When John Lydon — better known as Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols — wanted to take his band Public Image Ltd. to China, the Chinese government threw up a bit of a roadblock. They wanted to approve every lyric of every song Lydon had ever written, and — as a guy who will go down in history books for writing and performing anti-government songs like “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “God Save the Queen” — it just didn’t seem likely that any governing body would approve of his 40 years’ worth of discontent.
The now-61-year-old Lydon took the time to compile each one of his 127 tracks, and to everyone’s surprise, China reviewed them and welcomed the punk legend without much hesitation.
With the China tour in the books, it seemed like a waste for Lydon to have put together all of his lyrics without giving anyone else a chance to see them. Rather than releasing the handwritten songs online or even in a mass-produced book you’d find at Barnes & Noble, Lydon decided to give his words the extra attention they deserved, and he added sketches, artwork, and notes to go along with them.
“It’s been a hell of a lot of fucking hard work,” Lydon says about Mr. Rotten’s Songbook. “I’m only 61, and I’m very thankful about that because I should have at least another 61 years to fill up part two.”
Coming in at a price point of £299 (right around $375, for those who aren’t so good at conversions), the songbook isn’t made for casual Sex Pistols fans. With only 1,000 in production — each one hand-signed by Lydon — the massive hardcover is already over halfway sold out via pre-order, and it’s going to be a must-have collector’s item for every diehard fan. Aside from finances, the only question is whether Lydon’s followers will have space for the oversized 312-page collection.
“It’s huge? Well so am I!” Lydon laughs at a comment about the size of the book.
But more than its physical size, the gravity of some of the words in the book have been weighing on Lydon for decades. Although Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols released in 1977, many of the tracks penned out in the book still mean just as much to Lydon now as when he wrote them — particularly the personal ones.
“Some of the songs are very, very painful,” Lydon admits. “It’s very hard to remember things like the death of your mother. That was a song called ‘Death Disco,’ and we still perform that live because it means so much to me. Onstage, of course I’ll add other verses because of the death of my father — some of them have expanded in that way — but in the book, they’re as they were originally.”
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As for the songwriter’s evolution over time, Lydon says he’s just a better version of the same person he’s always been, and that can also be seen in the lyrics. Rather than feeling the effects of aging, the iconic frontman believes he learns and improves on a daily basis. The “Johnny Rotten” that fans have been idolizing for 40 years may not look or act exactly the same as he did as a teenager or in his 20s, but anyone who believes Lydon’s become sedated or gone Hollywood in recent years (particularly since he’s been splitting time between London and Venice Beach) clearly hasn’t been paying attention to the man and his priorities.
“I still have the same sense of values, same friends, same family — although less and less of them of course, because death catches up to us all,” Lydon says. “I’m not big on the nightclub scene or flashy cars or any of that. I’m quite modest in my lifestyle, because that’s how I enjoy it best. I like shopping. I eat baked beans, so I might as well fucking buy them.”
The Strictly Limited Edition of Mr. Rotten’s Songbook is available for preorder online for the rest of the month (or until the rest of the copies sell out).