His Irish roots spring up regularly in John Lydon’s autobiography, fuelling his anger, but the affable ex-Sex Pistol also has fiery reserves for others, writes Ed Power
JOHN LYDON would like it known he’s a peacemaker not a fighter. That’s the message the self-proclaimed thorn in the side of the British establishment seeks to convey in his rollicking, rambunctious new autobiography and a theme he returns to throughout our conversation. Heaven help you, however, if you get on the wrong side of the artist previously known as Johnny Rotten — or dare steer the interview towards avenues he’d rather not venture down.
“You want to ask me about WHAAAT?” the former Sex Pistols enfant terrible and ongoing Public Image Limited frontman thunders a few minutes into our lengthy tete-a-tete. “Of all the things in the book, you want to bloody well ask me about that?”
We’ve been nudging Lydon to expand upon his recent critiquing of people’s jester Russell Brand as ‘idiotic’, an episode that has fairly sent the internet into convulsions. But Lydon isn’t keen on revisiting the incident — he dismissed the comedian turned political crusader as misguided and naive — and insists he simply provided an honest answer to a question posed at a q&a session. He has no axes to grind: he’d rather see the good in people than focus on the negative.
Aha, we interject, citing the passage in his new book in which Lydon unloads quite merrily upon Band Aid, another crusade brought to us by our A-lister betters. “Band Aid was all smuggery and naked ambition and self-righteous patting on backs,” he writes. “It was unbearable. Not to solve any problems at all, but really self aggrandizement. Ever since, charity has been sorely affected by pop people. They’re dangerous to any real cause.”
His bonhomie — not in much evidence to begin with, it has to be said – evaporates.. “Oh dear… oh dear…,” Lydon mutters. “Is that the only thing you can think of talking about?
Actually, for an Irish journalist, there’s lots to get stuck into. Lydon is not kind about the Old Country in his memoirs. His father is from Galway his mother from Carrigrohane, just outside Cork city, and, reading Anger Is An Energy, one might conclude he regarded Irishness as a burden to be overcome rather than any kind of birthright (nevertheless, he continues to hold an Irish passport).
“The Irish can be incredible snobs,” he writes, recalling tensions among the inlaws over the family farm in Cork.
“Much more so than anywhere in Britain, even with the class structure. It’s always lurking there.” He paints a grim picture of childhood holidays in Cork. The ancestral ancestral home sounds like something from the 19th century.
“Poverty drove my parents out of Ireland,” he says. “They moved to England thinking it was the best thing to do. They wouldn’t teach me Gaelic. I thought it was a fascinating sounding thing. They looked for a new life — as is the case for many Irish.”
Ireland is a recurring character in Lydon’s life story. There was a kerfuffle when in 1978, with the Sex Pistols at the peak of their infamy, Lydon attended an awards ceremony arranged by Hot Press magazine at Macroom. He turned up for the flight from London to Cork dressed as a priest — this being the late 70s you can imagine what ensued.
“I found him in the toilets,” recalled Donal Gallagher, brother of Rory and Lydon’s chaperon for the day. “He was wearing a big overcoat, even though it was June. When I got him on the plane, I showed him to his seat, but he went to sit with two nuns instead. Everyone behind was in hysterics; when Johnny took off his coat, he was dressed as a priest, and the nuns were horrified. Some of the other passengers asked to leave the plane, they were so offended.”
In Cork gardaí waited to arrest Lydon for his flagrant assault on public morals. They were dissuaded by Hot Press editor Niall Stokes and publicist BP Fallon, who dashed to the airport to bundle their guest away.
Lydon was not so lucky after he got in a fight at a Dublin early house in October 1980 and was promptly chucked into Mountjoy Prison.
“On my arrival the warders decided to make an example of me,” he recalls in Anger Is An Energy.” They stripped me down, threw me into the yard and hosed me down… Inside there, it was tough — really really tough and hard – and a punishing regime… The warders would wake me up all night long with their truncheons…You were allowed an hour of telly, and who came up but yours truly on the news… The embarrassment. I just wanted to crawl under the concrete.”
“Well, the guards are a little bit on the heavy side, aren’t they,” he says. “They are brutal in the extreme. That’s alright. At least I know who my enemy is— it’s when you don’t know where the backstabbing is going to come from, that you have problems.”
Lydon was born in 1956 grew up in Finsbury Park, London. Today the neighborhood is home to the gleaming stadium of soccer team Arsenal. By Lydon’s telling, through the 1950s and ’60s, it was like something out of Dickens. A melting pot of migrants, on his street — Irish, Jamaicans and Pakistanis grew up three or four to a room: there was grinding deprivation but people got on with life, knowing poverty was better than what they had left behind. Was there a lot of anti-Irishness?
“Oh yeah — it was anti everything. England being what it is, it is still very anti-everything. It is a very confused society.”
He was a bright child and could read and write at age five. Suspicious of his intelligence, at school Lydon became the target of priests and nuns. This inculcated in him a life-long disdain for religion, Irish Catholicism in particular.
“Anything that can keep the nuns and priests away from little children I would highly recommend,” he says. “From my point of view, they are nothing but bad. They were torturers: that’s the word for it, they ‘tortured’ us. It is ridiculous that young children should have to put up with that — that adults can be so spiteful in the name of a cause.
“To be continuously smacked with a ruler— and I’m talking about the sharp edge — so that they could beat the devil out of me. Why are you talking to a five-year-old like that? The fact I could read and write at age five, that made them very suspicious. There you go. That’s the nuns for you. ‘Brides of Christ’ – well, if he had seen that lot. They were satanists.”
Through the book, it is his fellow professionals in the music industry for whom Lydon reserves the greater part of his ire.
His bad blood with Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren — a svengali straight from the casting agency — is a matter of record, but he has plenty of vitriol to spare: he has a go at legendary rock journalist Nick Kent and, as already pointed out, is not generous towards Band Aid.
So it is perhaps unexpected to hear him speak highly of Bono and Bob Geldof. What he likes about them he says, is that they talk straight and do not take themselves seriously.
“Bono, I keep on running into him,” he laughs. “Him and Mr Geldof, we were all like cats and dogs back in the day. That’s the point of it. We can do that — say these blatant things to one another and not take it personally. To me, that’s a very good way of living. They are two fellows that are not precious about themselves. Neither am I — there is room for fun.’
This is Lydon’s second autobiography (the first, No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, came out in 1993). The new volume was heavy going, he says (the book is co-authored by Andrew Perry, with whom Lydon sat daily for three to four-hour interviews). Partly because of the intimate family details shared (he relays, at painful length, being called to identity the body of his paternal grandfather, who passed away cavorting with a prostitute). Though it may strike some as absurd, he sounds genuine when he says he does not find the spotlight a comfortable place. He only goes there because he has to.
“When someone tells lies about you it hurts, hurts very deeply — I have to take that on the chin and then I come back. I find truth the most glorious weapon. With this book, my attitude is, ‘You’ve all had your speeches — now it’s my turn’.”
Anger Is An Energy: My Life Uncensored is published by Simon and Schuster
STARS WITH IRISH ROOTS
Ringo Starr was the only Beatle not to have Irish roots. George Harrison’s family on his mother’s side were from Enniscorthy. The guitarist had relatives in Drumcondra, Dublin, and has fond childhood memories of walking Malahide beach. Meanwhile, John Lennon’s grandfather Jack was born in Dublin in 1858 – it was partly to honour his lineage that he christened his second son Sean. “My husband was 100% Irish,” Yoko Ono later commented. “That’s what he used to say. Ireland was sort of like an auntie or a mother that he wanted to show me”. And Paul McCartney’s roots go back to Monaghan.
Where The Pogues trafficking in shamrock cliches, The Smiths channelled Ireland in a truer sense. Morrissey worshiped Wilde and, in his frustrations and damp dreaminess, was quintessentially Irish. His parents were from Crumlin and, in the ’90s, he lived for some time in Dublin. Guitarist Johnny Marr was no less aware of his heritage: his people hailed from Athy in Kildare and he was the first in his family born outside Ireland. Indeed, it was out of fealty to the old country that he changed his name from ‘Maher’ to Marr, having grown fed up with English people pronouncing it “May-her”.
Bush’s late mother, Hannah Daly, was a nurse from Dungarvan. Through her career, Bush has been deeply conscious of her Irishness – a sense of Celtic ‘otherness’ was especially discernible on albums such as The Hounds Of Love (partly recorded at Windmill Lane studios, Dublin) and The Sensual World. In 1996, Bush performed, in Irish, the old nationalist hymnal ‘Mná na hÉireann’ for the ensemble LP Common Ground: Voices of New Irish Music, curated by Donal Lunny. “She was at pains to learn Irish as well as she possibly could,” Lunny told the Irish Examiner recently.
Noel Gallagher played underage football in Croke Park and brother Liam used to proudly show off his copy of Hot Press, purchased while on family holidays in Mayo – the magazine was deemed obscure, and thus fascinating, by his NME-reading classmates. Noel has posed with a Union Jack guitar and appears to take pride in being an icon of Britpop. Nonetheless, with both parents hailing from this fair isle, he is aware of the Irish element of his make-up: speaking to the Irish Examiner several years ago he pointed out that none of his children have any English blood – his wife was Scottish.
The original guitar-slinging mods, it is a stretch to think of The Who as ‘Irish’. However, Pete Townshend is of Cork stock – playing Dublin last year, he made a point of welcoming all of his Leeside relatives in the crowd.
His grandfather left Ireland for the UK and Townshend has always been sharply cognisant of his background.
“This is one of the most important countries in the world for me and my past and the various bits of Irish blood we all claim to have – which is true for me,” he said last year.
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