A Feelgood's farewell
PUBLISHED: 11:42 03 April 2013 | UPDATED: 15:41 11 April 2013
Wilko Johnson, the charismatic member of the infamous Dr Feelgood band, is one of the great British eccentrics. In an emotional interview, the Canvey Island guitarist tackling terminal cancer, tells Pat Parker why he's never felt more alive
IN the mid-70s, after glam rock had faded, punk had yet to explode and prog rock was at its most pompous, Dr Feelgood invigorated the pop scene like a blast of fresh Essex air. The pub-rock band from Canvey Island were the forefathers of punk. Lean, mean and slightly menacing, Dr Feelgood took rock back to its raw, uncompromising roots.
Frontman Lee Brilleaux would deliver rasping vocals to hits like Roxette and Back in the Night. The band's songwriter and guitarist, Wilko Johnson, with his trademark black suit and pudding-basin haircut, would dart about the stage, jaw jutting and eyes staring manically. His choppy playing style was unique; combining the roles of lead and rhythm guitar, his pulsating riffs gave the songs their cutting edge.
Wilko left the band acrimoniously in 1977, after they had had a No. 1 album and were starting to make it big in America. The remaining Feelgoods carried on (they still play, but with none of the original members), but they were largely overtaken by the punk wave they'd helped inspire. For many years, they were all but forgotten.
Then, in 2009, director Julian Temple made the film Oil City Confidential about the group, its influence on punk and how Canvey Island had inspired them. Lee had died of cancer back in 1994, but Wilko, eloquent in his eccentricity, was the undisputed star. He went on to take the role of mute executioner in the TV fantasy show, Game of Thrones. And then, just as he was emerging as an unlikely national treasure, he told us he was dying.
Aged 65, he was diagnosed with untreatable pancreatic cancer just before Christmas. In January, he was told he only had months to live. Having suffered from depression ever since his youth, you might have expected the diagnosis to have crushed him. Instead, it had the opposite effect.
Sitting on a black leather settee in his Westcliff on Sea semi, his Fender Telecaster by his side, Wilko explains this unexpected reaction. For a week or two after the diagnosis, I was feeling euphoric, he tells me in his south-Essex drawl. It's the intensity of being alive. You're walking along the street and you think, Wow! You're really looking at things and it's almost as if you're young again everything looks vibrant. You realise you don't have to bother about everyday trivialities. Once death becomes more immediate, it changes your perspective. It's been several weeks now and I'm still feeling this intensity about existence.
His paintings adorn the walls of his living room some dating back to his schooldays. He is something of a Renaissance man. His original dream was to become a poet he is passionate about Shakespeare and is one of the few people in the country to know Old Icelandic.
At the moment, he feels as fit as a fiddle. I feel fine, he says. They've told me I can expect another four or five months like this, so I just want to do some gigs and some recording and take each step at a time. One of the first things I did after the diagnosis was to take a holiday in Japan, where I probably have more friends than anywhere. I'm really glad I did that.
Since Wilko announced his illness on Radio 4's Front Row, he's been overwhelmed by the resulting outpouring of goodwill. The hastily-arranged farewell gigs quickly sold out. Belatedly, he's realising how much he means to people. I came back from Japan with a big bag of letters. What got me was the personal affection people were expressing. I always knew the music was popular. But I just never knew people felt like that about me. It's been quite an eye-opener!
John Wilkinson (he later changed his name by deed poll) was born in Canvey Island in 1947. His mother was a teacher, his father whom he hated was a gas fitter. My mother was the one with the brains. She was a big influence on me. My father was a stupid and violent person. The terrifying thing is the older I get, the more I look like him.
When Wilko was five, the family's bungalow was destroyed by the 1953 floods which killed 58 people on the island. He has vivid memories of that terrible night. I remember being pulled out of bed in the early hours and looking out to sea and seeing waves coming over the fields. The sea came over the land and everybody's houses filled with water. We were taken off the island in a truck. Our house had seven foot of seawater and sludge in it. Everything was destroyed.
The family were evacuated to Sheffield, but Wilko's father stayed on to help reconnect the gas supply. He was walking about in freezing water and it destroyed his chest. It got worse and worse until he finally succumbed to double pneumonia when he was about 56.
Wilko passed his 11 Plus and attended Westcliff High School for Boys. I didn't like it much. It was a bit pseudo-public school. Was he a good scholar? The general consensus was I had the brains but was lazy and would never do as well as I should.
After messing around for a year after school, he realised he wanted to study literature, and won a place at Newcastle University. Before leaving for Newcastle, Wilko married his childhood sweetheart Irene. It was a teenage wedding and the old folks wished them well, he says, quoting Chuck Berry. Irene was the love of his life, and the couple had two sons. He has still not recovered from her death from cancer in 2004. She was the most beautiful person who ever lived. I think about her all the time.
Shortly after returning to Canvey, he bumped into Lee Brilleaux, or Collinson, as he then was. Lee had his own band and the guitarist had just left. Although Wilko was several years older and hadn't played for several years, he was invited to join the band. Dr Feelgood was born.
The band decided to play heavily on their Canvey Island roots. Wilko romanticised the island in his lyrics. We played on that whole oil city thing. I would incorporate that imagery in the songs. We fitted ourselves to a fantasy of Canvey Island, which we made up. And that also became reality, so it became hard to say what was real and what wasn't. When I was a teenager, I remember wishing I came from somewhere more dramatic than Canvey Island. And then later I realised it was dramatic.
Wilko has always seen the poetry in the landscape and it moves him to this day. I do believe the Thames Estuary is one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. I've seen the Himalayas, the Mississippi, the Lake District, and it stands up with them. There is something magical about it. You look out at the estuary and it's constantly changing a hugely different, dramatic scene unfolding before you.
Dr Feelgood caught the imagination of a generation of young people unmoved by the pretensions of prog rock. Our brand of rhythm and blues was not fashionable at the time. We were the total opposite of stadium rock. The kids who came to see us thought, Look, it's just four blokes with kit and amplifiers and they're doing something exciting. Anybody can do that. I think we can take quite a bit of credit for the whole punk thing.
Members of the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Jam and even Blondie in New York have acknowledged Dr Feelgood as a prime influence. But, just as they had hit the big-time, the group fell apart. Things came to a head one night during an American tour. Animosity had reached a point where it was going to explode, and it did that night for some reason.
Perhaps underestimating his reputation, he didn't take advantage of some of the offers which came his way. I was out of action for about six months. I was going out of my mind. I didn't know what to do. Later, he joined Ian Dury's Blockheads. Ian was a marvellous character he was also one of the most offensive people I've ever met. When he'd had a drink too many which was usually one he would pick on some innocent bystander and start offending them. This led to some hair-raising incidents.
He later formed the Wilko Johnson Band, which now comprises former Blockheads Norman Watt-Roy and Dylan Howe. We've all done Dury duty, as we call it. He still gets a massive buzz from performing with his band.
A convinced atheist, he has no belief that he will be reunited with his beloved Irene when he dies. When I look in the sky I think, man, it's infinite. There's all those light years, all that pure space, and in all that space, she is nowhere. I don't think consciousness survives death. The lights go out.
Wilko may not physically be with us much longer. But the memory of this charming, intelligent, sensitive man will shine on. Like the moon, the stars and the sun, as another songwriter once said.