Priest of punk…fearless musical explorer…social and cultural provocateur…cranky contrarian…icon John Lydon (nee Johnny Rotten) embodies all of those things and more.
His new autobiography, Anger Is An Energy bears a fitting title that perfectly captured his spirited essence.
Whether anointed public enemy # 1 as Johnny Rotten leading the charge of misfits with the Sex Pistols or his brave navigations as a sonic innovator with PIL, Lydon channeled anger/rage/frustration to create a formidable musical manifesto.
With an arsenal of songs like God Save the Queen, Anarchy in the UK, Public Image and Rise, he launched a mighty fusillade of musical grenades, all sneering attitude, pointed social commentary dressed with dollops of piss and vinegar.
It’s all here in Anger Is An Energy—the good, the bad and the really ugly. Lydon has always had a way with words and his new book does not disappoint. He’s is a masterful storyteller and the book is teeming with his candid insight and unique slant on the world.
From his admittedly miserable childhood in North London to the formative years of the Sex Pistols through the various lineups of PIL, Pistols reunion and more, Lydon takes the reader on a thrilling warts and all ride through his colorful life. By the book’s conclusion, Lydon seems, dare we say, happy, or at least content in the knowledge that he defiantly forged his own creative trail, hoisting a perpetual middle finger to his detractors.
One thing’s for sure, in Anger Is An Energy, the punk prophet proves he still “means it maan…”
Rock Cellar Magazine: You grew up in North London in an area you describe in the book as “I come from the dustbin.” How did that environment shape your outlook and view of the world and in turn later your artistry?
John Lydon: Well, there are many of us that come from that similar background; there are many many millions. It’s just every once in a while one of us manages to get a voice and say something about it and I just happened to be that lucky one. You know, you don’t forget these things but when you’re growing up in it you don’t know any better; that’s all there is and everybody else around you is in the same boat. Once you learn to expand your mind, of course, books can do that…but and so can joining the Sex Pistols. Once you see the broader horizons you realize that you’ve been hard done by.
Rock Cellar Magazine: In the book you speak about your natural inclination to help the disenfranchised and that’s true when you listen to the lyrics of many of your songs. Your view point of has always been authentic.
John Lydon: Well, it has to be. I wouldn’t survive otherwise; that’s probably why I’m so nauseated by most of popular music because it fakes these scenarios.
When you genuinely come from squalor and filth and deprivation, it’s something that has to be dealt with properly. With a lot of the punk movement, a lot of them bands were faking it. They went down market. What I wanted from the wealthier background punks was to let me into their life, explain their life experiences to me and stop faking and pretending you’re part of mine.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Your new book is titled Anger Is an Energy. Discuss how you’ve tapped that fuel for your creative endeavors and used it to positive effect and not to incite violence.
John Lydon: No, anger does not equate into violence and hared; not with me anyway. I try to use these things positively. What I do in my songs is I get a chance to explore many kinds of emotions and that includes (laughing) the Seven Deadly Sins. You have to indulge yourself into emotions really if you want to write properly in song form or poetry I suppose.
I wouldn’t consider myself a poet, more like I’m a realist, not a fantasist.
Rock Cellar Magazine: Can you create inspired work without it drawing from pain and anger?
John Lydon: Oh yes, most definitely, yes.
I run the full gamut of totally completely happy senile delinquency to rage. (laughs) They’re all there and I experience all of them. I’m not besides myself with depression. (laughs)
Rock Cellar Magazine: You’re a talented lyricist with your own unique take on the world. Discuss how your love of language helped shape you as a lyricist.
John Lydon: I was lucky enough to be able to read and write before I even got to school. My mother would sit me down. I was fascinated with the shapes of words and I understood people looking at newspapers was deeply interesting to me ‘cause it was something I didn’t know about and I wanted to learn.
So my mom taught me and I caught on very quickly how to read and write and that was a problem of course for the Catholic school that I was sent to because I was left-handed and that was seen as a sign of the devil at the time. (laughs)
Hilarious, isn’t it? The foolishness of adults. Then at seven I got meningitis and that put me in hospital for a year. I lost my memory and I was senile basically. They had to start all over again. I developed a real love for libraries at that point. That’s where I found myself again, really.
It took about four years for me to completely remember who I initially was. It’s quite an odd thing. For the rest of my life I’ve been looking at myself from outside myself. The expression, “I’m bedside myself” (laughs) takes on a whole new meaning. (laughs)
Rock Cellar Magazine: In the book, you spoke about how growing up books were your “life preservers.” Today what books serve that purpose for you?
John Lydon: I love books, I love it. That’s where people are the most honest with each other and I try to translate that into songs. The one thing that’s missing in books to me is the music. You’re imagining the melody of what you’re reading as you turn the pages.
I’ve literally translated that into songs. That’s where I am and that’s where I am at my most happiest when I’m writing and performing. And books are very very important to me. To me, libraries are the citadels of humanity and everything else fades.
Rock Cellar Magazine: When did the realization hit you that you knew what you wanted to do in life?
John Lydon: Oh, I was always seen as willful (laughs) and purposeful. I mean, when you actually forget who you are, that’s quite a complicated world you have to deal with to retain your sense of individuality. It leaves you with a sense that you’re an outsider but then as I’ve learned through the years and through everything, even in childhood, it’s that everybody feels that way.
We all feel that we’re slightly outside of the norm. Well, there is no normal. I think the normal condition for a human being is to feel isolated.