In Conversation with Living Legend Wilko Johnson
Having the opportunity to interview Wilko Johnson a genuine music icon and living legend was a little daunting and so exciting. Liz at Bluesdoodles, a fan of Dr Feelgood since her younger days. Ponder what he younger self would think about her chance to speak with Wilko. As Liz dialed the number she will openly admit how nervous she felt. Was this justified? No It was Not! Wilko answered the phone I took a deep breath and introduced myself with warmth in his voice and a feeling that he had all the time in the world to chat, whilst knowing there had been people before and a long list over the rest of the day. The often laughing Wilko shared his thoughts, experiences of being Alive and surviving cancer and much more. As he approaches seventy the blues flame still burns bright and true. With twenty minutes and the clock ticking down the first question was asked:-
BD: What were your first musical influences growing up in Canvey Island?
WJ: It was the beginning of the swinging sixties of course. It was the electric guitar, I had seen one at school; liked the look of them. I was fascinated by the springs, knobs and I fancied myself playing one. Yea I wanted one, so the next Christmas I suppose I had a cheap electric guitar and started to play. I did not know much music at the time. It was time of The Beatles and Rolling Stones through them got interested in American Rn’B that was influencing them. Johnny Kidd & The Pirates I thought the guitar sounded interesting, I want to play like Mick Green, play the blues. I was also listening to Chess Records, the likes of Chuck Berry Bo Diddley Muddy Waters hearing the blues opened a new world for me while still trying to copy Johnny Kidd. I couldn’t do it but ended up developing my style as I continued with the twanging through my teenage years.
Then university and I forgot all about the guitar. Four years went by. and I bumped into Lee Brilleaux he said he was forming a band so Dr Feelgood was formed with me trying to play like Mick Green, playing the blues. Playing in London in the early seventies we were creating bit of a scene we had no multiple keyboards or light shows, we didn’t wear cloaks or dresses we just played good basic music. Lots of people were watching and a year later punk emerged. Dr Feelgood was influential in creating the sound that became Punk. I stumbled into music really.
BD: That leads neatly on to – The sound you make from your Fender is distinctive and instantly recognisable as Wilko. How do you achieve this on your signature Telecaster?
WJ: Yes, I do now have a signature telecaster. I am a great believer in standard and straightforward approach. There a great players who use pedals. Sometimes though, great things can interrupt the sound and you have to operate them with that tip-toe action on the pedal board. Just not for me and you have to stay on one spot too long! The signature guitar is based on the bog stand Fender Telecaster as my first guitar. Everything I do is straight forward, not technical it is skiffling. It [guitar sound] does what it does. From an early age I learnt from Chuck Berry not just about playing the guitar but as important to move about putting some action into it. The silly walk is part of the music rather than a technical 12 bar solo.
BD: Turning 70, celebrating life and a gig at The Royal Albert Hall. Did you think you would be performing there when playing at venues such as The Nag’s Head in High Wycombe? Which sadly like so many venues of our youth are closed now
WJ: I never did think about playing large venues. Times change, venues close have to accept it. Playing The Royal Albert Hall the last three to four years have been so crazy. Nothing surprises me anymore. I was given ten months to live that led to a fantastic year. Mad things happen in the year you are dying. Roger Daltrey, says let’s make an album. I thought I will never see the release of this album. But the last thing that I have done is an album with Roger Daltrey has to be a good result that was consoling It was very successful, bestselling I have ever had. It was made in eight days and best of all I saw it released.
Doctors in Cambridge, said they could operate, and they did more than a year after I was certain I was going to die. The tumour was the size of a melon weighing over 3 kilos, they opened me up lifted it out of me. Few days after the operation the surgeon Mr Huguet came with the results from the Lab along with the tumour, half my stomach, gut and pancreas every trace of cancer had gone. They had cured me. It was a strange old moment. Mr Huguet is a hero, super human to me, he is such a nice guy we are on first name terms but he will always be Mr Huguet to me.
BD: How has the experience of living through the diagnosis, farewell tour and then operation and back in the world of the living effected your approach to music, performances and life in general?
WJ: During my farewell tour the year I was dying the audience all knew what was going on and there was a real closeness with the audience. I knew that I couldn’t change anything that had happened in the past and there was no future so there was only the moment. I could play my music in the moment not worried about what people thought it was such a strong feeling and I lived to tell the tale.
I hope that I can take this into the future. You have lots of profound insights when facing death I think I learnt some wisdom’s and hopefully retained them. I will not be such a prat as I used to be. I know how to play relaxed doing it in the now. Not thinking about it. In The Dr Feelgood days, we were so considered about we got to get it right, worrying what will the papers say. Now just play Rock n’ Roll all that matters is the moment.
BD: What are your plans once celebrating 70 fades away? New Record?
Yes lots of plans, in fact been in the studio this week, looking at what we have got. New album after our summer gigs. I would like to get going straight away. I love playing again have so many ideas. After the operation it took a while to get playing again up to scratch. I had not touched a guitar for a year, few more gigs to do, Royal Albert Hall, tour of Japan it is wonderful just being able to stand up and be capable of playing the guitar again.
BD: How does it feel to have been described as the best thing to have come out of Essex since the Peasants revolt??
WJ: Wat Tyler has definitely left a footprint on history more clearly than me. When Dr Feelgood started to be got known we made a lot of being Essex boys out of Canvey Island. Canvey Island not been that famous since the Great Floods of 1953. There is no argument that Canvey Island have lots of reasons to be proud of us. They should definitely name a road after Lee Brilleaux – Lee Brilleaux Boulevard has a nice ring to it.
BD: If you were putting together the perfect band with members from across the years (dead or alive) who would you have playing
WJ: So many favourite guitarists and their playing would definitely show me up! I have to say without sounding this is a rubbish answer it has to be my guys who I am playing with at the moment. They are the business Dylan Howe on drums and Norman Watt-Roy on Bass.
BD: The time flew by, it was a fun twenty minutes of my life.