Friday, October 30, 2015

How to Talk to John Lydon

This time last week it seemed like I wasn't going to be writing an article to preview Public Image Ltd's upcoming Pittsburgh show (November 12, in case you need to know). I was warned early on that getting an interview with John Lydon was dicey because they were in Europe on tour. But that was the word a couple weeks earlier. No updates had come through, and my deadline was coming at the beginning of this week. Without an interview, there was no point. Hell, I hadn't even heard the new album yet.

Late Friday morning, I checked email and saw that, at 1:00 a.m., a message had come through saying that the interview would happen at 12:30 pm EST - which was about 45 minutes from the time that I saw this message.

Hole. Lee. Crap.

I flipped. John Lydon was on my interview bucket list, and the only person left on it, after having successfully interviewed Ginger Baker a few months ago. (Jimmy Smith died before I could get a chance with him. Alex Chilton... no way I was going to get him on the phone. Besides he's dead now too.) Remembering how he hung up on my colleague at the Post-Gazette the last time PiL was due in town, I knew I had to prepare questions that wouldn't rankle him, and that weren't yes-or-no in format.

I started scrambling, trying to put my long-term thoughts into coherent questions, while listening to the download of What the World Needs Now..., the new PiL album that arrived with the interview confirmation.

Then I waited.

When the phone didn't ring, I waited another 20 minutes before sending an email. "Mixup. How about Sunday at 1:30? By the way, you have to call John in England." Okay. A sigh of relief, followed by 48 hours of suspense.

That also gave time to listen to a few Lydon interviews online, including a recent one on World Cafe. Instead of the snotty kid that wouldn't give Tom Snyder more than a few words back in 1979, here was a guy whose cheeky sense of humor was balanced by a willingness to talk freely and reflect on the trials of his life - most significantly the impact of childhood meningitis on his relationship with his parents and the way he viewed the world. In one interview, he gets a bit teary-eyed as he talks about it.

Is this my brother's John Lydon?

"‘allo Pittsburgh! I was expecting you," Mr. Lydon greeted me. "Well, sort of. The times got a bit changed 'cuz there’s daylight savings time in Europe. Fun town! Gonna be made even more fun once Public Image rolls through!" Not exactly the confidant message I was expecting, but like most famous people I've interviewed, you realize that they're regular human beings when you sit down and talk to them that way.

I don't want to give anything away just yet. The Pittsburgh City Paper article will hit the street next Wednesday (online too). By that time, there will likely be a link here to it. If not, I'm a damn fool not to blow more horn a little more.

What I will say now is that we had a great 15-minute chat, which definitely would have been longer had he been at his other home in the U.S. When I tried to get him to talk about music history - like whether he knew current PiL drummer Bruce Smith when he was in the Pop Group - then he gave a rather quick affirmative answer, adding that guitarist Lu Edmonds was also around during that period. He was ready to move on to other topics. 

Also, when he mentioned the work "reunion" in passing, I tried to ask if he'd ever work with Keith Levene or Jah Wobble again, and before I could get halfway through the sentence, the idea was gunned down in a hail of "no"s. It made me wonder if I he thought I was going to say the Sex Pistols or not. (I hadn't asked anything specific about the band.) Had I pressed, maybe the receiver would've returned to the phone cradle. But I'm not that kind of guy. Sometimes it's best to let your interview subject do the driving, especially when he's showing you such beautiful verbal scenery. (And he gave me plenty in the time.)

Besides, he signed off with what sounded like a tongue-in-cheek but genuine Irish blessing, which I've still yet to decipher on the interview tape. (Goddam that cellphone delay.) And he thanked me for a good conversation. That made it all the more worthwhile.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Nice -- can't wait to read the article.