John Lydon talks to Tony Harris

The lead singer of revolutionary punk band the Sex Pistols talks politics, poverty and power of the people

Tony Harris: “Anger Is an Energy: My Life Uncensored” — tell me why you titled your autobiography that way. I know it's linked to your childhood, isn't it?

John Lydon: It's linked to an illness I had called meningitis, which I contracted at age 7. The result of that was I was rushed to hospital, and then I was in a coma for quite a few months. When I came out of that coma, I could not remember not only my own name or how to speak, move, walk or talk, but I did not recognize my parents. I did not know where I was.

They were telling you, "Hey, I'm your mom."

Yes, it doesn't matter. You don't know them. You don't know nothing. Your mind is wiped, and that took four years to really recover from that. But in that period, the doctors told my parents, to keep me angry because that would spur my memories back. 

The doctor tells your parents to keep you angry?

Such was national health medicine at the time. No, this was true because I had no memories or recollections of anything at all. And they thought that would be a good way to spur me back into some kind of awareness. It took a long time. A long time.

I was in hospital for a year. Released at 8 years old. And I still didn't recognize them, and I felt I was being taken home by complete strangers. But I had to learn to trust them. And that helped, no end. Now, the whole idea of keeping me angry was really so that it never allowed me to go into self-pity, where I would, like, become comfortable with the situation. And so good things came from that, even though it was agonizing. But it lasted for almost four years before the full memories returned. Result is, thank you, anger is an energy.

At a certain point, do you have to let anger go in order to sort of live and breathe, and does it still fuel?

Anger is one of those delicious energies that you can use. It spurs great things in your mind. It's a most excellent way of dealing with a situation honestly and openly because that way you remove the possibility of violence, which I think is negative thinking.

I wonder what you see in the world today that fuels that unease, that angst, that anger within you.

Pain, suffering, the disenfranchised, unnecessary poverty, class warfare — all of these issues bother me greatly.

Well, there's plenty of that in the world today.

Yes, there is. And I come from an extremely poor background. So I'm well aware of that. I'm well aware of the education system cutting some of us off, what they view as ghetto children. Well, I'm fully one of them. I don't think I'm in any way stupid or dumb. And yet still outside of the system. And no matter what I achieve in my life, I don't think the British class system will really ever make space for me. I've said far too much that's been contentious to the powers that be. And yet nothing I've said has been wrong. But sometimes we know that governments don't like to be corrected, let alone religious geniuses.

Expand on that thought, sir.

I had a great deal of problems returning to school. When I was 4, I could read and write.

That's right. Your mom taught you?

Yes, but I was left-handed. And they sent me to Catholic school. And the nuns seen that as a sign of the devil. And so I was ostracized, really, even though I had to wait, really, for the other kids to catch up.

‘No matter what I achieve in my life, I don’t think the British class system will really ever make space for me. I’ve said far too much that’s been contentious to the powers that be. And yet nothing I’ve said has been wrong.’

John Lydon

What did music represent for you then?

I've always loved music. And I've always loved reading and writing and all of these things. My two favorite places in life are libraries and record stores. Sadly, record stores have gone missing. But there's still secondhand record stores, which I love. And I love old bookstores too, secondhand books. Love all that. 

I didn't naturally go into music. In fact, I did my utmost really to prove that I was tone deaf to the school because it was Catholic school. And if you could sing in any way, shape or form, it meant the priests had access to you. And I don't like child molesters. So I practiced being tone deaf.

They wanted you to sing in the choir.

Yes, but the priests would be touching you. Unacceptable. I think, for me, that's a perfect introduction to becoming a Sex Pistol. And from there on, the King of Punk was born.

Was it just a catchy title? Was it provocative? 

The name was awful. I mean, it just sounded like the worst loser name a band could ever have. Just unacceptable in every way. 

Does it look like part of the genius now?

No. It's just happenchance. 

Tell me what it was, in your mind, today, looking back, that made the band such a sensation.

When you write a song called “God Save the Queen” and it's about the downfall of the monarchy, and then that song is openly discussed in the Houses of Parliament under the Traitors and Treasons Act, which carried a death penalty at the time, that kind of helps. There was a ground movement, maybe not openly, about questioning these institutions. And finally, finding answers to whether they should exist or not. And to my mind, from a very early age, I've seen them as a financial drain on a country that's really economically collapsing.

You see that as being the case today, you think?

Yes, even today. Then, most yes. To my eyes, that was very clear. That wasn't how most people viewed it at the time. And then, of course, I'd wrap other songs around like that called, like, “Anarchy in the U.K.” It's like my idea of a fun night out, bit of anarchy. 

"God Save the Queen" — "The fascist regime, they made you a moron," right?

"A potential H-bomb." Yes, I know my own words.

I just want you to reflect on them today, as you hear "When there's no future."

"How can there be sin? We are the flowers in the dustbin."

"We're the poison in your human machine." What were you feeling? What were you channeling? 

That's the voice of the disenfranchised, those left out. Those given no hope. Those pushed aside. When any society does that to any element of its population, there will be trouble. My weapons are words, not bullets and bombs. And my words have had a very powerful and positive effect, I think. And people now openly discuss issues like "Should there be a royal family?" "Should there be this?" "Should there be that?" I think the word is "transparency," and that's what I seek in all things.

Maybe you paid attention to what's happening here in the United States over the last seven, eights months, close to a year now in communities throughout the United States, Baltimore …

I've been aware and I'm glad [Barack] Obama won the election, because it's bringing all of the racial tension that's riddled in this country to the forefront. I've watched the Republican Party absolutely make a mockery of themselves with the hatred and the hidden racism that's now absolutely bubbling over. And I've only just recently become an American citizen myself, and this is a very fine introduction to the future. And let's hope it is no future but a future. But again, transparency in all of these issues. There is obviously a police problem here. And whenever your situation like that is developed, it's coming from way up top. That's not ground roots stuff. Somebody's manipulating that.

And you recognize the frustration that young people are feeling as they complain about education.

We're being segregated. And yet we all don't want segregation, but we are being segregated. And certain elements of us are being absolutely victimized.

Do you believe in voting?

In England, in particular, there's a bunch of people that are advising you, "Don't vote." And it's the same nonsense here in the States. It's not so long ago that none of us actually had the right to vote at all. Why would you want to throw that away? 

Don't be voting in billionaires. Just don't be doing that, because that would be nothing but bad news for all of you. And that's about as much as I can say, because if I say much more on this, I'll be telling you who I'll be actually voting for, which I would not want to do. I don't want to influence people to which side to pick. 

Well, celebrities do that all the time.

I know, and I resent them bitterly for it, because they're taking a moral high ground there that really doesn't belong to them. I think mostly celebrities are the dumbest people on earth.

So give us a lesson from your life. From being rebellious and having folks call you all kinds of names in Parliament, whatever. To take a strong stand against a big institution — whether it's the monarchy, whether it's the government in general — what comes back at you as a result from being that vocal? What do you receive?

Precisely what you expect — trouble. But you must analyze all of the details before you get yourself involved. I don't think, for instance, rioting and throwing bricks through shop windows solves anything at all. What you've done there is you've doubled your victimization role. And you've allowed yourself to look ridiculous and chaotic. Me, I look at what's really going on, and I get involved. I get involved mentally. I read everything I can. I want to know the names of all the players involved. And tear it apart very deliberately, slowly and sure. And know that at some point, as I've experienced in my own life in growing up in Britain, that this will come to trouble my way. That's fine. I'm fully prepared to meet it.

Because if there really is such a thing called democracy existing here, as I had to face in Britain years ago, then it really cannot continue so openly. Transparency will end it.

‘I don’t think, for instance, rioting and throwing bricks through shop windows solves anything at all. What you’ve done there is you’ve doubled your victimization role … Me, I look at what’s really going on, and I get involved. I get involved mentally.’

John Lydon

The Sex Pistols, the legacy of that band — when you look back on those years, what are you proudest of? 

For me, being given the opportunity to be able to write songs. I've always wanted to be a writer. But I found writing alone not really quite good enough. To be able to write songs with music was an exceptional gift that landed in my lap. And when the Pistols for me, emotionally, became too predictable, I went on and formed Public Image Ltd., and there I was fully armored at that point.

What does that mean?

To understand instrumentation, how to really fully achieve the exploration of emotions that I wanted to indulge in. Lovely. It was the most brilliant training ground, the Sex Pistols. It was boot camp. 

And Public Image Ltd. You see yourself continuing to make music?

Yes. In fact, we've been writing a new album all the way through this book, that appropriately is going to be called "What the World Needs Now" …

Why did you want to write this [book]? You had written a book already.

An awful lot's been written about me. Yes, I did a book, but I wasn't quite happy with the first one. It was called "No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs." Again, a contentious title. But when I was young, that's what was put on hotel and bedsit places that they did not want no Irish, no blacks and no dogs. And that's blatant racism, but that in the '60s and the '70s, that was normal behavior.

This book, though, rather than just dealing with the Sex Pistols kind of period, I've gone back into my change to explain why it is the way I am, and it is all related to childhood experiences. And in particular, the disease of meningitis.

There was a moment, obviously, where you must have felt, "Maybe I'm close to death here," right? We hear folks often say that gives them a freedom to fully express, to fully live, to have survived a near-death experience not once but twice.

You could have hindsight about that, yes. And I would understand that. I mean, when I was 7, I didn't know it was a near-death experience. It was just absolute torture to not know who I was or know anybody or anything around me, to be so completely in isolation. To this day, that is the worst torture that I've ever, ever endured, ever. And I still find it hard to sleep at night because it's back in the back of my head worrying that I'll wake up and not remember who I am. I never want to go through that again. And the second near death …

The experience of the Lockerbie flight …

The Lockerbie flight, yes. So me and my wife, Nora [Forster], we were booked on the PanAm Lockerbie flight and but for my missus being really slow and unable to pack a suitcase in time, we decided to change the flight, but we didn't tell any of our friends and relatives. And so everybody presumed we were dead.

And that was a terrifically emotional phone call, when my brother finally rang through, just in the hope we might not have made it, and to be told all that. And so it's quite bad [that] a disease can take your life away. But another human being, misguided though they are, can also take your life away. And you innocently enough have not asked for any of this. And so there is life. For me, life is the most precious thing I have. Everything about human beings, my peoples, I loves you. And I cannot comprehend war, hate, kill and destruction. For me, a political hero is Gandhi. Passive resistance. This I fully comprehend.

Which might sound a little strange to people, given the fire, the brimstone in your lyrical attack, right?

My words are my bullets. And there's no need for real bullets.

Tony Harris with John Lydon

You've said fame is a monster. What do you mean by that?

Because you lose control. Your whole image of yourself is shape-shifted into a beast, a fake thing. Anything to sell records. An industry puppet. And you become just a figure of ridicule, really. A lot of people I know in the music industry … they don't even realize that they're figures of mock, right? I don't want that. I don't want that at all. I'd rather be contentious and happy.

You've said you feel lucky to have survived it.

Wanting to be loved so completely. This is what fame does. And you fool yourself into believing people love you because you just sang that last love tune. No, they don't love you. They hate you, really. They're jealous of your money. And come to grips with it and see it clearly, and then fame is very bad thing.

I'm lucky to be alive. And I think each and every one of us are. My greatest gift [in] life has given me is the chance to write songs. And so I'm not going to make a fool in that department, not at all. I've still got my mom and dad living in my head. They're both dead, but they're still up there. And in my particular weird way, I suppose, but I can talk to them up in my head. And I will never let them down. I will not tell a lie. I will not join the snakes in the garden. 

Do you feel that the industry respects what you've done, the bands you've been a part of, created?

It's very likely some people in it do. And it's more than likely that a lot of people don't. But either way, I've never done any of this for any kind of awards. I don't want that. And there's been rumors of MBEs and OBEs floating around. I'm sorry, I don't want it. I've never done it for that. And that's not because I hate, loathe and despise the royal family, for instance. It's because I despise the institution, not the human beings in it.

What's your issue with the institution?

I will not accept anything that puts me above another human being. I live in a level playing field.

And such an award would do that. And it cuts to your real issue with the monarchy, which is what?

Superiority. I can't accept it. They're an accident of birth. They were born in a birdcage, and I feel very sorry for them. A gilded birdcage. I was born in a slum, and I feel very sorry for myself. But we're human beings trapped in systems not of our own liking. I'm not advocating here some extreme form of communism, because I don't believe in communism either. I think people should be allowed to strive for whatever it is they want to strive for. But for me, mentally, no, I can't have that superiority that's based on nonsense.

Do you see yourself sort of making music over the next five, 10 years?

Till about 100 and whenever I kick the bucket and die. Because I do not view my life as, like, a 20-minute pop star. This is why I can say, to me, folk music, that's what I would connect to mostly, because there's no limit on that. As long as you enjoy writing songs about your life and the life of those around you, continue. I don't do it for the money. But if you've got any, I'll have it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Related News

Music, Politics

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Music, Politics

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter