John Lydon's life could have been a lot easier right now — all he had to do was keep the name "Johnny Rotten" and squeeze every single drop of juice out of the Sex Pistols brand.
"Tell me about it!" he said to the Current on the phone from London. "I think I put my head on the chopping block now almost continuously. But that's all right, it's a good place to be."
Instead of perpetuating his Pistols persona, he created a band, Public Image Ltd (PiL), which could not have been more different than the Pistols. With PiL, he released eight albums in 1978-1992, after which he published his must-read autobiography (Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs) and reunited with the Pistols for the infamous "Filthy Lucre Tour" in 1996. In 2009, Lydon revived PiL and in May of this year the band released This is PiL, its first in 12 years. It is the album they will be presenting 7:50 p.m. Saturday at Austin's Fun Fun Fun Fest.
"We are a very fine combination of live acoustic and syncopated electronica," said Lydon, who believes this is the best PiL lineup ever. "In terms of electronica, we created many of these, shall we say, demons now that lesser acts don't quite understand."
Lydon has evolved and mellowed out a bit, but only a bit. When describing PiL's music as "folk" ("music by folks for folks") he takes the opportunity to praise a band that he loves and to lambast two of today's biggest groups.
"Los Lobos to me is folk music," he said. "I have a love for them. … The songs are absolutely relevant to the situation they live in. To me that is vitally important. That is good art. Whereas in Coldplay or Radiohead it's not good. But then again, people born wealthy have a message too. It's just not one that I can relate to."
One thing he can relate to is San Antonio and the whole South of the U.S.A. But talking about the Sex Pistols' SA show at Randy's Ballroom on January 8, 1978 (shortly before the band self-destructed), is a tricky issue — Lydon is never fond of saying more than what's strictly necessary about the Pistols, and his publicist warned the Current about going there. But Lydon was in a good mood, so I went ahead. Was the show really as chaotic as the British press described it?
"I remember [the SA show] being a wonderful gig and a brilliant relationship with an audience that had very little understanding of us," Lydon said. "I remember the only people that misbehaved and didn't understand how great that gig was was the British press who turned up just deliberately to write rubbish and create fiction."
Yet, on the internet you will find a video showing that, towards the end of the show, Sid Vicious hits someone in the audience with his bass. Lydon saw that. He was right there. But he only remembers Sid, his late buddy.
"Poor old Sid was a very weak character and had the tendency to over-perform," said Lydon. "He did well and I miss him dearly. He was a very close friend of mine."
Now completely independent (the new album was self-released) PiL is still led by a man who is rarely intimidated. But there is at least one person who put the fear of God on John Lydon: Judge Judy Sheindlin.
In 1997, a former bandmember sued Lydon for assault, battery, and breach of contract. The case ended on Judge Judy, and the video of the show went viral. She sided with Lydon, but ...
"Take a look at Judge Judy's eyes," said Lydon. "I tell you, man, she has the most beautiful eyes and they are utterly ferocious. It's like trying to stare down a puma."
Fun Fun Fun Fest feat. Public Image Ltd. (7:50pm Sat, Orange stage), Run-DMC, Santigold, X, Napalm Death and 100 other artists
$75 (Fri-Sun 1-day passes)
$325 (3-day P-I-P passes; includes two meals a day and other goodies)
11:45am-9:50pm Fri-Sun, Nov. 2-4
800 W. Riverside Drive (Austin)
Read the complete interview here