Wilko Johnson

Wilko fotoI left it all so far behind I never thought I could / Now I just can’t understand what made you look so good / Stand and watch the river flow, go back to my dreams / Away from all these people and their stupid little scenes.—’Down by the waterside’

Here is an extract from an unpublished punk rock memoir, OR Boy  (say it out loud, it’s about East Anglia), about the truly great English guitarist Wilko Johnson, who once I seem to remember played a benefit gig to raise money to keep some Wordsworth manuscripts in Britain. A romantic, then, a poet, a lyricist and songwriter, and guitarist. A musical innovator and bridge too—between guitarist Mick Green of 1950s rock ‘n’ roll band the Pirates  and 1970 early 1980s postpunk art/propaganda band the Gang of Four. I used to go and see Dr Feelgood—Wilko’s original band—and then the Pirates (informed and inspired by Wilko), and then the Gang of Four, all the time during my pre-punk and punk years.

Dr Feelgood foto
Lee Brilleaux and Wilko Johnson, of Dr Feelgood

A rush, an epiphany I have before I even know there is such a thing is at a gig in April 1977 at St Andrew’s Hall, Norwich, one of my early punk gigs, the one I know I am a punk at. I am sixteen years old. Everyone moans about St Andrew’s Hall, a kind of church where sound bounces and columns blank the stage, but somehow it’s on the gig circuit, a last choice for tour organisers. I’ve seen the likes of Hawkwind and Gentle Giant there (maybe GG was at UEA). Progressive rock, grammar school throwbacks. We’d sit on the wooden floor surrounded by the stone columns and oil portraits of dead Norwich worthies waiting for our bands. And when they’d come on we’d sit on the wooden floor in the dark and watch them, maybe uncrossing our legs and rising for the encore. The only exception to sitting, the only attractive energy I can remember seeing in the entire pre-punk live music desert is Dr Feelgood, a downstylish British turn, who inflect American R&B with a salty Southend flavour and look. Lee and Wilko, what a pair, a tight suit and a manic grin, blowed harp and chopped guitar. Bob Marley singing on Punky reggae party, a song he recorded not with the Wailers but with heavy Brit dubbers Aswad: The Damned, the Jam, the Clash. Maytals will be there, Dr Feelgood too. At the time including the Feelgoods sounded like evidence of Marley’s ignorance about punk; later, the lyric is more acute, accurate. Many, many years later there is one of those astral conjunctions or some shit of coincidence, when one punk-related singer dies and is internationally mourned, and another dies to a fading coda of short obits. Nevermind Kurt Cobain there is a sad death in Lee Brilleaux, too young. He’s back in the night, now, with his average slide playing. RIP.

My schoolmate Simon loved Wilko too, and had an R&B band in Norwich influenced by them, called Sneakin’ Suspicion. Once they supported Wilko, at the Gala Ballroom, Norwich; I was very jealous. Later (after the madly self-destructive move of splitting from Dr Feelgood) Wilko joined Ian Dury and the Blockheads—well, again, how could I not be impressed. After all, I’ve spent the last five years writing about that band, in part with Wilko in it. Here’s a video of Dury’s ‘I want to be straight’ (in my forthcoming book I call this Dury’s ‘paean to orthotics’. BTW did I say the book is called Shakin’ All Over, after the Johnny Kidd and the Pirates song? See how Wilko resonates?).

Wilko single coverNext week I am going up to Glasgow, with my youngest daughter, to see Wilko one more (I don’t want to write ‘last’) time. With of course Norman Watt-Roy, of the Blockheads, on bass guitar. We were going to see them in Morecambe in November, but the dates were cancelled because of his illness. Last year she asked me to get my old posters out of the attic and one she wanted to put on her bedroom wall was a Feelgoods one from the late 1970s. I used to see post-Wilko Feelgoods at UEA in Norwich, and I saw Wilko with the Blockheads a few times, including at  a festival in Gateshead where U2 were low on the bill and Doll By Doll’s Jackie Leven silenced the entire crowd with the force of his personality, and periodically with his trio since then across the years. One more time …  xxx

Wilko in Glasgow, March 9 2013, on fireAnd, well, he was on fire in Glasgow. A fabulous gig to a packed and screaming crowd; it felt like a distillation. During the encore when he sang ‘Bye bye, bye bye’ in the chorus to ‘Johnny B Good’, the house lights came up and we all waved to him, while he waved to us. And when he said ‘Goodnight … and goodbye!’ after that song, it was softened only by him coming back for another encore with a great big and very uncharacteristic smile on his face. WILKO LIVES!