Happy 70th to Wilko Johnson - The Birthday Interview!!
Being on deaths door a few years ago it seems remarkable yet kind of spooky that former Dr Feelgood/Blockheads guitarist Wilko Johnson is celebrating his 70th birthday on 12th July 2017. We managed to catch a few minutes with the man himself a couple of months back:
“Well if you're in Manchester that's a pretty good name for your website then” says Wilko Johnson after I explain where I am from, I can tell nothing is going to catch him out, this is his first interview of the day.
Having been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in late 2012, and despite the doctors' prognosis, he continued to tour and perform with vigour and a zest for life usually seen in much younger people. In 2013 it was announced that, thanks to a second opinion and subsequent life-saving surgery, he was now cancer-free, “I’m supposed to be dead” he regularly tells interviewers.
Considering all of this I ask him how he is “I am as fit as a fiddle, thank you very much, walking round and round in circles though and as for my brain, well, it is impossible to tell at this stage of the game but I am trying to maintain a level of dignity” he responds jovially, “I am a senior citizen after all!” And rock 'n' roll royalty to boot!
The first time I saw Wilko was that the Reading Festival in 1979 with his band the Solid Senders, it seemed an odd choice to play there “I don't sit down and say I want to play at this place or that, all these sides of the industry are a complete mystery to me, the car turns up and I say ‘where are we going?’ and we might be going to Ashby-de-la-Zouch or we might be going to Heathrow, what else can you do?”
We talk about his farewell tour, I caught it at the Holmfirth Picturedrome and it was a very emotionally charged show, in both directions “during that year we had some incredible gigs because of the situation and the people, quite moving. I knew I was going to die, I had nothing left to prove so I was just playing, I was in that moment, you don't have to worry about next year's tax bill because it ain't going to happen, we are just going to play some rock 'n' roll and in front of audiences like that it was just great.”
As part of this farewell year he recorded a great album with Roger Daltrey – Going Back Home, I asked him how this came about “I didn't know Roger at all really but I had a chance encounter with him and we got talking and he suggested it but it just got put on the shelf, it didn't happen. And then when the news came out about my cancer and impending death Roger got back in touch and said ‘we should do that album’ and I said ‘we had better do it quick’ and we did do it quick. The record company found us eight days in the studio and this was in the 11th month after my diagnosis so I was already in extra time and we used all my songs as it would be a nice way of being remembered. Anyway, it just went so great, we didn't have time to muck about, we just bashed it out, it was a real one-off type of thing. And whilst I was recording it I had all these feelings that I am not going to see this released, this will be the last thing I ever do.”
But Wilko did see it not only being released but being a huge hit too reaching no. 3 on the album charts “probably the biggest record I've ever done in my life thanks to the people at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge saving my life”.
Wilko’s band has had the incredible rhythm section of Dylan Howe (drums) and Norman Watt Roy (bass) for some years “it's not like I'm doing 70s revival tours with a couple of pickup musicians, I've got this really tight band. Of course Norman I've known for years since the Blockhead days and Dylan has played for the Blockheads as well. Dylan is a superb drummer and when he joined the band the pair of them together are great, it just kicked the band off, it is so much fun playing with them now.”
Earlier this year Keep It To Myself - The Best Of Wilko Johnson was released. It draws together 25 tracks recorded between 2008 and 2012 backed by Norman and Dylan and includes songs such as Roxette and She Does It Right. It does exactly what it says on the tin.
Dylan’s dad is a bit of a guitar player too (YES/Asia guitarist Steve Howe) “in fact Dylan, for a couple of festivals during the summer, we can't use him so we are going to use John Roberts the Blockheads current drummer because Dylan is going to do an American tour with his dad.” I also ask if Steve had been to see him “I don’t know, but if he brings his guitar he can jam if he wants.”
And keeping it in the Howe family, Dylan’s wife Zoe Howe with Wilko released the coffee table book Wilko Johnson: Looking Back At Me, a collection of Wilko’s favourite memories and images and highly recommended it is too, as is Wilko’s memoir, Don’t You Leave Me Here, published in 2016 by Little Brown.
You did some acting and thinking about your appearances in Game Of Thrones are you missing it? “Oh man, it was fantastic, I've never ever done any acting, ever, and I got this request to go up and audition in London for this part and all they told me was that it was for an American TV series, no idea what it was going to be. It ended up I was the only person I called up for the audition and I go into this room and there's this guy with a video camera telling me my character is a really evil so-and-so and I was pleased to hear that the character has his tongue cut out so there are no lines to learn. So the guy says ‘I'm going to read a bit of script to you and you need to react to me in a heavy kind of way’ so I am looking at him thinking ‘I am going to have you’ and the guy turns to me and says 'you've got the job'. I go over to near Belfast for the first lot of filming and somebody says ‘it’s not Xena Warrior Princess, this is really big stuff.’ It was great, I had a caravan with a star on it and I was dressed up in all this armour with these swords and stuff and it was just so much fun, it was like being a kid, like playing cops and robbers, it was so much fun.”
Talking to Wilko you certainly get the sense of how much he now appreciates life and there have been a couple of documentary films about him made by Julian Temple – Oil City Confidential (2009) and The Ecstacy Of Wilko Johnson (2015) - and I ask him how he felt about watching those:
“The Oil City film I was just so impressed by, he got so close to the feeling of things like Canvey Island in 1974, he really captured a lot of the flavour. Now with the Ecstasy film Julian was interviewing me whilst I was dying of cancer, I thought he might have followed me right up to the end and then of course the miracle happened and the operation was a success and after a long long time of lying in hospital and recuperating at home afterwards then Julian started filming again. So there are really two halves to the film and in the first half I am dying, so when I went to see it it seemed so strange, like I am looking at someone else thinking 'this poor bloke, he is going to die and he is making jokes about it’ and then I thought that you, a very kind of spooky feeling really.”
The 70th birthday celebration concert takes place in London in September and the very special guest will be none other than the Salford bard himself, Dr. John Cooper Clarke. It promises to be a very special evening - see ya there!
ROYAL ALBERT HALL
TUESDAY 26th SEPTEMBER 2017
FEATURING NORMAN WATT-ROY AND DYLAN HOWE
WITH VERY SPECIAL GUEST
DR. JOHN COOPER CLARKE
Words: Anthony Firmin | Photos: Paul Crowther, Leif Laaksonen and Simon Reed