English punk icon John Lydon hasn’t changed; he’s still the same curmudgeonly misanthrope he was 35 years ago as the Sex Pistols’ notorious Johnny Rotten. So when “American Idol” approached him about using the Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant,” he was suitably peeved. “Imagine — the audacity!” But he agreed to Danny Boyle using “God Save the Queen” in this year’s opening Olympics ceremony, he says, “because he wanted to celebrate the National Health Service, which is an intrinsically beautiful British concept, regardless of how many Republicans view it as communism. If you can’t offer a helping hand to the rest of your citizens, then it’s you that should leave the country!” He returns with “This is PiL,” his first album in 20 years with Public Image Ltd.
You conceived all the artwork for the “This is PiL” packaging. How did you get into painting?
Art has always been there since a childhood illness. It was one of the things that helped me recover from memory loss — it was learning to paint and to use colors to express my emotions. I’d lost my memory and it took something like four years to recover, and in that time reading, writing and painting were the three things that I used as therapy.
How many paintings have you done?
I don’t know, because most of them get destroyed. I don’t do it for art gallery receptions — I do it because I love it.
What does the segmented, globe-hurdling yellow bison on the cover represent?
Freedom. That no animal should ever be constricted or bound in a zoo.
And you also painted some of the pieces on computer?
Yes. I used a crappy old Dell computer, and I painted the Cotswolds, using that laptop’s general art board. That’s where we recorded the album, so I wanted to represent the landscape — it’s a very scenic part of Britain, and an odd place you would think for us to put together a record. But we loved it because it was so different. We were out in sheep country, and the only outside influence on us was “Ma-a-a-a!” But we came up with 12 songs that I’m the proudest of that I’ve ever been.
What effect does painting have on you?
Sometimes, it can be to express or relieve an anger or an animosity that’s brewing. And one of my favorite things to do when we’re touring is to just stare out the coach window, absorb all of that, and make little drawings. Which I’ll bear in mind later when I want to put them to canvas.