Johnny Rotten Dave ChislettPeople who say you should never meet your heroes have never met John Lydon. From the moment he walked into the lounge at the #PROMAXBDA Europe 2017 conference, he was funny, relaxed and seemed genuinely happy to be there.

John is 61 years old and has been in the public eye since he was around 17. He’s not as famous as he was, but standing outside the Beurs Van Berlage with him drew enough curious gazes and fans asking for photos.

It’s not all smiles and laughs though, I got glimpses of the steel beneath any time he felt that someone was asking too much or assuming too much, then he was all prickles and quick to rebuff. But never mean. Clear that he wouldn’t be messed with, but not over the top.

He said one thing that has really stuck in my head… he says he will never grow up because adults lie and steal and kill each other and start wars and ‘Us children, we don’t do anything like that.’ At first glance it sounds like a ludicrous thing to say, but with John there’s a sincerity and a depth that makes one think twice.

Because of course he is right. As bizarrely naïve as it sounds, of course its adults who start wars and our adults are currently doing a crap job of running the world. Kids on the other hand, aren’t afraid to make new friends and approach the world with an open mind.

John is powerfully FOR the existence of libraries. After this childhood illnesses, he was way behind on school work and being treated very strangely. His response was to spend as much time in the library as possible and he credits this with his understanding of how the world works and why he came to react so strongly against it. Libraries, he feels, are a powerful tool for achieving personal freedom. ‘Protect the libraries of your country, or you’re dead,’ he said.

Johnny Rotten perplexedOne of my more flippant questions was, ‘What pisses you off now?’ and in typical fashion he of course didn’t answer the questions but spoke instead about the lyrics to ‘Rise’ by way of explanation. According to John, ‘Rise’ deals with Nelson Mandela and the situation in Apartheid South Africa. Her, the anger is a positive thing. ‘It’s important not to confuse anger with violence. Anger is an energy, it is a tool that you can use to get over the lethargy.’

From this I got the feeling he meant we are generally not angry enough… not in a destructive way, but in the way that allows people to speak out and stand up when they see things are not right. It was a subtle answer and I am still not sure if I understood him correctly.

He’s also full of bad puns and quite often speaks in lines from other people’s songs. During our conversation, we had David Bowie and REM to recall only two. Within five minutes I felt like I was talking to someone I had known for years. We just seemed to have the same sense of humour.

One part of my job in the interview was to get him to talk about creativity. This was slightly harder to do than I expected because once he gets on a roll, he is hard to redirect. BUT he did have some interesting things to say. Interesting possibly because (as with a lot of things like this) some of it was blindingly obvious but also because of WHO it came from.

The first thing John said was that if you want to do anything creatively, don’t waste your time learning how someone else did what they did. ‘If you wanna start a Music revolution, please don’t know what you’re doing,’ he said. ‘Don’t go for lessons, don’t learn other people’s techniques, don’t copy anything.’

He also said he thought that collaboration and cooperation were essential to his creative career. ‘If it’s just me on my own, it’s not good enough,’ was how he put it. John’s clearly got a healthy ego, but it doesn’t extend to any arrogance about his song writing abilities. He likes the mix, the challenge of working with other people. In our time of Idols and celebrity branding, it is nice to hear someone talk about their creativity, which has created their celebrity, as an entirely collaborative process that relies on the presence of others.

John almost died from Meningitis when he was 7, he was ill his entire childhood and later, he was supposed to be on the flight that later blew up over Lockerbie. He has been assaulted, threatened with death, hated, reviled and mocked. And it’s all turned him into a remarkably phlegmatic and philosophical guy. It’s all expressed in his north London accent which masks some of the depth of what he says I guess, but he’s definitely learned something from it all and he’s determined to keep on having a good time.

‘I don’t look back mate,’ he replied when asked about his previous career, ‘I am just looking forward to the next thing I am going to do. I don’t have a plan. I think when you have a plan you make it too difficult. But I am looking forward, right and left, but I don’t look back.’

He’s a bit like a Buddha, wrapped up in a north London accent with a bad haircut and a clown suit. So much of what he says is about moving forward, taking the first step, but also about applying common sense and shying away from extremes. At first glance you would be forgiven for mistaking what he says for trite clichés. But it’s not. He’s no hateful, bile spitting, violent man. He’s reflective, thoughtful and observant. He just says it like Johnny Rotten.

Johnny Rotten PROMAXMay the road rise with you
May the road rise with you
May the road rise with you
May the road rise with you

Anger is an energy
Anger is an energy
Anger is an energy
Anger is an energy

©BILL O. LASWELL;JOHN LYDON