A new documentary on John Lydon comes at a turbulent time for the iconic Sex Pistols/PiL singer
The first time I met Johnny Rotten – who was then going by his proper name John Lydon – was in 1981 in Boston, following the first Public image, Ltd. show at the Orpheum Theatre. “Come in,” he said, welcoming me into the dressing room. “I don’t bite.”
We had a bit of a laugh. It certainly put me at ease. I’d seen him and the Sex Pistols in Atlanta, first US gig at the Great Southeast Music Hall, in ’78 and after that incendiary gig I thought then, yeah, he might indeed bite.
This Boston show (and our meetup) was after the infamous riot at the Ritz in New York, when PiL played behind a scrim and it did not go over well with the crowd. Hostility ensued. Bottles and chairs tossed.
I was then freelancing – mostly for the Boston Globe, but occasionally for USA Today – and this was for USA Today, where anything complex got squeezed into something short and palatable. No compound sentences. Remember: It was the newspaper’s industry’s idea of TV news. Still, I rather enjoyed the challenge. I asked Lydon what he thought of USA Today and he paused for a moment and said, “Well, I like the pictures.” Perfect answer. My editor liked it too when I told her and said to put it in the story. I did. It was cut. But it amused her and her cohorts. They knew what they did.
Many years later, in 1999, I was talking with Lydon about his attitude toward life and the many roadblocks we encounter: `Humor is the best way of dealing with complete and utter nonsense. Because we are mad we are very prone to making absurd conclusions regardless of the evidence. The only true wisdom in life is [coping with] complete and utter confusion. It’s a fine place to be, a lot better than blandly accepting.”
What we’ve got out now is a documentary, The Public Image is Rotten, an engaging hour-and-45-minute film made by Tabbert Fiiller. Lydon, who is interviewed in his L.A. home, generally with a beer at hand, is. of course, the main voice. But not the only voice: Former PiL members like Martin Atkins, Lu Edmonds, Jah Wobble and the late John McGeoch to offer their takes on working with Lydon. (The film lists 31 past and present members of the band with another additional 20 other players.)
The film goes back to the Sex Pistols – The Filth and the Fury! – and out of the Pistols into Public image, Ltd., whose debut song “Public Image” was, with Keith Levene’s ringing guitar riff and Lydon’s curdling yowl, both the best kiss-off to a punk’s past and best welcome to post-punk’s future. It was also a bit of a feint – by far the most melodic song of early PiL, where the other music went into careering CAN-like avant-garde territory and Lydon rants.
The history of the band itself, with its ever-shifting cast of characters (and shifts in sound) is fascinating – why Lydon gave up on them or them him. Over the course of the film, Lydon presents his line of reasoning and, as usual, is sharp and precise, warm and sardonic: His truth re: PiL. Others differ and it’s to Fiiller’s credit that these varying takes comprise a PiL puzzle that goes beyond just Lydon’s take on the circus.
Lydon told Variety, “There were many people who volunteered [to work on the film]. I was a fly-on-the-wall in the process, really. [Fiiller’s] was just the most direct and honest approach, which is probably why it turned into such a full-fledged and fully-rounded commentary on PiL.”
Eh, maybe not so fast there. After watching the film, I rang up Martin Atkins. He’d seen the film this past spring at the Tribeca Film Festival. “It’s John’s movie,” Atkins told me. “It’s not a journalistic account of Public image. Perhaps uncharitably, he put enough in there for you to say what you said, but John is calling the shots. I like the fact that the documentary exists. I don’t like that people call it a journalistic deep dive. I think it’s John movie.”
Atkins mentions the short-shrift Lydon gives Wobble, the creative self-taught bassist, who went on to an ever-eventful post-PiL life. Lydon is still steamed Wobble “stole” PiL tracks and with another ex-member, Levene, put together “Metal Box in Dub.” As a solo artist, as a Brian Eno collaborator, as leader of Invaders of the Heart, Wobble has explored various avenues of ambient and dance music. “I was shocked John would want to say those words about Wobble, especially after 35 years.”
Atkins has his own memoir in the works – Memories: My Time In and Out of Public image, Ltd. from 1979- 1985 – and hopes to publish by the end of the year. “I’m actually trying to write a more comprehensive journalistic account of those five years [I was in PiL],” noting the absence of some key PiL members in the doc. “I think people’s memories are different and I’m investigating a bunch of this stuff.”
He said that seeing the film “galvanized” him to write the book and he spent a long time talking with Levene “someone I’d never gotten along with for many reasons and it was revelatory for both of us.”
Nevertheless, Atkins adds, about Lydon in the movie, “What was lost and what I’ve been trying to explain is John is a charismatic one in a million individual whose skills are very different that the box he’s trying to put himself in or others are. They’re very different from the band leader john was – I would say he’s charismatic, open and trusting. Allowing his past as a Sex Pistols for this new thing to infuriate in its ability to express itself. What PiL was doing, was John using his notoriety and prestige to allow something else to happen. I’ve seen interviews will Bill Laswell saying that Lydon was not present in the studio but would show up and explode with fully-formed ideas off music he’d heard for only ten minutes.”
A funny moment for me: As I’m watching the movie and Ginger Baker pops up with a bit of him drumming in the studio and then talking about playing on Album. Not effusively but still … so I dug up my interview with Ginger from 4 years ago.
Q: I know Public image, Ltd. singer John Lydon pretty well. And his is one of the first and last voices in Beware of Mr. Baker. He calls you “a man who stands for something in life that probably most of you do not, no matter how awkward this character may appear to you.”
Q: You played on four tracks of PiL’s 1986 album, called “Album.” What made you want to work with John?
A: I don’t know what you mean.
Q: He, a punk rock legend, and you the same from the hippie era. What about his music did you like that you wanted to be part of?
A: I didn’t even know he was gonna be a part of it. I just came to do some sessions.
Q: Were you told Lydon was part of it?
A: I don’t remember really. It was a long time ago.
Q: I ask because it was collaboration I might not have expected and it turned out very well.
The “shock” of the movie, I suppose, is Lydon’s appearance. He was, as a young Pistol, chiseled and angular; he is now, at 62, heavier. (Though not as heavy in the movie as current online candid photos suggest.) He’s been fat-shamed a lot online of late – lots of people have animus toward Lydon and this provides the fodder for it – but when I saw him on the Pistols reunion tour in 1996 outside Washington, D.C. he crowed from the stage, that he and the guys were “fat, 40 and back.” So, maybe it’s not an issue for him at all. Then again …
As a friend, musician Anthony Kaczynski, said on a Facebook post: “It’s weird that even though I find myself at times at loggerheads with John Lydon’s politics, and I’m sure he is just fine with that, I am appalled at the amount of fat-shaming going on in regards to his current appearance. I have news to tell you – youth and beauty are fleeting things. And in his prime Mr. Lydon, did possess a rather fearsome and singular beauty.”
Another friend, writer Michele Kirsch said, “Whatever people are saying about Lydon it is not normal weight gain. This has a particular steroid look about it. I fear he has cancer and has the moon face thing going on. I have seen this too many times. It has all the signs, the distribution of it. I think he is not telling us something.”
A third, musician Sean Drinkwater said, “This is a guess, but John Lydon is a lifelong smoker and probably has (at least) COPD and is likely on insane amounts of prednisone or some other medical steroid so he can get air. I’ve seen this first-hand and the weight-gain is crazy and very, very fast.”
And then there’s been Lydon on Trump. In previous interviews he appeared to be oddly pro-Trump – or at least in favor of Trump shaking up the order of things – but he told Newsweek earlier this month: “I came here, and I’m called a Trump supporter. I’m far from it! I’m not a hater, either. I feel like I’m watching one of those strange TV comedy series where you can’t possibly guess [Trump’s] next one-liner. A comedy of farce! A comedy of errors! We all like watching those things. So that’s how I view it. Of course, I’m very frightened by the prospects of the end of it. I’m not insane.”