[sic] Magazine

“Remember me” – PiL’s devastatingly harrowing Eurovision entry.

“Remember me” – PiL’s devastatingly harrowing Eurovision entry.
By Gavin Fearnley.

Who had Public Image Ltd (PiL) down on their 2023 bingo card competing to represent Ireland at the Eurovision Song Contest?

It’s intriguing on numerous levels.

Not least because ‘Hawaii’ won’t be surpassed by many songs this year for having some of the most tender, emotionally charged and desperately tragic lyrics.

It’s an open love letter to frontman John Lydon’s wife of over 40 years, Nora Forster, who is living with Alzheimer’s.

“It is dedicated to everyone going through tough times on the journey of life, with the person they care for the most,” says Lydon, whose parents were born in Ireland. “It’s also a message of hope that ultimately love conquers all.”

‘Hawaii’ is certainly not what we’ve come to expect from PiL. But is it really unlike any of their previous singles?

It doesn’t soar like ‘Rise’ – yet it does have a similar tempo. It’s not the gut-punch rallying call of urgent first single ‘Public Image’ – yet it will resonate with a great many people for its battle cry-like defiance.

Given the title, we may be forgiven for assuming that Lydon is singing about visiting Hawaii and enjoying his wife’s company. Presumably something they cannot do anymore.

But we might be simplifying it.

Lydon does sing “Aloha” (the Hawaiian word for love, affection, peace, compassion and mercy) at the beginning.

Yet, when Lydon sings “Hawaii” one wonders if this is actually a device to conceal a more personal “why?”.

“Remember me,” sings Lydon in an effort to awaken his partner’s failing memories. “Don’t fly away too soon,” he implores her. Elsewhere he comforts his wife with “no need to cry in pain … we’re here, you and me.”

It’s a genuine, heart-wrenching, emotional rollercoaster similar to The Prayer Boat’s ‘Come to Life’ and ‘I Believe in You’ by Talk Talk. It’s a challenge to imagine Lydon singing his lines in a studio without having to intermittently stop to gather his thoughts.

Lydon’s vocal performance is definitely more delicate than normal. This is a man clearly dealing with deep hurt.

That Lydon is in pain is nothing new. He’s been his wife’s carer since her diagnosis in 2018, which has led to alarming public appearances.

Not least, an excruciating argument with Marky Ramone in 2019 where the two were engaged in a savage slagging match during a panel discussion in the USA.

On such occasions, Lydon seemingly reverts to his Johnny Rotten alter-ego.

Something with which in hindsight – even back in his Sex Pistols days – he has perhaps always been a little uncomfortable; a hideous vaudeville, pantomime villain.

Look closely, and the Rotten persona looks forced when looking back at Pistols footage either from the 1970s or during the comeback gigs of the 1990s where band members would rarely talk to or travel with each other.

Let’s not forget, Lydon was brought into the Pistols long after Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock were already under the stewardship of Malcom McLaren and Vivian Westwood.

Rotten was an invention – a cartoon character. No doubt a coping mechanism following long-term illness and having grown up as an immigrant in unforgiving post-war London, as detailed in Lydon’s brilliant book No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs.

His signature intense stare? Caused by poor vision following childhood spinal meningitis. It put him in a coma for months, and when he woke up, he’d lost his memory.

Indeed, Lydon writes that as a child he was “very shy”, “very retiring” and “nervous as hell”.

Many admirers of Lydon’s work seem to gloss over this, assuming the man is a constant whirlwind of fury.

Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, knows differently.

The town is where the Sex Pistols played their final two UK gigs (both on Christmas Day, 1977) for striking firemen, laid-off workers and one-parent families.

The Huddersfield Examiner likes to wheel this story out every now and again, and accompanies it with a delightful photo of Lydon, looking content and covered in cake which has seemingly been thrown on him by smiling children (also in shot).

Fans seem to prefer to concentrate on the Lydon that filled ‘Bodies’ with expletives on Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Or they cite the infamous Bill Grundy TV interview, where Lydon actually mostly kept quiet.

Yet, PiL has always mixed post-punk with jazz and disco sounds (check out their absurd 1980 performance on US dance television programme American Bandstand).

However, if the Sex Pistols are synonymous with punk, then so is John Lydon. Unsurprisingly, then, initial reactions to ‘Hawaii’ have been mixed.
One post on the band’s dedicated Reddit page was entitled simply “sigh”. Whereas more than a few people on Twitter expressed surprise that the entry to perform for Ireland was “not a joke.”

Maybe it is indeed remarkable that Lydon wants to take part in a European pop competition representing Ireland. After all, he told the Observer that he was in favour of Britain leaving the European Union. The British working class had spoken, he said. “They’re not going to be dictated to by unknown continentals,” he told the newspaper.

He has also been vociferous in his patriotism for the UK and less so for Éire.

“I am John, and I was born in London!” he proudly exclaims in 2012’s ‘One Drop’, while he’s not adverse to flaunting the Union Flag and is an avid fan of Arsenal FC having grown up in a house close to Highbury, the club’s former ground in the north of Britain’s capital.

“I view myself as British first and foremost,” said Lydon in an interview with John Doran (in the excellent British Masters interview series). “When my parents came over from Ireland they became intrinsically working-class English. [I’m] proper London working-class.”

But nationality is complicated – these matters often run deeper than immediately apparent and accordingly, Lydon travels on an Irish passport (still conveniently part of the European Union, eh John?).

PiL must now perform on Irish TV in February, facing five other acts (ADGY, CONNOLLY, Wild Youth, Leila Jane, K Muni & ND) with the winner heading to Eurovision-host city Liverpool in May.

If Lydon and the rest of PiL pull this off, it could set a new precedent for the Eurovision Song Contest, long a home for throwaway pop tunes.

And although there’s nothing necessarily wrong with arguably less-serious music, a move away from the meaningless to the meaningful might be just what the continent needs while a war rages on its soil.

“Remember me,” sings Lydon in ‘Hawaii’. Well, even if this doesn’t end up being an astonishing lasting legacy, there’s little chance he’ll ever be truly forgotten.