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Interview: John Lydon 

Right before the national tour of Jesus Christ Superstar was canceled, Will Coviello talked to the former Sex Pistol about his role as King Herod

click to enlarge The Jesus Christ Superstar Musical tour cancels at press time — and our John Lydon cover adjusts.

The Jesus Christ Superstar Musical tour cancels at press time — and our John Lydon cover adjusts.

Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

The Jesus Christ Superstar arena tour was cancelled Friday afternoon, minutes before Gambit went to press. No reasons were given. Although the cast had been rehearsing at the UNO Lakefront Arena, the show won't open there June 9. Here is our story about John Lydon and preparations up until the cancellation.


John Lydon — also known as Johnny Rotten, the lead singer of the legendary British rock band the Sex Pistols — is aware of his reputation. He has begun work on a second autobiography to offer the world another account of his version of the fast and furious rise and fall of the Sex Pistols.

  "I never quite understood what they meant by controversy," Lydon says via phone from his California home. "All I have ever done is speak my mind as accurately as possible. I am opinionated, with a great deal of knowledge and content — rather than just opinions. I have never done anything just for scandal's sake. But for some odd reason that always seems to be firmly attached to me."

  Whatever the new book (tentatively titled Anger is an Energy) reveals about his childhood and his years with the Sex Pistols, it will be hard for him to change people's view of the iconic face he gave to Britain's punk movement when he penned the band's version of "God Save the Queen" ("God save the Queen/ the fascist regime ... She ain't no human being/ There is no future/ in England's dreaming") on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee.

  Before the pageantry of the Jubilee, the Sex Pistols threw a party on a boat on the Thames River and played the song. British authorities boarded the boat and ended the concert, but Lydon slipped away in the confusion while manager Malcolm McLaren was roughed up by officers. Lydon was later assaulted and slashed in the streets by outraged citizens. Some record stores refused to carry the single, but overall, it sold well. The record label A&M dropped the Sex Pistols, but Virgin Records signed the group.

Nearly 40 years later, Lydon's reputation is still pungent enough to draw attention on a marquee. That's one of the reasons he was cast in the U.S. arena tour production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which launches its 51-date summer schedule June 9 at the UNO Lakefront Arena. The North American tour ranges from Los Angeles' Staples Center to New York's Madison Square Garden, with a couple of dates in Canada. The production also features Brandon Boyd of the rock band Incubus as Judas Iscariot, Destiny's Child's Michelle Williams (who has refocused her career in gospel music in the last decade) as Mary Magdalene and 'N Sync's JC Chasez as Pontius Pilate.

  Lydon says he's excited to play King Herod, the ruler of Judea, who in the musical has the choice to spare or condemn Jesus. Lydon has some insight into the show's original concept of treating Jesus as a rock star-like figure who draws a cult following even though there are conflicting views of whether he is a prophet or a phony.

  "I look at my life and it's kind of an irony really," Lydon says. "All I've ever really tried to do is communicate honestly to my fellow other human beings. My songs are usually self-analysis and finding out faults in myself and sharing those with others — and attacking social systems that create inequality and victimize the human race. And now as Herod, I am the spiritual leader of all things bad for me. I am playing my own worst enemy. That's got to be thrilling."

click to enlarge "I don’t think [Andrew Lloyd Webber] had me in mind when he put pen to paper all those years ago."
  • "I don’t think [Andrew Lloyd Webber] had me in mind when he put pen to paper all those years ago."

  For two weeks before traveling to New Orleans to begin rehearsals, Lydon practiced "King Herod's Song" and studied the script. This will be the largest production with which he's toured. It's an arena rock show, not a touring Broadway musical. The cast tops 60, including the cast of characters, live band and dancers, and the over-the-top staging features live large-scale video projections, massive props and frequent costume changes.

  "There's the camera director, the stage director, the musical director," Lydon says. "I am going to be following a lot of orders all at once. That's not me. I am used to controlling my own helm. I have to be very open-minded here. I have to prove to myself and everybody else that I am capable of it."

  Lydon has hosted documentary shows in which he swam with great white sharks off the coast of South Africa, searched for gorillas in central Africa and explored the world of creepy crawly things (leeches, tarantulas, deadly spiders) for Discovery Channel. But this is the first time he's not playing himself. Much about the style of the show is new to him.

  "Hilariously, of all things, there are chorus dancers," he says. "How am I going to cope with that? I have been laughing at Jay-Z and the rest of them for years. And now I am up here with me Jesus Christs."

Jesus Christ Superstar has always been about fame, but the arena tour raises the spectacle to new heights. The U.S. tour is a followup to British and Australian arena tours, both grandly organized by the show's original creators Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.

  Superstar was the second musical the two created about biblical char-acters. They launched Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 1968. Their idea for Superstar was to create a rock opera about the final week of Jesus' life, without getting into the issue of resurrection. It was the story of Jesus, but set in modern times, capable of being set against any array of contemporary unrest or technology. In the title song "Superstar," Judas sings, "Why'd you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?/ If you'd come today you would have reached a whole nation/ Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication."

  Webber and Rice were unable to put together the show in Britain, and they opted instead to release the songs as an album, which featured Deep Purple's lead singer Ian Gillian, Murray Head (of the 1984 oddball hit "One Night in Bangkok" from the musical Chess) and a host of well-known musicians. It didn't fare well in Britain, but it took off in the U.S., becoming Billboard's best-selling album of 1971, ahead of the Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers and John Lennon's Imagine and Led Zeppelin IV.

click to enlarge The cast of Jesus Christ Superstar (l-r): Brandon Boyd, Michelle Williams,
John Lydon, Ben Forster and JC Chasez - PHOTO BY KEVIN MAZUR/WIREIMAGE
  • Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage
  • The cast of Jesus Christ Superstar (l-r): Brandon Boyd, Michelle Williams, John Lydon, Ben Forster and JC Chasez

  The album helped Webber and Rice launch the musical at the Mark Hellinger Theater in New York. Ted Neeley starred as Jesus and Ben Vereen (Roots) played Judas. Andy Warhol, David Frost, actress Sylvia Miles (Midnight Cowboy) and other celebrities attended the gala opening. The show ran on Broadway for two years, drawing some protests and mixed critical reviews. Some Christian groups objected to the depiction of Jesus as human, his possible interest in sex and the show's sympathetic treatment of Judas. Some Jewish groups feared that it blamed a Jewish mob for the death of Jesus. Others lamented that it showed how political movements of the 1960s failed because charismatic leaders were a distraction from creating systemic change.

  In an interview with The New York Times, Webber and Rice said they had intended to tackle a big subject to help call attention to their work but that they weren't merely seeking controversy. Webber also noted that he didn't agree with the director treating Herod as a drag queen, and for Jesus, he had more of a rock star in mind. "My personal image of Jesus was somebody like Mick Jagger," Webber told the Times.

  There was enough interest in the musical to spawn a film, which was shot primarily in Israel — again drawing protests about the irony of the location for a film linking Jews to the death of Christ. Neeley reprised his stage role as Jesus. (He played Jesus again in a 1990s musical revival that also featured Irene Cara from Fame and Dennis De Young of Styx as Pilate.)

  In 1972, a London production launched and ran for eight years, making it the longest running show in Britain at the time. The run spanned the brief existence of the Sex Pistols (1975-1978).

  "I can remember it was always there," Lydon says. "When we started the Sex Pistols, we used to rehearse around the corner from Soho where the play was. It was always there. It was a permanent fixture."

  Does he remember any feelings about it?

  "It probably would have been negative, because it was part of the establishment," Lydon says. "I don't think [Webber] had me in mind when he put pen to paper all those years ago."

In the 43 years since the launch of the musical, there's rarely been a year without a major production of the show somewhere on the globe. A Japanese version opened in 1973. A concert tour drew more than a million viewers in Australia in 1992. In 2000, an Italian production gained the Vatican's approval. It's been produced everywhere from Greece to South Africa to South Korea. In 2010, raunch rocker Peaches did a one-woman version called Peaches Christ Superstar. In 2012, a Broadway revival was mounted.

  Also in 2012, Webber created Superstar on Britain's ITV1. The Britain's Got Talent-style reality TV competition was designed to cast the role of Jesus for an arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. It was won by Ben Forster, who had starred in West End productions of La Cava, Grease and Thriller Live.

click to enlarge "I have been laughing at Jay-Z and the rest of them for years. And now I am up here with me Jesus Christs."
  • "I have been laughing at Jay-Z and the rest of them for years. And now I am up here with me Jesus Christs."

  Forster starred in the updated Superstar arena show that debuted in Britain and toured Australia, grossing a combined $32 million. The British production also starred Melanie Chisholm, aka Sporty Spice, as Mary Magdalene and Australian-born comedian Tim Minchin. The show uses massive video projections and incorporates social media. Some of the groups in Judea were presented as members of the Occupy movement, with social unrest relating to the failure of financial systems. Herod, played by a radio DJ wearing a red velvet suit, was presented as a TV talent competition host who doesn't think Jesus is ready for prime time.

Lydon has been enlisted by a couple of TV shows to deliver sour and scathing commentary on current events, including Rotten TV (2000) on VH1 and The Belzer Connection (2003) with Richard Belzer. Neither show lasted long. But Lydon's very serious about his role in Superstar.

  "You'd always have to convince me to take a role like this," Lydon says. "It could be seen as flippant and glib, but it's not. It's something I really have to put my mind into. It's a lot of work. And it's a gamble — a huge one. A big huge risk both sides are taking. That's the unity and the bond that will make it work."

  In spite of the fame Lydon gained from the Sex Pistols, which released several singles and one album, he's spent far more time with his subsequent band Public Image Limited, of which he's the sole long-term member. The group was very productive, releasing eight studio albums from 1978 through 1993, when it disbanded. Lydon flirted with Sex Pistols reunions beginning in the mid-1990s, and the band rerecorded "Anarchy in the UK" for the video game Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock in 2007. Lydon revived Public Image in 2009, and to finance a new album (choosing to work without a label), he famously starred in a British TV ad for Country Life butter. For that, some criticized him for selling out.

  "I don't care for naysayers," Lydon says. "All these times in my life when I really needed help and support, where the hell have they been? The record labels didn't drop me easily. They kept me on, but no money. A Catch-22 situation. It almost drove me out of making music completely."

  He sees Superstar as an opportunity to move forward with multiple projects, including a new Public Image album to be recorded in England in the fall, the autobiography and a documentary.

click to enlarge cover_story-4.jpg

  "These are the only people that are offering me any help, in an industry I have done so much for," he says. "I am Johnny. I think I have opened a lot of doors and a lot of people's minds to how music could and should and would be made and produced and the possibilities. The industry managed to close all those doors in my face. And sign up people imitating me, and very badly at that. There it is, I live in a world full of mimics, and they're judging me. Don't judge me. Stop it, you load of Herods."

  While Lydon jokes about the role, he immersed himself in the story prior to beginning rehearsals in New Orleans.

  "Herod's character, from my estimation, is one jealous king who won't give it up. He's challenged by the mere presence of a character, which is called Jesus, who he absolutely despises. That makes [Herod] despisable.

  "I think I would have done the same thing at the time. You can't take anyone on their word these days. And I think not then either. Everything is to be challenged. There's an element of spite in this Herod, while at the same time, he has a groveling smile to try to appease everyone."

  In the musical, everyone from Judas and Magdalene to Pilate and Herod tries to size up Jesus and how and whether they want to be associated with him. The drama is frequently seen through Judas' eyes, and he is leery of Jesus' cultlike popularity. Pilate is less concerned with Jesus' identity than his own responsibility in quashing his appeal.

Lydon was a Catholic altar boy when he was young, and he's always been critical of organized religion. But he's sympathetic to Jesus' plight here.

click to enlarge The Jesus Christ Superstar arena tour originated in England, and toured Australia. Its American tour, which was to open June 9 at UNO Lakefront Arena, was canceled without explanation as we went to press. - PHOTO BY 
DUNCAN BARNES
  • Photo by Duncan Barnes
  • The Jesus Christ Superstar arena tour originated in England, and toured Australia. Its American tour, which was to open June 9 at UNO Lakefront Arena, was canceled without explanation as we went to press.

  "There is an acknowledgement in there that anyone who stands up for anything that is good or offers hope is the one that gets the worst kind of chastisement, and that's a great shame about the human race," Lydon says.

  The drama of a misunderstood superstar is a burden Lydon seems destined to play out over and over, even in his real life. The last time he visited New Orleans, he was filming an episode of Johnny Lydon's Mega Bugs. It featured a segment on termites eating up French Quarter buildings. Lydon likes New Orleans, but this was his strongest memory of the city.

  "There's an autograph shop in the French Quarter," he says. "I went in there and they had a fake Johnny Rotten autograph on Never Mind the Bollocks. I told them so. They were furious; they asked me to leave.

  "I said, 'Look, I think I am the expert on this one.' I was more than prepared to give them a proper one, but they weren't prepared to go out and buy the record.

  "It's hilarious. They'd rather sell the fake one then deal with the reality. That kind of sums up the world for me."

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