Despite his formidable reputation, John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) was far from what his Sex Pistols nickname suggests. In fact, he was thoroughly charming. But then again, having the godfather of Punk speak in the Sheldonian Theatre was a surprising association from the start.
From the moment he entered the room, the audience was treated to Lydon’s wicked and playful sense of humour. Whilst being introduced, he couldn’t resist faux-sneezing into his mic from the eves, or commenting gleefully on the delicious sound his bottle of brandy made when he popped it open with a well-practised hand.
The interviewer couldn’t get a word or sound in edgeways. Lydon even joked at one stage that “‘I digress’ should be my new catchphrase.” But his freedom to speak about what he wanted made the talk. The audience was treated to a wide range of anecdotes. Largely unprompted, Lydon discussed everything from his childhood to his current recording of a new PIL album in the Cotswolds. For those interested, spending time in the Cotswolds apparently affected his stools for the worst. Lovely. Although frustrating for David Freeman, the interviewer, it made for terrific viewing as Lydon teased him with the occasional jibe – “Oh, are you still here?” being one of the most memorable.
Most tales were hilarious. My personal highlight was his description of his Dad’s reaction, Irish accent and all, when he came home with his hair cropped and dyed green; “You look like a fucking brussel spout!” was his Dad’s response. His comment that the Sex Pistols were too fat to reform, describing one as “a pear on matchsticks”, set the crowd into fits of laughter.
My own encounter with Lydon was fittingly entertaining. When I asked him whether he would ever stop touring or writing music, he said, “Let’s give you a mic so that everyone can laugh at you.” When the laughter from my dressing down had finished, he finally replied, “As long as there are human beings in the world, I’m never gonna get bored of it. Come on, we’re fabulous as a species, but we can also be vile. But look on the brightside – we’re all gonna die.”
Lydon proceeded to discuss his ordeal with viral Polio at the age of seven. A nervous laugh broke out in the front row when the topic was introduced. Lydon could have taken offence, but instead he replied with a gentle request for understanding. He wasn’t telling a tale of pity, but a truth of his life, one that had left him with no memory of his parents and in a coma for six months. Lydon discussed everything with a genuine sincerity, emphasising his staunch opinion that it is better to be brutally honest than embellish your life with lies.
Surprisingly, there was only one heckler in the crowd who attempted to dampen Lydon’s high spirits. When Lydon expressed a lack of faith in any British political party, an elderly gentleman shouted “BALLS!” in the direction of the stage. Some celebrities would have just risen to the challenge. But Lydon made his oration even more entertaining. Instead of telling him where to go, Lydon gave him a festive dressing-down. He told him to go write something himself before he judged the views of others. And in the mean time, Lydon jestingly hoped that “you play with your balls this Christmas, pull your yuletide log and be the first in line for the January sales.” I’m yet to read Lydon’s autobiography – Anger is an Energy – but if it is anywhere near as witty as his talk in Oxford, it will be a great read.