In his youth, John Lydon, who went by Johnny Rotten back then, was always good for an quote.
Point a TV camera at him, as more than one British TV provocateur was given to do, ask him to say something outrageous and he’d oblige. If he didn’t, his bandmate Sid Vicious would jump in and steal the attention.
“Johnny Rotten was a piece of work,” he says now, over 60 and chuckling. “I WORKED on Johnny Rotten.”
But in his reflective moments, even back in the “Anarchy in the U.K.” days, he’d talk about longevity — about not living the legend and dying young, about not being trapped by a legacy, mythology, record contracts or band obligations.
“There’s nothing glorious about dying. Anyone can do it,” he’d say. And as to staying power, “I’m one of the very few people in pop history who will just not go away.”
In the new documentary “The Public Image is Rotten,” there’s Lydon, leaning on the breakfast bar in his kitchen, tucking a coffee mug in the oven (NOT the microwave) to warm it up, joking, pontificating, saying nice things about most everybody he ever dealt with (not all), at least at first.
At 62 (he was 60 when “Image” was filmed), he’s still rocking something like a Mohawk, his English considerably more polished than in his punk days, barrel chested and if not bourgeois and self-satisfied, at least peaceful and mellow. For him.
Filmmaker Tabbert Fiiller focuses on Lydon’s career with Public Image Ltd., the band he formed when The Sex Pistols imploded in the late ’70s. Trapped in a management contract with credit-hog impresario Malcolm McLaren, practically broke despite fronting one of the most influential bands in pop music history, “Rotten” captures a band at inception and tracks it and Lydon through its many MANY incarnations, many musical identities and enduring albeit cult appeal.
From its name, taken from a Muriel Spark novel, to their debut namesake tune (shades of “Bad Company”), through hits such as “This is Not a Love Song” and the melodic “Rise,” driving through so many changes to the band, the sound and the music industry around them, “The Public Image is Rotten” tracks so much turmoil, so many musical chairs packed into every year of its existence that time seems to stand still.
The Sex Pistols take up a tiny portion of the man’s life, and take a back seat in the movie as Lydon leads us from his meningitis coma and associated amnesia of childhood, through the burden of the Pistols (Lydon lost the use of “Johnny Rotten” as a moniker to McLaren when they broke up). It basically jumps into that subject with late Pistols appearances where he’d shout “This is NO fun” from the stage, and finish a show with “Ever get the feeling you’ve been CHEATED?”
But he got famous, he insisted then, “through being HONEST.” and now he just shrugs off “positions I had to assume and tolerate,” as part of his “image,” positions which he’d then “walk away from.”
In interviews in the early PiL years, he’d call Public Image Ltd “a corporation, not a band.” Granted, he was writing the songs and his bandmates served at his whim, so he was president, CEO and CFO. But most of those collaborators make appearances in “Image is Rotten.”
Guitarist Keith Levene, whom he hired from The Clash, drummer Jim Walker and original bassist Jah Wobble seem more than happy to talk about PiL,, Wobble finishing more than one story of this difficult show or that dust-up in a pub with “I kicked ‘im in the face.”
Lydon is similarly sentimental and generous of just about everybody he played with over the decades, up to a point. Remembering Wobble’s exit from the band (where nobody made any money), swiping a box of band cash and vacationing in the States, Lydon says he “contributed, but he took more than he gave.”
Friends like music video pioneer and filmmaker Julien Temple (“Earth Girls are Easy”) vouch for Lydon’s “authenticity,” fans such as Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Moby and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers marvel at the range of music PiL rambled through over the decades (Flea was even offered the band’s bass player gig in the ’80s, and turned it down).
Legendary drummer Ginger Baker of Cream played on one record and laughs about that now, others tell of finding out the band was headed on tour (“We don’t do tours, just a gig, here and there.”) and realizing they’d not been invited.
There was the infamous New York City Ritz show where Lydon tried to do a performance art “concert” of pick-up musicians playing behind a movie screen, in silhouette, one of many occasions “the audience almost rioted.”
Lydon explains the origins of several songs, his reputation for brawling — “When push comes to shove, you shove back.” — and the various band-mates exits, some of which seem to break his heart, even now — “An immediate disaster, wasn’t it? But you just have to get on with it.”
He draws the line at getting “too personal,” so no talking with his wife and her daughter’s kids, whom they’ve been raising, nothing too deep even if “by being honest” is his self-declared secret to success.
Nobody really got rich doing this, but Lydon has always been hellbent on doing his own thing “rather than a pop band rented by a record label and told what to do.”
Second drummer Martin Atkins fondly recalls the many lean times, “All of us in John’s Chelsea apartment — us, and the police. NOT The Police, the BAND,” he cracks.”
Long after punk died, the punk icon carried on — getting kicked off Tom Snyder’s “Tomorrow” show, getting spat upon by unreconstructed Sex Pistols fans a decade after that group broke up.
And through it all, the icon endures — wild-haired, bug-eyed, his manic keening and yelping evolving into something quite musical in midlife.
The man? Surviving, keeping the faith and carrying on. And mellowing. Just not all that much.
MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity
Cast: John Lydon, Michael Alago, Martin Atkins, Flea, Thurston Moore, Moby, Vivien Goldman
Credits:Directed by Tabbert Fiiller. An Abramorama release.
Running time: 1:43