Born John Joseph Lydon on January 31, 1956, the man later known as Johnny Rotten became the ultimate punk protagonist. An unlikely icon, he helped revitalize rock 'n' roll by discarding its mores and stripping it down to the basics.
Both he and his first band the Sex Pistols were famously devoid of musical talent, but they did have a flair for provocation and inspiring outrage. Though relatively short-lived, their influence and impact lingers on even today.
The establishment abhorred them, and many members of the rock elite were intimidated by what they represented, but the working class youth of the U.K. and beyond took to them as cult heroes. Early singles like "Anarchy in the U.K., "God Save the Queen" and "Holidays in the Sun" became the rallying cries for their devoted legions and bestsellers to boot.
Despite constant conflicts with their record label, run-ins with the authorities, and tumultuous stage shows that left them bloodied after assaulting their audiences, they made a marked impact on pop culture during the better (or worst) part of the late '70s and helped etch an indelible imprint on rock's enduring trajectory.
To Lydon's credit, he managed to regroup after the Pistols imploded in 1978, forming the anarchistic experimental outfit known as Public Image Ltd. Generally, he kept his own outrageous imprint intact in the years thereafter.
Never one to inhibit his expression or stifle his remarks, he's been an ongoing source of critical commentary in Britain, indicting the political and social system and stirring up controversy at every juncture. Both of his bands reunited for brief spells in the late '90s and early '00s but suffice it to say that Lydon's 1993 autobiography Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs offers the final word on his insurgent attitude.
"'Nice' is the worst insult you could ever pay anybody," Lydon insists at one point in the manuscript. "It means you are utterly without threat, without values. Nice is a cup of tea."
Indeed, that's not surprising coming from someone with as ferocious a reputation as Lydon. Over the years, he's given little reason for anyone to think he's a particularly nice guy. There was the infamous incident on British TV where the Pistols ran amok. They made a mockery of the otherwise amiable host Bill Grundy and his show, causing a national scandal in the process. Likewise, Lydon was no less incendiary when he taunted the audience at the Pistols' final show in San Francisco, offering a mocking admonition, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"
Not surprisingly, Lydon has been consistently unapologetic over the years. "I have no time for lies or fantasy, and neither should you," he proclaimed in the book. "Enjoy or die."
Unfortunately though, Lydon's bad behavior extends to more than mere words. In 2008, he allegedly punched a female television producer in the face and called her a "cunt." When a room in which he was staying at a Ritz hotel proved unsatisfactory, he supposedly screamed at a hotel employee, remaining undeterred in his rebukes even after the employee apologized.
That same year, three members of Lydon's entourage allegedly assaulted Bloc Party singer Kele Okereke, leaving him battered and bruised in an incident that appeared to be singed with racial overtones.
Lydon was also accused of attacking the British singer Duffy at an award ceremony, slamming her against the wall and calling her a "cunt" (apparently a favorite word in the Lydon vocabulary). He later denied the charge, saying he didn't recognize her and that she crept up behind him causing him to swing around instinctively.
His syndicated radio show Rotten Day provided him another platform, allowing him to spew his caustic commentary about various critical events in pop music history. Likewise, his short-lived show on MTV, aptly dubbed Rotten TV, also found him contributing acerbic remarks, often at the expense of other artists.
Consequently, Lydon's public behavior in recent years has only reinforced his surly image. In November 1997, he appeared on Judge Judy fighting a suit filed by his former tour drummer Robert Williams for breach of contract, assault and battery. Lydon won the case, but received numerous reprimands from the judge for his unruly antics.
Lydon was also a panelist on an episode of Richard Belzer's conspiracy-themed panel show, The Belzer Connection. When the subject turned to the death of Princess Diana and the possible involvement of the Royal Family in her demise, Lydon asserted "If the Royal Family was going to assassinate someone, they would have gotten rid of me a long time ago," a reference to his constant criticism of the Queen and her inner circle.
He capped these comments with a 2004 appearance on the British reality television program I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!, where he lambasted the studio audience by branding them as "fucking cunts" (there's that word again!) during a live broadcast. Not surprisingly, the network received numerous complaints about his crude behavior.
Lydon's personality was borne out of a troubled childhood. Raised in a working class suburb, his father was often away at various jobs and. Left alone, Lydon was bullied and taunted. His mother was always ill, and despite the fact that he ran with local gangs, he describes himself as a shy and retiring child. He claims he was always "nervous as hell", hated school, and endured several embarrassing incidents. "I would shit my pants and be too scared to ask the teacher to leave the class," he once recalled. "I'd sit there with a pants load of poo all day long."
When he was seven years old he contracted spinal meningitis and was hospitalized for an entire year. He suffered hallucinations, nausea and headaches due to fluid being drawn out of his spine with a surgical needle. It not only caused curvature of the spine but led to that maniacal look that's been labeled the "Lydon stare." He calls the experience "the first step that put me on the road to Rotten."
As for the Johnny Rotten moniker itself, Lydon has offered two explanations. In an interview with a British daily, he said he was given the name due to his lack of dental hygiene, which actually caused his teeth to turn green. He eventually had dental surgery in 2008, claiming "All those rotten teeth were seriously beginning to corrupt my system." Another version of the story had Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones giving him his handle after being repulsed by Lydon's choppers, leading him to exclaim, "You're rotten, you are!"
Rotten in appearance but especially in disposition, Lydon's legend will likely linger for years, if not decades, to come. However, lest you think he's a total miscreant there was one occasion where he showed off his sensitive side. Describing bandmate Sid Vicious' premature demise due to a heroin overdose and other misadventure, Lydon actually appeared to get choked up.
Does Lydon have a sensitive side? Those dazzled by his perverse persona might find that a rotten proposition indeed.