The Face, December, 1983
Transcribed (and additional info) by Karsten Roekens
© The Face 1983
By Patrick Zerbib
Stuffed into a crumpled grey suit, John Lydon bursts into the room. He scans the scene quickly, like a wary animal...
Since his return to New York, Lydon has been widely feted. He has given a press conference to launch Order of Death, in which he makes his acting debut; he has been to Newcastle to appear on the Tube, and today he has just come back from Germany where he appeared on another TV show. Tomorrow he will give his first concert in the UK for almost five years.
He sits down in front of the tape recorder and fixes me with his renowned manic stare. He seems to be on his guard.
"How did you get the part in the movie?" I ask, trying to avoid his obvious agitation.
"The casting agent rang me up and said: there's a part. I went there and I thought it would be a good laugh. Then I read the part and thought, ah ha! I'd better take this one seriously!"
Lydon sinks back on the sofa and puffs on his Silk Cut, evidently pleased to be talking about Order of Death. The film recounts the war between Leo Smith, a schizophrenic young aristocrat, and Fred O'Connor, the corrupt police chief of the New York Bureau of Narcotics. Leo Smith is the cop-killer, an angel of death who assassinates one by one the corrupt cops of he Narcotics Bureau. Next on his list is Fred O'Connor. But here Smith achieves he height of refinement; he transforms O'Connor into a murderer, and obliges him to cut his own throat. O'Connor is played by Harvey Keitel, a veteran of countless thrillers. But in this duel John Lydon is the winner; far more fascinating on screen then Keitel.
"When the Italian director chose you," I tell Lydon, "People warned him he would have trouble."
"Yeah, they were convinced I would destroy the whole thing. But they had faith enough, they let me do it. The fact is, I was much more professional than all of them put together!"
"Well, you know what Italians are like: fucking chaos! They just loved arguing, and I kept saying: Work! Just work!"
Lydon suddenly stands up. "They would argue like this all the time..." He gesticulates wildly. "What do you mean put the camera here? You crazy?" Adopting an Italian accent: "Eh! Who is the director here? You, or me?"
Physically, Lydon has changed over the last few years. There is still the same carrot - topped hair, but the tufts are thinner, and he has put on some weight. At twenty-six, his stomach is starting to bulge, his cheeks are chubby and there is the beginning of a double chin. He sits down again and continues...
Lydon describes an altogether different person on set from the Lydon we thought we knew. Here is a new Lydon, diligent, punctual, always ready with his lines, prepared to shoot and re-shoot the same scenes without quibbling. The same Lydon that went to the Metropolitan Opera in New York with Hugh Fleetwood, author of the novel on which the film is based.
Before the light fades in the studio, John must have his picture taken. He sits on a tall, narrow chair, folds his arms tightly, and leans towards the camera, eyes open wide as though the lens were a zombie about to steal his soul. Again that fixed, manic stare...
Anyone old enough to remember punk will remember that look. Pupils burning, eyes glaring, the look of Johnny Rotten, a glint of mischievous lightning. Lydon deploys it on cue, but it has grown pale and frozen. And when the photographer asks, he won't take it off.
Nor will he talk about his group, Public Image Ltd.
"No way," he moans. "I'm tired. Make it up, I'm sure you can."
Since his return to New York, Lydon has evaded any direct questions about Public Image Ltd., whilst being loquacious enough on other subjects. It's not three years since the group emigrated to New York, and in three years all they've produced is one single. "This Is Not A Love Song" is honourable enough but hardly adds to the body of work before they left. And the album Live In Tokyo? Lamentable. These two records have found a ready place in the charts but that doesn't alter the question: Have Public Image got anything left to say?
When they were formed nearly five years ago the group threatened to become a remarkable force in music. At least, that was the fervent desire of music critics in Britain and the US suffering from post-punk triste and anxious to find a new stimulus. Who better to provide it than the former Johnny Rotten?
The son of working-class Irish Catholic parents, John Lydon grew up in Finsbury Park, North London, where one of this best friends was Keith Levene. He left school and worked in a number of dull jobs before he found himself in a clothes shop called Sex in the King's Road, owned by a certain Malcolm McLaren. You all know the rest. To complete his group the Sex Pistols, Malcolm needed a singer. Why not John? With a face both angelic and demonic, and his voice utterly hopeless, as though he has swallowed a cat, John would make the ideal anti-idol of rock. For two years Johnny Rotten wore his famous manic glare in the pages of every tabloid. But the farce grew too much for him. In California at the end of the Pistols' first US tour, he walked out of a motel room and never came back.
"At the end of the Pistols it was like he was finished, " recalls Keith Levene now. "Then we got together and talked about changing a few things. But he would lie around and sleep. He wanted to be treated like a star. Nice bloke, but such a lazy bastard."
John was being pulled apart. On the one hand, he knew he had to rid himself of the past, of Rotten, of No Future. He decided to call himself by his real name, John Lydon. On the other hand, he had a real fear of sinking back into anonymity, of losing the place he had snatched for himself. He kept on at Keith, who had no shortage of ideas for their proposed new group.
Together they drew up the principles of Public Image. (1) PiL is not a group, but a wide-ranging corporation, which deals with other corporations (Virgin, for example; PiL produces music, but it also produces images and graphics). (2) PiL refuses to deal with middle-men, notably managers. (3) PiL is composed of individuals who make music separately and the music of PiL is a collage of their individual work. (4) PiL does not tour. There is no question of becoming a production line. Each concert is an event. (5) PiL doesn't put out records, but objects. Their first single, "Public Image", was packaged in a parody of a tabloid newsletter. The Metal Box, their second album, comprised of three 12-inch singles packaged in a metal container like those used for storing reels of films, stamped with the label PiL.
The third key member of PiL was Jah Wobble, one of the few people who could hold his own with Lydon, sometimes physically. John and Keith chose him because of his taste in reggae; since he had never played an instrument, they hoped he would be able to invent new bass lines.
At the end of 1978, at the Rainbow in London and in Paris, PiL's first performances galvanised their audiences. Jim Walker concentrated all his force on the snare drum, drowning the other instruments. Wobble played his bass sitting on a chair, because he didn't know how to hold is otherwise. Keith Levene, hardly visible on stage, plucked noises from his guitar at random.
As for Lydon, he spent the greater par of the concert with his back turned to the audience, screaming anguished words at the wall. Sometimes he would erupt into his own peculiar version of the skank. And as he and Levene wanted, the group sounded pretty much like a collage of four autonomous musics. In sum, a kind of anti-rock. Performed at an anti-rock concert.
Compare this with PiL of 1983. Lydon is about to consummate the most banal tour of his career, with a group of session musicians who have learnt every agonised inflection of his songs by heart. His last album, Live In Tokyo, is a disgrace. And as for managers, Lydon nowadays has all the management he needs from Larry White, the new guiding force of the group. Meanwhile, the group itself has lost both Jah Wobble and Keith Levene.
What's going on in John Lydon's head? Has he come unstuck? Has he caught the superstar sickness? Has he no longer any rapport with his public? Perhaps he no longer has a public.
In 1978, he bought a house in Gunter Grove, Chelsea, where he played host to an endless stream of friends and visitors. Five years later he has decided to leave New York because "three years is enough." But he isn't going back to Gunter Grove because "England is finished." Instead he is staying in a suite at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensingtonhome from home for visiting rock starsbefore moving to Los Angeles where his manager Larry White has an office with six employees.
In 1979, Lydon lived like a prince surrounded by his court jesters. "I love visitors,' he once said. "They are here for my amusement." Nearly every night, a dozen or so would arrive at Gunter Grove to demolish the inevitable cans of lager. There was Ari Up, the singer with the Slits, whose mother, Nora, now lives with John. The daughter of a rich German right-wing publisher, Nora recently left Chris Spedding for Lydon. Don Letts was a frequent visitor, with his waist-length dreadlocks and super-8 camera, now swapped for a professional U-matic. There was also a journalist from Melody Maker, a well-known photographer, and a retinue of friends who seemed forever on the look-out for an angle to make some money.
During this time in London, much amphetamine was inevitably being taken and heroin too was catching on. John abhors heroin, but his door was open to its habitués. In fact, he liked to be surrounded by them; their weakness consoled his own insecurity. But he was no help to them. If they started to turn white, he would panic and scream at Nora to call an ambulance. Then he would disappear for the next hour.
In other respects, Lydon was an excellent host. He had a store of anecdotes, an appetite for conversation and an ear for gossip. He enjoyed the power he wielded with his court, playing his acolytes off against one another, betraying eager confidences.
When he tried to play a musical instrument, though, his friends would do their best to stop him. Nevertheless, he began to develop a musical sensibility of sorts. His Arabic melodies on "Albatross" and "Poptones" surprised both Levene and Wobble. And for the first year the group felt they were making creative headway. But, bit by bit, the enthusiasm dwindled.
In the middle of 1980 Jah Wobble was sacked from PiL, supposedly because, without telling the others, he had used some tracks they had recorded together. And Keith Levene?
The statement was terse. John and Keith argued over the mix of "This Is Not A Love Song," and as a result of this disagreement Keith Levene has quit the group. John refuses to elaborate:
"What happened to Keith?" asked a journalist at the press conference.
"How come you've had so many quitters?"
"Dunno. There's an awful lot of weak people in the world."
Keith Levene is still living in New York. When I called him, at 11 o'clock in the morning, he was just waking up.
"Listen, it's become impossible to work with John. I wasn't getting any feedback from the band. Only ideas to make money."
"You know, in the beginning PiL had a few basic ideas. Play interesting music, offer interesting gigs. And what? In the US John started wearing tuxedos and singing 'Anarchy in the UK.' Dreadful."
"It all started when he got back from Italy. After the shooting of Order of Death everything went sour. And I lacked courage. I should have quit a year ago."
From talking to Keith Levene and others close to the group, it's possible to garner an accurate enough impression of the three years that John Lydon and Public Image spent in New York.
No need to make it up, as Lydon suggested.
PiL left London in 1981, exasperated by incessant police raids. "We lived near to the Chelsea nick," said Lydon, "That's apparently where they train the drug squads. So, you know, they needed places to practice. I suited their purpose. They even sent me the bomb squad once: 'Uh, we have reason to believe there are bombs on the premises." Why? I said. 'Because an Irish flag was raised through your window!"
For the first few months in New York, PiL lived very well thanks to an advance from Virgin records on their next album. After all, Metal Box hadn't done so badly; nearly 50,000 copies worldwide. The group installed themselves in a luxury hotel. A star in America must act like one. But the dollars soon disappeared and PiL fled to the Chelsea Hotel, infamous refuge of bankrupt stars. As well as John, there was Martin Atkins, the drummer, Keith Levene, and Jeannette Lee, in charge of the group's videos, posters, sleeves.
With no more money left, Keith called Richard Branson, head of Virgin Records, to ask for another advance.
"I want to hear some tapes first," said Branson.
"But I'm telling you, we can't afford the studio!"
"And I'm saying: make a tape and send it to me."
"You know that won't make any difference. You'll have to release the tapes anyway."
"That's the idea."
Meanwhile, all New York wanted to meet John. They would take him to dinner at the best restaurants, delighted to be seen beside the former Johnny Rotten. It was not so long ago that America too had been scandalised by the first and last US tour of the Sex Pistols.
But they were still broke. To alleviate this misery, PiL gave concerts in faraway suburbs in New Jersey and upstate New York. "We charged as much as possible," recalls Levene, "but because we were so disorganised we spent just as much hiring the equipment and getting there."
It was about this time that Keith came across South Park Studios, owned by two lawyers who wanted to help the group. "Pay us what you can now," they proposed. "And we'LL get the rest back from Virgin later." Public Image Ltd. could finally go into a studio...
Soon after this, Bonnie Zimmerman called Lydon at the Chelsea. Bonnie, a casting agent, was looking for an actor for Italian director Roberto Faenza. He wanted a young Englishman, preferably a rock singer, for the role of Leo Smith in Order of Death. She had contacted Sting, and Elvis Costello. Both too busy. After their first meeting, Bonnie decided to help Lydon prepare for the interview, painstakingly reading the script through with him.
"He worked hard," she recalls. "He really wanted to do it right."
On the day of the casting, Roberto Faenza arrived with Harvey Keitel. Keitel already knew his role by heart. By the time they started shooting, he would be the person he was playing. He carried a loaded revolver strapped to his ankle and even spent time in a real Narcotics Bureau beforehand. Lydon, of course, already had plenty of experience playing the schizoid brat.
Ten other candidates were tested with Lydon, young actors, rock musicians from New York ... almost instantly, the director chose John.
"I didn't know what he had done before, although of course I'd heard about the Sex Pistols," says Faenza. "But I liked his personality very much. And his face ... John has a great face."
The producer apologised for only being able to offer him 10,000 dollars. Given his circumstances, Lydon could hardly refuse.
With the first cheque, he paid his bill at the Chelsea and rented a huge loft on West 19th Avenue. "Just a warehouse area,' he says, "A commercial zone. The loft was enormous. Enormously filthy. Don't worry, we managed to fill it very well. There were twenty of us there at one point."
John was happy. He was going to make his acting debut and Nora had decided to join him in New York. Keith was able to pay the studio and would continue working on the tapes, while Lydon plunged into a new world, whose denizens knew nothing of rock, neither its codes nor its poses. There was no point in employing a front with Faenza, Keitel and Fleetwood, who was on hand for the shooting; they hardly every listened to rock music. Nor any question of playing the prima donna, which he had tended increasingly to do with his friends in PiL. In the cinema, Lydon had everything to prove...
But after his return from Rome, John had changed. "That's when it started to go wrong," affirms Levene. Just when they had landed an unexpected contract with a Japanese promoter, for a ten-date concert in Japan for a fee of 9,000 dollars, plus expensesenough to pull PiL out of the rut for some time to come.
It was at this point in time that John decided to go to Los Angeles. He had been invited there by Larry White, a sound engineer, road manager and all-round American music-businessman. John, for some reason, hit it off with him.
Lydon, by his own admission, is fascinated by Americans. They, at least, don't have any unnecessary complexes about money. True, they never think of anything else, but...
"That's the thing about this place," he once said. "If you're earning money, they love ya, they want ya, they'LL insist."
"You'LL never make it," Larry White told John. "With your sound; what a bunch of wankers! The people want to see Johnny Rotten, man. Do you realise what you've got in your hands? Besides, you need a real band. Get your act together!"
Larry introduced him to his proteges: three session men from New Jersey. They knew the Sex Pistols repertoire off by heart. As for the music of Public Image, they could pick that up in a couple of days. To see for himself, John tried out the show in a club in Los Angeles. He ended with "Anarchy in the UK," and the LA neo-punks pogoed with joy. There, right in front of their eyes, an essential metamorphosis had taken place; John Lydon had once again become Johnny Rotten.
A joke at first maybe, but Johnny soon found himself seduced by his new persona; a cynical, immoral Lydon, divested of all the principles that had inspired PiL at the start. "Sure," shrugged Johnny, "a long time ago I said that if I ever find myself singing 'Anarchy in the UK' again, it'LL be the end."
But so what? Since when has an artist not had the right to contradict himself?
Meanwhile, in South Park Studios, Keith Levene and drummer Martin Atkins were listening to the mix of "This Is Not A Love Song" that John had done before he left for LA. Levene liked the result, but wanted to try another mix.
"I don't think John will like it," Atkins kept repeating, "I don't think John will like it..."
Atkins called John in Los Angeles to warn him about what was happening in the studio.
"Let me talk to Keith," John snapped.
"What's wrong with you?" asked Keith. "I'm just trying another mix. It sounds much better."
"No you don't Keith. You just send the bloody tape to Virgin!"
"YOU JUST GET OUT OF THE FUCKING STUDIO OR YOU WON'T BE PART OF PIL ANYMORE!"
"I don't like what I've been hearing about you in LA," retorted Levene. "It's a joke. Singing 'Anarchy In the UK' ... We're doing all the things we said we'd never do. Is that what you want? A sell-out?"
"Who tells me what I want to do?"
And John hung up.
Johnny Lydon returned to New York soon afterwards with Larry White, to prepare for the tour of Japan. The meeting between Larry and Keith was a disaster. "I wanted to kill him," says an exasperated Levene.
That day, Lydon lost a friend. And not for the first time. One by one, over the years, they have given him up. Because he's a fatalist. Because he believes in nothing, except himself. But he swallows each new loss and feels stronger.
And so, I went to see Johnny Lydon at the Top Rank Suite, Brightonhis first performance in Britain for almost five years. Johnny walks on stage, to be greeted by a hail of glob and plastic beer glasses.
"That's it," he declares. "Good-night, I'm going."
But he keeps the microphone in his hand.
"Spit one more time, I say ONE MORE TIME, and I'm gone!"
At the same moment, his group launch into "Public Image," the song that marked the birth of John Lydon from the ashes of Johnny Rotten.
Apart from Martin Atkins, the three other musicians are all new. With their blow-dried hair, their freshly cleaned jackets, their archetypal poses, they seem hopelessly out of place. The sound they make is perfunctory.
The audience is a mess of "wacky hairdos," as Lydon himself sarcastically tells them; old punks nostalgic for the pogo, new punks with heads full of glue. All the same, as he unleashes the four-year-old fragments of Public Image, it's clear that Johnny still has his magnetism.
"Give up, John. You're finished!"
"Fuck off," replies Johnny, "You get what you give!"
A slap in the face for the crowd, just like old times. But this time around there is no responsesave perhaps for the can of tear-gas that clears the hall for ten minutes.
Watching the scene from the edge of the crowd are a young couple, both nineteen years old, still at college, and readers of The Face.
Are they enjoying the concert.
"No, not at all."
Did they expect something better?
So they spend their money for nothing?
"Well, you see, there's not much to do in Brighton tonight. And we missed punk. I heard some of the records, though, because my brother was a punk. So we thought: Let's go and see Johnny Rotten!"
A pogo-er leaps in front of me. In his hand is a can of beer that splashes over his jeans. He is wearing a PiL t-shirt. A fan?
"Nah," he pants. "I just bought the T-shirt But Johnny's great. He's singing 'Anarchy In the UK,' just like before."
He is indeed singing "Anarchy In the UK." But it's not just like before. He follows this with "This Is Not A Love Song" and hurriedly disappears.
Will Lydon really succeed in donning once again the mask of Rotten, simply to haul himself up to the rank of superstar? There is a contradiction here, an awful irony, but rock can safely mock such ironies. Rock has a short memory. But at least Johnny has reminded us of the level of banality to which rock has sunk.
The whole of the rock business has its eyes glued to the charts. It produces nothing but pin-ups for adolescent bedrooms, while the Rolling Stones are making more money than ever.
Does that bring anything to mind?
1974, perhaps? Now almost ten years past.
Music was then monopolised by superstars giving super-concerts in super-stadiums. The new superstarsyou name themare equally remote from their equally disenfranchised audiences, who prefer to fall together with each other now and go to nightclubs than to fall together behind Madness, Boy George, Siouxsie, Gary Numan, etc. etc....
But in 1974, the new rebels were hatching their whirlwind. Soon, the whirlwind came, the whirlwind named punk. Johnny Rotten screamed "No Future" and fixed us with his manic stare.
Bring on the new whirlwind.Note:
This interview also appears in The Penguin Book of Rock Writing, edited by Clinton Heylin
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