John Joseph Lydon (born 31 January 1956), also known by his stage name Johnny Rotten, is an English singer, songwriter and musician. He is best known as the lead singer of the late-1970s British punk band the Sex Pistols, which lasted from 1975 until 1978, and again for various revivals during the 1990s and 2000s. He is also the lead singer of post-punk band Public Image Ltd (PiL), which he founded and fronted from 1978 until 1993, and again since 2009. Since 2013, Lydon has held British, Irish and American citizenship.
Lydon performing with Public Image Ltd in 2010
|Birth name||John Joseph Lydon|
|Also known as||Johnny Rotten|
|Born||31 January 1956|
Holloway, London, England, United Kingdom
Lydon's outspoken persona, rebellious image and fashion style led to his being asked to become the singer of the Sex Pistols by their manager, Malcolm McLaren. With the Sex Pistols, he penned singles including "Anarchy in the U.K.," "God Save the Queen," and "Holidays in the Sun," the content of which precipitated what one commentator described as the "last and greatest outbreak of pop-based moral pandemonium" in Britain. The band caused a nationwide uproar in much of the media, and Lydon was seen as a figurehead of the burgeoning punk movement. Despite their controversial lyrics and style at the time, they are now regarded as one of the most influential acts in the history of popular music.
After the Sex Pistols disbanded in 1978, Lydon went on to found his own band, Public Image Ltd, which was far more experimental in nature and described in a 2005 NME review as "arguably the first post-rock group." The band produced eight albums and a string of singles, including "Public Image", "Death Disco", and "Rise", before they went on hiatus in 1993, reforming in 2009. In subsequent years, Lydon has hosted television shows in the UK, US, and Belgium, appeared on I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! in the UK, appeared in advertisements on UK television promoting a brand of British butter, written two autobiographies Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs (1993) and Anger is an Energy (2014), and produced some solo musical work, such as the album Psycho's Path (1997). In 2005, he released a compilation album, The Best of British £1 Notes.
There has been a recent revival of a 1980s movement to have Lydon knighted for his achievements with the Sex Pistols, even though he has declined efforts to award him an MBE for his services to music. A prominent figure in British popular culture for four decades, Q magazine remarked that "somehow he's assumed the status of national treasure". In 2002, he was named among the 100 Greatest Britons following a UK-wide vote.
Early life: 1956–1974Edit
—John Lydon (2013)
John Joseph Lydon was born in London on 31 January 1956. His parents, Eileen Lydia (née Barry) (died 1978) and John Christopher Lydon, were working-class emigrants from Ireland who moved into a two-room Victorian flat in Benwell Road, in the Holloway area of north London. The flat is adjacent to the Highbury Stadium, the former home of Premier League football club Arsenal F.C. of which Lydon has been an avid fan since the age of four. At the time, the area was largely impoverished, with a high crime rate and a population consisting predominantly of working-class Irish and Jamaican people. Lydon spent summer holidays in his mother's native County Cork, where he suffered name-calling for having an English accent, a prejudice he claims he still receives today even though he travels under an Irish passport.
John, the eldest of four brothers, had to look after his siblings due to his mother's regular illnesses. As a child, he lived on the edge of an industrial estate and would often play with friends in the factories when they were closed. He belonged to a local gang of neighbourhood kids and would often end up in fights with other groups, something he would later look back on with fond memories: "Hilarious fiascoes, not at all like the knives and guns of today. The meanness wasn't there. It was more like yelling, shouting, throwing stones, and running away giggling. Maybe the reality was coloured by my youth." Describing himself as a "very shy" and "very retiring" kid who was "nervous as hell", he hated going to school, where he would get caned as punishment and where he "had several embarrassing incidents ... I would shit my pants and be too scared to ask the teacher to leave the class. I'd sit there in a pants load of poo all day long."
At the age of seven, he contracted spinal meningitis and spent a year in St Ann's Hospital in Haringey, London. Throughout the entire experience, he suffered from hallucinations, nausea, headaches, periods of coma, and a severe memory loss that lasted for four years, whilst the treatments administered by the nurses involved drawing fluid out of his spine with a surgical needle, leaving him with a permanent spinal curvature. The meningitis was also responsible for giving him what he would later describe as the "Lydon stare"; this experience was "the first step that put me on the road to Rotten".
—John Lydon (1993)
With his father often away, employed variously on building sites or oil rigs, Lydon got his first job aged ten as a minicab dispatcher, something he kept up for a year while the family was in financial difficulty. He disliked his secondary school, the St William of York Roman Catholic School in Islington, where initially he was bullied, but at fourteen or fifteen he "broke out of the mould" and began to fight back at what he saw as the oppressive nature of the school teachers, who he felt instigated and encouraged the kids to all be the same and be "anti-anyone-who-doesn't-quite-fit-the-mould." Following the completion of his O-levels at school, he got into a row with his father, who disliked Lydon's long hair, and so, agreeing to get it cut, the teenager not only had it cut, but in an act of rebellion, he dyed it bright green. As a teenager he listened to rock bands like Hawkwind, Captain Beefheart, Alice Cooper and the Stooges – bands his mother also used to like, a fact which somewhat embarrassed him – as well as more mainstream groups like T. Rex and Gary Glitter.
He was kicked out of school at fifteen years old after a run-in with a teacher, and went on to attend Hackney College, where he befriended John Simon Ritchie, and Kingsway Princeton College. Lydon gave Ritchie the nickname "Sid Vicious," after his parents' pet hamster. Lydon and Vicious began squatting in a house in the wealthy Hampstead area with a group of ageing hippies and stopped bothering to go to college, which was often far away from where they were living. Meanwhile, he began working on building sites during the summer, assisted by his father. Friends also recommended him for a job at a children's play centre in Finsbury Park, teaching woodwork to some of the older children, but he was sacked when parents complained that somebody "weird" with bright-green hair was teaching their children. Lydon and his friends, including Vicious, John Gray, Jah Wobble, Dave Crowe and Tony Purcell, began going to many of the London clubs, such as the Lacey Lady in Ilford, and also frequented both reggae and gay clubs, enjoying the latter because "you could be yourself, nobody bothered you" there.
1975–1978: Sex Pistols and the punk movementEdit
In 1975 Lydon was among a group of youths who regularly hung around Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's fetish clothing shop SEX. McLaren had returned from a brief stint travelling with American protopunk band the New York Dolls, and he was working on promoting a new band formed by Steve Jones, Glen Matlock and Paul Cook called the Sex Pistols. McLaren was impressed with Lydon's ragged look and unique sense of style, particularly his orange hair and modified Pink Floyd T-shirt (with the band members' eyes scratched out and the words I Hate scrawled in felt-tip pen above the band's logo). After tunelessly singing Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen" to the accompaniment of the shop's jukebox, Lydon was chosen as the band's frontman. In 1977, the band released "God Save the Queen" during the week of Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee. At the time, August 1977, Lydon commented: "Turn the other cheek too often and you get a razor through it."[clarification needed]
Lydon was also interested in dub music. McLaren was said to have been upset when Lydon revealed during a radio interview that his influences included progressive experimentalists like Magma, Can, Captain Beefheart and Van der Graaf Generator. Tensions between Lydon and bassist Glen Matlock arose. The reasons for this are disputed, but Lydon claimed in his autobiography that he believed Matlock to be too white-collar and middle-class and that Matlock was "always going on about nice things like the Beatles". Matlock stated in his own autobiography that most of the tension in the band, and between himself and Lydon, was orchestrated by McLaren. Matlock quit and as a replacement, Lydon recommended his school friend John Simon Ritchie, a.k.a. Sid Vicious. Although Ritchie was an incompetent bassist, McLaren agreed that he had the look the band wanted: pale, emaciated, spike-haired, with ripped clothes and a perpetual sneer.
Vicious' chaotic relationship with girlfriend Nancy Spungen, and his worsening heroin addiction, caused a great deal of friction among the band members, particularly with Lydon, whose sarcastic remarks often exacerbated the situation. Lydon closed the final Sid Vicious-era Sex Pistols concert in San Francisco's Winterland in January 1978 with a rhetorical question to the audience: "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" Shortly thereafter, McLaren, Jones, and Cook went to Brazil to meet and record with former train robber Ronnie Biggs. Lydon declined to go, deriding the concept as a whole and feeling that they were attempting to make a hero out of a criminal who attacked a train driver and stole "working-class money".
The Sex Pistols' disintegration was documented in Julian Temple's satirical pseudo-biographical film, The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, in which Jones, Cook and Vicious each played a character. Matlock only appeared in previously recorded live footage and as an animation and did not participate personally. Lydon refused to have anything to do with it, feeling that McLaren had far too much control over the project. Although Lydon was highly critical of the film, many years later he agreed to let Temple direct the Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and the Fury. That film included new interviews with the band members' faces hidden in silhouette. It featured an uncharacteristically emotional Lydon choking up as he discussed Vicious' decline and death. Lydon denounced previous journalistic works regarding the Sex Pistols in the introduction to his autobiography, Rotten – No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, which he described as "as close to the truth as one can get".
1978–1993: Public Image Ltd (PiL)Edit
In 1978, Lydon formed the post-punk outfit Public Image Limited (PiL). The first lineup of the band included bassist Jah Wobble and former Clash guitarist Keith Levene. They released the albums Public Image (also known as First Issue), Metal Box and Paris in the Spring (live). Wobble then left and Lydon and Levene made The Flowers of Romance. Then came This Is What You Want ... This Is What You Get featuring Martin Atkins on drums (he had also appeared on Metal Box and The Flowers of Romance); it featured their biggest hit, "This Is Not a Love song", which hit No. 5 in 1983.
In 1984, Lydon worked with Time Zone on their single "World Destruction". A collaboration between Lydon, Afrika Bambaataa and producer/bassist Bill Laswell, the single was an early example of "rap rock", along with Run-DMC. The song appears on Afrika Bambaataa's 1997 compilation album Zulu Groove. It was arranged by Laswell after Lydon and Bambaataa had acknowledged respect for each other's work, as described in an interview from 1984:
Afrika Bambaataa: I was talking to Bill Laswell saying I need somebody who's really crazy, man, and he thought of John Lydon. I knew he was perfect because I'd seen this movie that he'd made [Corrupt, a.k.a. Copkiller and The Order of Death], I knew about all the Sex Pistols and Public Image stuff, so we got together and we did a smashing crazy version, and a version where he cussed the Queen something terrible, which was never released.
John Lydon: We went in, put a drum beat down on the machine and did the whole thing in about four-and-a-half hours. It was very, very quick.
The single also featured Bernie Worrell, Nicky Skopelitis and Aïyb Dieng, all of whom would later play on PiL's Album; Laswell also played bass and produced. In 1986 Public Image Limited released Album (also known as Compact Disc and Cassette). Most of the tracks on this album were written by Lydon and Bill Laswell. The musicians were session musicians including bassist Jonas Hellborg, guitarist Steve Vai and Cream drummer Ginger Baker.
In 1987 a new lineup was formed consisting of Lydon, former Magazine, Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Armoury Show guitarist John McGeoch, Allan Dias on bass guitar in addition to drummer Bruce Smith and Lu Edmunds. This lineup released Happy? and all except Lu Edmunds released the album 9 in 1989. In 1992 Lydon, Dias and McGeoch were joined by Curt Bisquera on drums and Gregg Arreguin on rhythm guitar for the album That What Is Not. This album also features the Tower of Power horns on two songs and Jimmie Wood on harmonica. Lydon, McGeoch and Dias also wrote the song "Criminal" for the movie Point Break. After this album, in 1993, Lydon put PiL on indefinite hiatus.
1993–2006: Solo album, autobiography and celebrity statusEdit
In 1993, Lydon's first autobiography, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, was published. Aided by Keith and Kent Zimmerman, and featuring contributions from figures including Paul Cook, Chrissie Hynde, Billy Idol and Don Letts, the work covered his life up until the collapse of the Sex Pistols. Describing the book, he stated that it "is as close to the truth as one can get, looking back on events from the inside. All the people in this book were actually there, and this book is as much their point of view as it is mine. This means contradictions and insults have not been edited, and neither have the compliments, if any. I have no time for lies or fantasy, and neither should you. Enjoy or die." In December 2005, Lydon told Q that he was working on a second autobiography to cover the PiL years.
In the mid-1990s, Lydon hosted Rotten Day, a daily syndicated US radio feature written by George Gimarc. The format of the show was a look back at events in popular music and culture occurring on the particular broadcast calendar date about which Lydon would offer cynical commentary. The show was originally developed as a radio vehicle for Gimarc's book, Punk Diary 1970–79, but after bringing Lydon onboard it was expanded to cover notable events from most of the second half of the 20th century.
In 1997 Lydon released a solo album on Virgin Records called Psycho's Path. He wrote all the songs and played all the instruments. In one song, "Sun", he sang the vocals through a toilet roll. The US version included a Chemical Brothers remix of the song "Open Up" by Leftfield with vocals by Lydon. This song is heard during the title menu of the computer game All Star Baseball 2000 (Acclaim Entertainment). It was also a club hit in the US and a big hit in the UK. John Lydon has recorded a second solo-album but it has not been released, except for one song that appeared on The Best of British £1 Notes. In November 1997, Lydon appeared on Judge Judy fighting a suit filed by his former tour drummer Robert Williams for breach of contract, assault and battery.
In January 2004, Lydon appeared on the British reality television programme I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!, which took place in Australia. He proved he still had the capability to shock by calling the show's viewers "fucking cunts" during a live broadcast. The television regulator and ITV, the channel broadcasting the show, between them received 91 complaints about Lydon's language.
In a February 2004 interview with the Scottish Sunday Mirror, Lydon said that he and his wife "should be dead", since on 21 December 1988, thanks to delays caused by his wife's packing, they missed the Pan Am Flight 103 that crashed in Lockerbie, Scotland.
After I'm a Celebrity ... , he presented a documentary about insects and spiders called John Lydon's Megabugs that was shown on the Discovery Channel. Radio Times described him as "more an enthusiast than an expert". He went to present two further programmes: John Lydon Goes Ape, in which he searched for gorillas in Central Africa, and John Lydon's Shark Attack, in which he swam with sharks off South Africa.
In late 2008 Lydon appeared in an advertising campaign for "Country Life", a popular brand of butter, on British television. Lydon defended the move by stating that the main reason he accepted the offer was to raise money to reform Public Image Ltd without a record deal. The advertising campaign proved to be highly successful, with sales of the brand raising 85% in the quarter following, which many in the media attributed to Lydon's presence in the advert.
2006–2009: Potential Sex Pistols revivalEdit
Although Lydon spent years denying that the Sex Pistols would ever perform together again, the band re-united (with Matlock returning on bass) in the 1990s, and continues to perform occasionally.
In 2002—the year of the Queen's Golden Jubilee—the Sex Pistols reunited again to play the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre in London. In 2003, their Piss Off Tour took them around North America for three weeks. Further performances took place in Europe in 2007-08.
In 2006, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted the Sex Pistols, but the band refused to attend the ceremony or acknowledge the induction, complaining that they had been asked for large sums of money to attend.
2009 to present: PiL reformationEdit
In September 2009 it was announced that PiL would reform, including earlier members Bruce Smith and Lu Edmonds, for a number of Christmas shows in the UK. Lydon financed the reunion using money he earned doing a UK TV commercial for Country Life butter. "The money that I earned from that has now gone completely—lock stock and barrel—into reforming PiL," said Lydon.
In August 2010, Lydon played with Public Image Ltd in Tel Aviv, Israel despite protests. Lydon was criticized for a statement to newspaper The Independent: "I really resent the presumption that I'm going there to play to right-wing Nazi Jews. If Elvis-fucking-Costello wants to pull out of a gig in Israel because he's suddenly got this compassion for Palestinians, then good on him. But I have absolutely one rule, right? Until I see an Arab country, a Muslim country, with a democracy, I won't understand how anyone can have a problem with how they're treated."
In October 2013, Lydon clarified in an interview.
I support no government anywhere, ever, never. No institution, no religion – these are things that all of us as human beings do not need. When I go to a place like Israel, it's not to support anti-Arab sentiment or pro-Israeli government, it's to play to the people.
During an April 2013 Australian tour, Lydon was involved in a television interview for The Project that resulted in a publicised controversy, as he was labelled "a flat out, sexist, misogynist pig" by one of the panellists on the Australian programme. The altercation occurred with host Carrie Bickmore and the description was provided by panellist Dr Andrew Rochford after the interview was prematurely terminated by Bickmore's colleague Dave Hughes. Lydon conducted the interview from Brisbane while on PiL's first tour of Australia in twenty years—first announced in December 2012—on which shows were also held in the capital cities of Sydney and Melbourne.
Lydon was cast to play the role of King Herod for the North American arena tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber's rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. He was to play the role starting 9 June through 17 August, and was to be joined by Ben Forster as Jesus, Brandon Boyd of rock band Incubus as Judas Iscariot, Destiny's Child singer Michelle Williams as Mary Magdalene, and former 'N Sync singer JC Chasez as Pontius Pilate. On 31 May 2014 producers announced that the tour of the production was cancelled, because of poor advance ticket sales.
A compilation of Lydon's lyrics, Mr. Rotten's Songbook, was published in 2017. The limited-edition book includes the words to every song he wrote during his entire career, punctuated by his own original sketches and cartoons.
Origin of stage nameEdit
Lydon explained the origin of his stage name, Johnny Rotten, in a Daily Telegraph feature interview in 2007: he was given the name in the mid-1970s, when his lack of oral hygiene led to his teeth turning green. One version says the name came from the Sex Pistols' guitarist Steve Jones, who saw Lydon's teeth and exclaimed, "You're rotten, you are!"
In 2008, Lydon had extensive dental work performed in Los Angeles, at a reported cost of US $22,000. He explained that it was not done out of vanity: "It was necessity ... all those rotten teeth were seriously beginning to corrupt my system".
Lydon married Nora Forster, a publishing heiress from Germany, in 1979. He was the stepfather of Forster's daughter Ari Up, who had been the lead singer in the post-punk band The Slits before her death in 2010. In 2000, Lydon and Nora became legal guardians of Ari's twin teenaged boys; as Lydon explained "[Ari] let them run free. They couldn't read, write or form proper sentences. One day Ari said she couldn't cope with them any more. I suggested they came to us because I wasn't having them abandoned. They gave us hell, but I loved having kids around." In 2010, they also became guardians of Ari's third child, Wilton. Lydon and Forster primarily live in Los Angeles, California where they have resided since the early 1980s, but also keep a residence in London. In 2018, Lydon revealed that Forster was in the mid-stages of Alzheimer's Disease.
Lydon became an American citizen in 2013, in addition to his British and Irish citizenships. He later spoke of how he would never have considered becoming a US citizen during the "Bush years" because of the "horrible" way America presented itself abroad, but the Obama presidency had changed his mind, in particular because "America has the potential to be a nation that actually cares for its afflicted and wounded and ill and disenfranchised" as a result of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare).
Lydon's parents raised their sons as Roman Catholics and Lydon calls himself a Catholic. He has stated that he "never had any godlike epiphanies or thought that God had anything to do with this dismal occurrence called life." On the liner notes of Public Image Ltd's single, "Cruel", Lydon included, "Where is God? I see no evidence of God. God is probably Barry Manilow." Lydon has been a fan of Oscar Wilde since he studied his works at school, when he came to the conclusion that "his stuff was fucking brilliant. What an attitude to life! ... He turned out to be the biggest poof on earth at a time when that was completely unacceptable. What a genius." Lydon is a visual artist. His drawings, paintings and other related works have featured prominently in the works of PiL and his solo career throughout the years, the most recent example being the cover to This is PiL. In 2014 he admitted to losing £10,000 on iPad games.
United Kingdom's class structureEdit
Ever since his rise to public attention, Lydon has remained an outspoken critic of much in British politics and society. He comes from an emigrant working class background and is opposed to the class system, describing how private schools "tend to turn out little snobs. They're taught a sense of superiority, which is the kiss of death ... They're absolutely screwed up for life." He is critical of the upper class, stating that they "parasite off the population as their friends help them along" but he equally criticises the working class, claiming that "We're lazy, good-for-nothing bastards, absolute cop-outs [who] never accept responsibility for our own lives and that's why we'll always be downtrodden." He opposes all forms of segregation in schools, not only through the private and state school division but also with single-sex schools; "It doesn't make sense. It's a much better environment with girls in the class. You learn a lot more, as diversity makes things more interesting."
The Troubles, 1969–1994Edit
Lydon criticised the paramilitary organisations involved in The Troubles in Northern Ireland, remarking that the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defence Association were "like two mafia gangs punching each other out ... They both run their extortion rackets and plague people to no end." He remarked that "The Northern Ireland problem is a terrible thing, and it's only the ignorance of the people living outside of it that keeps it going" but that ultimately the British government's exploitative attitude to the problem was in his opinion the main cause.
Banking & the 2008 global financial crisisEdit
Appearing on the BBC's Question Time on 5 July 2012, Lydon questioned the notion of a parliamentary inquiry into the banking industry, saying "How on earth is Parliament going to discuss this really when both sides, left and right, are connected to this? This doesn't just go back to Brown, this is part of the ongoing problem. Mr Diamond comes from Wall Street ... hello. Both parties love this idea. They are fiddling with rates. They are affecting the world and everything we used to count on as being dependable and accurate is being discussed by these argumentative chaps. If I nick a motor I'm going to be up before the judge, the rozzers. Hello, same thing."
Institutions of the United KingdomEdit
On the same episode of Question Time, Lydon was critical of the announcement that the British Army was to be reduced in size, saying: "One of the most beautiful things about Britain, apart from the N.H.S. [National Health Service] and the free education, is the British Army." He has been a supporter of the N.H.S. since receiving treatment for meningitis aged 7, stating in 2014: "I want national health and education to always be of the highest agenda and I do not mind paying tax for that."
Jimmy Savile abuse scandalEdit
In a 1978 BBC Radio 1 interview, Lydon alluded to the sexual abuses committed by Jimmy Savile, as well as the suppression of negative information about Savile by mainstream social forces, many decades in advance of it becoming a public scandal. Lydon stated: "I'd like to kill Jimmy Savile; I think he's a hypocrite. I bet he's into all kinds of seediness that we all know about, but are not allowed to talk about. I know some rumours." He added: "I bet none of this will be allowed out." After the interviewer suggested libel might be an issue, Lydon replied, "Nothing I've said is libel."
The UK and the European UnionEdit
Lydon publicly supported the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union during the referendum on EU membership in June 2016, stating that being outside of the European Union would be "insane and suicidal" for the United Kingdom, "We're never going to go back to that romantic delusion of Victorian isolation, it isn't going to happen. There'll be no industry, there'll be no trade, there'll be nothing – a slow dismal, collapse. It's ludicrous."
During an interview on Good Morning Britain in March 2017, Lydon stated that he supported Brexit: "Well, here it goes, the working-class have spoke and I'm one of them and I'm with them." Lydon also described Brexit advocate Nigel Farage as "fantastic" and that he wanted to shake his hand after his altercation on the River Thames with anti-Brexit campaigner Bob Geldof.
US President Donald TrumpEdit
Before his election, Lydon publicly stated to the media in response to questions about Donald Trump's prospects for being elected President of the United States: "No, I can't see it happening, it's a minority that support him at best, and it's so hateful and ignorant." During his Good Morning Britain interview in March 2017, Lydon described him as a "complicated fellow, who terrifies politicians and that brings joy to his heart" and said that there were "many, many problems with him as a human being" but defended him against accusations of racism: "What I dislike is the left-wing media in America are trying to smear the bloke as a racist and that's completely not true." He elaborated to NPR: "He's a total cat amongst the pigeons ... [He's] got everybody now involving themselves in a political way. And I've been struggling for years to get people to wake up and do that."
Lydon, who became a US citizen in 2013 because he "believed in Barack Obama" and his health care reform, referred to the Republicans in 2017 as "a crazy loony monster party" who were looking to dismantle health care under Trump.
All chart positions are UK.
Compilations and live albums
Public Image LtdEdit
Compilations and live albums
The Lydons and the O'DonnellsEdit
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On the liner notes of a 1992 single "Cruel" he said, "Where is God? I see no evidence of God. God is probably Barry Manilow."
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