The “king of the punks” can’t believe what he’s witnessing. John Lydon is watching CNN in his Malibu living room, and it’s been wall-to-wall coverage of Donald Trump’s flamboyant presidential campaign all day long.
“Are you really going to hand over the White House to a real estate agent?” says Lydon, 59, in the same snarling tone of amusement known to both fans and hecklers of his work with the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd. The sides of his head are shaved, leaving an unruly patch of blond hair rising like a flame on top, with a few strips dyed purple against his scalp. He gestures toward the TV and says, “I want a wig just like that one.”
The British-born singer is an American citizen now and will be casting a vote in next year’s election. He’s lived for three decades in this house by the ocean with his wife, Nora Forster, raising the twin children of Forster’s daughter, the late Ari Up of the Slits. It’s a lifestyle that’s found Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, in parent association meetings and unlikely scenes of domestic parenthood.
“It’s a family house,” he says between cigarettes. It’s also a gallery of his life on the margins of pop culture, the walls covered with his paintings of raw splashes of color and attitude. A samurai sword hangs above the couch, and the room is filled with evidence of a life spent traveling — and instigating.
“The only things I’ve ever confronted are institutions, religion, politics, but never my fellow human beings,” he insists. “And yet my fellow human beings find the need to defend those very things that are restricting their freedoms. God, that sounds like a speech. Should I run for president?”
On Friday, Lydon released a new album with Public Image, “What the World Needs Now...,” their second since reuniting after a nearly 20-year absence. And the band’s 2015 tour stops Nov. 29 at the Fonda in Hollywood. Lydon calls the album his best work, “mentally much more astute” than that of his celebrated early years.
There was acclaim from the first days of PiL, starting with 1978’s noisy “Public Image: First Issue,” which helped define a new era of experimental post-punk. He had just left the Pistols behind, dropping the “Rotten” moniker in favor of his birth surname of “Lydon,” but the biting personality remained then as now.
The new album coincides with a memoir, “Anger Is an Energy,” which examines his life in greater depth than a previous book that was focused mostly on his days as a Sex Pistol. The book’s title is taken from a lyric within “Rise,” one of PiL’s most popular songs, and is “possibly the most powerful one-liner I’ve ever come up with,” he writes. Anger has been an essential force for him since before the dawn of punk.
“I’ve not done any of this for superstardom,” he says of his career. “Quite the opposite. I threw away the rock star mantle. And for that, there’s resentment too: ‘How dare he, how dare he.’ ”
He still enjoys the work. The new album’s opening song is “Double Trouble” and begins with a domestic argument he calls a “runaway rant” as his voice bickers over a broken toilet, and the sound of flinty minimalist electric guitar adds to the anxiety. The album is not all rants but is a frequently hopeful and vulnerable collection of songs and impressions.
“Big Blue Sky” was inspired by the American landscape he’s seen so often on cross-country tours with PiL. Lydon sometimes makes a point of stopping the bus between cities to share with his band the natural richness of his adopted home.
“I wanted them to see the gloriousness of the California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah desert,” he says. “So every chance we got, we stopped the bus and just absorbed that dead heat beauty and that terrain.”
Amid the shimmer and throb on “Spice of Choice,” he offers an encouraging view of life’s possibilities and the ability to affect your destiny instead of surrendering to circumstance. “It really is about making the right choices,” he says. “It’s a song about the furtherment of self-education.”
Lydon was born in London to Irish parents in 1956. His childhood was interrupted by a diagnosis of spinal meningitis, which put him in a hospital for a year and caused severe memory loss, as he describes in the book.
“Almost killed me,” he explains. “Nothing to be laughed at. But oddly enough it’s something that made me. Without that, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today, so thank God I almost died.
“The pain I had to endure of losing my memory and forgetting who I was — that’s always still in me. I never explained it until the book, and the songs — what agony that was for me. My greatest sense of achievement was conquering that.”
Taking a lead role in the invention of a new culture of disruption called punk provided his escape from the no hope/no future he faced within working-class Britain. “The caste system absolutely strip-mined any alternative,” he says. “The class system is there to remind you that you’re just a dirty oik because you came from that side of the tracks.”
After the Pistols flamed out during a 1978 U.S. tour, PiL became his musical venue of choice, blending forward-leaning notions from punk, dub and Lydon’s charged, impressionist vocals.
On his Malibu couch, Lydon flips through a large published scrapbook of his life and lands on a colorful PiL band photo from three decades ago. “So ‘80s,” he says with a laugh, noting he has no intention of recycling that era. “Would the king of punks be a cliché? Oh, no, vicar.”
PiL went silent after 1992’s “That What Is Not,” partly from tensions inside the band but mostly from what Lydon says was a lack of record company support. It was suggested that he “go back and do some Johnny Rotten-isms. That would be great,” Lydon recalls. “Really? Well, it didn’t really help Johnny Rotten at the time! I’m not going back to that difficult period.”
After PiL, he found an unlikely career as a TV personality, hosting the brilliantly rude but short-lived “Rotten TV” on VH1 in 2000, followed by a role on the U.K.'s “I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me out of Here!” There was also a series commercials for Country Life British Butter, which he says got him out of debt to his former labels.
In 1996, Lydon rejoined Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock for the first of several Sex Pistols reunion tours. No more are planned.
Last year, he was set to appear as King Herod in a touring musical production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The cast also included Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child and Incubus’ Brandon Boyd, but the tour was canceled less than two weeks before it was to begin.
“It was very disappointing, to say the least, because I was dedicated to this,” Lydon says. “It opened me up to different ways of singing, but mostly different aspects of my personality — that I could deal with the more gentler side of me. I would use restraint in the delivery rather than full-on all the time. Wow, almost 40 years later, and I’ve learned discipline.”