Johnny isn't so rotten anymore

CATCHING UP WITH... JOHNNY ROTTEN

The guy who fronted the Sex Pistols is actually more polite than punk, and in real life has become a multimedia workaholic.

April 02, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

No sooner does the operator announce "Here's Johnny Rotten" than a great, phlegmy noise starts up on the other end of the line. To describe the sound as "throat clearing" would be an understatement.

It's not the most pleasant sound, yet somehow it seems oddly appropriate. This being the same Johnny Rotten who once fronted the notorious English punk band the Sex Pistols, it's hard to hear such hacking and harrumphing without flashing back to the old punk-rock practice of "gobbing," in which members of the audience showed their appreciation by expectorating onto the performers.

Luckily, our man Rotten has no such compliment in mind.

"I'm sorry. I've got a bad head cold," he says, with a self-deprecating chuckle. "Hello, anyway."

In an instant, the stereotype shatters. Instead of the sarcasm, disdain and confrontational profanity that the punk rock mythology would lead one to expect from Johnny Rotten, what the voice on the other end of the line offers is charm and wit, insight and laughter. It isn't just that this Rotten is smart, funny, and surprisingly well-read; he's also remarkably clear-sighted, innately suspicious of hype and pomposity. And he refuses to take anything too seriously. Including himself.

"I'm always self-depreciating," he says. "I'm not an arrogant swine, I don't think. I like to pretend to be arrogant, because it's a humorous thing, but nobody could actually live their life that way."

He laughs wickedly, then asks, with mock innocence, "Could they?"

Of course they could, and Rotten makes fun of such folk -- including himself -- at every opportunity. He sees this puncturing of windbags as not just an avocation but a sort of public service.

Unfortunately, not everyone agrees.

"I tend to annoy a lot of people," he admits. "But to my mind, the people I'm annoying are not intelligent people, or creative people. It tends to be the people who just want to follow the rules. They find me very, very irritating."

Rotten believes his hectoring forces people to abandon stereotypes and examine their suppositions -- in other words, to think. "And a lot of people don't like to think," he says,

Rotten is on the phone from L.A. ostensibly to talk about the second installment of his VH1 series "Rotten TV," a half-hour skewering of celebrity, hypocrisy and the movie business (it airs tonight at 11).

But he's not a one-project guy, and as the interview rambles on, he brings up his Internet talk show, "Rotten Radio" (which is heard Saturdays from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on eYada.com), and the new Sex Pistols documentary, "The Filth and the Fury" (which opens in Baltimore in May). And somewhere in the midst of all that, he manages to go into the recording studio from time to time and make music.

"I don't want to be routine," he says. "And the pressure of a routine ...." He sighs. "With all the other things going on in my life, I just can't afford to dedicate totally to one specific thing and one schedule. My life is very, very, very busy at the moment."

How did the one-time terror of the London punk scene end up a multimedia workaholic? Some of the difference between then and now stems from the fact that almost a quarter-century has passed since Rotten (now 44) first snarled "Anarchy in the U.K," scandalizing Britain and kick-starting the punk rebellion of the '70s. After the Sex Pistols broke up, after an abortive U.S. tour in 1978, Rotten reverted to his original name, John Lydon, and led several incarnations of his own band, Public Image, Ltd.

In 1986, after winning a lawsuit against Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols' manager, he resumed calling himself Rotten, and in 1996, was part of a Sex Pistols reunion tour (with original bassist Glenn Matlock taking the place of the late Sid Vicious). Along the way, he has acted in a few films, made appearances as a chat-show guest, and eventually worked up to being a TV and (Internet) radio host himself.

"It's something I don't think I'd have been able to do a few years back, because I wouldn't have been in the right mind-frame," he says. "Everything in life is the result of some kind of progression, and to just jump into things arbitrarily has always been disastrous. That's how I knew, in fact, not to run ['Rotten TV'] as a weekly series, because that would threaten content."

He makes it sound so grown-up and reasonable, yet at its heart, "Rotten TV" springs from the same impulses that inspired the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen." As he put it at the end of the first episode, "I slag myself off just as much as anyone else, because I deserve it when I'm wrong." Then, turning to the camera and looking the viewer in the eye, he adds, "And so do you."

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