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The American masthead
1040 Abroad

Wilko Johnson
by Michael Burland

Wilko Johnson
Still firing on all cylinders: Wilko Johnson at the Wickham Festival, 2013.
Photo © Michael Burland

The man who reinvented British R&B shares his love of American music – and his love of life, as he nears the end of his – with The American.

This interview started by asking the interviewee 'how are you?'. Normal enough, but in this case it has a special nuance.

Even if you don't know Wilko Johnson's name, you have heard his influence. His band, Dr Feelgood, his songs, and his manic, choppy guitar style inspired bands, both American and British, from the mid 1970s onward. Truly a Transatlantic musical hero. [Editor's note: for full effect read this interview with one of the first four Dr Feelgood albums, or Wilko's solo albums, on loud.]

He's been in the media over the last few months for a different, sadder reason. At the beginning of 2013 he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He decided to say no to treatment, preferring to enjoy his last time on Earth without chemo- or radiotherapy. With his approach to life, he has become inspirational again.

So, Wilko, how are you? "I wake up each morning thinking, am I OK? And after a while I decide I am."

The American met Wilko at the Wickham Festival in Hampshire where he gave one of the most intense, exciting performances of a great career. He looked a little tired but the casual observer wouldn't guess there was anything amiss.

I thought that for our audience we could start by talking about Wilko's relationship with America and American music. His music is very British, but from American roots. How does he think of it?

"I started learning to play in the sixties, listening to The Rolling Stones. I quickly found out where the Stones were deriving their music from, and that was my introduction to American music. I'm talking about the blues, soul music - black American music, R&B. This music was so much more powerful than the pop music I had been used to. I was only 15 or so, I didn't know much about anything really, but I became very keen on that kind of music, from the popular records on Motown and Stax through to the blues. I suppose I became a bit of an R&B snob, I didn't want to hear anything else - except Bob Dylan. I loved John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. I've never thought of myself as a blues musician though. I blush to think what my teenage bands must have sounded like. It was all covers, I didn't start writing stuff until Dr Feelgood. When I did start to write songs I had a test... if I could imagine, say, Bo Diddley playing it, I was on the right lines. And although I loved American music, I was trying to make it English and keep it inside my experience. I never wanted to write about riding on freight trains."

R&B is the ultimate Transatlantic form of music - starting in the States, revitalised and evolved by the likes of The Rolling Stones and The Animals in 'the British invasion', back and forth. "It was curious how that happened, when the Stones went over and played American music to audiences who were hearing it as something new. And it kept bouncing backwards and forwards. As indeed it should, 'cos it's a very 'bouncing backwards and forwards' kind of music!" he laughs.

Dr Feelgood started when Wilko met a feisty youth called Lee John Collinson - later known as Lee Brilleaux. "Before I went to University me and my brother had a jug band, playing on the streets. One day these boys came up to us, very interested in what we were doing and asking all kinds of questions. One of them was Lee Brilleaux, the other was John Sparks [later 'Sparko', Dr Feelgood's bass player]. Lee was four of five years younger than me, only about fourteen, but I thought he really had something, he was really on the ball. I went off to university then, and when I came home in the summer I found they had started their own jug band and were doing quite well. Years go by, and I was walking through the old council estate and I bumped into Lee who was by this time a solicitor's clerk. I was still a kind of hippie but he was wearing a three-piece pinstripe suit and had a sharp haircut. He looked fantastic! We started talking and he told me that their jug band had evolved into a rock and roll band and the guitarist had just left. I hadn't played for a few years but I still had my guitar. I thought perhaps I could do it, but I didn't say anything about me joining, and he didn't say anything... we kept talking but we went away without him asking me to join, or me asking if I could. But later that evening Sparko came round to my house and said. 'Do you want to join our band' and I said yes. It was purely a local band, doing it for fun. This was the early '70s and R&B was not fashionable. We did that for a couple of years gradually evolving the style of the whole thing, musically and the look of it."

Most bands at the time - the Feelgoods started in 1971 - wore flared jeans, had long hair and played long guitar (and bass and drum) solos, and there was a huge gulf between small local gigs and large venues like the Hammersmith Odeon and Wembley Arena. Being out of town, on a local scene, Dr Feelgood had the time to hone their look and sound, and when they finally hit the London scene they seemed to appear fully formed, from out of nowhere.

"Someone told us there was this 'pub rock' scene in London, based round various pubs, where a lot of good bands were playing. We got a gig, our first in London, and it had a tremendous impact. We quickly became popular. But I hate that term, pub rock, because people think it's a kind of music. It's not - it's a kind of venue. There were many bands playing , all doing something different. Ian Dury's band Kilburn & the High Roads, jazz funk bands, country influenced bands... There was a lot of interest in ourselves and some of the other bands from the music press, but the record companies were pretty cautious. They wanted supergroups with famous musicians and huge light shows. I'm sure the A&R guys were looking at the pub bands but nobody wanted to sign any of us. Finally we got signed and started to play bigger venues. We could do it, too. In the wake of that the record companies turned their attention to bands like Ian Dury and The Stranglers, then subsequently the punk bands. Dr Feelgood proved you could take a simple form of music, show it on a big stage and sell records."

Wilko Johnson
A fond farewell from Wilko.
Photo © Michael Burland

Would the punk explosion have happened in the way it did without Dr Feelgood? Maybe not. One of punk's chief protagonists, Jean-Jacques Burnel of The Stranglers, said "...there is a bridge between the old times and the punk times. That bridge is exclusively the Feelgoods, it allowed us to go from one thing to another." Wilko hadn't heard that. "Really? Wow!" he sounds surprised.

"I thought maybe we would lead to a new rhythm and blues style for the '70s, like the Stones did in the '60s. It didn't happen like that. What happened was, the punk bands - and it's true to say that all of them had seen and been influenced by Dr Feelgood - were all very young and inexperienced and couldn't do what we were doing, but they took the energy and combined it with their fashion thing that was nothing to do with us, Malcolm McLaren and everybody dying their hair green. Without us, I don't know, who can say, but something would have happened."

One of the highlights of Wilko's high-energy performances is his guitar style in which he plays rhythm and lead lines simultaneously. How did he come by it? "One day I heard a record by Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, and the guitar playing knocked me out. This was Mick Green. I decided that moment that I wanted to play just like this guy. That whole percussive style was Greeny's invention. He was influenced by Americans, and my style comes from me trying to be like him and not quite getting it right!"

Dr Feelgood are also recognized as a major influence on American artists including Blondie, The Ramones and the CBGB's crowd in New York City. But they never had big commercial success in the States. What went wrong?

"In '76 we did two big tours of America and we were on the brink of really doing something. CBS were right behind us, we were their blue-eyed boys and they were going to do it for us over there. And then... the band fell to pieces...." Wilko pauses. There is obviously still a lot of hurt there.

"All the things I've heard about American artists who were influenced by what we were doing, all that was happening without our knowledge. I only found out later on. It's quite flattering. And there are some new, very young British bands like The Stripes and The 45s, who are very influenced by Dr Feelgood, and that's quite gratifying, to leave somebody behind doing it."

Wilko and the rest of Dr Feelgood were brought up on Canvey Island, a patch of land in the Thames estuary east of London. He still lives nearby in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex. Is there something about estuaries and large bodies of water that inspires music? "There is a theory about seaports. I dunno, Canvey Island and the Southend area was a completely ordinary place as far as music went. There were a few local bands, some good, some not good. But Canvey Island has always been a big part of my consciousness. When I was a kid I was slightly ashamed of living there because it was the wrong end of town. Later, in the Feelgoods, it was fantastic because there we were wishing we lived in Louisiana, and we thought, 'well, we ain't from Louisiana, but we are from the delta!'"

The Island - and Wilko - became screen stars in Julien Temple's fabulous 2009 documentary about Dr Feelgood, Oil City Confidential. "What a brilliant film that was." enthuses Wilko. "It was the first time since the '70s I'd thought about, and spoken about the band. When I parted company with the band I was very upset but I went away not wanting to be bitter about it. My answer to it was not to think about it, and put it behind me. Doing the film made me look at it again. I don't know why it happened really. It all ended in a terrible argument. While we were touring the States in '76 relationships between me and Lee Brilleaux became very strained. Why, I do not know. We got on each other's nerves and while we were making our fourth album the whole thing exploded in this huge argument, them against me. It went on all night long, and by the morning I was out of the band. And that was that. Could've retrieved the situation, but it never happened. I regret that it happened. But still... it's heroic, innit? Just blow it all away man!

"After the Feelgoods viciously threw me out of the band I felt abandoned and I started blowing it in every kind of way. I didn't have any management. I just carried on playing and plunged into obscurity. Other things were happening in music, but I found myself able to make a good living, travel round the world and play. As far as fame and stardom was concerned I'd had my fifteen minutes. And that was OK. After a couple of years Ian Dury asked me to join the Blockheads and I had rather a splendid time with them. I came away from the Blockheads with their bass player [the magnificent Norman Watt-Roy] and I've carried on ever since. In fact The Stripes came to play on Canvey Island last weekend and I got up with John Sparks and played a couple of numbers with them."

Wilko Johnson with The American
A man with impeccable taste in music – and, it seems, in reading matter too.
Photo © Michael Burland

Away from the rock and roll stage, Wilko has another, lesser-known artistic side. He's a lover of art, poetry and literature, was an English teacher, and speaks Old Icelandic - quite the renaissance man. "I studied English at University and I became more and more interested in medieval literature, especially Old Icelandic. It's been an abiding thing with me. I also love William Burroughs! When I was travelling out to India when I was a hippie, I was in Afghanistan and somebody had a copy of The Naked Lunch. I had this book for about fifteen minutes and it was so powerful. It stayed on my mind and when I got back to England I bought all Burroughs' books. I collect anything of Burroughs. I've even got his gun." Not the gun? "Not the one he shot his wife with, no, but this particular gun is mentioned in The Naked Lunch."

And in 2011, Wilko appeared in Game of Thrones as the mute executioner Ilyn Payne. "That was fantastic. I'm just sorry this illness is preventing me form continuing, because I think more was going to happen to my character. I'd never done anything like that before. I had a wonderful part because my character had his tongue cut out so there are no lines to learn, I just have to look sinister and look daggers at people. I can do that!"

To many people Wilko's reaction to his illness, terminal pancreatic cancer, has been both extraordinary and inspirational. At Wickham he was in good spirits but looked in good physical form too. How is he really?

"I was diagnosed at the beginning of this year and they told me I would have ten months to live. At that time I felt absolutely fit. I wanted to know how long it would be before it really hit me because I wanted to do a farewell tour while I was still fit. They said about six or seven months, and we're approaching that now. Did my reaction surprise me? I suppose it did. We've all probably imagined what we'd feel like if we were told we only had a few months to live. When the guy told me, I was absolutely calm. I didn't freak out at all. It was as if he was telling me something I'd known all my life. Walking out of the hospital afterwards, into the sunlight, looking at the sky and the trees, I thought... 'I'm alive, so intensely alive' I just felt this joy. I wasn’t like that before - generally I'm a miserable so-and-so, prone to depression. But for the first six months I was on a kind of high, just enjoying the moment. I suddenly realised, you don't have to worry about the future now because there is no future. You don't have to worry about the past because you can never really make amends. All you can do is enjoy the moment as it comes.

"Obviously I couldn't walk around with a soppy smile on my face for a whole year! I get bad days. But I've never fallen into despair about it. I mean, look at me, I've been so lucky. I'm still feeling healthy now. I've had a wonderful year, with this consciousness. I've been to Japan four times - I love it there [Japanese audiences love him too - ed]. We did a farewell tour in April, then I retired. After a couple of weeks, I didn't really like it. I kept thinking, what am I doing here? But because I don't know when the illness would strike me and make me incapable of playing, I didn't want to book gigs not knowing if I would be able to play. Then summer came, and the great thing is I can do festivals and if I'm not able to play it's not going to stop the show, so we've done a few. But as the summer dwindles into the autumn... As long as I'm feeling fit why not?

"The cancer gives a whole different feeling to performing. One of the great things about rock and roll is that it's ephemeral, of the moment. Playing a gig with this consciousness, it's like... look, man, this is passing."

There is a final question The American likes to ask, that's especially pertinent and poignant: What is the best thing about being Wilko Johnson?

"Aaaargh! I dunno!... I'd have to say, I spent 40 years with my late wife Irene. She died nine years ago, I'm still in love with her, and she was the greatest thing in my life."

As a postscript to the interview, at the GQ Men Of The Year Awards held in London September 3, Wilko presented Sir Elton John with the Genius award. Elton immediately handed it right back, declaring, "You're the f*****g genius here." 'Reg' then told the audience, "He's too busy living life to think about f*****g dying." Wilko later said he was "very, very touched" by Sir Elton's gesture.

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