Wilko Johnson meets Alex Kapranos for a 2013 interview in The Big Issue. Photo: The Big Issue
I feel apprehensive as I take the train to Southend. I’m not on the other side of a Dictaphone very often and last time I interviewed another musician I pissed him off within seconds of opening my gob.
I told Ray Manzarek I loved how you could play the organ line from Light My Fire almost entirely on the white keys. What? “Are you implying my music is simplistic, you moron?” No, I like it, I think it’s cool that you can… Never mind. Tell me about this new film you’re promoting…
I am taking the train to meet Wilko Johnson. If you don’t know who he is, try typing ‘Dr Feelgood Old Grey Whistle Test’ into YouTube. He’s the guy in the buttoned-up shirt and suit with the malevolent glare, jerking terse riffs out of a black Telecaster as he speeds across the stage. If you’re still curious, watch the 2009 Julien Temple film Oil City Confidential. It captures the mythology of the band, their Canvey Island roots, success, excess and self-destruction.
If you do know who he is, you won’t need me to tell you that he inspired a generation to do something different with their guitars, to swap the excess of rock for the violent energy of punk. Joe Strummer got himself a guitar like Wilko’s after seeing him. His influence stretches further than the ’70s. I’m sure I can hear him in the way Alex Turner or Kele Okereke play, and if you look at how I hold a guitar… aye, it all adds up.
Wilko is dying. Recently diagnosed with cancer, he decided to forgo chemotherapy so he can perform: a farewell tour in the most genuine and unquestionable sense. The 65-year-old has spoken about his illness with a frankness that is typically in character, but shocking because it is so rare. Our mortality is something we rarely address.
What do you say to Wilko? Can you show me the riff from Roxette? I can’t quite work out that thing on the back-stroke… Or do you ask how he feels? Meeting someone who has been an inspiration is intimidating, but to meet them in such circumstances? Well, it makes you a little apprehensive.
Sorry to interrupt. But Big Issue vendors need your help now more than ever. More than 1,000 vendors are out of work because of the second lockdown in England. They can’t sell the magazine and they can’t rely on the income they need.
The Big Issue is helping our vendors with supermarket vouchers and gift payments but we need your help to do that.
A zippered black leather boot rests on the edge of the sofa. The other is tucked under a black trousered leg. Louche? Is that the word? A black and red Telecaster is propped against a wall. He tells us to feel at home and Rob, his manager, makes us a cup of tea. Where do I start?
Are you looking forward to recording?
Well, yeah… It’s funny, although I’d been having tests, I didn’t think I’d got cancer. It was a surprise to me but it didn’t freak me, man. I just thought – right. I felt absolutely calm, and then walking out the hospital, I started feeling very high. I was in this euphoria, which still persists. Normally I’m a miserable so-and-so, but God, it don’t half make you feel alive.
People have said your attitude is inspiring.
Yeah, although I’m not trying to be inspiring or brave. Everybody thinks: what would I feel like if I got told that? But with me it’s nothing like I’d have imagined. Suddenly, all the stupid things that hang you up normally don’t matter. There’s nothing to worry about. Suddenly you just exist, and everything is very, very vivid. Everything looks very… real. It’s a buoyant feeling. I haven’t plunged into despair, although this morning I’ve had this bloody cold… Cancer’s nothing, but a cold really fucks me up! Oh, and that was the other thing: after getting this diagnosis I immediately started writing songs. Trust me to leave it to the last fucking minute!
It is unusual to hear someone talk about it in such a calm and open way.
My reaction was not what I would have imagined. It’s altered my perception. We’re all going to die, but generally it’s something in the indefinite future. You don’t consider it. We feel immortal, or death is something far, far away. Then suddenly – boom – it’s in front of you. It lifted so much off me. The day to day hassles don’t matter. I’m not going to be here in a few months, so it doesn’t bloody well matter.
Do you wish you could have told yourself how to feel when those stupid things did seem to matter?
Not half. Oh man. You think, if only I’d discovered this technique 40 years ago, what a happy life I would have led. But of course, you can’t. It has been a change in my way of looking at things. My normal way of life has been as a miserable bastard, always hung up about something, not worried but PISSED OFF!
You’re not angry any more?
No, not at all. That’s a normal reaction to cancer. People get angry, but what am I going to get angry about? Who with? People say, why me? You think, why you? Because you’re a human being and everyone is subject to it. Here in the West it’ll see most of us off. Also, the last eight years since my wife died [Wilko’s wife, Irene, whom he met while still at school, died of cancer in 2004] the world hasn’t seemed quite so good to me anyway.
Why did you refuse treatment?
As I understand it, chemotherapy destroys you. The doctor put my life expectancy at just under a year, and maybe a year with chem-otherapy. It was not a difficult decision at all.
It meant you wouldn’t have been able to tour.
Are you glad to be on the road again?
It’s been good. When the specialist told me how long I could expect to feel fit, I said I’d do a couple of gigs and thought it’s a good way to… to finish off. I want to be fit for them. I definitely don’t want to go on stage sick. When I get sick I don’t think I’m going to be quite so chirpy.
Do you still feel the same when you’re on stage?
Oh yeah. Well, stage is a weird old thing anyway, isn’t it? When you’re up there, as soon as it starts, somehow you go into a different world. You operate differently. After Irene died, for a long time it was the only time when I wasn’t feeling absolutely heartbroken.
Onstage, do you escape from your normal self anyway?
You look possessed…
Yeah, and it’s a show, isn’t it? But it’s one you believe in. It’s like when you’re kids playing cops and robbers: you know it ain’t a gun, but it is, isn’t it? It is! You don’t stop and think, hang on, I’m an eight-year-old kid hiding round a corner. You ain’t, man, you’re Al Capone! It’s exactly the same – taking the fantasy seriously.
Do you get the same buzz holding a guitar as an eight-year-old boy gets holding a stick, pretending it’s a gun?
Yeah, absolutely! It’s great! [mimes shooting a machine gun]. Swathes of victims in front of you [laughs].
You’re fond of Icelandic sagas. Are there parallels between the marauding and pillaging and life in a touring band?
Well, if the average band behaved like the average Viking ship, they wouldn’t be getting too many Mojo awards.
You referred to yourself as a “feather for each wind that blows”. Do you often quote Shakespeare?
I pepper my conversation with literary quotes for my own satisfaction. People either think I have a marvellous turn of phrase or they realise where I’m getting it from.
What did you feel about Oil City Confidential?
It was great. The first thing Julien did was go to the oil depot on Canvey Island and project film of the Feelgoods on the side of these tanks. It was fantastic, going in at night, seeing these huge silent images of me and Lee… I could have stood there all night.
When you looked over your shoulder at the projection did you think – that’s a pretty good band?
I don’t like watching myself. First time I saw the film was at the NFT [National Film Theatre], sitting next to my son watching through my fingers. Then the live shots of the Feelgoods came on and I thought, fucking hell, pretty good! I’m digging him in the ribs, going: “Go on! Get a load of that!”
You were associated with ‘pub rock’ but you didn’t drink.
I did have a puritanical attitude about pubs and alcohol. I was teetotal until my 40s, when I discovered a rather disastrous taste for whisky. My opinion of alcohol is worse now than before. I was a speed freak.
Did you ever lose your taste for speed?
I stopped doing it some time ago because the stuff you got was rubbish. I bumped into John Lydon and he said exactly the same thing. “Can you get it?” I said: “No!”
Was there distance between you and the other band members because they drank?
When things got strained, words were said. Sometimes Lee would have one too many and I’d get angry, so naturally their comeback was to have a go. I remember in a cafe, I was getting a coffee, feeling good and said: “Hello.” As I walked away I could hear Lee say: “He’s fucking speeding again.” Just ’cos I’m smiling.
It can’t have been like that at the beginning.
When the band started out: what great friends! I think of how Lee and I ended up with this terrible animosity, yet I always really admired that guy, but you don’t say that. You don’t tell each other and it’s the resentments that get expressed. I always felt that he was the leader of the gang and I was his lieutenant.
Do you wish you could have made your peace with Lee?
Oh yeah. When you look at it, you’ve got to regret what happened.
Was it a lack of communication?
It got beyond communication. It was [long pause] it was so stupid. I’d get depressed, thinking I just wish I could say: “Listen guys, I feel really sad.” Or: “Help!” But you can’t say anything. And you’re aware they’re thinking – he’s gone quiet again.
It was touching to see those shots of you in the film with Sparko and Big Figure, the three of you all together. Are you still in contact?
I received a very touching letter from Figure [John Martin]. He’s literally my oldest friend, born round the corner. Our mums pushed our prams round together. His letter was full of all the good times we had.
Is that how you feel, looking back? You only see the good times?
Absolutely. Fantastically good times. Trying to analyse or even think about any bitterness is a waste of time – which I have less and less of.
The four of you came from such a tight geographical area. Was Canvey an essential part of the band?
We mythologised Canvey Island. We’d sit around getting stoned, talking about living in Oil City, laughing. It is a weird place. I do love it. It’s somewhere in my spirit. I believe the Thames Estuary is one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. I don’t know if it’s because it’s where I came from but it always moves me. I mean, the Romans came sailing up that river!
Did you enjoy the mythologising?
Absolutely. The same way that when I went to university in the mid-’60s, we were the first bunch of working-class oiks to go, dropping my Ts and Hs… man, I was a hero. I loved it.
Would you have gone to university, knowing you’d end up 45 grand in debt?
No, it wouldn’t have happened. I feel sorry for students now. Sometimes I think, if I’d never gone what would I be like? It’s so much of what I am. I cannot imagine not having had that experience. Times change.
When you walk into this room, your eye is drawn to the Telecaster. Why is it so powerful?
It fits in with everything I’ve done. It’s so standard and simple. There are no frills to it at all, which I like. This one is the Official Fender Wilko Johnson Telecaster. I don’t know if I’ll live to see it in the shops, but there it is.
Thanks, Wilko. Can I ask you one last thing?
How should we remember you?
I’ll tell you the honest truth: I don’t want to be remembered. When Lee died there were obituaries and I thought, oh man, let it pass. It’s ephemeral stuff, rock’n’roll. The idea of summing up what I’ve done horrifies me, so I’d rather everybody just looked the other way [laughs].
I don’t think that’s going to happen, I’m afraid…
After the interview we are mugging for The Big Issue photographer, Wilko firing that unflinching stare through the aperture. I mention my last interview: the white keys, the organist who thought I’d accused him of making simplistic music… “Simplistic music? Oh man! I’d have taken that as a compliment!”
Ah, Wilko. Thanks. Meeting an inspiration can be a… well, it can be an inspiration.
Your local vendor is at the sharp end of the cost-of-living crisis this Winter. Prices of energy and food are rising rapidly. As is the cost of rent. All at their highest rate in 40 years. Vendors are amongst the most vulnerable people affected. Support our vendors to earn as much as they can and give them a fighting chance this Winter.