Wilko Johnson: 'Once, I'd have been whizzing – but not now'
He rocks, paints, writes, even acts. So what's up with the former Dr Feelgood writer, wonders Ian Burrell
Ian Burrell is Assistant Editor and Media Editor at The Independent, i paper and Independent on Sunday. He covers news from the whole media sector from television, press, radio and advertising to technology. His weekly column on the media appears every Monday in The Independent and i paper. He also writes on media, music and culture, including long-form pieces for The Independent’s Saturday magazine and the Independent on Sunday’s magazine, New Review. He is a regular presenter of BBC Radio 4’s What The Papers Say and a specialist commentator to Monocle 24 radio. He has contributed to most major broadcast outlets including BBC television and radio, CNN, Sky News, Al Jazeera and LBC. He has also written on media for GQ magazine. Ian has been reporting on the media industry for The Independent for more than a decade. Previously he was the newspaper’s Home Affairs Editor. He worked at The Sunday Times for five years, including as a member of the investigative Insight team, covering stories on political funding, industrial espionage and the arms industry. Previously he worked in ITV for London Weekend Television, on a weekly current affairs programme presented by Danny Baker. Ian trained at the Birmingham Post & Mail and was Regional Reporter of the Year in Press Gazette’s national awards.
Sunday 03 June 2012
Like a zoo animal patrolling the perimeter of its cage, Wilko Johnson is padding round and round in circles, having leapt from his leather armchair and vaulted the wooden steps to the raised level of his living room. At the age of 64, he still has nervous energy to burn.
"One habit I've got, which I exercise all the time, is that I pace about. I walk about, see, I go like this ..." he says. "And it's always in an anti-clockwise direction, right? I've even checked this out in Australia, right? And I still go in an anti-clockwise direction, and so I think I must have one leg shorter than the other. I've tried pacing in a clockwise direction but as soon as my mind drifts, oh it's not right."
Wilko – the machine-gunning guitar hero who sent shockwaves of energy through the pretentious 1970s British rock scene and inspired a generation of punks – is demonstrating how he prepares for his inimitable live performances. "So, about half an hour before we go on stage, that starts and I start walking about."
It is 35 years since Wilko's falling out with his bandmates in Dr Feelgood signalled the end of the most intense and creatively rich period of his career, but he is suddenly back in the spotlight. Julien Temple's 2009 documentary Oil City Confidential told Dr Feelgood's story through the prism of the Shell Haven oil refinery that overshadows the band's hometown of Canvey Island. The film, which drew parallels between the mudflats of the "Thames Delta" and the Mississippi swamps of their musical roots, renewed interest in the original Feelgoods (Dr Feelgood still tour, though with none of the original members). EMI has released a box set of classic material and Wilko has produced an autobiography with writer Zoe Howe, Looking Back at Me. He has even popped up in the fantasy TV drama Game of Thrones.
During the summer he will take to the festival circuit with the Wilko Johnson band and, even though a bald pate has replaced the trademark pudding basin haircut, his performance retains the wild gesturing and frantic strumming, a feature he mimics repeatedly in conversation. He still doesn't use a plectrum and his hand bears a recent scar. "I did that somehow on an upstroke – the E-string cut through my thumb."
As ever, he's wearing a black shirt, black trousers and black ankle boots. At the end of the room is a guitar in the Wilko colours of red and black. "It's anarchy you see, the red and black flag of anarchy." On the way into his suburban Essex house I had noticed the anarchy symbol, a circled "A" painted on his garden wall alongside the slogan "Venceremos" ("We shall overcome"). "That's my bourgeois revolutionism, see? I have written my slogans on the wall, but nobody can see them, only me, because I've written them on the inside," he says, with a rapid-fire laugh.
In the classic Wilko pose on stage, his eyes are popping and he is pointing his Fender Telecaster at the audience like a Sten gun, gliding to and fro on the end of his red guitar lead. "The way you were looking at people, you were doing that because that was what people want," he says, making his hand into the shape of a gun. "When you're kids playing cops and robbers you're using your fingers as your gun and you know you are just playing but ... don't it feel like a gun? You really, really do it! And it's exactly the same on stage! It's no machine gun, man, it's a Telecaster!"
The audience understood that and, despite the aggression in songs such as "Riot In Cell Block #9", there was rarely trouble at Feelgood shows. Wilko mentions an exception when the band's late singer Lee Brilleaux jumped into the crowd to confront a man with a knife who had started a brawl. "Lee took the knife off him without interrupting the show – which shows quite a bit of class, I think."
It was a bitter personality clash between Brilleaux – who died of cancer in 1994 at the age of 41 – and Johnson that caused the break up of the original Dr Feelgood in 1977. Wilko now sings lead vocals with his band, and when he speaks of Brilleaux, it is with admiration. He admits to an emotional moment when watching Oil City Confidential, a recollection that makes him twiddle his fingers. "There was this sequence and it was just me and Lee Brilleaux on stage together and suddenly I got this powerful flash and I remembered what it was like to be on stage with him. It was fantastic. I always think that he really was the wellspring of Dr Feelgood."
Wilko was the band's songwriter, coming up with enduring classics such as "Roxette", "She Does it Right" and "Back in the Night". Brilleaux wanted to be like Howlin' Wolf, only in a dirty white suit, and fired up on a few drinks and a Canvey Island attitude. When Wilko wrote, it was with him in mind. "You're upsetting me now," he says, welling up a little.
After the split, Wilko was such a distinctive figure in rock that he had plenty of offers. "I was really hot – you would not believe the people that were pursuing me and offering me I don't know how many millions." But he didn't capitalise on that interest, and although he enjoyed some good times playing with Ian Dury and the Blockheads, his career meandered along "the line of least resistance".
The death of his wife and childhood sweetheart Irene, from cancer eight years ago, hit Wilko hard. The opportunity to gig gives him only partial respite from that sadness, so he looks on his latest successes with a certain detachment. "Once upon a time I would have been whizzing about, really pleased with everything, but now I don't have any hopes or ambitions – that's absurd," he says. "I take a benign and avuncular interest in it."
Looking Back at Me also reveals the myriad cultural touchstones of a working-class rock'n'roller and deeply complex man. Wilko once had ambitions to be a painter and a poet, and the publication of the book is the first time that his artwork has been seen outside his home. On the roof of his house is a dome with a large periscope where he spends hours studying the stars. On the table in front of him are a chess set, a copy of Private Eye and a book on the Aztecs. At university he studied the Icelandic sagas and he still likes to read Anglo Saxon poetry. As an answer to the Anglo Saxon text The Battle of Maldon, which records an ancient Viking victory, Wilko once wrote some verses on the great moment in Canvey history that was the Battle of Benfleet in AD894. "I thought 'This great victory needs a poem, so I will write it in alliterative verse style, pseudo Anglo Saxon'. Christ, how embarrassing."
But Johnson the poet is never far from the conversation. He is a mine of Shakespeare quotes (he was a schoolteacher before he joined Dr Feelgood), and, in his Estuary accent, draws on the Elizabethan Sir Philip Sydney when he talks about the way his fellow band members regard his torments as a song-writer: "They don't see all the 'Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,/ "Fool," said my muse to me," Look in thy heart and write" ...'."
What next for Wilko Johnson? More acting, perhaps – he played a mute executioner in Game of Thrones and so enjoyed the experience that he would love a belated career as an actor. "I have all this Shakespeare lodged with me and useless ... perhaps I could play Romeo?" he ponders, and judders out his machine-gun laugh.
Wilko Johnson's autobiography 'Looking Back at Me', co-written with Zoe Howe, is published by Cadiz Music tomorrow. He tours the UK from 11 Oct. Tickets: www.thegigcartel.com.
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