John Lydon is in this month’s issue of Uncut talking about Public Image Ltd’s new album, End Of World. In this extended Q&A – an online exclusive – Lydon digs deeper into loss, glam rock rock and what he really thought of the American punk scene…
First of all, I want to offer my condolences…
No. I don’t want to hear that. You don’t get to enforce your opinions on my tragedy on me. I do not want your disingenuous sympathy.
No, I’m not being disingenuous, I was very sorry to hear about it…
Nora’s death breaks me down and breaks my heart. But we’re here for a specific reason.
Okay. The final track on this new album, “Hawaii”, is something that deals with your late wife…
Thank you. [Calms down a little]. Yes. It dealt with the foreboding knowledge that she was going to die. It was heartbreaking to perform it live, at first. It’s easier to perform now she has passed away. I am very lucky and blessed that an Irish TV show called The One gave me the opportunity to go and perform that song, so I could show her that performance before she passed away. So blessings all around to those guys and girls in Ireland. It’s an opportunity I don’t get much in England.
Is that why you were trying to represent Ireland in Eurovision?
Well, they were the only people who asked me.
You’ve been in the States for several decades. What do you make of the old country when you visit now?
I don’t recognise the cities, it’s a mess, I can’t cope with the traffic, the smog, the filth of it.
But apart from that it’s great…
It should be, but it’s not.
But yet this entire album sounds very informed by Britain…
I recorded the album in the Cotswolds. My entire career has been based on the country of origin. I come from a very, very definite and specific culture, one which has many problems and issues, but I’m all about the benefit and progress of the said culture.
The song “Penge” clearly isn’t about Penge in south London, is it? It sounds like a Viking invasion…
Yes. It has the ring of old authenticity. I just thought that Penge sounds like a very ancient place. It was a good maypole to dance the song around. What are your options when a Viking raiding party comes to ground? Will you seek refuge with the Druids in the next bay, in which case you might be opening up to a bit of child molestation? Or go with the invaders?
The song “Car Chase” seems to be told from the point of view of someone being held in a mental institution…
Yes, or just any of those homes where they send old folks. These places are torture clinics, where the inmates live a thoroughly miserable existence, and their only real escape is their imagination. I know someone who got sent away to a home for the aged, and they’re not having a very good time of it. It’s not something I’d ever have considered for Nora. Nobody should die unhappy. People should go on to meet their maker in the comfort of their own homes.
What is the song “Walls” about?
We all need barriers. We need some degree of separation from others, if only just for a sense of security. At the moment I’m struggling with a stalker who is letting herself in my yard at night, running around claiming that she’s my daughter. And she’s in her 50s. It’s the uncaring selfishness of it that is really upsetting. I’ve had stalkers in the past but this one is becoming just too irrational, and has potential for something much more serious, so I’ve had to report it. I don’t like to get people into trouble but it’s causing me stress. It’s making me a bag of nerves.
And you’re drawing parallels with Trump’s wall?
At the moment we’re watching a border here in America which is insane. It’s not just illegal people coming over the border, it’s the drugs, the fentanyl. It’s all cut in Mexico. It’s causing endless deaths, grief and addictions. And we have a government that seems unable to acknowledge that fact. It’s an outrageous addiction. And the homeless are thriving on it. Of course, they’re not really homeless. Nowadays, the homeless are men of a certain age, Nirvana-type fans, who have not grown up but grown down, and are selfishly expecting free handouts and whatever, and they’re beginning to have shootouts with drug-dealing gangs. It’s a chaotic world. And walls are necessary to stop that. I’ve always said, what’s mine is mine and get your fucking hands off it. I don’t steal from anyone and I don’t expect to be stolen from.
This is linked to “Being Stupid Again”, right?
That’s a very lighthearted song about student politics. I would love to have been a student. But today’s universities do not teach critical thinking. It is just institutionalised dictation. Students these days don’t seem capable of listening to arguments or different points of view. Universities have become indulgency camps. I love differences of opinion, that’s where I learn. I love being right, but I can only get there by listening to all the alternatives.
What is the song “Strange” about?
“Strange” is a hymn to nature. I think if you close your eyes and listen to it 30 times in a row, you’ll get the idea! The trees, they are my steeple. That is my church. I have grown to appreciate nature more and more in recent years. Even in Los Angeles, somehow, because Nora just loved colour. It was exciting taking her into our little backyard and planting flowers. I’ve kept that up. It’s amazing, the amount of birds that appeared in my backyard in the last year. These are things that thrilled her that wouldn’t even have registered with me otherwise. I’m now more capable of actually enjoying life.
Can you give us an example of that?
You know, when I did I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, I discovered great things about myself. Primarily, I discovered that I was made for surviving! It doesn’t appear difficult to me, to get firewood, to want to boil water, to take care of myself. I can naturally adapt in a lot of different surroundings.I had no idea what people were seeing. It’s a terrifying concept going into that, knowing that there are cameras on you 24/7. You have to drop the ego and just be yourself. It made me a better person all round, really.
This is the most settled PiL line-up you’ve had for years, isn’t it?
Absolutely. There have always been financial burdens but, since we’ve gone independent, it’s a different scenario. We make the stuff we like, we don’t have to be responsible to a bunch of indifferent strangers who hold the purse strings. We rely on touring to make the money to make the money to make the record. The Covid fiasco made it not so great. We were down to shoestrings to record this album. But I seem to thrive well when I’m hammered down.
There’s a lot of glam rock in a few of the tracks here, especially “The Do That”…
Oh yeah. I love a bit of glam rock. It’s a thoroughly British invention. There’s all this nonsense about how punk rock came from New York, it’s all fucking bollocks. I came from a very strong culture, one that didn’t need America to teach us how to be punks. The American punk scene was a bunch of twats in tight trousers, reading Rimbaud poetry from the depths of New York. We didn’t need America. We had exciting things in our youth that had nothing to do with America. Punk was coming out of glam. Slade, Sweet, T Rex, Bowie, Showaddywaddy, Mud. “I love your Tiger Feet.” – “The Do That” is very much of that glam scenario.
“Hawaii” has parallels with “Death Disco”, doesn’t it?
Very much so. They are different approaches to death. “Death Disco” was written in screaming agony, as my mother was dying in hospital. At first I was shellshocked. I knew she was going to die, I just couldn’t accept it. “Hawaii” is more accepting. It’s a much more joyful song. I cannot allow self pity in this. My mum and dad would turn in their graves if I did. There is no Edgar Allen Poe in me. Mum and Dad would go mad if I tended towards self-pity. If I came home and said, oh, I’m being bullied at school, they’d say, oh, boo, hiss, go back and sort it out.
What was Nora’s funeral like?
I come from an Irish background, and we like to celebrate funerals. And, quite coincidentally, her funeral was around the same time as Charles’s Coronation. Which she would have enjoyed, in a ludicrous way. I filled the backyard with Union Jacks, with cardboard cut-outs of Charles and Camilla. You could put your head where their faces would be, or you could punch their faces out, if you wanted. We had bangers and mash. It was a nice way to say goodbye to Nora with the neighbours.
Do you have many friends in Los Angeles?
A few, not many. I have neighbours I get on with. I try not to have too many friends. They sap the energy out of you. You should never have more connections than you have fingers on one hand. Otherwise you’re just opening yourself up for gossip. If you have too many friends, you have more people being judgemental, more hatred, more sniping. I’d rather cut out that side out of my life. I think of Muriel Spark, and how living a life in public wrecked her marriage and wrecked her family. I hate the idea of wilting in the limelight.
End of World will be released on August 11, 2023 on PiL Official via Cargo UK Distribution