The Rotten Truth
California definitely agrees with John Lydon. And that's not just because the Public Image Ltd. front-man's natural attention-grabbing personality is ideally suited to the L.A. media jungle. At age 56, a large part of Lydon is still the same Johnny Rotten that first shocked Britain, then the world, out of a social malaise with the Sex Pistols in 1976, even though he has spent the better part of the past three decades in the Golden State. On the eve of releasing PiL's new album on its own label - the band's first since 1992, aptly entitled This Is PiL as a declaration of independence - he sounds more at ease with himself than ever before. That is, until you ask him a direct question about, say, current recording techniques. "The amount of gadgetry that people put on their voices is astounding to me because the one thing that we as human beings rate most highly is clarity of message, and that absolutely gets in the way," he says. "If you start altering the human voice to the point where it becomes a cross between Mickey Mouse and a robot, what is the point to that? I might as well listen to the toaster. There is a new toaster out right now that speaks; I think Bosch makes it. It's hilarious! [In robotic voice] 'Your toast will soon be ready.' Put that to a beat, sir!"
This Is PiL was made as soon as the band wrapped up its widely praised 2010-2011 world tour. It wasn't exactly a reunion, but the current line-up consisting of long-serving members Lu Edmonds on guitar and drummer Bruce Smith, along with newcomer bassist Scott Firth, appears to be the most stable one so far. Lydon, who has seemingly careened from one volatile situation to another his entire life, couldn't be happier. "When we decided to do this again two years ago, there were some really long conversations," he says. "All of us wanted to know clearly what it was we were doing. Now we're in a universe where we don't lie to each other about anything. We're free of the restrictions of major labels; we've somehow managed in two years to raise enough money just through touring to be able to record a new album and set up our own label. Our own label! Let me tell you, that's a 24-7 thing too. I get one or two hours' sleep a night, but at least you're refreshed and you've got a sense of joy and willingness to get back and work. Uncontaminated."
1956 to 1972
Eileen Lydon gives birth to John Joseph Lydon on Jan. 31, 1956, her first of four sons. Both she and husband John Christopher Lydon are Irish immigrants, and frequently move around southern England whenever Lydon Sr. finds work as a crane operator. At age seven, while living in the tough north London Finsbury Park area, Lydon contracts meningitis. He spends a year in hospital, often slipping in and out of a coma. Part of Lydon's treatment involves drawing fluid from his spine on a regular basis, which leaves him with a noticeably hunched back. The disease also permanently affects his eyesight, leading to what is later called "the Lydon stare."
"I've had some serious life-threatening, debilitating illnesses," Lydon says. "So what? It made me a better person really. It might strike many people as odd, but I'm grateful because I came out the other side of it. I was physically damaged by many of those things, but I'm mentally astute, so these are the gifts." Following his recovery, Lydon has trouble readjusting to life at Catholic school and starts working odd jobs at age ten, including taxi dispatcher and rat killer on his father's building sites. Although Lydon's parents don't object to him growing his hair, or his fondness for experimental psychedelic rock by the likes of Hawkwind, Captain Beefheart and Can, his rebellious nature gets him expelled from school at 15. By law, Lydon needs one more year of education, so he is enrolled at a state school, where the more diverse student population tolerates his attitude. Among Lydon's first acquaintances there is John Simon Ritchie, who lives with his mother in poor conditions near the school. They bond over Ritchie's sense of humour, even though Lydon initially finds Ritchie naïve and slow-witted. Lydon ends up calling Ritchie "Sid Vicious," a name he's already bestowed upon his pet hamster.
1973 to 1975
Lydon is kicked out of his family home and moves into a squat in the more upscale Hampstead area of London with Vicious, and several others including John Wardle, later known as Jah Wobble. All of Lydon's circle have aligned themselves with the glam rock movement led by David Bowie and T. Rex's Marc Bolan, and begin taking their clothes and hairstyles more seriously. Lydon cuts his hair off in chunks and dyes what's left green. This doesn't prevent him from getting a job at a day care centre, although he is soon dismissed after parents complain about his look. For amusement, Lydon and Vicious busk in subway stations, most often playing Alice Cooper's "I Love The Dead" on acoustic guitar and violin. At night, they and the other squatters go to gay discotheques or reggae clubs, any place where they feel they won't be judged. Lydon's fashion sense is certainly distinct; he favours cutting up his clothes and reattaching them with safety pins or making tops out of garbage bags. It's partly out of admiration for the style of London street people, but mostly a reflection of his social standing.
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