By Steve Beard
When the notorious Johnny Rotten (aka John Lydon) appeared on the fledgling punk rock scene decades ago as the front man for the Sex Pistols, he didn’t appear as a likely candidate for being fully committed to a 44-year marriage.
Instead, he was Public Enemy #1 in Great Britain and routinely denounced by politicians. He brutally mocked the monarchy in “God Save the Queen” and stirred a cauldron of teenage discontent with songs such as “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “Pretty Vacant.” His band savored unhinged chaos at their shows, and Rotten declared his intention to destroy everything.
Rolling Stone’s 1977 story on the band began by invoking a biblical notation: “Instead of perfume here will be rottenness” (Isaiah 3:24). “Rotten is perhaps the most captivating performer I’ve ever seen,” reported Charles M. Young. “He really doesn’t do that much besides snarl and be hunchbacked; it’s the eyes that kill you. They don’t pierce, they bludgeon.”
In the midst of that era’s mayhem, Lydon fell head over stilettos for Nora Forster, the woman who would capture his heart. At the age of 80, she died on April 6. They had been married since 1979. “The first time I met Nora, everyone told her not to talk to me because I was completely horrible,” Lydon (67) said with a smirk in an interview with Irish TV. “We ended up laughing and loving each other.”
Public attention to celebrity matrimony is often more focused on prenuptial agreements than on “in sickness and in health.” But there are some hard rock exceptions to the rule. Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne have been married for 42 years, while Alice and Sheryl Cooper recently celebrated their 47th wedding anniversary.
Lydon discussing issues of the heart can still strike old fans as slightly off-kilter – but it’s legit. “It’s love, you know. I’ve always loved that woman,” Lydon said of Nora in The Guardian last year. “And she knows it. When we met we didn’t expect to get on. We’d both been told the other was a bad’un. But blimey. Sparks flew. It was instant attraction. And that’s never gone. I never expected to feel like that.”
Despite Johnny’s outrageous public persona, his marriage to Nora never fed salacious headlines. After the implosion of the Sex Pistols, Lydon turned his creative energy to his post-punk band Public Image, Ltd. Despite a long list of rotating bandmates and managers, there has been only one woman in Lydon’s orbit.
In the 2018 music documentary “The Public Image is Rotten,” a much younger Lydon reports, “We are very happy [after 10 years of marriage]. We’ll never separate. When I make a commitment it is forever. I’m a loyalist.” He goes on to describe Nora: “Such an original person. That’s the hook for me. … When I come across something so incredibly original – that’s it – I’m in love with that. There’s not too much of that going on in the world.”
In recent years, Nora suffered from Alzheimer’s and Lydon was her protective and affectionate full-time care giver. “I won’t let anyone mess up with her head,” he told the British Mirror three years ago. “For me, the real person is still there. That person I love is still there every minute of every day, and that is my life.”
When she was diagnosed with her illness, Lydon knew that it would be a monumental challenge. “Alzheimer’s is a wicked, debilitating, slow, deliberate process, but we’re going through that together. She doesn’t forget me. She forgets everything else but not me,” he told The Times. “I know it’s going to deteriorate into something really, really terrible, but we’re facing it with a sense of dignity… When I make a commitment it’s forever and I stand by that and I’m very proud to do the best I can for her. We’ve been together now 45 years; we’re not going to change anything.”
Despite a reputation as a cantankerous contrarian (he’s not everyone’s cup of tea), Lydon was fully devoted to Nora. “She is loved, and she knows she is loved. And her personality has always been vivacious, outgoing, bright and looking for the best in things,” he told The Telegraph before her death. “All the sadness I had to go through [when Nora became ill] is self-inflicted on myself and I’m seeing the light in it now.” He added: “In an odd weird way this is actually a gift from God, not a curse. Because it offers enormous self-reflection.”
As a child, Lydon suffered from spinal meningitis. He was in a coma for several months and experienced severe memory loss. “I know that fear of isolation. I know what it’s like to feel completely frightened and not know where you are,” he told the Daily Mail. Understandably, it was a traumatic event that he never wanted to relive.
“All the things I thought were the ultimate agony seem preposterous now,” Lydon told The Times in February. “It’s shaped me into what I am. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.” He said the difficult journey has been “worth every moment,” adding “no joy comes without pain and, boy, do I know that now.”
In her younger years, Nora Forster was a model, actress, and publishing heiress. She had also worked as a music promoter in Germany for Jimi Hendrix and Yes. Years later, she took on the role in London as a “Punk Mummy Warrior” and was a patron for the Pistols, The Clash, and The Slits (her daughter Ari Up’s band).
Forster and Lydon had met at the trendy punk fashion boutique run by designer Vivienne Westwood and promoter Malcolm McClaren. Lydon told The Guardian that Nora “was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. She was also well educated, funny and dressed magnificently, with a wink to 40s film noir.”
In the midst of the notoriety and controversy surrounding much of Lydon’s musical career, he was fiercely committed to his wife. “Well, good luck to people that are flippant about their relationships and their responsibility towards their fellow human beings, but people like me and Nora, we spend the time and take the effort to understand each other,” he told Yahoo News several years ago. “And then it becomes a life’s work in progress. And for my way of living, that’s how I want it to be. I don’t take commitments lightly. I don’t treat fellow human beings as tools of my trade. So, there you go – I’m a loyalist at heart.”
In the years since she was diagnosed, the couple danced together, watched comedies, and reminisced about holidays.
Public Image Ltd. will release a new album “End of World” in August. On it, the final track is a song called “Hawaii.” Lydon called it a “love letter” to his wife. “Remember me/ I remember you… You are loved,” he sings. “Don’t fly too soon/ No need to cry in pain/ you are loved.” The song is a memorial to a week the couple had spent in Hawaii after a tour.
Lydon dedicated it to “everyone going through tough times on the journey of life, with the person they care for the most. It’s also a message of hope that ultimately love conquers all.”
To his credit, Lydon is as blunt as a wrecking ball and has never tried to sugarcoat a situation. Loyalty of the heart. Till death do us part. Love conquers all. “I can’t think of a better woman on God’s earth than Nora,” he once said. Johnny believed it. As she slowly approached the exit gate of life, he proved to be a blessing to her – and a sterling example to the rest of us.
Steve Beard is a writer and creator of Thunderstruck.org.