John Lydon (Johnny Rotten)

On this date in 1956, singer-songwriter John Joseph Lydon (stage name Johnny Rotten) was born in London to Eileen (née Barry) and John Lydon, working-class emigrants from Ireland. The eldest of four brothers, he contracted spinal meningitis at age 7 and was hospitalized for a year. It caused what he calls the “Lydon stare” and was “the first step that put me on the road to Rotten.”

He struggled in Catholic secondary school and was expelled at age 15. He became friends with John Simon Ritchie (stage name Sid Vicious) and joined the punk rock Sex Pistols as frontman. Their 1977 single “God Save the Queen” was a hit and was included on the band’s only studio album, “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.”

The band, now including Vicious, soon disintegrated, and Lydon formed a post-punk group called Public Image Ltd (PiL). PiL released eight studio albums between 1978 and 1992 and reconvened for albums in 2012 and 2015. Lydon co-wrote a track titled “Religion” for PiL’s first album in 1979: “There’s a liar on the altar / The sermon never falter / This is religion / Your religion.”

A Clash online profile of Lydon (May 21, 2010) reviewed his “epic rendering” of the song, to which he added, “I hate all religion! All religion! All institutionalized religion! I need no institution between me and my god/maker! I hate all religion!”

He was particularly bitter about one specific religion in a July 2010 interview about his mother with the BBC: “They treated ‘er very badly; they wouldn’t give ‘er [the] last rites when she died of cancer in the hospital, so we ‘ave a really bad, negative view, our family, of the Catholic Church.”

“I ain’t seen no evidence of God. Nowhere. Have you? God is probably Barry Manilow,” Lydon told The Guardian (Jan. 27, 2016).

He has published four books: Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs (1993), Punk: Chaos to Couture (2013, co-written with three others), Anger Is an Energy: My Life Uncensored (2014) and Mr Rotten’s Songbook (2017), a limited edition of 1,000 copies with all of his lyrics.

He holds British, Irish and American citizenship. He says he became an American citizen in 2013 because he “believed in Barack Obama” and laments how a “crazy, loony monster party” is trying to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. He says he has many problems with Donald Trump “as a human being” but defended how Trump has gotten people involved in politics: “I’ve been struggling for years to get people to wake up and do that.” (Pitchfork interview, March 10, 2017.) In October 2020, he told The Guardian newspaper that Trump “is the only sensible choice” and calling Joe Biden “incapable of being the man at the helm.”

In 1979 he married Nora Forster, a German publishing heiress. They are raising the three sons of Nora’s daughter Ariane, who died of breast cancer at age 48. As of this writing in 2019, they live primarily in Venice, Calif., and have a home in London. Lydon revealed in 2018 that Nora has mid-stage Alzheimer’s.

Freedom From Religion Foundation