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John Lydon's latest noise

Music is in the background, but the former Sex Pistols singer has stories to tell.

January 30, 2011|By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times
  • "The scrapbook is a really friendly approach.... It's mistakes, warts and all, but free-form, as I truly remember a thing," said Lydon.
"The scrapbook is a really friendly approach.... It's mistakes,… (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles…)

On a recent weekday morning John Lydon was riding passenger side on Venice Boulevard toward downtown L.A., and the day seemed full of possibility. "I don't get out much, so I'm thinking, 'What can I go buy?'" he wondered. "Usually it's plumbing equipment that's on my mind. There's always something to repair."

Lydon, known to generations of miscreants as Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, lives a few hundred yards from the beach, just south of Venice, and has for close to two decades. "Well, somebody has to replace the hippies," he said by way of explanation, spitting the last word with the same amount of contempt that he did in his youth. "All the beach there used to be very, very hippie. Very crime ridden too, in the past. Very druggy. But Johnny came along and kicked all that out." His voiced turned faux-sinister. "Yes, I showed them a thing or two about manners."

When he does make it away from the homestead, he explained, it's either by foot, bike or the good graces of the driver in the family, "my lovely wife" Nora Forster, a European publishing heiress to whom he has been married for more than three decades.

A little earlier as he was greeting a visitor/driver at the entryway to his house, a modest, lived-in two-story, to be ferried to a video interview, Lydon had arrived wearing a vibrant yellow and brown ensemble — pants, shirt, vest, tie — along with that shock of dyed-red hair. Carrying a shopping bag, he looked like he might be headed to a clown convention. But as he left, he poked his head back into the house and hollered, "Leaving now, bye!"

And with the words, he immediately transformed into an Everyman husband off on an afternoon adventure — not one of the singular cultural figures of recent decades, once described in the U.K. press as "the biggest threat to our youth since Hitler," whose style and personality helped upend rock 'n' roll culture when the Sex Pistols broke in 1976, and whose influence as founding member of Public Image Ltd reverberates today.

In the bag were original drawings and writings from his latest project, "Mr. Rotten's Scrapbook," a limited edition tome published in December that Lydon started constructing during recent gigs with a reformed PiL. Having already published a well-received, brutally honest memoir in 1994, "Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs," Lydon is drawing from another cabinet in his memory. His autobiography, he said, "tends to be the boring, straightforward facts a bit, not getting into the personality of me-self, for instance, or anyone else I'm involved with. So the scrapbook is a really friendly approach — and, oddly enough, more accurate."

"Scrapbook" features a mishmash of his drawings, paintings, photos, poems, scribbles and reminiscences, and sells for about $750. "It's mistakes, warts and all, but free-form, as I truly remember a thing." He says the goal of the book, which comes with a piece of hand-drawn original art, is to convey his "true feelings and relationships with the people I've worked with. I tell it as it is."

The artwork includes stream-of-conscience doodles of a sacred heart, a hand made out of eyeballs, a grotesque self-portrait of the artist reclining on a sofa watching TV and whatever else that spurred his imagination. A drawing of St. Martin's College came about because it was the location of the first Sex Pistols gig — though Lydon has drawn it as a "St. Martin's pig." He's changed the convicted British felon dubbed the Cambridge rapist into a drawing of a Catholic priest called "The Cambridge Papist."

He's coupled this artwork with handwritten recollections and images from a fascinating life, and if the book can't possibly be as transformative as his music, it's a new medium, and serves to get his strong voice back into the public's ear, a place to which he seems inexorably drawn. "I do interviews because I don't want to fade into oblivion and never be heard of again," he told Record Mirror in 1979, three years after he burst onto the world stage as a punk rock archetype. "All forms of communications are important. People know you exist."

On the passenger side, Lydon rummaged through his bag and pulled out a little bottle: "My dental repair kit: Johnny Walker Black," he said, taking a sip and letting out a thirst-quenching sound. "That'll get rid of the toothache all right."

Lydon turns 55 on Monday, and with that semi-milestone the singer finds himself, well, rather domesticated, with little bursts of public interaction followed by long periods of media dormancy. He no longer has a home in London, he keeps his private L.A. life private, and is very protective of it. An attempt to speak to members of his band was denied by his management with the note, "we thought this was a piece about John and John alone."

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