The day before John Lydon releases End of World, the 11th studio album by his avant post-punk band Public Image Ltd., he logs on to a Zoom interview with Yahoo Entertainment from his home office. Prominently behind him hangs one of his partially completed paintings, of him and his wife of 44 years, Nora Forster. Forster, who was 14 years Lydon’s senior, died just this past April, after a long Alzheimer’s battle during which Lydon was her primary caregiver.
“I never finished it, but it seems appropriate that it’s unfinished,” Lydon says matter-of-factly, as he glances at the framed art piece on the wall. “Because I’ve yet to join her.”
During Lydon’s interview about End of World the conversation inevitably, repeatedly turns to the subject of his great punk-rock laxove story. There are many songs on the record — which Forster did get to hear “several times” before her death at age 80, and which she insisted Lydon release as planned, no matter what — that have nothing to do with the couple’s relationship. There’s “Plenge,” a “merry little medieval ditty” about an “eminent Viking slaughter that’s about to befall a small fishing village”; the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band-inspired “Dirty Murky Delight”; and one of Forster’s favorite tracks, “Car Chase,” about a friend of Lydon’s who used to break out of a mental asylum every night to “steal cars and rob supermarkets.” But Forster’s illness was the backdrop to the album’s recording process, and she inspired the record’s most beautiful cut, “Hawaii,” which recalls the couple’s long-ago stay in “a villa on the North Shore,” where they “got to meet all the top surfers and took magic mushrooms” and enjoyed “all manner of chaos.” Earlier this year, Lydon honored his wife with a bid to represent Ireland at Eurovision, entering the campy contest with the uncharacteristically sweet and sentimental ballad.
“I couldn’t foretell what was about to happen, but when we first started this album six or seven years ago, that’s when Nora started getting ill,” Lydon reveals. “I brought her out to the studio, and she couldn’t handle it and was freaking out. And so that put an end to that particular session, until I worked out a way of taking care of her and taking care of my ‘job.’ But then came COVID, and that utterly, completely destroyed everything. But my God, that’s where the songwriting took place. And I’ve gotta say, Nora was my inspiration through that.
“She incited me to musical violence,” Lydon adds with a chuckle. “And I was more than willing.”
Below, Lydon opens up about his last beautiful moments with Forster and the loyal, unbreakable connection they shared until the very end. It’s a kinder, gentler, lesser-seen side of the famously cantankerous ex-Sex Pistols singer, but in true Johnny Rotten fashion, he also manages to get in some jabs at Joe Biden (“I know what he’s going through — because my wife went through it”), Kamala Harris, Barack Obama, Pistol “mockumentary” director Danny Boyle, and his former bandmates.
Yahoo Entertainment: “Hawaii” was the first song I heard from End of World. And I heard it when it was entered to represent Ireland in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest! I love the song, but have to say, I was quite surprised that PiL would compete at Eurovision.
John Lydon: There was no expectation on our part of actually entering into a competition. For me, it was a justification for writing a really bloody excellent song about a terrible situation and still putting joy into it. And that’s about as Irish as you can get! [laughs]
I understand that, much like you competing on The Masked Singer in 2021, you also did Eurovision to entertain and amuse your wife.
Yes, and when I came back to L.A. I showed [the Eurovision performance] to her and she loved it. And that meant everything to me. So, I will love the show for the rest of my life for giving us that opportunity. It was magnificent. And Nora picked out the suit that I wore. She picked it because one of the things I loved to do with her was keeping her brain occupied 24/7, so we’d go on all the shopping websites and go, “Oh, I wouldn’t wear that! Look at that!” It kept her brain alert, and she enjoyed it And she picked that suit out — a pink plaid suit! I hid the suit when it arrived so she wouldn’t know that I was going to wear it, or that I’d even bought it. So, when I put the video on, she saw it and loved my pink plaid suit. F***ing fantastic.
What a sweet memory to share with her towards the end.
Yes, it was a wonderful thing to include in our final moments. My baby died laughing, basically. Those last few moments was all eye-contact with her. So, everything up to that point was worth it to be together. The very last moment she was suffering, because the respiratory system was giving out, but she was still looking into my eyes. Not many people get that kind of intimacy. I should treasure it forever. The least I could do is write a song that absolutely, accurately portrayed that connection. … In the song, that line “aloha” means both hello and goodbye. It’s very poignant.
Your enduring love story, and how you were there for Nora until the very end, has really resonated with people, because so many other showbiz couples — even ones that don’t have to contend with such dire circumstances – usually do not stay together nearly as long as you two did.
Well, I think I’ve done Nora proud. At least I’ve done the best I could, till the end. And that’s it. That’s all you can really expect out of anybody. Well, that’s what I expect. I know there’s a lot of people that would find it very hard to deal with the last years of Nora’s illness. But I’m a little bit different. And I’m not blaming or pointing fingers at others, it’s just I was brought up as a natural caregiver. I was looking after my [three] younger brothers from a very early age, because my father worked away and my mother was ill a lot. So, it was natural for me. And I like caring for people. I’d never expect a reward for that. The reward is that you’re doing good for somebody else. … And I think that’s the way I write. That’s the way my music is. It’s always about considering both sides, but ultimately caring that you form a correct opinion on what’s really going on in the world. Is there a market for that sort of thing? Who the f*** knows?
Did Nora get to hear End of World?
Yes, I managed to get to play the album to her several times before she died. She loved it very, very much. And that was vitally important, along with all the other things, because it’s her inspiration, her constantly beautiful personality. We would just sing together, waving our hands [to the music]. We kept our relationship going, constantly talking, reading, laughing, comedy shows, taking her for walks — really important things that seem unnecessary or time-consuming, but not to me. Nappy changes were not a problem. I’d done that with my younger brothers. It’s perfectly natural. It’s necessary. It’s beneficial. That’s the reward. She lost the ability to walk towards the end, which was very expensive, but it’s good in one way, because all the things I had to collect for her — wheelchairs and walkers and nappies — I can now give to charity. So, I feel still connected to her in that way, that there are others out there [who need help], and it hasn’t been a selfish experience.
I have to say, your attitude is amazing for someone who has dealt with such a terrible loss so recently.
I thrive in adversity. That’s something Mom and Dad showed me at a very early age: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Just don’t wallow in self-pity, because it gets you nowhere. All it really does is arm your enemies. You’re only given one gift, and that’s life itself. Make the most you can.
You dealt with serious illness and adversity in your own childhood…
Yes, and in many ways, losing my memory [at age 7] from meningitis helped. People say, “Oh, what a terrible tragedy you went through in your childhood!” But no, my way of looking at it is, that gave me an extra special tool in the box to take care of Nora. Because I knew from personal experience, for at least four years, what it was like to not know where you are, to just be confused by everything, to have to start learning again. My luck was that I could start learning again; Nora’s was that it would constantly be deteriorating. But I had the toolkit to know what she was suffering from, and found ways to help her in that: Humor, humor, humor. And oddly enough, she never forgot me. She really never forgot me. Not ever. Not once. Even going away for the six weeks to make the album last year, as soon as I walked in the door: “John!” Bingo.
Wow, that’s amazing. And that seems unusual for someone in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s.
I think iPads and constant connection helped to no end, but we were so deeply in entwined with each other, we were inseparable. During the making of the album, I had to be away from her for that period, but it was fantastic to keep up on an iPad, sometimes three, four, five times a day. That was very, very relevant. Was it difficult to be without her in the studio? Oh, yeah. And so I’d dive into work and try to fill my moments with other subjects. It’s what you have to do. You can’t allow yourself to sit down and go into that “woe is me” stuff, because that does nothing for no one.
The last PiL album, What the World Needs Now…, came out eight years ago, before Nora’s diagnosis. The circumstances making End of World were obviously much more difficult.
Yes, this album was difficult to make, in difficult times: insurmountable problems, ridiculous lawsuits, death all around, etc., etc. And yet, I’m still here. So, the message is, guys and gals: Don’t give up. You think you’ve got it bad? I thought I had it bad. But I look out at the world and I realize there’s many who get it far worse. And they’re worthy of a song in me.
I think there are some people who might read this interview, or listen to End of World, and be surprised that you’re not the angry “Johnny Rotten” known from the Sex Pistols.
Well, those would be people that don’t know or understand PiL’s depth and breadth of scale, which is enormous. We’re not always angry, and we’re not always lovey-dovey. We follow no rules. We could shoot in any direction and land. It’s all coming from the heart. This is genuine. We are proper people. We don’t tell lie. We don’t cover it all up in cosmetics and rigmarole and big-business advertising. It’s short, sharp, plain, simple, sweet, and poignant. That’s Public Image.
You’ve also got bear in mind that I’ve had to endure, since the day I started, animosity on a preposterous scale. They’d plunk me into TV studios [in the Sex Pistols’ days] and it would be “witty intellectuals” trying to tear a hole in me. So, I developed an immaculate suit of armor against that. I have integrity, I have empathy, and I’m a proper person. I don’t stray from what I know to be true. Now, when I first started, that was a very hard concept for conglomerates like the BBC to understand, because I wasn’t fitting into their format of happy-go-lucky pop people. But that’s all right. I got through that. I’ve dropped the suit of armor since. And if anything, I’m writing far, far more in-depth songs, with far more meaning. And far more crazy music to go with them!
You seem more proud of your work with PiL than of anything you did with the Pistols…
No, I’m not knocking the first step on the ladder. [The Sex Pistols] were fantastic, as that got me out of just writing into writing with music— which was an eye-opener for me at that time. I’ve obviously clearly progressed! [laughs] And that’s what you should do in life. The longer you live, the more you experience, the more creative you can be.
But there is a song on End of World called “LFCF (Liars, Fakes, Cheats and Frauds),” which is aimed at your ex-Pistols bandmates…
Yeah, but it’s not angry. It’s self-mocking, with a great sense of fun and humor, in my typical dry way. It’s about the very first rehearsal I ever went to with the Sex Pistols — and none of them turned up! It about that scenario in my young mind at the time, imagining: “Oh, it’s going to be fabulous! I’m gonna be a star, the world’s most famous poet! Wait till they get a load of my stuff!” And there was no one there. No one. I’m looking back on that scenario with a sense of fun. And it’s all set to a fabulous beat that’s so much better than the Pistols could ever have kicked out!
You mentioned “lawsuits” a minute ago. I assume you’re referring to Danny Boyle’s Pistol miniseries last year, which you were not happy about and tried to stop. I know you didn’t like Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy either.
These people, if they want to do these [films], then why not talk to the people that did these things? I wrote the bloody songs. I gave them the image, as the frontman. I mean, I gave them somuch. And they deliberately edit me out and think that’s acceptable? What on Earth are they propagating here but lies and fakery and fraudulence? And I’m really pissed with Danny, because he should have known better than to put that together behind my back and spend at least three years in the making on it before they informed me just after Christmas, and then give me eight days to respond favorably — which I didn’t. And then they took me to court and sued me for every penny I had. Ridiculous. Put me up against the Disney corporation. I mean, that’s about as much money as God. But I fought it, and f*** the money. I took the right stance here: to tell the truth. That is not the truth, period.
Did you watch Pistol?
Yes. I call it a “mockumentary.” It completely ignores [the Sex Pistols’] potency. I was half-hoping it would be terrible, but because it wasso terrible, it really upset me. I wanted it to get better, and it didn’t. It felt to me like a bunch of indifferent young middle-class boys pontificating a student’s union meeting: “Oh, let’s be anarchist!” It was goofy, and so un-English working-class. It couldn’t be further removed from the truth. And I feel sorry for Danny that he spent so long keeping that a secret from me; it had to come out eventually. I hope and pray it didn’t smear the original ideology that was the Sex Pistols. But it’s now firmly wrapped up in Donald Duck, and that’s the end of it.
I feel your own biopic is needed. I would actually be thrilled to see a film just focused on your love story with Nora.
OK, but starring who? Leave it where it is, where it truly belongs: in your heart and your soul and your mind, all the right places for a reenactment of that. … I love my Nora so much, I still do and always will, and I can’t even think of an actress to put in her place, to smear that memory. They’re not Nora, and can never be for me. And besides, playing me would be f***ing impossible! [laughs]
Changing subjects, sorry to mention another recent loss, but I know you were big supporter of Sinéad O’Connor, since you are also Irish and have your own issues with the Catholic Church. Do you have any thoughts on Sinéad’s passing?
No, Nora’s demise is now the predominant factor on that list of tragedies, and until that fades, which I don’t see ever happening, others going by the wayside have to take a way, way distance — second, third, and 80th place. I was just informed that [Sex Pistols album cover artist] Jamie Reid died. There was [the December 2022 death of Sex Pistols fashion designer] Vivienne Westwood too. I mean, it’s happening now all the time; I’m unfortunately of that generation that is ceasing to exist at an alarming rate! [Editor’s note: PiL founder Keith Levene also died last November.] Normally I would be able to absorb all of these individually, but no, it’s a blur to me. I haven’t got the time to sit down and really, really wander off in my mind about all of them. I have to have time to grieve. I really do.
I totally understand. Back to this new album, End of World: What is the significance of its title?
It’s the end of the world because we don’t learn to debate with each other in open, friendly ways. Less hostility, please, because this division of left-wing and right-wing is driving me crazy! It makes no sense. I take what’s good in everything. … When you go to extremes, you tilt the balance.
Well, when you’ve espoused certain political opinions in recent years, especially ones that lean right, you’ve certainly caught a lot of flak for it.
Yes, but that’s because of this problem of people assumingwhat I mean. I’ve never, ever, ever loved a politician. The only one I thought I trusted, I made a big mistake on — and that was Obama. I thought [Barack Obama was] great, all his ideas, and wow, how little he did for Black people really unimpressed me. Seriously. These things have to be pointed out. But that doesn’t mean I’m on this side or that. I’ll vote for who’s talking the most sense at this present moment, not what party they’re affiliated with.
I know you’re a U.S. citizen now, so you can vote here. Are you concerned about the presidential election coming up next year?
I’m concerned in respect to Mr. Biden, who I have great feelings of empathy for, because I know what he’s going through — because my wife went through it. I don’t think they should be putting him in this position. So, I feel very, very sad for him, but even sadder for the rest of us, because whoever’s pulling his strings is not to my liking.
What about Kamala Harris?
Oh, she’s massively entertaining. To try to unravel any sense out of her sentences is fantastic occupation. It’s better than any crossword in any newspaper.
All right, then. Any parting words of your own?
Peace and love. May the road rise with you and your enemies always be behind you — may they scatter, flatter, batter, and shatter. Peace. And if you don’t believe in peace, you can peace off.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.