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I lost my memory to meningitis, reveals Lydon

The former Sex Pistol says 'cruel and tortuous' illness left him unaware who his parents were
  • @Paul_Bignell

Together with his dirty-looking band, decked out in chains and safety pins, with a spattering of hair dye, Johnny Rotten distilled the essence of the angry young men of the 1970s. He roared there was "no future" and claimed to be "the anti-christ" against the background of suburban moral panic. But that was a long time ago.

The lead singer of the seminal punk band The Sex Pistols, John Lydon, as we know the 56-year-old now, still snarls, though with a lot less menace. His hair is frequently dyed; there's just less of it.

In truth, he has become what he would most have wanted to avoid: a bit of a national treasure. He ventured into the celebrity jungle and has even made commercials for butter. True, the band's infamous 1977 anti-monarchy anthem, "God Save the Queen", is being re-released – for the second time. But it's on a major label and timed to coincide with the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.

In a revealing interview with Sky Arts, In Confidence: John Lydon, to be broadcast tomorrow night, the former Pistol reveals a number of previously unreported details from his past. He recalls how his battle with meningitis as a child left him unable to remember his own name or that of his parents.

Lydon speaks movingly of the devastating effect meningitis had on him when he was seven years old. "Not being able to remember your own name or your mother and father, or anything at all, and for little bits of that to be coming in over a period of four years, that's pretty close to torture, really."

The normally cantankerous frontman, who formed the band in 1975, and so is widely credited with kick-starting the punk rock movement in Britain, said he had to start his relationship with his parents from scratch due to his memory loss.

"I had to believe these were my mum and dad. They were kind. They seemed to want me. The hospital did not seem to want me. I had no place else to go. But it was murderously cruel and tortuous, mostly because I thought inside it must be my fault. I must have done something wrong."

Despite releasing only one album and four singles, The Sex Pistols are regarded as one of the most influential bands of all time. They disbanded after a shambolic US tour in January 1978 and Lydon went on to form Public Image Ltd (PiL).

Lydon says he turned TV butter salesman so PiL could tour again. "The money that came out [of the butter advert]... not an enormous amount, you know, and certainly not one to complement the 87 per cent increase in their sales – you owe me more – but [it was] enough to get PiL started up again and get some debt off my back. But the company treated us so well and with such respect that it was a joy working with them – really, really honest and above board, and I'd not seen that in any record company situation. Not ever."

Lydon also speaks candidly about the death of his stepdaughter, Arianna Foster, at one time a member of the all-female punk band The Slits. Foster, better known as Ari Up, died in 2010 from cancer.

"Arianna didn't need to die and that's a very, very tough burden on her mother to know that. She knew she had cancer and she deliberately ignored it and went for lunatic left-wing crackpot theories. And that will kill you stone dead. Every single time. If you want to survive something as curable as breast cancer, do not go to the far-out loonies. But, ultimately, those are decisions Arianna made herself and some of us in the family think it was almost suicide."