CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD remembers the first time he met Dr. Feelgood’s ace guitarist
It’s a strange thing about biography. No matter how many facts are told, how many details are given or lists are made, the essential thing all too often resists telling. To say that so and so was born here, that he did this and did that, that he wrote this song or painted this picture, that he went around the world and married and had children and grew old and died – none of that tells us very much. What we want is a story.
In that spirit, all I can personally add to the numerous obituaries of the guitarist, sometime actor and raconteur Wilko Johnson, who died on 21 November at the age of 75, is a primordial memory of around December 1974, when I was just up at Cambridge and the Fitzwilliam student union somehow scraped together enough money to hire the band Dr. Feelgood to enliven our college Christmas party. This was the season, let it be remembered, of ubiquitous high heels and loon pants, of crushed velvet jackets with lapels as wide as hang-glider sails, when the charts were full of extravagantly quiffed artists like Rod Stewart and Bryan Ferry, or David Bowie camping it up in his soul-revue phase, with a rather depressing weekly Top of the Pops regimen characterised by names like Charlie Rich, the Carpenters, John Denver, Olivia Newton-John and Jasper Carrott doing his ‘Funky Moped’.
Anyway, into the midst of this dross came the Feelgoods, and such was the shock I had to momentarily check the cigarette in my mouth (those were the days) to see if it might possibly have been tipped with something more exotic than Players Number 6. I mean, incredible. Four stony-faced Canvey Island geezers who looked like they might just as soon put the boot in as entertain you: two brooding hulks on drums and bass, both well tasty, and the twitchily charismatic figure of Lee Brilleaux up front singing – snarling, really – in a suit that might once have been white, jabbing his fist around in time to the beat in a way that suggested definite malice rather than some hippy-like state of being transported by the music, banging out a no-frills mix of sweaty rock and rhythm and blues typified by two-minute songs with titles like ‘I’m a Hog for You’ and ‘Stupidity’ and ‘Tequila’. This was not a group you could imagine sitting cross-legged over a communal bowl of brown rice to a backdrop of herbally-tinged joss sticks and the wafted strains of the latest Yes triple-gatefold concept LP.
And then slightly stage left, right there in front of me, Wilko Johnson on guitar. Amazing. Clad totally in black, pudding-bowl haircut, eyes staring out across the audience like searchlights, about twice a song he would suddenly take off like an overwound Energizer Bunny and go lurching across the stage, side to side, back to front, all the while keeping up a stark, percussive rhythm with a chopping right hand interspersed with a few demented solos that seemed to be more the product of a semi-tuned chainsaw than a traditional musical instrument, a routine he varied only by periodically lifting the guitar to his shoulder and peering down it as if to strafe the audience. As I say, stunning. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Johnson’s distinctive guitar style and powerful stage presence can be seen here.]
At the end of the show, Wilko walked right past me. He had little choice in the matter, because there was no backstage area to speak of and the band just had to push their way through the crowd as best they could in order to make it out to the impressively knackered-looking transit van waiting for them at the back gate. Anyway, there he was: sweating, hollow-eyed, carious teeth, funereal two-piece suit that looked like he might have slept in it. ‘Great show,’ I said with that originality of phrase certain critics later so admired in my various rock biographies. And since Wilko apparently still wasn’t going anywhere, I had a further moment of inspiration. ‘Who’s your favourite guitarist?’ I asked, thinking it might be one of the consensus heroes of the day like Clapton or Beck or Page, or even dear Keith Richards, with whom he undoubtedly shared a certain laconic, back-to-basics playing style. But no. ‘Mick Green,’ my new friend informed me, and then to my surprise stuck around long enough, right there in the chaotic aftermath of the gig, ankle deep in spilled beer and stubbed-out fags, as people banged past us, to tell me, a total stranger, all about Green, another great British eccentric, it transpired, and sometime staple of early-60s combos who also liked to chop up his lead and rhythm parts into one percussive wall of sound, and – proving his versatility if nothing else – later went on to rock up albums by everyone from Paul McCartney and Van Morrison up or down to Cliff Bennett and Engelbert Humperdinck. At the end of what became a sort of oral PhD thesis on the whole history of early British R&B, Wilko asked my name, introduced himself – as though he might not already be familiar – shook my hand, and effusively signed the scrap of paper I hurriedly thrust at him. ‘Keep in touch,’ he said. My first interview. Then he was gone.
Speaking of versatile, it later turned out that Johnson himself had been to university, wrote poetry, spoke Old Icelandic among half a dozen other slightly fringe languages, and in later years developed a keen interest in astronomy to the extent that he built an observatory on the roof of his Essex semi. Along the way, he married his childhood sweetheart Irene and they remained together, raising two sons, until her death from cancer 38 years later. As the world knows, Wilko himself was diagnosed with an apparently incurable tumour in 2013. He reacted with notable stoicism, remarking that he had never felt so alive than whilst under an imminent death sentence, continuing to perform every night he could and teaming up with The Who’s Roger Daltrey to make the album Going Back Home. Then the apparent miracle happened, and doctors in Cambridge performed a nine-hour procedure that saved Johnson’s life while relieving him of most of his intestines. Paradoxically, having cheerfully faced death, Wilko fell into one of his recurrent funks once given the all-clear. ‘I knew I was really getting better from the cancer when I started getting depressed again,’ he said wryly.
It seems funny to say this, but for all the bug-eyed stage antics and raucously loud, sweat-soaked nights in dingy rock clubs, there was a quality of innocence – an innate modesty, the eagerness to please, to connect with the audience, never to lose sight of his roots – that distinguished Wilko Johnson throughout his life and career. I doubt we’ll see his like again.
CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD’s Polanski: A Biography (Random House) is available from all the usual sources