Saturday, 23 June 2012

Looking Back At Me

Wilko Johnson in conversation with Pete Millington of Spaghetti Gazette
An audio version of this interview was recorded and edited by Jonathan Harris for Blaze FM.
Last month saw the eagerly awaited autobiography release of former Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson. British rhythm and blues legend and punk pioneer Wilko Johnson wrote and collated this with the acclaimed music writer Zoe Howe. Described as fascinating, funny, deeply personal and visually compelling Looking Back At Me is a fascinating rock’n’roll scrap book, oral history and genuine treasure trove marking the first time Wilko has ever told his story with no holds barred. In this interview with Wilko, Pete Millington discovers just a few of the treasures to be found in his fascinating autobiography.
A complete departure from the standard celebrity autobiography format which generally tend to be heavy on text, invariably written by ghost writers with a meagre selection of photos in the centre, Looking Back At Me is a visually sumptuous feast of images and stories, through which the Canvey Island raised guitarist shares his recollections of everything from his Essex childhood and his Indian odyssey as a youthful hippy, to the wild, turbulent days of Dr Feelgood and Ian Dury & The Blockheads, to his current band featuring Norman Watt-Roy (bass) and Dylan Howe (drums).
But neither is this just another tome for the annals of rock ‘n’ roll genealogy, for within its pages Wilko also expands on his love for astronomy, art, literature, clouds, poetry, sci-fi, and Shakespeare; making him the ultimate Renaissance man of rock. I asked him where the idea for the book’s fantastically engaging format came from:
Zoe Howe
“I have to say” Wilko began without hesitation “that most of the credit for the format goes to Zoe, the book kind of evolved, initially we just wanted to create, if you like, a piece of merchandise to sell with CDs and t-shirts at gigs and it was Zoe’s job to kind of assemble this, which she did by coming to my house and rooting around for photographs and what not and at the same time she was, well not interviewing me, but leaving her I-phone switched on and recording my …ramblings. And she put it together in this kind of scrap book way. So that whole aspect of the book which many people have said that they like …I must give the credit to Zoe”.
In the first few sections of the book, Wilko recalls his childhood on Canvey Island. A baby boomer born “below sea level” in 1947, Wilko says he grew up with the idea that there was something shameful about coming from Canvey, but passing the 11-plus meant that in his teenage years he would ride the steam train each day to and from grammar school in Southend. There is a copy of a school report in the book in which one of his teachers describes Wilko as a “self-styled revolutionary” adding that he will be sorry to see him leave school with the closing remark “I hope others will find your cynicism equally stimulating.”
I asked Wilko what he made of this assessment of his character by a professional educator so many years ago and also asked him what might have been his own assessment of himself when he worked as a teacher some years later. With a chortle of amusement Wilko replied:
“This school report actually, was one of the things that Zoe dug up from some obscure cupboard or something.  It was a surprise to me actually, I don’t think I’d seen it for however many hundred years it was. I thought I was just a kind of, like one of the kind of mob of kids in the school, I can’t remember, perhaps I was a bit of a …one of those boys who would sit at the back and …as I was to find out myself in later life when I became a school teacher. In fact when I was teaching myself, the boys at the back who were making jokes, I was quite tuned into it and enjoyed that aspect.”
I reminded him of some odes written by his pupils, something Zoe had also dug up, in which boys referring to themselves as “the back row” had described him, amongst other things as “a hairy in a flowery shirt”. Had this been a case of karma for Wilko?
“Exactly. When you become a school teacher you find yourself imitating all the school teachers you’ve ever known. So you walk in and you’re teaching away and you go “who is that talking at the back? Yes I thought so” …and you find yourself going through all these kinds of formulae. It would have been quite wrong of me to get uptight with the kids at the back, who probably provide most of the fun”.
Photo by Dave Coombs
In the book Wilko talks about his early musical influences, which of course include Mick Green, the guitarist with Johnny Kidd and the Pirates and how he went to see them playing at a college in London. When the gig finished Wilko jumped on stage and asked Mick Green for his autograph but the only thing he had in his pocket was a copy of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale which Green duly signed. I suggested to Wilko that it was unusual and intriguing to think of a working class lad from Canvey Island going to a rock ‘n’ roll gig with a Shakespeare play in his back pocket and asked him where he thought his love of culture and his intellectualism had come from:
“Well actually my mother was a very intelligent person, my father was not”.
With a chuckle Wilko went on:
“Even though I do physically strongly take after my father, I inherited his big nose and my left handedness and things like that but fortunately I didn’t inherit his brain, I think I got the brain from my mum. Our mum was always very, very keen on promoting our education, on myself and my brother and sister. My brother became and he is in fact a classical musician, yeah, we both passed the 11-plus exam which they used to have in those days, which sent you to the grammar school and I think going to that took us out of the milieu of Canvey Island. The grammar school wasn’t on Canvey Island, you had to travel up into the mainland, up into Southend where all the posh people live. But I don’t know, I just took, for instance Shakespeare and an interest in literature developed in me, very early on, in the same way you can’t say how these things come, you can’t say to someone “what started you …why do you dig rock music or something?” You can’t say someone came and told you …it’s just that you’ll hear some rock music and you’ll dig it, some people dig it and it was the same for me with literature which went on to become an important part of my life”.
I asked Wilko about his love of Icelandic sagas, a subject which according to his autobiography he studied at university in Newcastle. He talks about his fascination with the tales contained in the sagas which he says probably started off as stories of punch-ups between ancient Icelandic neighbours but through time were changed into legends of god-like feats. I suggested to Wilko that Icelandic sagas are a much neglected area of western literature and asked him whether he saw his own autobiography as a saga:
“I can never advertise Icelandic sagas enough and I can always recommend them to people because they are just damned good and you can get good translations of them nowadays, Penguin books and so forth, and I would recommend anyone to read them because they are a ripping good read.“
“I don’t see my autobiography as a saga. I see my life, which is reflected in the book, more of a hotch-potch of things that happened and I think this is true of anybody if you look back on your life you don’t see a carefully written story, with everything working out properly and everything having a proper meaning and things like that. It’s actually just a confusion of circumstances and things that happen. So I would say my life is like anybody’s really, pretty much haphazard.”

Photo by Dave Coombs

Wilko’s rejection of the suggestion that his autobiography is another ‘sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll’ saga in the familiar style of others perceived to be rock music legends and which, in fairness, many seasoned Feelgood and Blockhead fans might expect it to be, begs the question with what else then have Wilko and Zoe Howe filled its 254 bright and colourful pages?

The answer is that between the albeit fascinating narrative of dope sessions, Bloody Margaritas, heated arguments with Lee and the other Feelgoods, playing to Roman amphitheatres in Avignon and punch-ups amongst the legendary Blockheads, there are many interesting detours into the rich but lesser-known life and loves of Wilko Johnson.

I asked him:

“What comes across in the book is the extensive range of art forms that you have turned your hand to with massive skill and creativity; music, poetry, story writing, the travelogue stuff of India, cartooning, psychedelic art, all of them are fantastic, but which path would you have followed had it not been rock ‘n’ roll?”
Photo by Jerry Tremaine
Wilko reflected:
“When I went to university in my late teens I wanted to be a writer, specifically I wanted to write poetry. I mean seriously I did, but it’s a silly thing to want to do actually because nobody can make a living doing that as it’s a very, very minority kind of interest. I realised after a couple of years of effort that actually I was not much cop as a poet but I still had kind of vaguely literary ambitions if you like, but then my interest turned towards painting, that was a strong ambition, I did want to be a painter and I had strong ideas about the kind of things I wanted to paint. Because I didn’t go to art college and I never received any training in drawing and painting I thought well it’s going to take me a few years to get a good enough technique to actually do the things I want to do and I was setting about doing this, diligently painting away there when Dr Feelgood started and there came a point when I realised that Dr Feelgood was going to go places and something was going to happen there and I just had to make up my mind to do one thing or the other. Well I like to go 100%, possibly because I’m rather lazy, so I realised if I was going to devote my self to playing rock ‘n’ roll that at least for the time being I would have to abandon the painting and so I did.”
With a chuckle he added:
“Of course when the rock ‘n’ roll thing started I never realised that I was still going to be doing it in the next century! So I never really returned to painting. I never did any more, whereas my brother, who is a different character from me really, he is a classical musician, but he continued with his painting and he became very, very good. In fact he had a painting in the Royal Water Colour Society annual exhibition this year so, my bruv, clever guy – paintin’ was something I left behind.”
But whilst the diversity of Wilko’s creativity is indeed comprehensively explored in the book and whether the reader’s prior knowledge of him is purely as a rock ‘n’ roll icon or they are already familiar with the other sides of this fascinating man, most of us will want to hear the inside story of the formation and rise of Dr Feelgood and the reason for his seemingly swift departure from the Canvey Island R&B band in March 1977. By his own admission, Wilko harbours a general reluctance to dwell too much on the past when it comes to the Feelgood story, this is reflected partly in certain comments in the book and also in media interviews where he dismisses his own legendary status, preferring to promote his present music and the band he has led for some thirty five years. Unsurprisingly Willko does not like being constantly quizzed about Dr Feelgood, an intense period of his life involving a very unique group of personalities and circumstances which all transpired forty odd years ago.  
Having said this, rock historians and long-time Feelgood fans won’t be disappointed by the book as the whole story of Dr Feelgood is actually here, from early R&B influences, through the formative years of Dr Feelgood from 1971 as a so-called ‘pub rock band’ (a genre that Wilko is not entirely happy with), the story behind the making of each of the four classic albums that he more or less singularly wrote and composed, profiles of all the main Feelgood members such as Lee Brilleaux, John ‘Sparko’ Sparks and John Martin aka Big Figure, plus various other Feelgood members who came and went, as well as managers, marketing people and production staff. Neither does Wilko shy away from his own candid version of the group dynamics which led to his quite sudden departure from the band. If a lot of this was visited just a couple of years ago in Julien Temple’s documentary Oil City Confidential, Wilko is still keen to put a few things right in the book and there are definitely one or two ghosts being laid to rest especially his version of the final disagreements about songs prior to his departure.

These were clearly volatile yet creative years in the lfe of four working class lads from Canvey Island who shook the rock world to its very foundations from the backroom stages of London boozers. And here is the most definitive testimony that contemporary music fans are ever likely to read. 
Photo by Jerry Tremaine
Dr Felgood are of course increasingly acknowledged as having been a major influence on the development of punk rock from the mid-70s and its memorable explosion not just on the music scene but onto the whole of British society in 1976 / 77. The autobiography contains many testimonies and quotes from key characters including Bob Geldof, JJ Burnel of The Stranglers, Topper Headon from The Clash and Keith Levene, guitarist of The Clash and Public Image Limited. Most artists from the punk era cite Dr Feelgood and Wilko specifically as having been the most notable pioneers from whom they had taken inspiration. A recent television documentary Punk Britannia featured Dr Feelgood and other pre-punk ‘pub rock’ bands such as Kilburn and the Highroads, I asked Wilko what his take is on this historical analysis:
“Well when we really got going if you like was when we started to play in London. For the first couple of years Dr Feelgood was a local band the same as a thousand others, you can find plenty of them in any town right? And we were one of them, we were just four guys playing the kind of music we liked and strictly for fun and believe me it is great fun, and we lived some distance outside London in the estuary and London’s only 25 miles down the road but it could be a thousand really in many ways. But when we started playing in London, and we had got our thing together, we made quite an impact and I know that among the people that we were making an impact on were the people that were to go on in the next year or two to do the punk thing.”
“Of course we were just up there twanging away and we didn’t realise that …but once we started succeeding there was a definite feeling we were, I don’t know, that we had something to prove. The music we were playing was different to the music that was in vogue at the time and the basis of the music we were playing was the simplicity, energy, directness and there was a feeling that we were fighting that corner and as I say, there were a lot of people with their eyes on us and we gave them the clue as to where to go if you like.”
The more one considers Wilko’s signature stage persona, striding backwards and forwards with fixed menacing-eyes, his guitar poised like a machine-gun and his expression almost wild looking as if he might bite the head off an audience member at any moment, the link between this and the demeanour of the likes of The Damned, The Clash, The Jam and The Sex Pistols seems incontrovertible. But whilst this analysis may now be an accepted and fundamental truth of punk rock academia, even so it seemed very special to hear it directly from the lips of so seminal, yet reflectively modest pioneer as Wilko.
Realising at this point in the interview that Wilko had by now given generously of his time to an unknown Brummie on the end of a distant telephone somewhere west of Spaghetti Junction, I decided to move swiftly to a subject area I had already judged from his autobiography to be Wilko’s greatest love after playing rock ‘n’ roll and taking aside nearest and dearest past and present. Namely his fascination with the observation of the planets, stars and galaxies through a very large telescope on top of his Southend house.
If questions about the break-up of Dr Feelgood run the risk of a premature end to a Wilko Johnson interview, not so enquiries about his telescope and passion for the night sky. So bearing in mind that Wilko’s autobiography both starts and ends with images of the moon, now seemed the right moment to go for it.
What, Wilko, is the most exciting thing you’ve ever spotted as you gaze out into the galaxies through your telescope?
“Well I think it has to be,” he hesitated once more to allow space for what now seemed a very familiar Thames delta chortle, before continuing:
“…just a couple of weeks ago a young lady from down the street came knocking at my door and said she knew I had this telescope and she wanted to come and have a look through it …and she wanted to look at the moon. So I said sure, next time there’s a clear night and there’s a nice crescent moon come round and we’ll have a look …and that happened last week. Anyway we went up there and we were looking at the moon and of course it looks great and we’d been looking at the moon for a while and I said “I tell you what, now I’ll show you something groovy” and what I did was I directed the telescope towards …Saturn. Right? I didn’t tell her what she was going to see, I said “look at that” and she looked through the lens and she saw Saturn there with the rings and everything and she nearly fell off the floor …as everybody does”.
“And that’s why, in my own experience the reason why I actually splashed out to get a telescope was I had been getting interested in astronomy, looking through binoculars and things like that, and I really thought I would like to see the rings of Saturn, for which you need a serious telescope and I remember the first time I saw it, it was early one morning and just getting light and I could see this star rising above the houses opposite and I was just wildly swinging the telescope around trying to get it into view and suddenly it just shot across the field of vision like that …whoosh! Ah bloody hell! My heart went thump, thump, thump, it was Saturn, it was a perfect little jewel and you could see the rings around it, when you look at that thing through your telescope, you just look at it, you think “that really exists, that’s really up there”, it is just so breathtakingly beautiful that I would say yes, Saturn’s the best thing I’ve seen.”
“This is what is so fascinating, you can look at these things, something as spectacular as Saturn or as you get more into it, at distant nebulae and galaxies and things and they look beautiful, also they just lead your mind on to all sorts of ...well the word is wonder, it stirs up all your sense of wonder and awe, you know, this universe we know, we’re never going to understand the tiniest fraction of it in our lifetimes but just to look there and think “man its big“.”
Finally I asked Wilko about the future, will he continue to tour with his band, the Wilko Johnson Band with former Blockheads Norman Watt-Roy and Dylan Howe?
“Well its certainly been the past and as I said earlier you kind of get involved in this biz and you think this will be fun for three or four years and then thirty five years have gone by and I don’t suppose I’ve got that much longer left but as long as I’m walking about and breathing I suppose that’s what I’ll be doing.”
Wilko’s autobiography “Looking Back At Me”, co-written by Zoe Howe, is published by Cadiz Music. Further info:
Wilko’s UK tour starts October 11th at the Bath Komedia. Ticket Hotline: 0844 478 0898,

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