John Lydon is known primarily as the lead singer in iconoclastic-but-canonical rock groups like The Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd., but he demonstrates a different talent on his latest project: Mr. Rotten’s Songbook collects the lyrics from all the tunes Lydon has written and pairs them with his own drawings. Each image is supposed to reflect his state of mind at the time he wrote the song.
Lydon is planning to print just 1,000 copies of Mr. Rotten’s Songbook, which hits shelves March 31; you can pre-order a volume here. The reason for the limited edition? “Mass consumption tends not to be very helpful,” Lydon explains. “You find yourself in that pop star world I spent so much effort trying to escape.” Nevertheless, he hopes that the small batch approach won’t entirely prevent him from earning commercial accolades: “I do expect to be No. 1 on the Billboard limited editions [chart]!”
Billboard caught up with Lydon to discuss the origins of the book and his longstanding interest in drawing; before signing off, the singer offered a blessing of sorts: “May your enemies always be behind you; may they scatter, flatter, batter, and shatter.” These are excerpts from the rest of the conversation.
What gave you the idea for a book of lyrics?
China allowed us to do a couple gigs in their very strange and wonderful country. They have an incredible vetting system where they analyze every lyric you’ve ever written. It was the putting of that together, really, and then their approving it, that tweaked an interest in my own head. I felt, my god, have I become acceptable? What’s happened here? How strange but interesting but that the Chinese government would find my stuff thrilling and welcome me to their country.
From there on in, the idea was floating around, since we had to amass all the lyrics like that, what to do with them. I thought of drawing images next to them so you get an idea of the frame of mind I was in when I write. It’s a very limited edition. That’s how we like things to be because that way you can guarantee high quality, and only those that really want it get it.
Is that lyric investigation standard practice by the Chinese government?
Well they did it with me, so I just assumed they did it for everyone else. I think over the years I’ve said far more volatile things then half the bands that have been sent packing [by China]. It shows they do like a bit of saucy and challenge! I found the population very friendly and really glad we were let in. It was a great meeting of the minds!
Have you always been into drawing?
Since I was very young. I love to draw. I draw in a particularly cartoonish way because I think I can capture the character better that way. I’m not one for still portraits. Drawing led me into all kinds of trouble in the catholic school I was forced to go to. Being left handed, the nuns and priests see that as the sign of the devil. I’ve always been pleasantly cursed.
Did you read cartoons when you were younger?
I don’t do that, don’t read comic books. I find far more movement and reality in a quick drawn cartoon than a still life — which I can do. Sometimes I’m just bored, and I’ll do photographic representations of things. But there’s no life in that. The way us as human beings are, we have so many different motives running at the same time. A cartoon can capture that.
I’ve always done the artwork for PiL; had a lot to do with the Pistols as well. This is a field I’m not trained in, but I have an aptitude. There’s my gallery — it’s called an album cover.
I read an interview you did where you said you were also influenced by Native American art — how did you discover that?
Visiting Arizona, seeing the rock art, I found that fascinating. The most simplistic lines tell you so much information. It’s more free flowing; it allows you to sense these things are moving. I like static cling, but I don’t like static behavior. Early caveman drawings too in Europe, they’re deeply beautiful, and seem far more artistically advanced than most of the rubbish in the art galleries these days. I think they were clever enough not to pile a couple bricks together and call it art. Which is what goes on a lot at these places.
You had to produce quite a lot of drawings in a very short time frame for this book.
I love that. When there’s time limits and pressure of a deadline, I love it. I love it! I love working under pressure. It makes me concentrate more and better things come out of that. Rather than taking six months and being indolently artistic.
We definitely don’t condone indolence! All the lyrics from PiL and the Sex Pistols are in the book?
Yeah I think it’s 127 songs. I’ve stopped counting! To go back and analyze every single line that I’ve written is at times quite shocking. God, did I really put that together? I’m shocked by the bravado I display when I write. It’s quite great. There’s nothing that I would call fluff in anything. It’s me analyzing myself. I’m very accurate, I don’t take no prisoners, particularly with myself. And I do tend to be my own worst enemy, judgment-wise. Over the years, that’s paid off really well. There’s nothing anyone can say negative about me that I haven’t already considered. I see my life as a work in progress. I’m not yet perfect, but I fully intend to try to be.
Is that intense self-criticism sometimes paralyzing when you’re trying to write songs?
It can absolutely immobilize you with fear sometimes. Particularly before performances. I’m riddled with self-doubt to the point where I make myself physically ill. The idea of letting people down is just not acceptable to me. I’m not the strongest person in the world; childhood illness left me with many fault lines, and I can come apart at the seams at any point. It’s a knife edge every night, but I love it. Once I’m on, I’m fine. I know no rule book need apply at that point. Other than: get it right, and tell it truthfully.
When you got a chance to evaluate all your writing in this way did you see changes over time that you hadn’t noticed before?
When I first started I was attacking systems and regimes and politics. Enough of that I thought, let’s move on to PiL, where it was more self analysis, and really a great cleansing of the soul. That’s what I mean when I saw PiL is my heart and soul, Sex Pistols is all mind and body. It’s really good that I’ve gotten so many songs out. And there’s more to come. Sorry public! I can’t help myself.
You’re given an opportunity to tell the whole truth and nothing but in music. It’s one of the few forms out there where you can do that. I’m not gonna abuse that. Hopefully it helps people. Hello! You’re not the only fucked up out there. We all are.
Do you have the same high standards with your lyrics as you do with your drawings?
Yeah. If it’s not close don’t bother, scrap that, move on, or come at it from a different angle. But get it right.
So you would look back at the lyrics and your drawings would correspond to your mindset at the time of writing?
Yeah — I tend to remember photographically. It’s pretty damn accurate. I think in a childlike way — that’s why I assume I’m innocent. My childhood was stolen from me through illnesses. Then I joined the Sex Pistols, and let’s face it, no one was innocent after that. Somehow I shined through, unperturbed and determined to tell it how it really is. You know there’s no alternative truths acceptable to me.
I believe alternative facts are in fashion now.
Not to me they’re not! Fascinating times.
Is it difficult to maintain a child-like approach as you get older?
Not as long as you don’t tell lies. There’s the trouble you see; the Irish in me — we love to get drunk and tell a story. You can’t. In memory of your culture, you’ve got to tell it proper. But I have time out every now and again.
You’ve expressed distrust of the art world in the past. Are you worried it will come calling now that you’re releasing a book of drawings?
What sells in the art world is just what businesses have invested in — it has little to do with the human race at that point. I can’t go that way. So here’s my outlet: picturesque descriptions of what I’m trying to achieve through voice in music.