He may no longer be Johnny Rotten — the sneering, spike-haired proto punk who once helmed the notorious Sex Pistols — but John Lydon, now 54, still has a wickedly razor-sharp wit.
And he's so aware of his irascible old persona, he's not above having a little snarky fun with it.
A few years ago, Lydon agreed to appear on the British version of I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! He used his onscreen time for social commentary, even accusing the show's viewers of being "fucking cunts." But he knew exactly what he was doing.
"I raised a lot of money for the charities I went in there for, so I was very pleased with that," he elaborates. "How the other people behaved on the show was up to them. I'm not judgmental of them — if they want to make fools of themselves, that's their business. So I can't help them beyond a certain point, because I'm not into lecturing."
After that, he went on to host even more improbable nature-themed Discovery Channel specials like John Lydon's Megabugs, John Lydon Goes Ape and John Lydon's Shark Attack (knowing full well, of course, the bankability of a veteran punk rocker swimming with sharks off the coast of South Africa).
Then came Reynebeau & Rotten, in which the singer took a celebrated Belgian journalist on a limousine tour through England.
Put it this way, Lydon says with a snicker — "I didn't want to discuss the battle of Trafalgar — I was much more interested in how the British holiday, from all class points of view."
This is what you want
None of this, however, can hold a candle to the brilliantly subversive method the singer used back in 2008 to reform his long-dormant second outfit, Public Image Limited.
(Earlier this month, Lydon and his all-new lineup chose Jimmy Kimmel's show for PiL's first American television appearance in 18 years.)
For a U.K. TV commercial promoting Country Life British Butter, Lydon amplified his image way past 11, up into the caricature range, prancing through the countryside in a campy plaid suit as he sneers, Pistols-petulant, about the virtues of said tasty spread.
"It's not what I say, it's the way I say it," says the small-screen star, who's grown comfortable mugging on camera. "You can call it a skill, but I call it doing what I do best, and that's to tell it honestly, and have a laugh doing it. So I think we ended up with a damn fine piece of comedy."
If it's difficult to picture such a campaign, you can find a clip on YouTube.
"I do like British products, and I will gladly promote Britain's needs abroad, shall we say," says Lydon, who now resides in Los Angeles. "But I also do eat butter! So it was an easy move. And [Country Butter] treated me with the utmost respect and they let me run the advertising campaign the way I wanted. And their sales went up by some 87 percent, so it worked. Thirty years ago, advertisements were almost works of art — they were somehow ironic, always with a sense of humor in them, always saying one thing but meaning another. I loved that sense of play, and that's what I brought into that ad, I think."
This is what you get
Lydon brought a certain amount of play into his reunion of the Sex Pistols back in 2007, on the 30th anniversary of the band's landmark Never Mind the Bollocks debut.
The surviving members even re-recorded "Pretty Vacant" and "Anarchy in the UK" for the video games Skate and Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, respectively.
But putting PiL back together, he says, proved to be incredibly hard work. Now, the outfit is up and running full-throttle, kicking off a U.S. tour with a coveted headlining slot at California's desert-held Coachella festival. But scheduling and rehearsing seven recent English gigs, he says, turned out to be a legitimate challenge.
"It was really seriously complicated, just the logistics and trying to keep a crew on wages with butter-advert money," Lydon says, sighing.
"It all just ate it up. So I'm desperately trying to fill the coffers somewhat, so I can get Public Image back into recording mode."
And the Barnum-shrewd huckster knows exactly how to do so — by giving the people what they truly want. Namely, classics from PiL's stunning sophomore set Metal Box (aka Second Edition). The album, which featured brilliant work from PiL co-founders Keith Levene and Jah Wobble, has just been reissued by Virgin in an embossed tin-canister replica of the original.
"We do 'Poptones,' even 'Albatross' — we're experimenting with that deep into the nether regions," he says. "We have happy songs, incredibly tense songs, and things like 'Death Disco.' It's an incredibly sad song for me to perform — it's about the death of my mother."
Lydon won't list his favorite bands or early influences — he's done that before, he says, and his references are always quoted out of context. But he does reveal one of his key tenets: "Everything is musical. I mean, I've been through hurricanes over the years, and I found them to be quite musical. I could sit there and envelop myself in the fear and the power of the damn thing, and it's just a lovely part of nature."
So what's next for this iconoclast? John Lydon — Tornado Hunter?
Lydon lets out that inimitable Rotten cackle.
"Not really! I don't see myself running around in a van, looking for piles of wind. Despite Bob Dylan telling us that that's where all the answers can be found!"