HE DOES IT RIGHT - THE WILKO JOHNSON INTERVIEW

Thursday, 23 February 2017 13:35 Charles Waring Print

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With his po-faced demeanour, intense manic stare, Pyrex bowl haircut, and black-suited undertaker look, Wilko Johnson certainly caught the eye in the mid-1970s as the charismatic guitarist in the legendary Canvey Island R&B quartet, Dr. Feelgood. He was one scary-looking dude - perhaps that's why he was cast in the role of a mute executioner, Ser Ilyn Pane, in the hit TV series Game Of Thrones. But the way that he charged back-and-forth across the stage when he was in Dr. Feelgood wielding his guitar like a machine gun while firing off shard-like R&B riffs with deft, karate-like chops to the strings added to his mystique. He was sensationally fired from Dr Feelgood in '77 and co-founded Solid Senders - a short-lived, one-album outfit - before playing with Ian Dury's Blockheads. He then formed the Wilko Johnson Band, which recorded its first LP, 'Ice On The Motorway,' way back in 1981, and, amazingly and against the odds, the group is still going strong today in 2017.

The first thing that strikes you about Wilko Johnson is that he laughs a lot. Perhaps that's because he can't believe his luck - after all he's had the biggest reprieve of all and famously eluded the Grim Reaper's scythe when many others before him had failed. He'll be 70 later this year but four years ago he didn't think that he'd make it to that milestone. That was when Johnson had a life-changing bombshell dropped on him: he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and given a matter of months to live.

"I remember I was absolutely calm, dead calm" reveals Johnson, in an interview with SJF's Charles Waring. "I didn't freak at all ...and I wasn't expecting that." Instead of being gripped with fear and panic, he matter-of-factly accepted his fate, rejected chemotherapy treatment, and vowed to live his life to the full until his allotted time was up. He quickly embarked on a farewell tour - "we played some great gigs" he laughs - and recorded what was intended to be a valedictory album called 'Going Back Home,' with The Who's Roger Daltrey. That long player was going to be Johnson's musical epitaph but later that year, he underwent surgery to remove the tumour that was the source of his ill-heath. He ended up losing not only the tumour - which weighed in at a whopping 3 Kg - but also his pancreas, spleen and part of his stomach. The operation was a success and, miraculously, freed the guitarist from the dark spectre of cancer.  

69-year-old Johnson's recovery has been extraordinary and since then he's starred in a Julien Temple-directed documentary (The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson), written a well-received autobiography (Don't You Leave Me Here: My Life) and curated a superb compilation exploring the Chess Records vaults called 'The First Time I Met The Blues.' Now, he brings his own career under the microscope with this 25-track/2-CD solo retrospective called 'Keep It To Myself: The Best Of Wilko Johnson,' released on the Chess imprint.

In a candid and revealing interview with SJF, the legendary rhythm and blues maven talks about his new album, his time in Dr. Feelgood and his much-publicised battle with cancer...


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Your new album's coming out on Chess, a label that you idolised back in your youth.

I must say that during the last three or four years many strange things have happened to me after I was diagnosed with cancer. That whole year was just packed with incident and strange things that you would never have expected. One of the funny things was making the album ('Going Back Home') with Roger Daltrey. When we were making it, it was actually going to be the last thing that I did. I didn't even know if I was going to live to see the thing released. But the record was working out so well and everyone was so enthusiastic about it, including Universal, who happened to own the Chess insignia. Everyone was coming up with ideas for the album and they said "why don't we put this album out on Chess?" It was wild, because when I was a teenager, if someone had said to me, "you're going to be on the Chess label," you would think they were mad. But it happened and, in fact, while I was lying in hospital after my operation, the record had come out by then and was very successful. I was lying there in a stupor and people were going, "oh man, the record's selling" and I was just groaning. One of the things that happened was, they brought a silver disc into my hospital room and put it on the side. Just afterwards, this nurse came into my room, looked at this thing, and said "what's that?" I said "it's a kind of award" and she looked at it a bit longer and then saw the Chess logo and said "oh, do you play chess?" I said, "well, kind of." (Laughs).

It must have seemed surreal being presented with a silver disc while you were lying in a hospital bed...

Yeah, I didn't think I was going to live to see the thing released. Roger had called me up and said "let's do that album." It was something that long ago we just casually talked about. We had this idea and Roger said we should do an album together. I said "oh yeah, let's" but we never got it together. My illness prompted Roger to zap in and do it so I thought I'd take that opportunity to do some songs that I'd written so that it could be some kind of memorial to me. But, as I said, I didn't even know if I was going to see it released. I didn't entertain any ambitions for it but when it was released, it started selling really fast. But by that time I was really thinking more about cancer than anything else. Then suddenly these incredible people from Addenbrooke's Hospital came into my life and said that they could save me. That was really all that was in my head at the time. So, I had the operation and I woke up the next day and thought, "God, I'm alive!" I felt like this huge thing had been removed from me. And on top of that I was getting silver discs. (Laughs).

How did coming so close to death change your perspective of life?

It was one of the most extraordinary and incredible years of my life. We all imagine: "what would I feel if I went to the doctor and the doctor said you're dying" but it wasn't anything like I'd ever imagined. When I was given the diagnosis and told "this cancer is inoperable, you got less than a year to live," I remember I was absolutely calm. Dead calm. ' I didn't freak at all ....and I wasn't expecting that. I wasn't even expecting them to tell me that I had cancer. It was a surprise but not a shock. I was calm and thought "right, they told me I've got less than a year to live, a few more months on my feet, and that's alright. I'm just going to have the best time I can." I didn't go looking for second opinions or miracle cures or anything like that. I thought "no, no, I don't want to spend my time freaking out and sitting in doctor's waiting rooms and being disappointed. I'm going to die, so I'm just going to have a good time in the meantime." And I did (laughs). I had an extraordinary time. I was in an elevated state in a way. I am by nature a miserable so-and-so, and all my life, really, I've suffered from depression but that all got left behind. I was flowing through it, because everybody knew about it as well. You'd get the most extraordinary kind of closeness with people when you felt their sympathy. It was really quite touching.

And how were the gigs at that time?

It was absolutely fantastic playing gigs. When you walk on the stage, you're in a situation where there is no future. The past is gone and you go on stage to play a gig and it's not like you've got something to prove. You haven't got anything to prove anymore because there is no anymore. You've just got the moment you're in and that's the way I was trying to live: "this is the moment I'm in, I'm okay now, I'm alive now and I'm going to die but right now here I am." And when you've got a whole audience who know you're going to die, you can't explain the feelings you get (Laughs). But we played some great gigs. That was just great. I was in a different state. But then this operation saved my life, which was another one of the extraordinary things that happened. There were so many twists and turns during that whole year but it's fading from me now like a dream. I look back on it now and I think wow. Every morning I was waking up and remembering in the first second or two seconds, "I'm going to die." You might feel a bit miffed about that for couple of minutes but then you think "sod it, I'm just going to carry on." When I look back now that I've come back to everyday reality and it seems extraordinary to me. I did have some pretty profound insights into life during that time but what they are now, I can't remember! (Laughs).

 



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Your band (pictured above) who feature on the new album, comprise bassist Norman Watt-Roy and drummer, Dylan Howe. You've played with these guys quite a time, haven't you?

I first knew Norman when I played with Ian Dury & The Blockheads in 1978. In fact, when Ian asked me to join his band, I thought I'd love to play with his bass player. I didn't know Norman personally then but he was absolutely my favourite bass player. We became friends immediately and friends for life. It's such a kick playing with him. I never get fed up with it. And now, I've also got Dylan (Howe), who is another ex-Blockhead. He's a great drummer. You couldn't want a better rhythm section. I could just stand there waving my hands about and it would sound great. (Laughs). You just know it's going to be good. You go "one, two, three, four," and boom. I love it.

The album kicks off with 'Roxette,' the Dr Feelgood number that you wrote. Was there a real woman behind the song?

Funnily enough, I just wrote the song as a song but one peculiarity about it, certainly at that time, was that I had written the song using a proper name. I was writing this lyric and bang, there it was. It was obvious that the title, this hook line, was going to be this name. So what I wanted was a woman's name in two syllables with the accent on the second syllable. I started walking around going "oh man, I need a name for this song." But what I had to do, funnily enough, was invent a name. So I walked round and round a bit more and invented this name - Roxette - and it's funny, this name has gone on to become very, very popular. There must be a million dogs and cats given that name, and even, I believe, some unfortunate human beings have been given it - and, of course, there was that Swedish band in the '80 called Roxette that got very successful and so at that time I could walk around and go "well, Roxette's number one again!" (Laughs). It's such a silly song, it's not about anyone real.

That's a great song and it still stands up. You still play quite a few numbers that you wrote for Dr Feelgood in your set. Your fans, of course, expect them but do you ever tire of play them or think to do them in a different way?

I think I've got enough numbers under my belt now that you can keep circulating them if one of them gets a bit tired. But I couldn't do a song if I didn't actually enjoy it.

Of all the songs you've written, which one means most to you, do you think, or is the most personal one?

Well, there's one called 'Paradise,' which is about my wife, which is the only song where I've used a proper name - her name, Irene - in it. Sometimes you're singing a song and maybe you'll remember it was actually about a person, and you get a little kick like that. It doesn't matter because what matters is what the audience is receiving rather than what you remember.

As a young guy from Canvey Island in Essex , what drew you to the blues from the Mississippi Delta.

Like so many teenagers at that time, I was learning to play the guitar and then was confronted by the Rolling Stones. I thought "wow, I love this music" and then found out that the music I really loved was rhythm and blues, which we used to call it then. After that I discovered the Chess label. There was something so different and powerful about the music and that's where my musical taste came from. So I've always been stuck with that.


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Was there one record in particular that gave you an epiphany and made you want to pick up the guitar and play in a band?

Well, if there was an epiphany, it was one Saturday when I was learning to play the guitar. On the radio they played this Johnny Kidd & The Pirates record and I was riveted by the guitar. I thought "wow, what's that?" It was just so special, the way the guitar was being played. Then I started finding out a little bit more about this band and they had just one guitar player, Mick Green (second from the right, pictured above). They didn't have the separate rhythm and lead guitars like other bands had; this guy did it all. His style, unlike most people's, is actually based on rhythm and I do remember that moment, thinking "I want to sound like that!" And that's what I started doing after, just getting as many records that I could find with Mick Green on the guitar and just playing them over and over trying to copy him.

But out of that, you found your own style, didn't you?

I found my own style trying and trying to play like "Greenie" but I just couldn't do it. I ended up with what I'd got but if you had said to me, "what do you want to do?" I'd say "I want to sound just like him." (Laughs).

And you actually got to record with him, I think, in the mid-'70s.

Yeah. It was great. I also met him one time when I was a teenager. He was playing with Billy J Kramer & The Dakotas. I went up to this college in London to see them play. I was standing there with my girlfriend right at the front of the stage with my eyes glued to his guitar. It got to the end of the gig and they played the last number and were going to walk off stage and man, what an idiot, I jumped up on stage. I didn't even let him get off the stage (laughs). I said, "I think you're the greatest guitarist in the world." Greenie was really good, he indulged me. And then of course I wanted his autograph and all I had in my pocket was my A Level copy of Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale. I pulled it out of my pocket and said "sign this" so he autographed it. Years went by and when Dr Feelgood started succeeding, I met him again. The first time he came to my house, I said "we've met before you know," though I was really embarrassed by this incident. I told him about it and he didn't remember, it was years ago obviously. It wasn't as momentous for him meeting me as it was for me meeting him. (Laughs). I said, "I'll show you," and went off to the bookshelf and took out my copy of A Winter's Tale, opened it, showed him the autograph and said "look, I've met you before."

 



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Looking back at your time in Dr Feelgood (pictured above), what's your best memory of those times?

I think it was when we started to play in London pubs and clubs. We started the band purely for fun. If you had told me back then you're going to be a professional musician and spend your life doing it, I would never have believed you. And what we were playing was not - this was the early '70s - fashionable or anything.

It was all Prog-rock and Glam-rock...

Exactly. In fact, we were rather looked down on by the other local bands because we were playing this old-fashioned music (laughs). So we were playing locally for a couple of years and we got our style together, the look of the band, the show and the music. So the whole thing was kind of fully formed and then we found out about this London club scene, which was happening quite strongly at the time. It was a time when people were going to venues, to pubs, not just to drink but hear music and see bands and there were a lot of different kinds of good bands playing and both professional and established musicians even playing. But we came up from Canvey Island and we were completely unknown but the whole thing was completely together, what we were doing. We just had such an impact and very quickly we got very, very popular. That feeling was great. It made you feel special. That was nice. They were great days.

And with that came the pressure of stardom and fame, which affected the band, I suppose?

Yeah, exactly, it's the old, old story. When you just asked me, what do you look back on fondly, it was that. But it was good and we started getting bigger and bigger and you're playing at Hammersmith Odeon instead of Dingwall's. That's a nice feeling as well. In the end it was probably more fun at Dingwall's though.

In the seventies you had a scary onstage persona - charging about on stage like your guitar was a machine gun and staring intensely straight ahead. How did that persona come about?

Dr Feelgood's show came from Lee Brilleaux, the singer. He was a very intense kind of person. Very nervy. And on stage, this really came out and he would have this urgency and violence about what he was doing and I used to bounce off of that really. To me, he was the focus of it. I didn't deliberately invent what to do. I just did what was natural, feeling like that. In fact, if you were dancing to a record you like and you want to get up and dance, you don't care what kind of idiot you look or anything, you just start flinging yourself about. And that's exactly what I was doing, and finding that with a guitar solo you could excite people with it. It looks a darn sight more exciting if you're playing it on a machine gun and looking serious (laughs). The whole point of everything was just to create excitement, which people enjoy. So, it was never deliberately worked out, it worked itself out by us going with what we felt like.

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Some younger people will know you from your role as an executioner in Game Of Thrones (pictured above) rather than your music with Dr Feelgood.

Certainly. When it was announced that I've got terminal cancer and had declined treatment, somehow it got picked up by the mainstream press all over the world and I remember the New York Times said I was the actor, Wilko Johnson, because I was much better known over there for Game of Thrones than anything I'd ever done musically. (Laughs). But that's the only acting I've ever done.

How did being an actor then compare with working as a musician?

It was completely different. With filming you're sitting around a lot drinking coffee dressed up as warriors (Laughs). And then you got five minutes waiting to be lit right. And then you sit down and relax again for another half hour or so while they do what they do, but the whole thing was so enjoyable and so much fun. I remember the first scene I did in it was supposed be in a hall in some torch lit situation with the King and there's all these knights, so we've got swords and chainmail. And standing there, I had to give some kind of reaction. Ah man, it was just like being a kid. I thought "yeah, I really am a warrior." It was so much fun.

Looking back at your career, what are you most proud of having achieved?

I'm proud of Dr Feelgood as I think that as well as was what we did, we changed history in many ways because I think it's certainly true that we were the absolute forerunners of the whole punk movement. All of those people, all of those bands that came out in '76 had been watching Dr Feelgood in 1975. So yeah, I feel quite proud of that.

What does the future hold? What's in the pipeline after this album?

We've been off for four or five weeks. We don't like that. We're back on the road again soon and off to Finland. Before we do, we'll probably have a couple of days to rehearse in the studio and also see what we've got material-wise for another album. So I guess I'm hoping to make another album, which is a sort of short-term goal. What does the future hold? Well, I can't say 'I'm going to spend the next five years doing this or that....' because I haven't got five years, not unless I'm lucky.

But you never know, do you?

No, that's another thing I learned: you never, never, know.


WILKO JOHNSON'S 'I KEEP IT TO MYSELF: THE BEST OF WILKO JOHNSON' IS RELEASED ON 3rd MARCH VIA CHESS/UNIVERSAL.

 

 

 

 


Last Updated on Monday, 27 February 2017 19:11