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Anger Is an Energy: My Life Uncensored Paperback – February 23, 2016
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From the legendary frontman of the Sex Pistols, comes the complete, unvarnished story of his life in his own words.
John Lydon is an icon—one of the most recognizable and influential cultural figures of the last forty years. As Johnny Rotten, he was the lead singer of the Sex Pistols-the world’s most notorious band. The Pistols shot to fame in the mid-1970s with songs such as “Anarchy in the UK” and “God Save the Queen.” So incendiary was their impact at the time that in their native England, the Houses of Parliament questioned whether they violated the Traitors and Treasons Act, a crime that carries the death penalty to this day. The Pistols would inspire the formation of numerous other groundbreaking groups and Lydon would become the unlikely champion of a generation clamoring for change.
Following on the heels of the Pistols, Lydon formed Public Image Ltd (PiL), expressing an equally urgent impulse in his character: the constant need to reinvent himself, to keep moving. From their beginnings in 1978 PiL set the groundbreaking template for a band that continues to challenge and thrive to this day, while also recording one of the eighties most powerful anthems, “Rise.” Lydon also found time for making innovative dance records with the likes of Afrika Bambaataa and Leftfield. By the nineties he’d broadened his reach into other media while always maintaining his trademark invective and wit, most memorably hosting Rotten TV on VH1.
John Lydon remains a captivating and dynamic figure to this day—both as a musician, and, thanks to his outspoken, controversial, and from-the-hip opinions, as a cultural commentator. In Anger is an Energy , he looks back on a life full of incident, from his beginnings as a sickly child of immigrant Irish parents growing up in post-war London to his present status as a vibrant, alternative hero.
The book includes 70 black-and-white and color photos, many which are rare or never-before-seen.
- Print length 544 pages
- Language English
- Publisher Dey Street Books
- Publication date February 23, 2016
- Dimensions 5.31 x 1.28 x 8 inches
- ISBN-10 0062400231
- ISBN-13 978-0062400239
- See all details
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“Lydon is an unabashed grammatical scofflaw who can deploy an earthy colloquialism with the best of them. Anger Is an Energy is packed with this brand of vivid storytelling.” — San Francisco Gate
“Establishes that there’s much more to the person than the public persona.” — Paste
“A hilarious and at times touching account.” — Rolling Stone
“Vintage Johnny Rotten.” — Daily News
“A dishy chronicle.” — Details
“Lydon is at his best when writing about his family - his parents were working-class Irish immigrants - and . . . quite moving in his account of Vicious.” — Los Angeles Times
“Features plenty of morbidly fascinating tidbits from one of England’s least likely national treasures.” — RollingStone.com
“One of the most important figures in punk history.” — Gothamist
“A companion to Lydon’s 1994 memoir, Rotten. His life is rich enough to warrant another . . . and he’s a gifted enough writer to make it a fun read.” — Billboard
“It is clear that, though fond of zingers and political put-downs, Lydon is also a serious and thoughtful artist, bookish and unafraid of hard work, and thus serving as a model citizen in a more ideal republic than ours . . . A lucid, literate pleasure.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Coarse, plain-speaking and mischievous, pitched somewhere between Dennis the Menace and Diogenes the Cynic.” — Financial Times
“Ridiculously entertaining . . . His tales of a near-Dickensian life in Sixties working-class London suggest how an inchoate rebel found his purpose in punk.” — Telegraph
“Fascinating . . . both elegant and blunt.” — The Guardian
“Fills in the gaps that his previous autobiography, ROTTEN left wide open, notably his pre-Sex Pistols days, while also going over old ground with a fully-toothed rake . . . fascinating.” — Irish Times
“John Joseph Lydon’s new autobiography isn’t just about his incarnation as Johnny Rotten, but his upbringing, youth and, later, Public Image Limited and further intrigues. His passion and his intellect remain an inspiration.” — NME
“A ripe, breathless romp through an extraordinary life . . . But this is a serious book too, about how poverty and illness can create pain that can be turned into something positive, presenting a man keen to fill out the nihilistic cartoon that has persisted in pop culture.” — The Observer
“An accurate reflection of the man it seeks to portray: unique, uncompromising, and . . . fascinating.” — Mail on Sunday
“The book is most fascinating about his childhood. I was gripped.” — The Times (London)
“Rollicking [and] rambunctious.” — Irish Examiner
“Both thoughtful and irascible . . . Throughout, Lydon’s skills as a storyteller are in evidence. [He] brings a humour to his recollections and is at pains not to take himself, or the music business, too seriously.” — Irish Independent
“A great autobiography, if you enjoyed Rotten , then you’ll enjoy this too . . . Lydon is always engaging, challenging and entertaining.” — The Register (UK)
From the Back Cover
From the legendary front man of the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd comes the complete, unvarnished story of his life in his own words
“Vintage Johnny Rotten.”— Daily News (New York)
“Packed with . . . vivid storytelling.”— San Francisco Gate
“A dishy chronicle.”— Details
“Ridiculously entertaining.”— The Telegraph (UK; four stars)
“A ripe, breathless romp through an extraordinary life.”— The Observer (UK)
“A companion to Lydon’s 1994 memoir, Rotten. His life is rich enough to warrant another . . . and he’s a gifted enough writer to make it a fun read.”— Billboard
“Establishes that there’s much more to the person than the public persona.”— Paste
“Lydon is at his best when writing about his family . . . and . . . [is] quite moving
in his account of Vicious.”— Los Angeles Times
“His passion and his intellect remain an inspiration.”— NME
“Unique, uncompromising, and . . . fascinating.”— Mail on Sunday (UK)
“A lucid, literate pleasure.”— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
About the Author
John Lydon changed the game in popular music, first wreaking political chaos upon starchy mid-’70s Britain with the Sex Pistols, then shape-shifting with Public Image Ltd as a free experimentalist. He lives in Los Angeles, California.
- Publisher : Dey Street Books; Reprint edition (February 23, 2016)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 544 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0062400231
- ISBN-13 : 978-0062400239
- Item Weight : 15.8 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.31 x 1.28 x 8 inches
- #53 in Punk Music (Books)
- #511 in Rock Band Biographies
- #564 in Rock Music (Books)
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I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right (2020)
Mr Rotten’s Songbook (2017)
Anger is an Energy: My Life Uncensored (2014)
Mr Rotten’s Scrapbook (2010)
Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs (1994)
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ANGER IS AN ENERGY
My life uncensored.
by John Lydon ‧ RELEASE DATE: April 28, 2015
A lucid, literate pleasure.
Alternately musical bomb-thrower and contemplator Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, looks back on a long life of pot-stirring and piss-taking.
This latest installment is of a piece with the author’s earlier Rotten (1994), though some of the caustic anger has given way to a kind of studied resignation. Which is not to say that Lydon isn’t irritated; hence the title and the subtitle, which owes to his suspicion that there’s always someone who aims to enact some kind of censorship: “It’s the kind of ordinance that comes down from people that don’t like to think very hard and aren’t prepared to analyze themselves, just judge others, and are scared of the future.” Some of Lydon’s well-aired hatreds have given way, too, even to a kind of—shudder—toleration: Malcolm McLaren, the entrepreneur behind the Sex Pistols, is no longer the Antichrist but instead just another schmo with an idea: “He really didn’t want to move mountains at all, he wanted to rearrange piles of glitter.” As for Sid Vicious, “dumb as a fucking brush,” well, if there was a punk through and through, it might have been him—though he was a victim of fashion and drugs alike. Lydon delivers a few surprises, not just with his newfound ability to accept the flaws of lesser mortals, but also with his allowance of unexpected likes. Confessing a fondness for Status Quo, Arthur Brown and Can might have pegged one as (gasp!) a hippie. It is clear that, though fond of zingers (he once called Ozzy Osbourne a “senile delinquent”) and political put-downs, Lydon is also a serious and thoughtful artist, bookish and unafraid of hard work, and thus serving as a model citizen in a more ideal republic than ours. Besides, he’s a philosopher: We’re capable of horrible evil, he writes, but “because we are also capable of analyzing that, that is exactly why we’re better.”
Pub Date: April 28, 2015
Page Count: 544
Publisher: Dey Street/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online: Jan. 17, 2015
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2015
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR | ENTERTAINMENT, SPORTS & CELEBRITY | GENERAL BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR
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by John Lydon & Keith Zimmerman & Kent Zimmerman
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by Elie Wiesel & translated by Marion Wiesel ‧ RELEASE DATE: Jan. 16, 2006
The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...
Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children.
He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions.
Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006
Page Count: 120
Publisher: Hill & Wang
Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006
BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR | HOLOCAUST | HISTORY | GENERAL BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR | GENERAL HISTORY
More by Elie Wiesel
by Elie Wiesel ; edited by Alan Rosen
by Elie Wiesel ; illustrated by Mark Podwal
by Elie Wiesel ; translated by Marion Wiesel
THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS
From mean streets to wall street.
by Chris Gardner with Quincy Troupe ‧ RELEASE DATE: June 1, 2006
Well-told and admonitory.
Young-rags-to-mature-riches memoir by broker and motivational speaker Gardner.
Born and raised in the Milwaukee ghetto, the author pulled himself up from considerable disadvantage. He was fatherless, and his adored mother wasn’t always around; once, as a child, he spied her at a family funeral accompanied by a prison guard. When beautiful, evanescent Moms was there, Chris also had to deal with Freddie “I ain’t your goddamn daddy!” Triplett, one of the meanest stepfathers in recent literature. Chris did “the dozens” with the homies, boosted a bit and in the course of youthful adventure was raped. His heroes were Miles Davis, James Brown and Muhammad Ali. Meanwhile, at the behest of Moms, he developed a fondness for reading. He joined the Navy and became a medic (preparing badass Marines for proctology), and a proficient lab technician. Moving up in San Francisco, married and then divorced, he sold medical supplies. He was recruited as a trainee at Dean Witter just around the time he became a homeless single father. All his belongings in a shopping cart, Gardner sometimes slept with his young son at the office (apparently undiscovered by the night cleaning crew). The two also frequently bedded down in a public restroom. After Gardner’s talents were finally appreciated by the firm of Bear Stearns, his American Dream became real. He got the cool duds, hot car and fine ladies so coveted from afar back in the day. He even had a meeting with Nelson Mandela. Through it all, he remained a prideful parent. His own no-daddy blues are gone now.
Pub Date: June 1, 2006
Page Count: 320
Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2006
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John Lydon on the Music That Made Him
By Daniel Dylan Wray
John Lydon may be forever synonymous with Johnny Rotten, the sneering, red-haired terroriser, the antagonistic Sex Pistols singer that screamed of anarchy, nihilism, and a desire to tear down the British establishment in 1970s London. However, as powerful a grenade flash as the Pistols were, Lydon’s work through Public Image Ltd holds up as his most arresting, impactful, and durable musical project—a horizon-focused group that expanded and experimented across decades, whilst the Pistols’ outcome always seemed destined for imminent implosion.
PiL released eight studio albums between 1978 and 1992 before reconvening for This is PiL in 2012 and releasing their tenth album last year. Though the group has come to embody the experimental transition from punk to post-punk, most notably on their recently reissued 1979 masterpiece Metal Box , the project has endured because of the breadth of its tonal excursions and depth of its influences. PiL created a space in which pop and avant garde music collided and colluded, where beneath the electric storm of frenzied guitars lay dense and rumbling dub reggae bass lines, where Lydon would pinball between atonal screeches and melodic pitches—a living, throbbing culture clash. It makes sense then that the musical make-up of the group’s singer and founder would be a genre-hopping journey. Here, the 60 year old talks through the records that have shaped his memorable individuality, five years at a time.
Cliff Richard : “Move It!”
My parents had a fantastic collection. It wasn’t just Irish folk tunes and accordion diddly-doos, there was early Beatles and lots of Cliff Richard too. The first record I would have ever wanted to buy was “Move It!” by Cliff Richard. It was a really good song at the time and still is. Early Cliff was a riotous assembly of sorts, and he had moves that left a good impression on a 5 year old.
Alice Cooper : Pretties for You
At 7 I contracted meningitis. It affected my brain, and I slipped into a coma. I spent a year in hospital, and during that time music didn’t play much of a major part. I was in total confusion and frustration and really not recognizing the people in front of me who were telling me all manner of strange things. It was very, very hard to get to grips with myself, and it took a good four years to recover my memories. Music wasn’t really there.
By 10, though, I was running a mini-cab service, doing the bookings, which was the best job ever. I loved the responsibility, and people were surprised that a little boy was booking their journey. The money was great so I started buying music.
I was going to two record stores at that time: one in Finsbury Park, run by a sweet little white-haired old lady, that used to have nothing but Jimi Hendrix and big, deep, dense, dark dub—it was always full of Jamaicans. The other one was run by two long-haired chubby fellows who had great taste. That’s where I picked up Alice Cooper’s Pretties for You. It was a long time before he became popular. The idea of buying singles wasn’t good enough for me, albums were like wow, eight more songs , and the covers would absolutely fascinate me. A lot of times I would just buy things because of the artwork—but that’s not to say it was all good. Pretties for You is a really good example of bad artwork.
Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band : Trout Mask Replica
There’s just so much on this: It’s a double album and by the time you finish it— if you can finish it—you can’t remember what you heard at the beginning. I liked that. It was anti-music in the most interesting and insane way, like kids learning to play violin—which I was going through at the time. So all the bum notes I was being told off for by the teachers were finally being released by well-known artists. That was my confirmation. From then on, there was room for everything.
Iggy and the Stooges : Raw Power
I’d never seen the Stooges as early punks or anything—that’s media manipulation of facts; I loved them, but I was always appalled with their long hair.
By this time my record collection was enormous and expanding, and my tastes were extremely varied. During the punk years, I really loved the Raincoats and X-Ray Spex and the Adverts, groups that were doing things way out on their own. There was plenty of experimentation going on musically in all areas, particularly reggae.
I lack prejudice except for music that I find to be reminiscent of somebody else’s work—I find no need for endless Chuck Berry versions, which was very popular at the time. And I had little time for what was coming out of America; bands like Television never really grabbed me, I just couldn’t connect. It was all too clever for its own good and wrapped up in too much Rimbaud poetry: Get over it and write about your own life, not what you find in books . I still can’t find a place in my heart for music like Television.
Kraftwerk : The Man-Machine
I met one of the members of Kraftwerk last year and was very surprised—they weren’t at all how I imagined them from looking at the album covers. They were in what I would call Beach Boys shirts. In an odd, twisted way they were saying I had an influence on them. I didn’t believe it for a second but I’ll take it.
I loved anything by them. Their cold, emotionless way of presenting a pop song was always entertaining to me, so novel and so deadpan and cynical and kind of heartwarming. So ahead of its time.
Alice Cooper : Killer
This was the mid-’80s, around the time PiL made Album . On that record, I was referring to the heavy metal scene, which had crawled up its own backside. It was endless bands imitating each other, the same nonsense that punk turned into. But great achievements were made in music around then too. Everything from madder folk outfits and pop music itself was becoming very interesting then. I was always pleasantly surprised that oddball stuff would creep in the charts from nowhere. Someone like Gary Numan gave pop music a very distinctive and clear tone that was all his own.
At this stage I would have been buying everything that was being made, but Alice Cooper’s [1971 album] Killer never left me. That easy way of growling he had was always impressive.
Nirvana : “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
I remember being very angry at their album title being Nevermind . I thought Nevermind? Have you lost your bollocks or something? I was drawing a line on it all, perhaps too sharply, but I have to say “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is one of pop music’s all-time greatest. That song is firmly embedded in my psyche. So, I forgive them. Most bands can’t come up with one complete song, and sometimes one is enough. By “Heart-Shaped Box,” it was all starting to sound a bit suicidal. I felt it coming.
Sex Pistols : Never Mind the Bollocks
At 40 I was pretending I was 21 again in the Pistols reunion. I was listening to a lot of things people were giving me at the time but I had to relearn Never Mind the Bollocks . I’d forgotten how bloody fast that record is—even though a lot of the punk crowd was saying how slow it was when it was released. That’s how we wanted it though, we didn’t want that incredibly fast manic stuff. That’s the stuff that killed punk off.
Various Artists: Barry Lyndon Soundtrack
I’d bought this record years ago and had forgotten about it. But the movie came on TV in America, and I went oh my god and immediately had to hunt it down. I’d left it in London; I went to London just for the Barry Lyndon Soundtrack . There’s a Mozart piece on there that is just stunning. It was different to the usual classical renderings, it just seemed to have more heart and soul and harpsichord. It’s still there now on the top of my pile, it’s one of those albums that doesn’t collect dust. I have a weird association with it because my mother’s maiden name was Barry, and Lyndon is obviously Lydon misspelt. It also reminded me of my mother’s death and all of that. I wanted to play this at my father’s funeral a few years back, but my dad had a specific Irish record that he loved, so we played that.
Sinéad O’Connor : “Nothing Compares 2 U”
For some weird reason Sinéad O’Connor came back into my life. I re-indulged and reconnected with her and I was such a happier person for it. I go through long periods of forgetting and then I’ll just have major sessions and listen to just that for weeks on end. I thought the way she handled “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the Prince song, was genius. It is so moving and sad. I must be a sentimentalist and I’ve never realized until now.
Oh, and Dolly Parton runs through all of this by the way. I’m a Dolly man—you can all knock “9 to 5,” but I love it. One of the greatest tragedies of my life so far is that I’ve never been able to make it to Dollywood. I think I’d have a hoot.
Kate Bush : “Wuthering Heights”
A lot of record shops were closing around this time, and I won’t use the internet to buy them. The internet is for porno, encyclopedias, and video games, of which I waste an awful lot of time on. So I slowed down in the purchasing around here and went back to old stuff like Kate Bush. On “Wuthering Heights,” her voice is almost hysterical but always in her own register. I find it very soothing for her to be squealing away up there, it’s fantastic. She’s a gift.
I love PJ Harvey too. That’s one very interesting woman who doesn’t play the sex category. She strides in there at the level of any man, and I’m really proud for her in that respect, because that’s really what we wanted in punk—we wanted girls to be the equal to the boys, and she carries that great tradition.
PiL : What the World Needs Now...
This year has been incredibly hard work. We’re trying to run our own label, we’re touring as much and as often as we can, and there’s very little time to sit and enjoy other people’s efforts. That’s one of the downfalls of things going well—you don’t have time to indulge in other music as much. I require total concentration and involvement to try to grab the atmosphere that an artist is creating—that’s where music holds everything for me, and you can’t get that if it’s in the background whilst you’re brushing your teeth. Maybe that’s the reason why I don’t brush my teeth.
By Nina Corcoran
By Jazz Monroe
By Allison Hussey
By Evan Minsker
By Alphonse Pierre
- International edition
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‘I won’t let the bastards grind me down’: John Lydon on grief, feuds and being an unlikely optimist
Covid, court, bereavement: although the PiL man’s new album could not have been made against a worse backdrop, his glass of non-alcoholic cider remains half full
T here’s a term for people that live in Malibu – they’re called Malubians,” claims a cackling John Lydon. “It sounds like something that has to be cut off at an early age.” The artist formerly known, in his Sex Pistols days, as Johnny Rotten is speaking from his California home and seems ecstatic that we can hear and see each other on our Zoom call. “I am so fucked up with technology,” he laughs. “I’m as blind as a bat.”
Lydon, 67, is looking well, though, decked out in green specs and matching pullover, with his signature vertiginous hair teased into a quiff. The well-worn jumper was a gift from a fan “in either Bradford, Barnsley or Bolton; one of them”, who asked for it to be passed on to his late wife, Nora Forster. “It was very sweet. She can’t wear it now, so I wear it. It’s not about the monetary value, it’s the thought – that’s priceless.” His love for his fanbase feels completely genuine. On the wall behind him are a Samurai sword and an Afghan dagger given to him by diehards when his band Public Image Ltd (PiL) played behind the iron curtain decades ago.
Next month, PiL will release End of World, their first album in eight years. The promotion for it, along with preparation for an accompanying tour this autumn, has come in the midst of profound grief for Lydon after the death in April of Forster, his wife of 44 years. “It hurts so deeply,” he says. “It’s hard to get to grips with but I don’t want to let her down. That’s not healthy for me, or her, or her memories. So, I am gonna try and throw myself into working – as far as I could throw myself, considering my weight,” he adds with a laugh.“It’s an uphill climb, but I’ve got to get there. I’ve got to find myself again, because in all of this you can’t end up losing yourself.”
Sadly, some online trolls, described by Lydon as “savage kittens”, have mocked his suffering. He cites one particular comment along the lines of, “Well, that’s what you get for marrying an older woman.” But this low form of viciousness just seems to bounce off him. “Funnily enough, whatever they meant by that, I found it heartwarming. That’s my nature, to make the best of a thing, not the worst.”
As much as he may be a glass-half-full type, Lydon has never been afraid of being candid about his shortcomings. Take his account of his recent struggles with alcohol. “I went through a rough time and gained some weight,” he says while nursing an alcohol-free cider. “Don’t look for clarification in claret. There isn’t any.”
Last November, Lydon also lost his former bandmate and PiL co-founder Keith Levene, also an original member of the Clash. Lydon had not seen Levene in “eons” and his memory of him is littered with the challenges that Levene had as an addict. “People will take this wrong, but the endurance you had to have to tolerate his drug habits was kind of overwhelming, and I can’t really separate that,” he says. “There were great moments when we were friends, but he really got into [drugs] just too much. It was a great pity because he never had much time to reflect outside of the haze he was in.”
End of World has been in the works since 2019. During that period, Lydon has not only had to deal with Forster’s worsening condition, but also a high-profile court case involving his former Sex Pistols bandmates Paul Cook and Steve Jones (Lydon was successfully sued by the drummer and guitarist after he had attempted to prevent the band’s music appearing in Danny Boyle’s Disney-backed TV series, Pistol ). “It was pressure, on pressure, on pressure,” he says. “You never really get a chance to sort yourself out before some new inflammation turns up, like a boil on the bum! But with my irrepressible nature, I won’t let the bastards grind me down.”
After PiL initially swapped ideas over the internet, the End of World project really kicked into gear when the band – former Damned guitarist Lu Edmonds, ex-Slits drummer Bruce Smith (who both initially joined in 1986, left after a few years and rejoined in 2009), plus multi-instrumentalist Scott Firth, on board since 2009 – got together in a studio in the Cotswolds during the lockdown-free periods of 2020 and 2021. Lydon refers to the band as “a gaggle of mates … When we get together, our ideas just flow from that. I needed to be away [from Malibu] in order to write these songs properly. You have to make the space. As human beings, we all need those logical avoidances of daily problems.”
I ask about one new track, Car Chase. On a literal level the song tells the true story of a friend of his who has been confined to a psychiatric hospital for “his own good” and has tried to escape on numerous occasions. But the core of the song, he says, is “about excessive self-importance and the oblivion of that. Mainly through technology, people are beginning to think of themselves as the centre of the universe.”
This leads Lydon to bemoan a society where individuality is being strangled – a familiar critique of his. “It’s a rulebook that doesn’t accept questions,” he says. “It kills free speech and all creativity. The concept of equality has become the equally mundane. Don’t strive, don’t step out of your box.” On the spot, he comes out with a line that he says he may use as a future lyric: “If we create, we will irritate the state / And the state will eradicate all ideas that differentiate”.
As with its lyrics, sonically the album is typical PiL, its songs’ relentless rhythms interlaced with jagged guitar. There is one striking exception, and that is the tender Hawaii. The song came from Lydon hearing Edmonds fooling around in the corner of the studio. “[He] was playing Hawaiian guitar for a laugh,” Lydon says. “I thought: that’s so excellent.” The song would eventually be dedicated to Forster. In early February, just two months before his wife’s death, Lydon unexpectedly premiered Hawaii during Ireland’s contest to decide its Eurovision entry (Lydon has Irish heritage). Unfortunately, it finished fourth out of sixth. It was a difficult experience for Lydon. “Playing it for the first time was so hard for me,” he says. “I shed more tears for her before she died than after. It was that build up to her death, and that’s what that song is absolutely full of.”
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As well as his California home, Lydon maintains a place in the UK. He still loves British culture and retains movie and TV DVD collections in both locations. He reels off some of his favourites: Steptoe & Son; The Lion in Winter with Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn; the I, Claudius TV series with Derek Jacobi. It is fitting that Lydon has such a love for these classics of the 1960s and 70s, seemingly simpler times when art and culture were not at the mercy of rapidly evolving technology.
Quizzed on his views on the ever-increasing impact of AI on the arts – a much-discussed topic at a time when America’s actors have gone on strike in part over its use – Lydon becomes animated. “Who’s in charge and who’s feeding the information and giving the guidelines to these artifices?” he asks. “What or where is the moral code? It has infiltrated young people’s minds now to the point of total domination. What will this create?” His solution? “My advice is make small steps against this – and get that fucking Siri or whatever out of your house. It will ultimately make decisions for you, and that’s very dangerous.”
He nods to that very public fallout with the Pistols, saying that there is another brand of AI at play. “It’s misrepresentation and the rewriting of history done so casually. I’ve got to deal with real human beings doing that, let alone artificial intelligence taking over. That’s the other side of that coin.”
One new track, LFCF (standing for Liars, Fakes, Cheats and Frauds), is an unapologetic dig at his former bandmates. Lydon sings: “I was willing and I was waiting / You cannot do what I do, so I left you / Give yourself a story, empty of history, wrap it up in Mickey Mouse … I love it when you slate me / But you cannot fake me”.
“The only way to deal with this is to be direct and don’t be coy with the words,” Lydon says of the song. “But also, make it somewhat of a comedy. Let’s face it, when I went on to form PiL, the world really, really noticed. They [Cook and Jones] don’t have that capability, and they are still stuck in my mud tracks.”
For all the indignation at his former fellow Pistols, Lydon’s passion for music – and PiL – burns as brightly as ever. “We’ve never limited ourselves to this tiny little universe called revolutionary punk rock,” he says. “It’s the wonderful world of sound and noise. If I could have a volcano exploding as a fifth band member, I would, but it would be very volatile.”
For all the bluster, it is clear that Lydon has a vulnerable side. He constantly battles with stage fright, describing it as “the scariest thing in the world. I’ve been given the gift of being able to go and do this kind of stuff; well hello: here’s the slings and arrows of this outrageous fortune. I would much rather have it than not, but the fear of letting people down is overwhelming. I don’t like to be misunderstood and there’s classic examples of me being misunderstood throughout my entire life, and judged harshly. Sometimes, with a tad too much jealousy and vindictiveness.”
Some would find it difficult to have much sympathy. It could be argued that Lydon often brings it on himself. Take his oft-cited support for Donald Trump, which many long-time fans cannot comprehend. Lydon remains highly critical of Joe Biden and the Democrats: his latest gripe is over Biden’s unwillingness to take part in a debate against other Democrat nominees. While this isn’t an uncommon move for sitting presidents, Lydon sees it as a concern. “This is very dangerous stuff because this is walking us completely into dictators, where you’re not allowed to question someone who wants to tell you how to live your life,” he says, before pivoting back to his AI bugbear. “An artificially intelligent Joe Biden would be quite an issue. I find life quite hilarious.”
After the PiL shows, Lydon will head out on a spoken-word tour across the UK next year. He says he thrives on this two-way interaction with audiences: “It’s kind of like going into a strange pub where everyone is inquisitive and really friendly, and at the same time prepared to tell you their stories. It’s a good trade-off and completely rewarding.”
And with that, by way of a signoff, Lydon gives me the V sign, and launches into an uncanny impersonation of Lance Corporal Jones from Dad’s Army: “Peace … and if you don’t like peace, you can peace off.”
End of World is out on 11 August. PiL’s UK and European tour starts on 8 September in Sheffield ; John Lydon’s Q&A tour starts 1 May in Brighton.
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New Shane MacGowan Book Documents Drinking, Drugging, Fighting, and Brilliance of Pogues Singer
By Caine O'Rear
Writing the biography of the man best known for marrying traditional Irish music with British punk — a sound once described by concertina player Noel Hill of the band Planxty as a “terrible abortion” of Irish music — was never going to be easy. To further complicate the matter, Shane MacGowan ’s hatred of interviews is almost as notorious as his long and sophisticated affair with drugs and alcohol. Such is punk.
When it comes to the story of MacGowan’s life, it has never been about “just the facts.” However, an attempt has now been made. A Furious Devotion: The Life of Shane MacGowan by British journalist Richard Balls serves up the most thorough account of the man — and myth — to date. In a nearly 400-page biography, out Nov. 18 in the U.S., Balls has attempted through extensive interviews and research to do what has proved so difficult through the years — to parse where the facts end and the myth begins. “Some of these never get resolved and probably never will be, but I am determined not to give up in my quest to sort the myths from the truths and better understand this shy and complex man,” Balls writes.
The son of Irish émigré parents, MacGowan was born and raised in England and spent childhood summers and holidays in rural County Tipperary, Ireland, with his mother’s extended family of staunch Irish republicans. Now residing in Dublin, he still speaks with an English accent, but maintains that he is Irish, for it was those experiences in Ireland that MacGowan says formed his musical and spiritual core. Some of the first traditionalists to hear the Pogues amalgamations might have been shocked, even appalled, but other icons of traditional Irish music such as the Dubliners and Christy Moore understood the power of MacGowan’s writing early on.
Before joining the Pogues in the mid-1980s, MacGowan had been a fixture on London’s punk scene; he could be seen pogoing in the front row at endless gigs and going by the alias Shane O’Hooligan. Balls recounts how the young MacGowan, after his release from a psychiatric ward around the age of 19, found his calling living and breathing punk during the Sex Pistols’ ascent. He put out a fanzine and was frequently interviewed by the establishment press, achieving national notoriety after his ear was bitten off at a Clash gig, an incident that was written up in NME . Soon, he formed his first band, the Nipple Erectors (or Nips), with girlfriend Shanne Bradley.
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Years later, John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) of the Sex Pistols would question MacGowan’s Irish bona fides, writing in his memoir that Shane conveniently traded in the Union Jack garb he wore at Pistols shows for an Irish tricolour when he joined the Pogues. In Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds With Shane MacGowan , an affecting and sometimes hard-to-watch documentary about the musician released last year by filmmaker Julien Temple, MacGowan riposted that Lydon had failed to see the “IRA” emblazoned on his forehead. It’s a classic Shane moment.
Punk might have been a free-for-all, but the early Eighties was a hard time to be Irish in London. Balls notes that the Troubles in Northern Ireland were at a critical stage and the IRA was still conducting bombing campaigns in London and other parts of Britain. “Discrimination was rife,” the author writes. “Anyone with an Irish accent could attract suspicion and some deliberately kept a low profile. But not Shane. He had always been immensely proud of his Irish heritage and never hid it from anyone.” In the early days of the Pogues, MacGowan was attacked and beaten up on a seemingly regular basis. Whether it was because of his pro-IRA stance, odd appearance, or just plain big mouth, is the subject of some debate.
In the midst of the punk maelstrom, MacGowan was still soaking up Irish music. He started playing with Pogues co-founders and friends Spider Stacy and Jem Finer (both English-born) in an Irish-folk side project in the early Eighties, a gig that later segued into the Pogues. MacGowan’s first composition for the Pogues was “Streams of Whiskey,” a paean to Irish writer Brendan Behan and the spirit the Irish call “water of life”; indeed, the band’s identity seemed to be crystallized with its very first song.
Soon, the Pogues — at that time called Pogue Mahone (the Anglicized version of the Irish phrase for “kiss my arse”) — started gigging regularly around London. Ball describes in detail how they took the scene by storm with a novel mix of tradition and ferocious energy that was unlike anything else going on at the time, anywhere. As the band’s popularity grew, some began to question the authenticity of their Irishness, but “Pogue Mahone didn’t set out to be part of any scene,” Balls writes. “Beyond Dexys [Midnight Runners], no one else was playing Irish music and the patent on hot-wiring traditional songs with punk’s raw power rested firmly with Shane.”
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It is not lip service, then, when English record producer Steve Lillywhite, who worked on two Pogues albums, says in A Furious Devotion that he considers MacGowan as Irish as St. Patrick. Essentially, Ball’s book insists that Shane’s writing and the music of the Pogues is about the experience of being Irish in London, about exile, about longing for a mythical homeland that someone has taken from you. It’s nostalgia in the original sense of the term — pain from an old wound that you long to heal. It is the voice of the Irish diaspora, and yet it has become part of the DNA of the Emerald Isle itself. For as Gerry Adams, former leader of Sinn Féin and a staunch advocate for unification, tells MacGowan near the end of A Crock of Gold , “The more I listen to your songs, I think they broadened our sense of ourselves, broadened our sense of Irishness, and deepened our culture.”
He is not drunk but his motor skills are kaput; the author has to help him light his cigarette.
In the prologue, Balls recounts his first encounter with MacGowan outside a London bistro in 2012. MacGowan rarely grants interviews, but this meeting has been facilitated by Irish actor Paul Ronan, a longtime friend of Shane’s and the father of Saoirse Ronan. The toll taken by MacGowan’s prodigious booze and drug intake over the decades has long been obvious, and Balls shows up for that first interview to find MacGowan in bad shape. He is not drunk but his motor skills are kaput; the author has to help him light his cigarette. MacGowan later retreats to the bathroom, and after an extended absence, Balls goes in to find that Shane has locked himself in a stall and can’t get out. But despite the chaos, the author is captivated. “It’s clear that I am in the company of a highly intelligent, extremely well-read man, with an encyclopedic knowledge of pretty much everything,” he writes. “There are moments of irascibility, but overall, Shane is good company.”
Balls will spend a great deal of time with Shane over a two-year period, but the subject is not always game to talk. “Day blurs into night and night into day,” Balls writes of a 2018 episode in MacGowan’s Dublin flat. “He will only talk when he is in the mood …” and spends most of his time watching television (gangster films and Westerns are particular favorites). His glass is never far out of sight.
Balls also conducted interviews with MacGowan’s friends, family (including wife Victoria Mary Clarke), and fellow musicians, many of whom had never spoken publicly about the musician. The author spent time at the family homestead in Tipperary as well, with Shane’s sister Siobhan MacGowan, a writer in her own right who provided invaluable insight and context for the book.
From family and friends a portrait emerges of a mischievous child with a precocious intellect. By the age of 12, Shane was reading Dostoevsky, Sartre, and Joyce, a particular favorite of his and his father’s. MacGowan’s parents had moved to England for work, but it was in many ways a very Irish household in which his creative talent was evident early on. He eventually earned a scholarship to the prestigious Westminster school because of his writing ability, but was kicked out after getting caught dealing drugs to fellow students. The family had begun to struggle and the young MacGowan had started to rebel. Shane’s mother Therese, a charismatic and attractive woman once pursued by the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, could not adjust to the urban grind and suffered a nervous breakdown. Shane developed a relationship with LSD, and would soon have a breakdown of his own.
By 1984, the Pogues had attracted considerable attention in London music circles and soon signed with Stiff Records. They recorded their debut Red Roses for Me , an album Spider Stacy says comes closest to capturing the band’s “essence.” Shane’s songs seemed to arrive fully formed, as if he’d been writing for the band for years. “The thing about Shane’s writing is that the songs could only have been written by someone who was looking back at Ireland, and they were very much about London as well,” Jem Finer, the Pogues banjoist and a contributing songwriter, says in the book. “You could take all the places, names, the bars and cafes and streets and make a fascinating Shane MacGowan’s London out of them. And that, too, is something I don’t think people understand. It’s London-Irish; London songs but through this ‘outsider of Ireland’ prism. Most of us in the band were in some way outsiders. People who had grown up feeling a bit alienated. My father is a Jewish guy, and I grew up being ribbed for being a ‘Yid.’ So, I had a kind of feeling of being a bit ‘other’ and I think it was quite a powerful thing in the chemistry of that group.”
Elvis Costello was an early fan and invited the Pogues to open for him on tour. Balls recounts Costello’s falling for Cait O’Riordan, who left the Pogues a few years later, and their subsequent marriage. Fissures in the band began to appear at this time; Shane is often late to gigs and nowhere to be found. “We nearly got thrown off the tour three times,” MacGowan tells Balls. “I did IRA graffiti all over the PA bus and Spider did UDA [Ulster Defence Association], on the other side … The guy was in love with Cait, so that’s the reason we didn’t get sacked off the tour. And we gave him street cred.” (It was during this tour in the fall of ’84 that the IRA attempted to assassinate Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet.)
Costello would go on to produce the band’s sophomore album Rum, Sodomy, & the Lash , and the Pogues started headlining their own tours. Frank Murray, who had managed the storied Irish band Thin Lizzy, became the Pogues manager and a “battle of wills commenced” between him and MacGowan that would not subside until Shane’s departure. MacGowan’s writing was getting better and becoming more multi-dimensional, evident on songs like “A Pair of Brown Eyes,” which was heavily steeped in allusions to traditional Irish music.
By this time, the relentless touring schedule was leaving its mark, and MacGowan was hospitalized (the first of many hospitalizations) with pneumonia. The band closed the year 1985 as darlings of the U.K. music press and embarked on their first tour of America the following year, where they played to raucous, sold-out crowds. For the band’s third and arguably best album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God , manager Frank Murray enlisted Steve Lillywhite to produce.
The album found more Pogues contributing songwriting efforts and the group expanding their sonic palette. This is also the album that gave the world “Fairytale of New York,” a co-write between MacGowan and Finer that has become the most popular Christmas song of the 21st century in the U.K., according to British music licensing body, PPL. The song catapulted the band into another realm of popularity, and the insane touring schedule that followed would mark an inflection point for the Pogues as the drug and alcohol abuse escalated and MacGowan’s mental state began to decline. “Over the dark months ahead, people around him would notice an ominous change in his [Shane’s] behaviour,” Balls writes. “For Siobhan, the brother she had always known and loved was about to disappear.”
After If I Should Fall From Grace With God , MacGowan would stay with the Pogues for two more albums, but he had wanted out after that tour ended. He was not in his right mind, gobbling insane amounts of LSD and having conversations with a dead Jimi Hendrix, among other pastimes. When the Pogues were invited to open six shows for Bob Dylan in 1989, MacGowan failed to show because he was holed up in a friend’s apartment in London, strung out like a kite. The band played the shows without him, though it’s not clear if Dylan even noticed.
MacGowan would eventually be fired from the band during a tour stop in Japan in 1991. “On stage he [Shane] had become a liability, lurching and wheeling about and tarnishing their reputation as one of the world’s most exciting live acts with every slurred line and missed cue,” Balls writes. “It had to end.” Heroin had become a constant companion by this point, along with older acquaintances like amphetamines, acid, and booze. After the Pogues dissolved, MacGowan formed a band called Shane MacGowan and the Popes. The group’s first album, The Snake , was well received and the sound moved away from the Irish into more straight-up rock & roll territory. While these songs are not regarded as the best in the MacGowan canon, there are many strong efforts. Tunes like “The Snake With Eyes of Garnet,” in which 19th-century Irish poet James Clarence Mangan makes an appearance, is a powerful contribution to the oeuvre of Irish rebel music.
Despite his lack of output in the 21st century, MacGowan’s music and that of the Pogues continues to inspire and influence new generations. No less an authority on songwriting than Bruce Springsteen acknowledged Shane as “a master” in a 2020 interview with Ireland’s The Late Late Show . “He’s the man, you know?” Springsteen said . “I truly believe, as I sit on my radio show, that a hundred years from now, most of us will be forgotten. But I do believe that Shane’s music is going to be remembered and sung. It’s just deep in the nature of it.”
Joseph Cleary, professor of English at Yale University who has written extensively about Irish literature, makes the case in The Irish Times that MacGowan is the last in a long line of the Spailpín poets— rough-and-rowdy rebel voices like Mangan and Behan who wrote about exile and hard times.
But perhaps MacGowan’s enduring appeal is in the power of the music alone. Amid all the drinking, drugging, fighting, and fucking that goes on in his songs, there is the undeniable presence of a tender voice that speaks directly to the human heart.
Ball relates a story told to him by Ingrid Knetsch, a hardcore Pogues devotee who started the band’s international fan club. Asked what it is that draws people to the music of Shane MacGowan, Knetsch replies: “Shane is their hero in the darkness; his voice comforts them in hard times and helps them celebrate good times. For example, I received a letter from a Croatian soldier during the Croatian–Serbian war. In this letter, he wrote: ‘When I’m in the trenches and I hear Shane’s voice, I’m not afraid of the Serbian bombs anymore.’ I had tears in my eyes, as Shane did, when he read it.”
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