I reckon Wilko Johnson forgot I was calling. Either that or he was just wrapped up in the book he was reading, Thomas Middleton’s early 17th century play, The Revenger’s Tragedy, enjoying time to himself back at home in Southend before his next batch of live and studio commitments.
Anyone who’s seen either of the fantastic Julien Temple documentary films involving Wilko (2009’s Dr Feelgood biopic Oil City Confidential and last year’s The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson) will know he’s a keen star-gazer. And that’s putting it mildly. It wasn’t great weather in Lancashire, but I couldn’t assume it was the same in Essex. So what did he hope to see from his rooftop observatory that night?
“Not a lot actually – it’s raining!”
I let on that – although I loved the first film – it took me a while to get the courage to watch The Ecstasy. This riveting tale of his battle against cancer was perhaps too close to home for some of us, dealing with our own family health issues. It turned out to be amazing viewing though, every bit as compelling as Julien’s quirky take on Canvey Island’s favourite sons Dr Feelgood – the band in which Wilko made his name – and all the more emotional.
Wilko’s recent health battle has been well documented, the national and international media seemingly unable to get enough of it at times. But in case you missed it, this charismatic guitar hero – widowed in 2004 after his wife and childhood sweetheart Irene died of cancer – was diagnosed with incurable pancreatic cancer and given a few months to live in early 2013. The dad-of-two managed to accept his fate with uplifting positivity from the start though, and then somehow defied the death sentence handed down to him.
“I’ve seen it once. It’s really good. Julien makes really good films, doesn’t he?”
The references are sublime, not least the classic film clips Julien weaves in or recreates, such as Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 Swedish fantasy-drama The Seventh Seal – Wilko playing chess with the Grim Reaper – and Powell and Pressberger’s 1946 masterpiece A Matter of Life & Death, again perfect in the circumstances.
It’s now three and a half years since Wilko told the world about his cancer, and he talks in that film about his diagnosis leading to a sharpening of the senses, as if seeing things properly for the first time. Is he still in that euphoric state, or have things drifted since?
“As I get better and better I get more and more miserable, so I’m returning to my old self! In fact, that whole episode of being ill then going through the op and that, it’s all like a dream. Getting the diagnosis put me into this strange state … a rather nice state in many ways. But that is a result of knowing your life’s coming to an end.
“Now it’s not coming to an end …. well, it will eventually. That whole state of consciousness, when I think back now, is like, ‘Wow! That was weird!’”
It’s the ultimate trip, I suppose.
“I really have no idea. I’m seeing Julien soon, but don’t think about anything like that anymore. I just carry on, go along with the flow. I reckon he’s got some ideas though.”
When time’s against you, I’m guessing there’s a lot of reordering in your life. What were you happiest to drop from the daily grind to fit in what really matters?
“I didn’t really think about that. It just puts you in this strange place where you’re kind of isolated from the world. People often say cancer’s a very lonely thing, and it certainly is. You’re living in this state of mind which cuts you off from the world. You don’t drop things, but there are a lot of things you don’t care about anymore.”
On a more positive note, it at least pushed Wilko higher up the ‘to do‘ list for making a record with The Who frontman Roger Daltrey … with an amazing outcome on 2014’s Going Back Home.
“Yeah – that was a fantastic career move, wasn’t it? Doing the thing with Roger was just one example of all the strange things that took place that year. And that one worked out good!”
Wilko quotes some apt literary lines during The Ecstasy, including those from another 17th century source, John Donne’s No Man is an Island (‘Send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee’). Was there always a love of reading for this Essex lad who studied Anglo-Saxon and ancient Icelandic sagas at university in Newcastle-upon-Tyne? Was he encouraged to look at books at home?
“Maybe. I started reading very young. From the word go it’s something I’ve always done.”
Wilko taught English for a while after returning from overland travels to India, but soon the band he co-founded, Dr Feelgood, were taking off, securing their first record deal in 1974. Some four decades later, how was the experience of writing Don’t You Leave Me Here: My Life (aided by music writer Zoe Howe, who has also written biographies of late Feelgoods frontman Lee Brilleaux, Stevie Nicks, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Slits and Florence + the Machine, and happens to be Wilko’s drummer Dylan Howe’s wife)?
“That was all a bit weird. I’d never written a book before. Sometimes it was good, sometimes it was a bit freaky, and some of it was upsetting – looking back on the bad things. Writing about Dr Feelgood I mentioned how we had a big argument and broke up, and the publisher said I should say more. I said, ‘Well, it was a long time ago …’
“But for the first time I actually looked back and remembered the argument that broke the band up. And I thought, ‘Bloody hell – those b***ards! They done me wrong!’ I was right and they were wrong! That was unpleasant. I was really wronged. And after this bust-up they were saying in the papers it was my fault, blaming it all on me, just lying about me really. Well … f*** ‘em!”
That was in 1977, with a spell fronting the Solid Senders following, before he joined Ian Dury and the Blockheads, then went his own way again. And he’s led the Wilko Johnson Band for around 35 years now.
Back to the health story, and after his highly-emotional Spring 2013 farewell tour and swiftly-recorded album with Roger Daltrey, it turned out that Wilko didn’t have the more common adenocarcinoma of the pancreas after all, but a less virulent, more treatable form. And in late April 2014 he underwent a radical 11-hour operation to remove a mighty 3kg tumour, six months later memorably and rather miraculously announcing – while accepting Q magazine’s ‘icon award’ – that he was ‘cancer-free’.
“It’s really good actually, the gigs and everything. It’s going very well.”
My excuse for speaking to Wilko is his Great British R’n’B festival appearance in Colne, East Lancashire, on Sunday, August 28th. And R’nB is a genre he’ll forever be associated with, this artist who recently added his name to The First Time I Met the Blues, a Chess Masters compilation.
What came first for Wilko when it came to inspiration – hearing Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, or being turned on to The Rolling Stones, subsequently leading him to Muddy Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and all those innovators?
“I was a teenager, so you’re getting everything, aren’t you. I suppose the music I was into and what-not meant I was led into all that by The Stones chiefly. That’s how I found out about rhythm and blues. But it all seems fantastic when you’re a teenager.”
Funny you should say that. I was stopped in my tracks as a pre-teen by the music of punk and new wave bands like The Jam, The Stranglers, The Clash, Sex Pistols and The Undertones, who all acknowledged Dr Feelgood’s influence on them.
“Yeah, it all goes on like that.”
Wilko has his regular band with him at Colne, joining forces with revered Blockheads bass player Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Dylan Howe. There’s something about that three-piece set-up I find so powerful, I tell him. Perhaps it’s just difficult to hide – you have to give your all.
“Yeah, it takes it right down to the bone. It’s great. Roger told me The Who went for that singer and three-piece line-up because of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. In the early days – as The High Numbers – they supported them and decided that was what they wanted to do. So the Pirates influenced The Who, who then influenced Dr Feelgood, and we influenced The Jam. You just pass it on and on!”
One of those Feelgood-influenced bands I mentioned were The Stranglers, and Wilko remains friends with their bass player, JJ Burnel, who said nice things about him in an interview with me a while ago (with a link here).
“Yeah, we were pretty good mates, and he moved into my flat.”
That was in West Hampstead, wasn’t it?
“Yeah, we had some good times back then.”
Thinking of Wilko as this Canvey boy when the Island was arguably looked down on, then as this clever working-class lad at a mostly middle-class grammar school, and so on, is it fair to say he was always a bit of an outsider?
“I don’t think so. I never felt that way. And when I’m on Canvey Island I don’t feel like an outsider. I feel like an insider!”
Of course, as a fellow left-hander I’ve been known to blame that on not properly learning guitar, when really it was down to a lack of dedication instead, concentrating on other things. Besides, there was Wilko, Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix and many more gifted left-handers showing me up on that front.
“Well, there you go!”
I guess that if you really want to learn something, you’ll do it, right?
“Yeah. Looking back to learning the guitar, again I was a teenager and you happily sit there twanging away for hours and hours. I can’t imagine doing a thing like that now though.”
It struck me recently that your famous Fender Telecaster has been in the business even longer than you, pushing 50-plus years now. Do you know much about its first dozen years?
“I have two ‘62 Telecasters, one of which I bought new in about 1965, buying the other around the time Dr Feelgood started to become successful, as I didn’t want to take my old one on the road anymore. I painted that red and black. That was its beginning with me. Where or what it was before though, I do not know.”
I understand your brother, Malcolm, plays guitar too. Were those musical genes from the Wilkinson side or your Mum’s side?
“I don’t know. There was absolutely no music in our family that I know of. Nothing like that. I started playing rock’n’roll as a teenager, and Malcolm got a bit involved, then followed on to classical music. He’s very good. He plays the lute as well, and makes his living as a guitar teacher.”
Meanwhile, Wilko’s son Simon followed him into performing with his band, Eight Rounds Rapid.
How about your other son, Matthew – you didn’t put him off, did you?
“No! When he was about three years old – when the Feelgoods were really happening – he came to a few gigs, and like loads of kids he was fascinated by the drums. So for his third birthday or that Christmas I bought him a little drum kit. I showed it to him, and he just said, ‘Where’s me sticks?’ So yeah, he dabbled around with it as a kid.”
I won’t go into too much detail here, as it’s elsewhere on this blog in an earlier appreciation of all things Wilko following the initial news of his diagnosis (see the link at the end). But the first time I saw him live was something of a revelation. I knew of his Dr Feelgood past and all those records, but didn’t know too much about the band’s guitarist as a performer, so have clear memories of my first sight of him gliding across the stage – only seeing him from the waist up – at the Kennington Cricketers in early ‘86, and later at Putney Half Moon (in late ‘87). And in between those gigs I shelled out on live album Watch Out! too.
“He lives in Italy now. Funnily enough, I was just trying to call him earlier about something. So yes, we keep in touch.”
I know you never really liked the term ‘pub rock’, as Dr Feelgood were often described as prime exponents of, but we seem in danger of losing more and more of those treasured pub venues you once played in.
“Yeah, it kind of goes up and down, I suppose as the way music goes. When me and Norman started this band around the mid-‘80s, at that moment there were loads of good gigs in London and you could make a living just playing around there. Like you say – The Cricketers, the Half Moon, The Marquee, The Mean Fiddler, The Powerhaus. There were lots of gigs and lots of live music going down. Then it gradually changed with the dance thing, those live venues started going and the gigs went. What the scene is now, I do not know. I wonder what people are doing now!”
Those venues certainly had a great atmosphere, perfect for live music.
“Well yeah. It’s kind of the ideal situation for rock’n’roll, those kind of gigs. I think so.”
Three years ago Norman was emotional talking about Wilko’s health battle on stage at Preston’s 53 Degrees before the post-Dury Blockheads played Sweet Gene Vincent, which was also dedicated to their late lead singer and original drummer Charley Charles.
Norman and Wilko were together in the Blockheads for a short while, Wilko touring with the band, memorably introducing himself on 1980’s I Want To Be Straight and then featuring on the Laughter album. They later resumed a working relationship as part of Wilko’s band, and I put it to him that Norman always comes over as a decent bloke.
“Isn’t he just! Wow man! When Ian Dury asked me to join The Blockheads, I did it because I really wanted to play with that bass player! I didn’t know Norman then, but he was absolutely my favourite bass player. When I joined The Blockheads we became great mates.
And now it appears that these two 60-somethings are kept young by 47-year-old Dylan Howe on the road. But with Wilko’s amazing recovery, is there a feeling that this has all turned him into something of a fraud?
“It was a bit weird. When I got cancer, I didn’t ask for any of that, but suddenly all these newspapers wanted to interview me and get me to talk about it. I suppose a lot of people don’t want to talk about those things, whereas I did. So you’re going through your deep thoughts on death and whatever. Then a year later you’re saying, ‘Well, actually …”
Let’s not count our blessings here, but you’re in danger at this rate of celebrating your 70th on the road next year. Is it still a case of ‘take each day as it comes’ after all you’ve endured?
“Ever since my recovery it’s all been a bonus really. So yeah, I just take things as they come.”
Do you keep in touch with Charlie Chan, the ‘frustrated photographer and itinerant cancer surgeon’ from Cheltenham who first suspected Wilko’s tumour might be operable after all, after a fateful evening taking photos at a gig?
“Oh, indeed! I last saw him a couple of weeks ago.”
Can you remember anything about the op? Were you up there on the ceiling looking down?
“No, but I did have that experience once in a dentist’s chair when I was a kid. But this was 11 or 12 hours, so to make you unconscious that long they’ve really got to dope you up.
“The day before the operation we went to Cambridge to stay in a hotel so we could get into the hospital first thing in the morning. I remember that but can’t remember going across to the hospital, being anaesthetised or anything else. It’s an absolute blank.”
You make a nice comment on the documentary about your debt to the medical staff that helped you pull through at Cambridge’s Addenbrooke’s Hospital.
“Well, bloody hell – what can I say? Absolutely! It’s difficult for me to look on all the people at Addenbrooke’s – particularly Mr Huguet, the surgeon – as humans!
“When you’re in that situation and you see the work they do – what an institution the NHS is! And it’s terrifying the way they want to … well, these people!”
Away from the music, some people will know Wilko best for his role as mute executioner Ilyn Payne in 2011 and 2012 in hit American TV fantasy-drama Game of Thrones.
“Again, that was a surprise thing, the only bit of acting I’ve ever done. It was most enjoyable though. I took part in the first two series but then of course the cancer came along. My character’s not dead though. He lives on too! So they could possibly stick me in the next series. I hope they do. We shall see.”
You’re playing a few dates at present, and clearly loving that, but how about a new album?
“Well, I’m going for a meeting with the record company tomorrow, and we’re going to be talking about that, yeah!”
Finally, what advice might today’s Wilko offer to early ‘70s English tutor Mr Wilkinson, that might have saved him a bit of aggro in the following years?
“I tell you what, I think I’d probably just say, ‘Man, you ain’t so clever!’ But tomorrow’s me could probably come back tomorrow and tell me that too!”
Wilko Johnson’s band play the international stage at the Great British R&B Festival on Sunday, August 28th, with Willie and The Bandits and The Jive Aces also on the bill. The line-up for the event’s 27th year also includes Dave Edmunds, Nine Below Zero and Bernie Marsden’s Blues and Green project (Friday, August 26th); Nikki Hill, Earl Thomas and James Hunter (Saturday, August 27th), then Jordan Patterson, Sari Schorr and the Devon Allman Band (Monday, August 29th). There’s also a British stage and a daytime acoustic stage, the event running through to 6.30pm on Monday, August 29, with several local venues involved. Full four-day tickets are £95, with individual day tickets £28 for Friday, Saturday and Sunday night for the international stage, or £20 for Monday afternoon. For more information, full line-ups, directions, and tickets, head here.
Finally, for that April 2013 Wilko appreciation on this website, head here.