John Lydon: ‘I voted Labour when I was young – I do not recognise them any more’

Spending the past few weeks travelling around the country on a question and answer tour seem to have reminded John Lydon of a reassuring British trait.

John Lydon. Picture: Paul Heartfield
John Lydon. Picture: Paul Heartfield

The place and its people remain as “beautifully eccentric as ever”, he says on the phone from a hotel room in Bath where he’s staying on the latest leg of his journey to promote his latest book, I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right.

“Wherever I go, I go to have a laugh and a bit of fun and the majority of people seem to be of that opinion too,” he continues. “Everything I love about being English is clearly there every night, and it’s a very good act of camaraderie and community just going on here, almost to the point where I feel I kind of end up a stand-up comedian. That wasn’t the agenda at all, it was to promote a book, but it seems to be my life makes people laugh.”

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The evenings are, he says, “completely improvised”. “Whatever the question is, I’ll just go for it and that may take my mind into one million different places,” he says. “I’ll remember something particular one night and go off in that direction; maybe another (it will be) something else. Wherever fancy takes me – that can be pretty endless.”

The tour nonetheless comes at a difficult time for the 65-year-old frontman of Public Image Limited. Last month he lost a court case to former Sex Pistols members Steve Jones and Paul Cook, who sued him, claiming he was trying to block use of the band’s songs in the forthcoming TV adaptation of Jones’ memoir, Lonely Boy.

A longtime resident of California, he says he has found lockdown “hell on earth”, seeing his wife Nora’s health deteriorate due to Alzheimer’s disease.

“It upsets me greatly that I have to leave her there but I spent a year picking the best people I possibly could,” he says. “I made this commitment to do this tour and I don’t let people down, that’s not my way.”

The singer, once known as Johnny Rotten, shares some of his and Nora’s experiences with Alzheimer’s in the book – “You have to, it’s a dramatic moment in my life,” he explains – and it’s something that his audience have clearly identified with. “People that come, they want to share their problems too,” he says. “A meet-and-greet of just a few people has turned into a line of 100, each one telling me their individual problems – that’s fine to me, I do this to meet people.”

John Lydon with Public Image Limited. Picture: Tomohiro Noritsune

A childhood bout of meningitis has helped him to empathise with what Nora has been going through, he says. “I lost my memory, it took me four years to get it back fully, so I fully can relate to that: the fear and the terror of being completely isolated and cut off from what we laughingly call reality. But I can keep her sane with humour.

“Unfortunately Nora’s condition will only get worse, and I have to be man enough to take that. There are times where I can’t because I’m only a human being. It’s very, very difficult. When I touch on those areas live onstage, well I’ve just got to go with the flow.”

What’s notable is his determination to make this phase of their lives as happy as possible. “British comedy is one of the things that both of us have in common, we both love Steptoe and Son and that’s never going to change, so when we talk on Facetime, which is every chance I get, she can relate to that,” he says. “It’s becoming more and more difficult, which I expected, but I want her to die happy, not confused. So long as I can get her smiling and bubbly with good people all around her...and I’ll be back soon.”

Elsewhere in the book, Lydon takes aim at political correctness and ‘woke’ culture. His concern is it stifles debate. “It definitely has nothing to do with intellectual thought, it’s the stupidest reaction possible from selfish, self-important people, so I have very little time for it,” he says today. “They all want to insist that their own special universe makes them superior, and they all seem to come from the internet.”

Having surprised liberals by expressing his support for Donald Trump, he says that rather than being disappointed by Trump’s defeat in last year’s US presidential election, he was “surprised” that it was won by “a well-known stupid entity called Biden”.

He says some people might not like Trump but believes elements of the mainstream US media turned against him. “I now have no hope for the masses. I see how easily led they can be, and the way that people talk about Trump here is just utterly amazing. It’s preposterous, far off from the truth. I live there. I can’t stand the so-called opinionated expertise that seems to go on on certain stations here.”

His preference for Trump stems, he says, from a loathing of politicians in general. “Anyone that can give us a bumpy ride maybe, but that’s a hell of a lot better than business as usual,” he says. “Now we see business as usual, don’t we? The Afghanistan disaster, we see long lines for petrol, it’s all related to it. Going back to this Biden nonsense, he will wreck the world.”

Lydon is also deeply mistrustful of a media that he claims is “walking hand in glove with left-wing politics”. “That bothers me a lot,” he says. “I come from a very poor background, I always voted Labour when I was young, I do not recognise them any more. It causes division, separation, us and them.

“My movement, punk, we did a lot to end racism, we were open-minded. Boy, girl, age, shape, size, skin colour. This lot are breaking that apart, so they’re the enemy.”

After a layoff from touring, Lydon is hopeful that PiL will return to the UK next year. “We have to,” he says, “because we’re an independent company, we don’t have major support from any businesses or institutions. Our only funding is live performance.”

He sees performing as a “fundamental part of what we call community”. “The connection between band and audience is vital – that’s what this point and purpose is.”

He believes PiL’s present line-up – which includes Lu Edmonds, Bruce Smith and Scott Firth – has endured so well over the past 12 years because “there’s less sense of competition and the jealousy of youth”. “I’m sorry but it is true – experience teaches you to calm down, you’re not a superstar, shut up – good advice to all my ex-band members,” he adds dryly.

In Lydon’s earlier autobiography, Anger is an Energy, he said getting over self-doubt had given him the energy to “go on and go forth”. He is certain there are plenty of challenges left to face.

“Oh God, look at this year!” he says. “None of this was in my astrology chart. You can’t predict what’s going to come next and I’m the kind of fella who will not let the b****ds grind me down. It’s not going to happen.

“My mum and dad didn’t raise a foolish child. They warned me never, ever to allow self-pity to creep in because that’s doing your enemy’s work, and so yipee-aye-oh, on we go.”

I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right is out now, John Lydon is at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield on October 14, The Forum, Northallerton on October 15, Spa Theatre, Scarborough on October 16 and The PAA, Yarm on October 26.