Johnny Rotten, née John Joseph Lydon, is slouching at the podium at the Holiday Inn on King Street West in Toronto, and holding forth on his humble beginnings. He sips on a bottle of mineral water, his bleached-blonde head tucked to the side.
“I come from the lowest kind of shit you can imagine,” says Johnny, who is wearing a black designer T-shirt, baggy black pants and shiny new pair of black Addidas that retail for about $200. He is nearly fifty, and he takes his step-grandchildren to Disneyland. But he sounds genuinely outraged.
“Working class British. And it’s worse when you are Irish,” adds Johnny, who is the eldest son of a crane driver from County Galway, but is present today with a bodyguard, a group of hangers-on, and a small army of publicists. He gets plenty of questions from the audience about his first musical dalliance, the Sex Pistols, and a few queries about his long-time project, Public Image Limited. But, mostly, Johnny prefers to talk about himself.
His audience of 200, assembled at the “keynote address” of the 2003 North by Northeast Music and Film Festival, applaud enthusiastically after his every utterance. Encountering no dissent, Johnny warms to his poverty-and-suffering theme. Declares he: “In this world, there are no handouts. None. Read your fine print. It’s all right there. Don’t just leave it up to your manager. That’s a major mistake. And I know that one, alright. You have to do it yourself. You really have to.” More applause. More mineral water.
Looking on impassively from the sidelines is someone John Lydon does not identify: his big-shot Los Angeles manager, Larry Einbund, whose office is just a little bit West of Beverly Hills. They travelled to Toronto together – the pair of them and the bodyguard, who is referred to as “Rambo.” Johnny may say that the aspiring musicians present shouldn’t “just leave it up to [their] manager,” but – to put a fine point on it – he does. All interview requests must be vetted by Larry; on this trip to the Great White North, only major daily newspapers generally get the nod.
An older cameraman from CBC television, who is well-known in Toronto as one of the kindest and friendliest media people around, attempts to ask Johnny a question that has not been approved in advance by his manager. Johnny sneers at the man, who is overweight, and calls him “fatty.” The crowd erupts in derisive laughter; the man looks ashamed. Says Johnny: “You don’t deserve an answer.” He looks proud of himself.
Twenty-five years after an emaciated, feral Johnny Rotten snarled that he was the anti-Christ on the Sex Pistols’ astonishing ‘Anarchy in the U.K.,’ John Lydon – as he now refers to himself – also looks rather well-to-do. He has had his own television and radio shows (all spectacular failures, all cancelled); he appears on talk shows to expound on his world view (he was virtually a regular on the popular ‘Politically Incorrect’); and the web site he apparently favours (www.john-lydon.com) sells his CDs, obscure Hollywood movies in which he has had bit parts, and his autobiography, ‘Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs.’ The book was remaindered long ago, but Johnny has made certain that copies are available for sale at his “speech,” for $20.00, including GST.
To say that Johnny Rotten, former anti-Christ, has become John Lydon, utter hypocrite, would not go over well with his adoring audience this day. But a hypocrite he is, without much doubt. He sneers at the United States of America, calling it “the new Russia.” But he lives there, and has for many years. He declares that he doesn’t have a record deal – “And I don’t care,” he sniffs – but then he later allows that he would like to be offered one whilst in Canada. He says there is “no point” in offering new Sex Pistols material – then takes care to remind everyone that the band is appearing in Toronto at the end of August.
He repeatedly pronounces that he is above politics, and insists that we need to “break down these barriers that we keep fucking putting between us” – and then, a few minutes later, he mocks black people, suggesting that both they and their music come from “the jungle.” (On that single occasion, the audience grows noticeably silent.) And so on.
He goes on like that for 45 minutes or so, then adjourns the proceedings to sign copies of his autobiography. The line-up stretches around the room.
The author, having been unsuccessful in persuading Larry Einbund to permit a 20-minute interview, steps up. He tells the former Sex Pistol that he had sent a bottle of champagne to his room, on the slender hope that such transparent flattery would result in an interview. John Lydon sneers. “Oh, you’re the one who sent that cheap shit,” he says, apparently unimpressed by the $150 of champagne sent his way.
This writer can contain himself no longer. “Too bad. You’re the one staying at the cheap, shitty hotel.”
The former Johnny Rotten signs another autograph, pauses, then says: “Well, you can’t have your cheap, shitty interview, then.”
It could be said that, after a couple hours in a room with the hypocrite named John Lydon, no interview is now needed, at all, but that would be redundant. The anti-Christ permits his bodyguard to light his cigarette, then turns his attention to the next autograph-seeker.