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John 'Rotten' Lydon: I'm not a museum piece

By Neil Curry, CNN
updated 6:53 AM EDT, Wed October 23, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Lydon was lead singer of The Sex Pistols, before forming Public image Limited
  • Public Image Limited have released nine studio albums spanning 35 years
  • Lydon is accepting a BMI Icon award, which recognizes his work with both bands
  • He says he doesn't want to play to Johnny Rotten wannabes, that individuality is a gift

(CNN) -- John Lydon is wondering whether he's looking old. He jokes that the camera should be smeared with Vaseline to give a flattering, soft-focus effect. "Or we could use butter!" he laughs in reference to a series of TV commercials which helped to fund his band's latest album.

His band is, of course, Public image Limited -- one of the most inventive and influential groups of the post-punk era. PiL were formed by Lydon following the disintegration of his previous band, The Sex Pistols - the group that pioneered the punk era in Britain.

With the release last year of the critically-acclaimed "This is PiL," after a recording hiatus of 20 years, Public image Limited have released nine studio albums spanning 35 years. The Pistols produced just one album and were gone within two years but more column inches and interview minutes have been devoted to that short, sharp, shock to music history than to the story of PiL.

That helps to explain why John Lydon has agreed to accept an Icon award from the music rights organization the BMI. Famously selective about awards and honors, Lydon is happy that the award recognizes his songwriting work with both bands and his "unique and indelible influence on generations of music makers."

Lydon wins BMI Icon award

False accolades

"I have earned my wings. I have done enough good work over the years that it's about time someone stood up and said 'Well done John!' We have noticed. It's been negative, negative, negative for far too long. You can have me as an icon but I'm Johnny, I see myself more as an 'I-can' -- I do what I want because I can!"

His attitude to awards is not always so embracing.

"I don't like false accolades ... for me one of the most disgusting offerings was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I'm sorry I've got no time for that. I don't view myself as a museum piece and I'm not gonna be craftily shafted in that way and the legacy of what is the Pistols is too good to be just squashed into a glass compartment underneath a staircase in a 'museum'."

Read more: Sex Pistol to Rock Hall: 'Kiss this!'

Lydon's mind is as active as ever. He feels he could carry on as a performer until he's 100 unless arthritis intervenes.

"I'm at the stage of life now when I'm 57-years old but I think that's 57-years young. There's so much more to do and learn. I love what I do and I love the release of songwriting. You can coin in words and phrases something that's so hard to explain emotionally.

"I can't write a Pistols song any more. I haven't been able to for a real long time. All of my songwriting now goes into Public Image Limited, which is a much broader expanse and a more difficult terrain in many ways to deal with but ultimately far more rewarding."

On stage

You can have me as an icon but I'm Johnny, I see myself more as an 'I-can' -- I do what I want because I can!
John Lydon

Anyone who saw PiL perform at Glastonbury this summer, or were lucky enough to catch the Sex Pistols during their brief touring career beset by gig bans, could be excused for thinking Lydon was a notoriously shy boy who still suffers from stage fright.

"Once I'm on stage I'm absolutely alright. It's the place I now know and have known for 30 years really -- it's the place I truly belong. That's where I tell it like it is and I get the opportunity to be myself.

"But the fear of letting people down that goes on in my head beforehand is almost at times overwhelming. I can't eat before I go on stage. The trouble with that is I overeat when I get off!"

I was aged 14 when The Sex Pistols crash-landed on my record deck, consigning David Bowie, T.Rex, Elton John and Rod Stewart to the wilderness for years to come. Such music instantly created a small colony of punks growing up in The Lake District - a rural outpost of northern England. Our surroundings couldn't have been further from the urban squalor endured by the young John Lydon in one of the toughest parts of northern London. A combination of poverty and ill health helped mold the boy who became known as Johnny Rotten.

"At seven I had meningitis. I was in a coma for three to four months, spent a year in hospital, it took me something like four years to regain my memory but it left a really, really good thing in me. It was a very serious illness which came close to killing me. What it did was it allowed me to look at myself before I realized who myself was. It created a kind of duality -- a yin and yang -- a kind of Johnny Lydon and a Johnny Rotten and there I was from eight-years old looking at that and wanting to get things right."

Pistol's legacy

Another legacy of his illness was the crumbling teeth which led to the Pistols' guitarist Steve Jones providing him with the nickname "Johnny Rotten." Lydon's prickly relations with the other band members are well documented but he says there was always a strong bond beneath it all.

"No we loved each other very, very much it was just that it all got in the way. And now as Pistols we've agreed not to work with one another again, now we can start to be friends once more. From my point of view and I know that Paul Cook the drummer agrees with this, it's more important that we really get back to where we were with each other rather than anything else at all.

"And if you really understand the work that the Pistols did you will appreciate that and understand that that's far more relevant than us trotting up and down the floorboards of a stage and carrying on something that really had its moment -- a very important moment -- but I really don't need to re-tread that one."

Almost forty years after Lydon's controversial song "God Save the Queen" was released to coincide with Queen Elizabeth's silver jubilee, the singer reveals that Prince William's marriage to Kate Middleton moved him to tears.

Read more: Sex Pistols re-release 'God Save the Queen'

"I don't have a problem with Britain having a royal family -- I had a problem with paying for it. And quite right an' all. There I was as a Sex Pistol and I had to pay this outrageous tax for an entire system that did not want me at all. Well that's not right.

[Lydon's] had a vast influence on many, many people and I think a lot of people have borrowed a lot from his experience and his music.
BMI president Del Bryant

"But at the same time though I love feudalism and all the flag-waving and the ceremony and all that, there's a great sense of thrill in it. The last royal wedding to me was great, it was fantastic. Tears in my eyes. I loved watching the Lancaster bombers and the Spitfires flying over Buckingham Place. That reminded me of family members who had fought in World War Two and things like that."

Johnny Rotten wannabes

As the BMI bestows its own act of ennoblement on Lydon, its president, Del Bryant, lists a few of the many artists influenced by the singer-songwriter:

"You could certainly talk about The Smiths, then you could move over to the U.S. and talk about Green Day, Guns & Roses, the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Nirvana. He's had a vast influence on many, many people and I think a lot of people have borrowed a lot from his experience and his music."

Influencing people is not entirely the Lydon plan. The gospel he preaches is that people should be themselves rather than copying others.

It's clear that Johnny would not have approved of the little group of Lake District punks decorating ourselves with spiky hair, safety pins and bin bags.

"I do not like to see an audience of Johnny Rotten wannabes. To me that's 22 steps backwards. I'm telling you all as a member of the human race, you have this incredible natural born gift of individuality. Why would you want to lose that to pretend to be somebody else?"

And with a chuckle, a gigantic burp, a handshake and a spot of fun-poking at Piers Morgan's expense, John Lydon leaves the room.

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