity, one flame burned more brightly than ever. He met his wife, Nora, whom he calls Babbie, during the Pistols days and they’ve been inseparable since. In recent years, she’s struggled with Alzheimer’s and Lydon’s unerring affection and devotion are perhaps his defining quality.
“I think humour keeps you smart. Rather than: ‘Hello dear, are you cold?’ If you demean each other by not caring or by being patronising, it’s ferociously insulting. People just know how to talk to people that have a slight problem or an issue. We’re not dealing with the walking dead. It’s a matter of memory fusing in and out. I had those issues when I was younger, coming out of meningitis. So I’m absolutely in the right place for it. It makes us love one another even more, no question.”
He’s a supporter of Trump, understands why the working classes voted for Brexit – though still thinks the only good politician is one that doesn’t get elected. He’s amused by the public perception of him – and figures most of it is wrong.
“You really do need the ego chipped away at all times. That’s one of the best lessons my father ever, ever taught me, y’know: don’t get out of your pram. You’ll always run into something that’s better than yourself and know it. If you’re sensible, you’ll absorb the lesson and it will make you a better person. Books, for me, do that. When I read how people view the world I think: ‘My God, I’d never seen it like that.’
“If people were books I’d have more fun with them. I think the world has got a very confused message of who or what I am. Possibly, that is to my benefit. So a lot of the out-and-out lies, I just let slip by. I find it amusing that people could possibly imagine that I could be that Rotten; every pun intended. It is what it is and you do your best to make your message clear, but there will always be someone who is ever so quick and willing to misjudge.
“There will be someone who is willing to see in what you are saying something that isn’t there. I wouldn’t be the one to take that view away from them. I would see it as being selfish to morally lecture. ‘Oh no, this is what it is.’ Nah. That’s what it is for them, so let them get on with it.”
Signed copies of the new book are available from johnlydon.com