Why I still raise a cheer for Johnny Rotten

He stood for something valuable, and he hasn’t given up on his beliefs

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The Independent Online

“I ache in the places where I used to play,” sang Leonard Cohen in a lament for his potency of years past.

It's a sentiment with which those of us of a certain age can identify. There's nothing, however, more certain to make us feel our age than catching up with the rock idols of yesterday, the men and women who provided the rebellious soundtrack of our youth.

Fresh from watching the magnificent BBC documentary on Genesis at the weekend - in which the principals looked as if they'd arrived directly from a mobile telephony conference - I was given a rude awakening, literally, when Johnny Rotten aka John Lydon (or possibly the other way round) rubbed up against John Humphrys on Radio 4's Today programme. Except it wasn't very rude at all. The worst that Johnny Rotten could level at John Humphrys was to say he was “a silly sausage”. A far cry indeed from the Sex Pistols infamous TV appearance in 1976 when they called Bill Grundy, their interviewer, a “dirty bastard” and a “dirty f***er”.

The meeting of Humphrys and Lydon may, in times past, have been just as explosive. In one corner, a singular man who is no respecter of authority, who is still the scourge of the establishment, and whose outspoken views have often got him into trouble.

And then there's John Lydon. It was hard to reconcile the cheeky chappy, Estuarine sound of Lydon on early-morning radio with the clips they played of him snarling his way through Anarchy in the UK, but those of us who feel that the Sex Pistols remain one of the most important bands in the recent musical, social and political life of the nation will have been delighted to hear that Lydon still has a bit of fight left him in.

“I am what I am and I tell it like it is,” was his first rejoinder to Humphrys. Up to a point, of course, but it was still refreshing to hear someone in public life be prepared to speak authentically, and not be mediated by armies of press attaches and spin doctors. Talking of his days as a Pistol, he said: “I was offering an honest approach and a much more sensible message. A direct assault, if you want, on mediocrity.” I cannot have been the only person listening who gave a silent cheer at this point.

He's 58 years old now, the former Johnny Rotten, and, unlike a number of the members of Genesis, he still has his own hair, and is able to sport an impressive peroxide Mohican. He told Humphrys that he was “consistently and deliberately misunderstood”, and when he was challenged that he had been just like any other young anti-establishment agitator, Lydon was roused to something like anger. “I was standing up and being counted,” he retorted. “I made my opinions very clear. And you can't lighten that load. At all.”

Yes, I felt my age listening to Lydon. I tried to recall a time when things seemed more real, more raw, and people thought and cared more deeply about things. The world seems so much tamer, blander now. And there you have it. I even sound my age now, too.