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."
The reticence is understandable. It's been a rough year for his family; Nora's daughter (Lydon's stepdaughter) Arianna Forster, best known as the punk singer Ari Up of the Slits, died in October from cancer. Even before her death, Lydon and Nora had taken up the task of helping to raise Arianna's three children, and Lydon found himself more worried about PTA meetings than poking at the power structures. He says that his main occupation right now is attending to the needs of his grieving wife and Arianna's children. And despite having a desire to do another Public Image album, he's got his priorities. "It would be wrong," he said of recording right now, "and it would totally dominate the proceedings, and it would be unfair on my wife to leave her alone like that. When you record, you lock yourself into your own world, and that would be incredibly selfish, and not the right thing to do."
Lydon hasn't released a full-length of original material in 15 years (though PIL released a live album in 2009), and is without a record deal. Instead, over the last decade he has undertaken a series of unlikely television and broadcast projects. In 2006, he was a regular on the British reality show "I'm a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!" followed by three one-off wildlife documentaries for the Discovery channel: "John Lydon's Megabugs" (about insects), "John Lydon Goes Ape" and "John Lydon's Shark Attack," in which the original punk swam with great whites off the coast of South Africa. Interspersed with this activity are the occasional Sex Pistols reunion gigs, where he still attempts to infuse his archetypical scream with fury in songs such as "Holidays in the Sun" and "Anarchy in the U.K.," along with original members Steve Jones (who also lives in Los Angeles), Paul Cook and Glenn Matlock, both of whom continue to reside in the U.K. In 2000, VH1 commissioned Lydon to do a freewheeling opinion and interview show called Rotten TV, but the viewers never materialized.
Lydon blamed VH1 executives. "The powers that be were constantly trying to rewrite my history for me to, 'Try and make the show more interesting. Let's set it in Pasadena,' was one idea across the table. I said, 'No, I've lived in Pasadena for two years. I don't want anything to do with the place.'"
Lydon said he's been experimenting with writing music in his home studio, though, inspired by the 2009-2010 Public Image Ltd tour that he called "the most joyous musical experience of my entire life, and that includes the Pistols and all of PiL up to this current day." The band, which over the years has included many members, is down to three core musicians: Lydon, bassist Lu Edmonds and drummer Bruce Smith (along with instrumentalist Scott Firth). The three have played together for nearly 25 years, making rhythm-heavy rock and electronic music with lots of deep bass and wide open space. The music's influence has far outweighed its sales.
The ways in which he's creating sounds, though, have changed. Armed with a portable recorder, Lydon said he's been working with "anything that I can see surrounding me. I have made sounds out of toilet bowls. Anything that creates a sound is a good thing. And you find a house full of that kind of stuff — particularly if you do your own plumbing. My god, you're not short for tunes." He started generating the tones while undertaking some home maintenance, one of the many ways in which he's become more a husband than a rebel figurehead over the years.
"There's nowhere I want to go," he said of his current life. "I mean, I'm down there at the beach, it's fine by me. What do I want to be in town for?" When it's suggested that Los Angeles culture might have something to offer him, he lets out a wicked, dismissive cackle. "Yes, and it can all stay where it is, and it's quite happy to go on and coexist without me." Listening to the Pistol describe his current place in the world, it's hard to begrudge him his social complacency.
"When the sun comes out, everybody's happy, and that's it," he said. "And it's pretty hard here in the summer, when it's 90 at 8 in the evening, to be putting on your rebellious punk rock glad rags and demonstrating in your studded leather jackets. You'll die of heat exhaustion."