John Lydon may be forever associated with Great Britain thanks to a famous album with "bollocks" in the title and a song that proposes "Anarchy in the U.K.," but the former Sex Pistols mouthpiece is now an American citizen. Having called California home for the better part of three decades, Lydon recently passed his citizenship test and is proud to be the bearer of a U.S. passport.
"I've wanted to become an American now for at least the last 20 years," Lydon says. "And it matters to me that I give back to the country that's given me so much."
Part of that giving back is fulfilling his civil obligations by voting in the upcoming presidential election. Though he hasn't settled on a candidate yet, there's one politician who won't be getting his vote: Hillary Clinton. "I feel deeply suspicious of everything about her," he says. "She's got to do some mind-altering drugs for me to be interested. I don't like people that have presumed it's their job already. She's given off that air, and that's unfortunate. I'm very, very wary of that. It sends the hairs on the back of my neck standing up like church music."
Like the presidential hopefuls, Lydon is also out on the road. He's promoting a new Public Image Ltd. album, What the World Needs Now..., their tenth overall and second since coming off a nearly two-decade hiatus. Like last time, the recording process remains the same. Nothing is prepared in advance, not the music or lyrics. "We set the studio up so it's a live recording, very much like a rehearsal. As we're writing, we're actually recording. Then we'll go back at the end of the day and work out what we like about what we did all afternoon and go from there."
Just before making the album, Lydon put the finishing touches on his second memoir, Anger Is an Energy, which he says opened up new avenues for him lyrically. "There's a lot in there about my early childhood, which I've never discussed with anybody. I endured a lot when I was young, and it almost killed me. I didn't want to be judged, like 'Oh, that poor sickly thing.' I kept quiet about it for years and years and years, and then it turned into something of a sealed door. And so it was about time I opened up the tomb."
At age 7, Lydon contracted meningitis and went into a coma, which wiped out his memory of several years. Writing about the experience left him feeling particularly self-reflective. "It was a lot to go through," he says, "and that really is the making of the person we now know as me, not anything that happened in pop music."
Lydon's sickly adolescence, and in particular his need to relearn much of what he'd been taught, helps explain his constant need to push and challenge himself, be it artistically or in life. He learned to ski at age 45 ("It's worse than my dancing," he jokes), and he rehearsed choreography and enhanced his singing abilities to play King Herod in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which was canceled last year just before it opened. Now 59 years old, Lydon says he feels just as vital as ever. "It's a mental problem with a lot of people. At the moment, I'm in England, and I'm finding that people of my age group are suggesting that it's remarkable that I even consider getting up onto a stage, let alone walking. I resent that English attitude of 'act your age.' That's appalling."
With age, as the saying goes, comes wisdom, and Lydon has plenty to offer, especially when it comes to keeping relationships intact across decades. He's been married to the same woman for more than 30 years, and though PiL had a long period of inactivity, it's existed in some form since 1978. "Once you get past the trust barrier," he says, "your commitment should be forever. That's what true friends are for. They're forgiving."
Lydon says too many bands break up over frivolities. "When you're young, you get too twisted, and you're too hyper. You're in search of the instant answer when really, the true answer to any problem is time."
Time, as it turns out — plus a U.K. commercial for Country Life butter — allowed Lydon to dig out from the financial and artistic rigors of the major-label industrial complex in which he felt trapped. And the result facilitated PiL's ability to self-release its last two LPs and become more sustainable. "It is a constant pressure that keeps coming at you," he says of his experience dealing with the majors. "It's part and parcel of why the record industry collapsed on itself. It's too selfish, too demanding, and it doesn't understand the talents it's dealing with."
Any band that tours, Lydon says, has taken a gig for the money, but he is quick to add that it has never been just about the paycheck for him. "It has to be a proper gig with a proper sound system and with proper respect to the audience. I've never made the criminal act of doing anything just purely for financial gain — not ever, not once, never. I like to wake up in the morning knowing I haven't lied to anyone. You have to lead by example in this world. You can't preach — that doesn't work. We're not all Bono." As for that butter advert, Lydon says he had complete freedom on the project. "Take a look at the shape of me. I do like butter!"
After wrapping up a month of dates in Europe, Lydon is very much looking forward to getting back to America, especially Florida. "The only problem I ever have is the humidity," he confesses. "But that's only in the daytime. Humidity onstage is an amazing thing because that damp in the air helps with the singing so brilliantly. It tires you out physically, but it really opens up the lungs."
On the concert stage, the band is just as improvisational as it is in the studio, and Lydon says the group has about 100 songs at the ready, which allows each night's set list to remain fluid. "It's always to complement the vibe of the evening, but that doesn't mean we're going to play the greatest hits and that's it. It doesn't ever go into that kind of circus."
The band's flexibility and experience playing together allows it to alter arrangements from one night to the next, meaning the version it presents of "This Is Not a Love Song" may be completely different from how it was played the previous evening. In fact, you may even be hearing the genesis of a new PiL song live as it's happening. "We tour so relentlessly, and all of us are improvising onstage all the time," Lydon says. "Those ideas we discuss later, and we try to find places for those patterns in future songs. You can do this when you trust the people you work with, and the people I work with now are my closest friends. There's a great sense of empathy in us."
As for what follows the ellipsis on the new record's title? "Shoom," the album's closer, which is about Lydon's father, offers one version: "another 'fuck off.'?" But Lydon insists it is also an open question to each and every listener. "You tell me what the world needs now," he offers. "I'm all ears."
Public Image Ltd.
8 p.m. Thursday, November 5, at the Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Highway. Tickets cost $25. Call 954-564-1074, or visit cultureroom.net.
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