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Johnny, No Longer Rotten

Johnny Rotten (John Lydon), lead singer of the Sex Pistols, in 1976 ('Anarchy in the UK' video)

With the Sex Pistols, you had to be there. I remember as a child watching a 1976 TV news report on Britain’s new musical sensations, and thinking that the world must be coming to an end. Their best-known song, “Anarchy in the UK,” starts like this:

I am an Antichrist

I am an Anarchist

A decade later, in college, I was bouncing around in my dorm room listening to their one and only album, Never Mind the Bollocks…Here’s the Sex Pistols with fierce glee. They couldn’t play their instruments, true, but there was something intoxicating about the sheer propulsiveness of their sound. Even in 1986, it felt transgressive, volcanic, and full of testosterone, like the best rock and roll.

The Mick and Keith of the Sex Pistols were Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. Sid overdosed on heroin with his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon [UPDATE: A reader points out that Nancy was stabbed to death, perhaps by Sid, who died of an overdose before it could be sorted out]. Johnny, who went back to his given surname, Lydon, started a band named Public Image Ltd, and carried on. What I didn’t know until reading this profile in The Observer is that he has been a happily married man since 1979, to a German woman named Nora, about a decade his senior. Today, they’re living in Los Angeles, and he is caring for her constantly through the ravages of her Alzheimer’s disease.

Lydon was in the news recently when he was photographed leaning out a window to smoke a cigarette while wearing a MAGA shirt — about the punkest thing a rock legend can do in 2020, if you ask me. Here are some excerpts from the Guardian piece:

It all sounds so daunting. I tell Lydon that I admire his honesty. “It takes courage, I suppose, to bring it out into the open. Thinking you can keep it to yourself, and it will somehow manage itself, it’s not the case. You’ve got to talk about it.” Lydon is militantly against “moaners”, a legacy of his tough working-class London upbringing, which he describes as “Charlie Dickens with motor vehicles”. His mother was often sick, and Lydon cared for his younger brothers while his father worked. “The main lesson I learned from my mum and dad is no self-pity. Self-pity was unacceptable.” Still, Nora’s suffering affects him deeply. “It’s very hard not to go into a tear-jerk about it. You don’t realise this about me, I suppose, but I’m quite emotional. I’m a passionate fella.”

He still has strong views. He voted Obama, then Trump. He plans to vote for Trump again. He’s still down on organized religion and its “disgusting negativity.” He supports Brexit:

In his view, the working classes have spoken: “They’re not going to be dictated to by unknown continentals.” While Lydon seems genuine, he’s not above liberal-baiting this Observer journalist. When I ask if he’s definitely voting for Trump, he cries: “I am!”, produces a MAGA cap, and gleefully dangles it in front of the screen.

Lydon co-wrote the punk standard God Save the Queen. Now he says: “My feeling about the royal family is one of sorrow. I’ve always felt they’re poor little birdies trapped in cages, gold cages, but they’re still entombed.” What about Meghan Markle? “Dreadful person. Very bad actress. But she’s in a masterclass now.” Lydon doesn’t agree that Markle suffered racism. “Stop being self-righteous and smug, that’s what she needs to do. She’s hopping on a cause. There are valid cases out there, genuine people who need help.”

He’s 100 percent correct about Meghan Markle. One more clip:

Whereas once he couldn’t stand “bohemian nonsense”, he now seems to view all political correctness as irritating, self-righteous uber-leftie dogma. “My God!” he retorts. “Shouldn’t any sane person?”

OK, I’ll bite: political correctness may not be perfect, but isn’t its aim to empower and protect? “It’s taken too far, though. Death by committee, trying to slam your dictates into another person’s face. That’s not healthy.”

He thinks everything and everyone should be questioned, including himself. “If I’m wrong, I’m highly capable of correcting that. I’ve done that many times and I’ve had to. That’s why I love debate and conversation, because you learn from it. Don’t become entrenched in one opinion and get stuck there for ever.”

Read it all. Funny, but it seems that decadent America could stand to be a little more Rotten, don’t you think?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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