There is something about the story of John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, that I never realized prior to reading his latest autobiography Anger is an Energy. That is that he and I are very much alike. And he’s probably more like you and every man/woman than any of us would have suspected. This is hard to believe. After all, as he’ll tell you himself, he’s Johnny F—king Rotten. The original punk. There is and can be only one. And I bet you don’t want to believe that you’re like him any more than you can imagine that he’s like you.
But as his autobiography makes clear over and over, Johnny Rotten, aka John Lydon, is just a man like you and me. He has beliefs, opinions, talents, weaknesses, vices, feelings, and everything else that make us who we are. And if not for staggeringly poor dental hygiene we might not think of him the way we do at all. When it comes to knowing a person, the difference between perception and reality can become quite blurred. Are you the person you believe yourself to be, or are you the person that others perceive you to be? More than 90% of people believe themselves to be above average drivers. Obviously that’s not correct. So maybe perception is the truth and your own reality is not? Rotten’s life is all about public perception. To some extent he’s to blame for that (you can’t sing “God Save The Queen” in 1976 UK and expect it to go down lightly) but mostly he’s spent the better part of 40 years waging a war against a persona that isn’t really what he believes himself to be.
You see, Johnny Rotten got his nickname because a variety of factors – perverse government incentives, a bad childhood experience at the dentist – led him to never brush his teeth. Never. And so when he met original Sex Pistols’ member Steve Jones, Jones saw his smile and called him “rotten.” And the name stuck for life. Of course as we know, Lydon happily embraced the name and embodied it as the front-man for the Pistols, and years later when former manager Malcolm McLaren tried to claim the name as his property to bestow on a new Pistols lead singer Lydon fought for it and won it in court, so obviously he wanted to be Rotten. The problem is that the public took this moniker to be more than that, and immediately (and permanently) in the public eye Lydon ceased to exist and only Rotten remained.
This autobiography is the tale of the boy who became Rotten and then struggled for the rest of his life to figure out if that’s who he really was or if he was Lydon. Johnny probably could have overcome the perception issue by becoming someone completely different. We’ve seen celebrities remake their images so many times it’s comical. But he refused to do the one thing necessary to become (again, in the public eye) anything but the punk he was. He refused to stop being Rotten. Had he given the name and persona up to McLaren, had he sung only cheery music going forward, had he stopped speaking his mind on TV in an unfiltered way – basically, had he become someone he wasn’t – he could have not been Rotten. But he wasn’t willing to be something fake in order to not be misunderstood. The stories he tells and the message he conveys over and over again in his autobiography is that he had multiple opportunities to give in and become mainstream, which would have cleared his name, but he couldn’t do that either. Lydon has forever been caught between a rock and a hard place. His reputation is on one side of the spectrum and to be anything else he’d have to move to the other side completely. And, like most of us, he’s somewhere in the middle. Neither Rotten nor Lydon completely suits him.
Each and every chapter of this autobiography beautifully illustrates one man’s struggle to fight against society’s perceptions without losing his own identity. Can’t we all relate to that? That there is a consistent overarching theme (and a universal one at that) is the primary reason I love this book. But there are many more. Lydon tells his story more or less chronologically, but is willing to take detours where necessary. It is smart without being “intellectual.” It’s both serious and silly. I don’t always agree with what Lydon has to say, but much more often than not I do and it consistently made me think. It is properly edited while staying in his own voice. It is at its core the biography of a musician, but it strikes the right balance between the music and the rest of his life – family, friends, other interests and pursuits, views on life, etc. He tells the truth (I hope) about his personal and professional disagreements and feuds but he does so in a manner that is respectful of the other individuals involved (not easy for Rotten!). He admits his mistakes. Most of all, the book just plain entertained me from start to finish while never being “just” entertaining. I really felt like I lived through the life of Johnny Rotten, which is a fascinating life to live.
You don’t have to love punk music to enjoy Anger is an Energy. I could honestly argue that you don’t even need to love music. This is a character study of one of the most interesting and controversial men of the past 4 decades, done intelligently by the man himself. If that interests you I highly recommend you read these 500 pages – it will be a breeze.