Punk veteran Johnny Rotteb in October 2014. Photo: Jason Alden/Eyevine
Johnny Rotten is sitting by a brazier on the terrace at Kings Place in London, where the Regent’s Canal bends round to form a little marina covered in duckweed. Wearing an oversized camel coat and gesticulating with a fag in hand, he looks like a magic tramp in a Terry Gilliam film: the only things missing are the fingerless gloves. He’s talking about the problem with anarchy in the UK – not the song he wrote 38 years ago but the concept. Today anarchy is just a “mind game for the middle classes”, he says, when asked about the activities of Russell Brand. Various writers are lining up for a one-on-one, eyeballing each other suspiciously. “Oh, you journalists must not be afraaayd of one another!” Rotten wails.
The voice is part Albert Steptoe, part Uriah Heep. The hair is bleached and erect. The eyes are wild but loose; they fix on a point far over my shoulder when he talks to me, as though staring down a tiny enemy in the distance. The cartoon dimensions of the man are so inflated that it is almost impossible to imagine him being able to hold a conversation but he can.
“In humour I find a great sense of truth,” he says, apropos of nothing. “You find the truth by ridiculing yourself and others. The Irish side of our family were always very strong on that – you laugh at funerals and you cry at weddings. At my dad’s funeral, I was quite happy to stand up and say: ‘That was my dad, he was a sod!’ Then I bent into the coffin and gave him a big kiss and it was a very nice goodbye. And I put a few articles in there, like an Arsenal scarf. I miss him dearly. It’s kind of odd, though – he died with a great smell of [dramatic bulge of the eyes] formaldehyde . . .”
Was that the first time Johnny Rotten had seen a dead body?
“Oh, come off it. With the lifestyles that poorer people led, coffins were being dragged in and out of the flats all the time at a fairly steady pace.”
He was born John Lydon in 1956 in Holloway, north London, and grew up on Benwell Road, within spitting distance of Arsenal Stadium. His father was a labourer; his parents had emigrated from Cork to a neighbourhood that was predominantly Irish and Jamaican. The eldest of four boys, Lydon was a bright but unpleasant pupil at the St William of York Catholic school in Islington, where he was taught by “fuck-arse hateful nuns” and from which he was eventually expelled. He both loved and loathed his English teacher “Piss Stains” Prentiss, as he knew him. “A fantastic, amazing teacher,” he says today. “Instilled in me a deep fascination for literature and language. He ignored me but that didn’t matter. He taught me that words can empower you. Poetry was important to me. All that came from Piss Stains.”
Earlier this year, Rotten released an autobiography called Anger Is an Energy and went up and down the country in a camper van, promoting it. His is a strange and solipsistic vision, a narrow corridor of thought in which he is right and everyone else is wrong, and as such it is one of the most entertaining accounts of the well-worn punk story: Malcolm McLaren was a phoney, Joe Strummer was “out to grab himself a crown”, Sid Vicious was a loser junkie with “lifestyle issues”.
Much of the pre-Sex Pistols part of the book focuses on a childhood bout of spinal meningitis that put Rotten in hospital for a year. He lost his memory, which makes for a mysterious chapter in his life; it’s no clearer when he describes it today. He was in “a whole bunch of hospitals right there at the top of Archway”, he says.
What were the visiting hours like?
“How would I know? I was seven and didn’t know who I was.”
Was there any entertainment laid on for the children in those days? Any clowns?
“Nothing! It was complete sensory deprivation and the scary thing is you get cosy with that. There was a great fear of my being institutionalised, as far as my parents were concerned. Every now and again, strangers would sit at the end of your bed and try to touch you and you didn’t know who they were. The whole thing was very, very creepy. I felt like I was up for sale.”
During his recovery months, the precocious child, who had been reading and writing since four, was often discovered by his parents in the Holloway library after school, re-teaching himself the alphabet, possibly by the light of a candle stump. Motor skills came back slowly. Using a knife and fork was hard and speech was harder.
“I thought I was conversing quite eloquently,” he recalls. “Apparently not! My parents were told by the doctors to keep me angry – to keep the edge going. I’d be babbling and they’d say, ‘What? I don’t understand you! Say that again!’
“I was deeply mentally frustrated,” he tells me. “It’s an amazing thing to look inside yourself and feel like two different people – one without the memory and the other one trying to kick you awake. Even today, I don’t like going to sleep at night. I’m no saint. I love all kinds of chemicals that keep me awake but I won’t take anything that is sleep-inducing.”
A lot of rock stars have an early trauma that drives them into wanting to become entertainers, I suggest. “A lot more don’t!” he says. But surely the man who has made a career out of being – or at least looking – angry had his formative moment in that hospital? When he came out, he had thick glasses and a curvature of the spine.
“Well, you can accept that you are no one or you can fight,” he replies. “That’s a part of working-class life anyway – being told that you are no one, know your place, shut up, say nothing. I had a double-barrelled shotgun of that.”
The Sex Pistols in 1977, with Johnny Rotten third from left. Photo: Getty
It’s nearly 40 years since Malcolm McLaren’s friend Bernard Rhodes spotted the 19-year-old Rotten on the King’s Road, near McLaren’s and Vivienne Westwood’s boutique, Sex. He was wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt with the words “I hate” written across it and the band’s eyes scratched out. Swiftly, after a meeting in a pub, he was enlisted to “sing” for the McLaren-managed punk band the Strand, which included the future Sex Pistols members Glen Matlock, Steve Jones and Paul Cook (they had already tried out Midge Ure and Kevin Rowland as frontmen).
It’s easy to forget that the Sex Pistols’ career spanned just two years and that they released only one album. You can’t watch a rock documentary these days without the narrative suffering a seismic fracture at the moment punk emerged, sweeping away the hubristic guitar gods of previous years. It is 38 years since the Sex Pistols were persuaded, by the host Bill Grundy, to swear on Thames Television’s Today programme (“fucking rotter”), propelling them on to the cover of the Daily Mirror. This year, John Humphrys tried to provoke Rotten on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and Rotten called him a “silly sausage”.
“What’s the biggest misconception about punk?” I ask him.
“That the alleged adults who were supposedly there to look after us created it all,” he says. “They didn’t. They stole everything from us and quite happily, too. That was a nice education . . . There are thieves everywhere!”
And by “alleged adults”, he means . . . ?
“Vivienne Westwood at the moment is portraying this nonsense that she conceived the idea of anarchy in the UK. Well, then, why didn’t she write the song? I mean, what an audacity! Malcolm spoke this way, too – pursuing their every waking thought as an artistic statement. That is completely, always, the voice of the talentless.”
Earlier this year, Westwood told the New Statesman that she saw punk primarily as a “marketing opportunity”. I let him know.
“That contradicts the idea of ‘anarchy’ in the UK rather nicely then, doesn’t it!” he flashes. “She never spoke to me. Never liked me, never wanted anything to do with me, hated me on sight. Now she’s trying to move in on my territory. Nobody ever put words in my mouth, not ever. Now that Malcolm’s gone – rest in pieces! – she’s moved in on the territory he was trying to cover. I think it’s very cheap and nasty.”
She wouldn’t have admitted it was a marketing opportunity at the time, would she?
“At the time, she was nothing more than someone doing knock-off Teddy boy suits and sex toys. And that was it. She didn’t invent the Teddy boy! I tell you, Vivienne’s costumes were always awful – those zips! She had no concept of men’s dangly bits. Safety pins had to be used to keep them together because the stitching was never finished and anything with a button or a buckle would just fly off – really, really poorly done. She was very clever at exaggerating the complexities of the concept, rather than focusing on the execution and reality.
“Well, there we differ. When I start a thing, I finish it and I make sure it’s well and truly sewn up.”
Though he was expected to destroy functioning society in 1976, Rotten is a lifelong Labour voter. His childhood in Holloway appears to have instilled in him a certain respect for politicians. His local MP was Michael O’Halloran (“Never forgot him”), who was popular with the Islington Irish community and held his seat at a time when Labour was struggling in the polls.
“I would go to the Labour town hall meetings with my mum and dad and I have fond memories of it,” he says. “When we lived on Benwell Road it was two rooms and an outdoor toilet shared with everyone on the street. My mum and dad were desperate for a council flat because at that point there were four kids and two adults in two rooms. They got one. And there you go – I’ve got a fond attachment there. Labour do care, they do build housing for the poor. They do look out for us in a much more serious way than a Conservative government would.”
Rotten thinks that grass-roots involvement is important. “There is nothing on television,” he says, “and you can’t afford the pub – well, go to the town hall meetings and listen to some real fun! Approach it like vaudeville!”
But where are these town hall meetings happening, I ask him? Surely the closest thing we have to vaudeville now is Ukip?
“Nah, Ukip are that bunch that will always appeal to the people that don’t like to think for themselves,” he says. “There will always be that sinkhole. And it’s important that it’s there, because by comparison other politicians shine like a beacon.
“You need that, you absolutely do. The clarity is waiting here for you, as a contrast to that mud going on.”
He doesn’t worry about the far right?
“I’d say keep an eye on it but at every opportunity you get, shout them down. Have they the right to be racist? Yes, they have the right. Are they right? No, they are not. Remind them of that consistently. Lest we forget, Britain is an island of immigrants, always has been. If you want to go their way, you’re going to have to start thinking about removing the Romans.”
Is he concerned about the future of Labour under Ed Miliband?
“I’ve met the fella,” he says, “and he seems honest enough. He dresses like a Tory, he talks like a Tory, so I’m confused. But there’s a softer edge to Labour than there is to any of the others and therefore that is the right way. There really isn’t an alternative. You can’t be handing it back to the landed gentry because they don’t give a fuck about any of us and they never will. They think it’s their moral obligation to be wealthy.”
When Rotten left the Sex Pistols, he had to fight McLaren in court for the use of his name. “The ownership of Mr Rotten was in dispute,” he recalls. “I suppose he wanted my teeth, too.” (The name was a reference to his dental hygiene.) You can believe him when he says the character was his creation, given how little his identity has changed through later musical projects, butter ads, TV appearances and all other facets of his rich but not exactly varied career. The funny thing is that he sort of makes more sense now than he did 40 years ago.
“If you want right of assembly, your local town hall is as good a place as any I know,” he says, back on the politics. “No point trying to chisel tiles and lead off the roof. I’m not despondent about it. I can see that it can be changed. But you’ve got to stand up and make a noise, [his voice at its most whiney, eyes at full-capacity bulge, palm slapping the tabletop] MAKE A NOISE!”
“A lot of nonsenses were attached to me,” he muses, sucking on the stump of his Marlboro. “Malcolm’s idea, to give the press a free hand, would drive me crazy because I don’t like things to be misinterpreted. I like things to be very precise.
“Come to me with your misconceptions and I am very happy to clarify. And that’s a butter term.”
“Anger Is an Energy: My Life Uncensored” is published by Simon & Schuster (£20)