Ex-Sex Pistol makes Eurovision bid,’ is not a headline many would have seen coming as 2023 opened for business a few weeks back. But then, we live in strange, unpredictable times. Times in which John Lydon — godfather of punk, the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten — has indeed announced his intention to represent Ireland (the country of his parents’ birth) at the continent’s kitschiest song contest, with a tender ballad called ‘Hawaii’. So, late on a Wednesday evening in mid January, ES Magazine is phoning the singer at his Malibu home to find out what exactly he’s thinking.
Unfortunately, though, we seem to have been given the wrong number.
‘Err... Who is this?’ drawls a Texas-accented voice after the phone is answered.
It’s ES here. Is that John?
‘No. I am the doppelgänger!’ A pause, broken by a peal of raucous laughter and then Lydon’s familiar north London twang. ‘I’m just teasing. Trying to make light of a desperate world! “Doppelgänger” — German term, isn’t it? I’ve been sparking up on my German as it’s now the language my lovely wife is slipping into. It’s a reverted childhood thing. It’s not real German: it’s German kiddie talk. Our communications can vary between extremely responsive to mind-numbingly bizarre.’
‘Hawaii’ is a song for, and about, Lydon’s wife, Nora. The pair met in 1975, just as the Sex Pistols were forming (‘The whole band and management warned her not to talk to me!’ Lydon recalls with glee). Four years later, they were married. In 2018, Nora, who was born in Munich and is 14 years Lydon’s senior, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Lydon has been her full-time carer ever since. ‘It’s an appalling gift,’ he says. ‘I have to watch this beautiful person slowly deteriorate, knowing the inevitable conclusion. But a gift it truly is. You struggle 24/7 to get those brief moments of recognition, and when they come they are overwhelmingly rewarding. In those moments, she knows she’s not alone, she knows she’s loved. What a gift to be able to give her.’
‘Hawaii’, too, is an incredibly tender, heartfelt gift to Nora. Performed by Public Image Ltd, the band Lydon formed after leaving the Sex Pistols in 1978, the song references a holiday the pair took together in the 1980s. It’s a brilliant, deeply moving song; Lydon’s delicate refrain of ‘Hello there’ perfectly encapsulating those sudden ‘brief moments of recognition’ he refers to.
‘The challenge was being accurate,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to be slushy, or angry. I just wanted to get to those poignant moments between us. I hope I’ve got there. She’ll hear that when I’m singing it on TV and probably burst out laughing! It gives her great joy.’
Ah, yes, the TV appearance. While it makes perfect sense that Lydon would choose to write a touching musical love letter to his partner of nearly 50 years, it makes rather less sense why he would want to enter it into the Eurovision Song Contest. This Friday, the 66-year-old will perform ‘Hawaii’ live, alongside five other Eurovision hopefuls, on Ireland’s The Late Late Show. The public will then vote for which song they want to represent them in Liverpool come May. So, why exactly is the UK’s foremost punk rocker wading into a competition most commonly associated with powerfully cheesy Europop?
‘Well, Eurovision was a childhood thing, wasn’t it?’ Lydon chuckles. ‘You’d gather around the TV with your mum and dad — it was one of the few shows you could watch in unison. Hopefully still is! Someone put [Public Image Ltd] forward for Eurovision years ago and ever since there’s been people pushing it. When they heard this song [‘Hawaii’] they dived in on our behalf, and suddenly my manager’s ringing up, saying, “John, what about Eurovision?” This time I said: “Why not?”
Having posed the question, Lydon quickly answers it: ‘I’ll tell you why not: because the pressure is killing me. I’ll have to take a week away from Nora to do it — that’s painful in itself. And the idea of having to sing this song without breaking down...’ He tails off, voice cracking. ‘Singing it makes me cry. Every single time.’
Those who know Lydon only from clips of him snarling and sneering with the Sex Pistols may find this kind of emotionally raw honesty surprising. But for fans of Public Image Ltd (aka PiL) it’s very much par for the course. ‘PiL have always been a band that dives into emotions in ways no other band has,’ he tells me. Indeed, in 1979, just a year after the group’s formation, Lydon was singing about caring for his dying mother on the single ‘Death Disco’. Is songwriting a way for him to deal with this kind of pain and grief? ‘Always has been,’ he says. ‘It’s still gut-wrenching, but all these years of songwriting have paid off, I suppose. I’ve got to the point now where I’m not wasting words. Every word is meaning something.’
I mention a favourite Lydon lyric of mine: the screeched wail, ‘Joan of Arc was a sorcerer!’ on PiL’s magnificently odd 1981 track, ‘Four Enclosed Walls’. He cackles: ‘Joan of Arc! Burned at the stake, wasn’t she? Now, that was naughty. That was politics. I suppose she was the Greta Thunberg of her time. Oh, God!’ Is he a fan of Thunberg? ‘No!’ he roars. ‘Of course not. The poor child. She’s been used, and quite frankly I find it abusive. It’s like child actors: it’s wrong. They grow up emotionally bankrupt and stressed over things that should be dealt with in adulthood. Let the children play.’
But surely, John, I say, the children are worried about their future? Isn’t it a good thing that they’re campaigning to try and improve it? ‘Let a child be a child,’ he says, firmly. ‘They have an awful lot of learning to do before they go solving the world’s problems. I’m not going to ask a young girl to solve the political crisis any more than I’d ask an eight-year-old to fix my car!’
Am I a fan of Greta Thunberg? No! She’s being used: quite frankly I find it abusive
Lydon’s stance on this issue won’t come as a huge shock to anyone who’s been following his media appearances these past few years. This is a man who has previously donned ‘Maga’ merchandise, praised Brexit and appeared on Piers Morgan Uncensored to launch broadsides against ‘wokeness’. When I ask whether he has been following the strikes in the UK, he minces no words: ‘I’m not interested in strikes. Two strikes and you should be out! It’s always the people who suffer, not the government that you’re trying to attack.’
You don’t have to look far on social media to find fans of Lydon’s music expressing their upset at many of his views. But he clearly has more important things to worry about than what people might think of him. ‘I’m beyond ego now,’ he tells me. ‘I live in a world where there are no prejudices. [People say] “That’s not what a punk’s supposed to be doing!” Hey: I wrote the book, right? Don’t offer me a pamphlet in return, full of dictates.’
He is caught up, as he says, in a ‘world of personal tragedy’ and his life now is fully focused on Nora. Any mention that what he is doing is heroic, though, is shrugged off. ‘There are people suffering far worse,’ he says. ‘Humour’s always been my coping mechanism. Rather than being a sourpuss, look for ways to survive. Nora loves humour, too, so we watch a lot of comedy. Harry Enfield has been saving our lives. Him and Paul Whitehouse — God, I love those two. We like Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, too: hilarious.’
I ask if Lydon has any interest in reading Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare. After all, Harry may achieve what the Pistols never could and bring down the monarchy. ‘I don’t suppose I’ll have time,’ he says. ‘I made the comment a while ago that if he wants to be out of the royal family, he should work in McDonald’s and shut up. Just go quietly: you won’t win any sympathy if you keep coming back at it. But I also understand the desperation in him.’ He adopts a moony, love-struck tone: ‘“Can’t you understand I’m in love?!” Well, we don’t need to. If you really are in love, you don’t need to explain it.’
We’re back at ‘Hawaii’ here: a pure, raw expression of love. Has he played it for Nora yet? ‘Of course,’ he says. ‘She’s probably sick of it.’ As nervous as Lydon is about performing such a personal track live, its selection as Ireland’s official Eurovision entry would clearly mean the world to him. ‘God, my mum and dad would have been so proud,’ he laughs. Nora has even picked out what he’ll wear to perform: ‘Among all my nice designer suits, there’s this one I bought for $80. Pink tartan thing. I thought I could do the gardening in it for a laugh. But Nora loves it — so that’s what I’ll be wearing.’
Whether the suit will appear onstage in Liverpool this May remains to be seen. But you certainly feel the song — and Lydon himself — deserve it. As to the future beyond a possible Eurovision trip, PiL’s new album, End of World, will arrive later this year and the chances of the Sex Pistols reforming look less likely than ever. ‘I’m having nothing to do with any of them, ever again,’ Lydon tells me. ‘That was wicked — to hide behind corporate money and turn what was a fantastic legend into Toytown.’ He’s referring to last year’s Danny Boyle-directed Disney+ series Pistol, which was adapted from the memoir of guitarist Steve Jones. ‘Those mockney accents,’ Lydon groans. ‘It was the most absurd, appalling, untrue and unfair thing I’ve ever seen.’ In August Lydon was sued by his former bandmates when he tried to prevent them using the group’s back catalogue in the show. He lost, and the songs went in.
The experience of seeing his music used in ways he didn’t intend has clearly left him shaken. You get a sense, though, that the next phase of John Lydon’s life may lie beyond music. Towards the end of our call, he tells me: ‘I think when this [caring for Nora] reaches its conclusion, I’d like to pass on what I know to others. A lot of the alleged experts [on Alzheimer’s] turn up as know-nothings: they don’t realise each victim is different and should be treated differently. These are important things I’m learning here. It’s become deeply personal. I won’t give up on this one.’