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John Lydon at Sixty. (No) Appetite for (Self) Destruction

January 31, 2016


You’ll have already seen people joking about the fact that John Lydon was born on the very day that A. A. Milne died – and what this “coincidence” does for any belief system involving reincarnation.

John Lydon is sixty years old today.  A milestone we always knew he’d reach.  Here’s a man for whom the classic rock and roll life and death is nothing more than a tedious cliché.   It is said that Syd Vicious once declared to a reporter

“I wanna be like Iggy Pop and die before I’m thirty”.

“Yeah” said the reporter.   “If I could just correct you on two points Syd.  Iggy is a) over thirty and b) STILL ALIVE.”

John Lydon’s whole life has involved a dogged resistance to corporate stereotypes and easy marketing – and being found dead in a pool of your own vomit in a Vegas suite aged twenty seven is the biggest rock and roll stereotype of all.   John Lydon will stay alive, if only as a way of resisting summation, as a way of preventing any journalist from putting a final full stop on who or what he is.

Some things he can’t control.  He can’t control the fact that Public Image Ltd (PIL) will never be as famous as The Sex Pistols (“my first band”).  He can make the case that PIL has been a far more expressive, innovative, pioneering and powerful band than the Pistols ever were or ever could have been and he can prove it too.  But he can’t resist the reality that the Pistols have their place in our collective memory as a band that looked as though they could destroy the fabric of society as we know it, that looked as though they could wipe out at least one well known country.   The fact that the terrifying anarchic power of the Pistols was both illusory and ludicrous doesn’t affect the memory of the feeling that they might.

John Lydon is first generation London Irish.  He’s as Irish as Shane McGowen.  But that’s not an identity he’s chosen to exploit.  Indeed, as soon as you think you’ve got his identity pegged, he’ll do something to ruin it.   This is not creative reinvention, because it’s not a matter of elegant self-fashioning, but passionate renunciation.   The late lamented David Bowie may have renounced Tom, Ziggy, the Duke etc. etc., but such passings were always marked with a sense of gratitude.  Lydon on the other hand…

Elvis Costello once said of Lydon that 50% of everything he said was bollocks – but that represented a 50% improvement on almost anyone else in showbusiness.  Lydon in interview needs to test cosy beliefs of all kinds.  Even when you profoundly disagree with something he’s just said (and this happens very often), you find yourself asking questions of yourself regarding exactly why you believe what you believe.  But he’s anything but a contrarian or a postmodern provocateur.  In the 1970s, he doggedly and honourable resisted all temptations to play with Nazi imagery – claiming that there are some symbols that you can’t just appropriate and subvert so easily.  When being shocking is the norm, he’ll resist the tedious norm of predictable shock.

He remains a trenchant commentator on punk and the herd instinct.  He bewailed the fact that the innovative and improvised punk performances of 1976 had become uniform by 1977.  The maxim “anyone can do it” – ended up not challenging the big record companies but rather enabling big record companies to exploit more efficiently.  Lydon would insist that hard work and imagination are decisive ingredients in any worthwhile version of success.  “Really really wanting it” on its own is just plain boring.

John Lydon doesn’t even hate Pink Floyd any more.

Happy Birthday John Lydon.  May you enjoy many many more.  I’m sure you will.  And I’m sure you will object strenuously to the many tributes you’ll receive.  Because when people think they love and cherish the thing they think you are – they also think they own you.  And they never will.


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