Wednesday 13 April 2016

Deathbed Confessions… a 2013 interview with Wilko Johnson, Part 2

Please forgive the lurid headline. When we spoke in April 2013, Wilko was expecting to die from terminal cancer within six months, yet he was philosophical and good-humoured about his predicament. Miraculously, he underwent life-saving surgery in 2014. 

You can read Part 1 of the interview here

The topics in Part 2 include Mickey Jupp, Lee Brilleaux, and Wilko’s departure from Dr Feelgood in 1977.

Q What do you think it was about the Southend area that gave rise to a good number of musicians making an impression?

Wilko: I’ve heard a lot of people theorise about Southend as a hotbed of talent, and say that seaside towns are very good for ‘IT’. The atmosphere of Southend as the seaside town of the East End is very fertile ground for rock’n’roll, but I think it was just lucky that there happened to be two great bands, the Paramounts and the Orioles. Then there was about a 10-year gap, but it was still high in my mind when Dr Feelgood started. I had this lingering respect for Mickey Jupp.

Q I remember you saying around 1974, ‘When Dr Feelgood make it I’m gonna come to Southend and grab Jupp by the scruff of the neck and make him a star.’ Do you remember that?

Wilko: Yeah, I always felt that the world ought to know about Jupp. It seemed a shame that he was a local obscurity. I thought it was necessary that he got to the kind of audience he deserved. I never really knew him personally, and I was always a bit intimidated by him. You’d see him working in the music shop and he’s just a geezer. No Oscar Wilde, but when he picked up a guitar it was spine tingling.

Q Isn’t image equally as important as the music, in terms of broadcasting yourself?

Wilko: That could well be. Confronted by Mickey Jupp I’m just taken by his voice, and his music, and that’s sufficient for me, but how it’s presented or put across, I don’t know. I don’t really know him, but you’re probably right. He’s not a sparkling wit, but he is the man who wrote ‘My Typewriter’! When I saw him working in the music shop it used to amaze me how mundane he seemed, with all the usual shopkeeper’s stock jokes, like, ‘What can I do you for?’ Then you hear some of his brilliant lyrics…

Q When did you first feel that you fancied a bit of success?

Wilko: Even when I was a schoolboy, I really loved playing in local bands, but I never ever thought that maybe I could live off it, or achieve success. I was just happy playing down The Studio, or The Cricketers. When I went to university I stopped. I put my mind to other things and got less snobbish about music. We’d all be sitting around listening to Country Joe and The Fish or whatever, and my guitar was under the bed for about four years. Until I bumped into Lee that day in the street, and his band needed a guitar player. I thought, yeah, why not? I’d just got a job as a schoolteacher, but I don’t think I saw either of them as my future. I was teaching by day and playing down The Railway in Pitsea by night.

Q What happened next?

Wilko: Chris [Fenwick, manager] got us gigs in Holland. We played in these youth houses they have, the first time we played in front of a young audience, rather than playing background music for drinkers down The Railway. It was all right. I remember on the ferry on the way back I was talking to Lee, and I said, ‘Why don’t we try and go for it?’ Lee was reluctant. I said, ‘Bloody hell man, you’re 19, you want to be a solicitor’s clerk?’ Almost immediately after that we started playing down The Esplanade, for an audience that wanted to hear music. Then when we went up to London there was an explosion of interest in us and it was absolutely convincing.

Q What was Lee’s reluctance?

Wilko: I just don’t know. When I first encountered Lee and we put that band together, I always looked on him as a star. It came naturally to him. I wouldn’t have set out to do it by myself. I just thought with a guy like that we could make something of this. I was painting pictures at the time. It was my only aspiration, but that got blown away by the rock’n’roll.

Q Having Lee standing next to you on stage, such a natural, was it a kind of lucky break?

Wilko: Fucking hell, yeah! People go on about, ‘Who was the front man of the Feelgoods, or was it a double act?’ Actually ‘no’ - Lee was the bloody front man. I used to take all my cues from him. In all the pictures of Lee and I on stage, I’m looking at him, like in that famous picture on the Stupidity sleeve. I’m looking at him, but he’s looking out. That was the feeling I used to have when we played, that I was the lieutenant and he was the boss. I would never have gone in for it if it hadn’t been for Lee. I just knew he was a star.

Photograph: Ebet Roberts, 1977

Q When you started jumping up in the air, was that when Lee started doing the press-ups?

Wilko: Yeah! Dr Feelgood was one of those things that had that magic. We’d do things and get a reaction so we’d do it again. We never discussed it or rehearsed it.

Q You always kept a straight face, but you must have been pissing yourself with laughter inside…

Wilko: Oh, you mean the scowls and the glares. It was a game. You’re playing cops and robbers and you’re really feeling ‘this is a machine gun’. But actually it’s a guitar. Come on. You know it’s a guitar, and the audience knows, but it would be silly to have a soppy grin on your face when you’re firing a machine gun!

Q That was what was different about the Feelgoods, mean and moody. One or two other bands later adopted it - The Jam, for example. Never smile. Wasn’t there only ever one candid photo of you smiling? And it got into the NME by mistake?

Wilko: Yes! [laughs] That was the way you felt. That was what people wanted to see and it was part of the connection between the audience and the band.

Q Don’t you think the Feelgoods were the perfect band? Figure could jump-start the van, Sparko could re-wire the joint, and you and Lee did the decorating…  like fours legs of a table?

Wilko: Yes. It made me laugh in the late 60s and 70s when they would put these super-groups together and they were all so hopeless. I’ve never really been managed, and some of the musicians I’ve had were just people who drifted into view. Now I’ve got the most amazing band. Norman is an attraction in his own right, and Dylan has been brill. But then you get cancer and it’s finished [said Wilko, speaking in 2013]. It feels great to be alive, but I regret I can’t have a bit more time doing that.

Q Have you found that people have reacted to your situation in different ways?

Wilko: There have been all sorts of reactions. In Japan, I played with local musicians, although some of them are stars over there. It was while I was in Japan that the news broke that I was ill. In Tokyo the street was full of fans, they had to put screens up to control the overspill from the venue. I came back with a carrier bag full of letters people had handed me, all expressing this personal affection that I didn’t realise existed. I’m popular over there, and a bit of an influential guitarist, but these letters were very moving. I was doing ‘Bye Bye Johnny’ and there were tears everywhere.

Q What are the things you’ve achieved with your music that you are most proud of?

Wilko: Erm… I don’t know… well, it’s got to be Dr Feelgood hasn’t it? I just luckily found myself part of this great thing. It’s been a lingering influence. There are teenage bands doing ‘IT’, now. There’s a band in Glasgow, 15 and 16-year-olds, doing my songs and doing them good. That’s great.

Q What about the Solid Senders, and the album with the sticker ‘Sales Point Wilko’

Wilko: I did everything wrong. Everything started going wrong for me when Feelgoods broke up. The way it broke up… it was partly my fault. With the wisdom of hindsight, that would never have happened. If I’d had a little bit of the sus I’ve got now.

Q You became isolated. Was that to do with their drinking culture?

Wilko: That was quite a big part of it actually. We’d be on the road and I would be up in my room doing whatever, and they would be down at the bar, getting lushed out. And I’d be thinking, ‘What’s happening? Who are they talking about?’

Q Paranoid?

Wilko: No!

Q So they really were out to get you?

Wilko: There were occasions when Lee would be in the next hotel room and the walls were not soundproof. In Germany I think, Lee was drunk and they were all in there, and Lee was giving me a drubbing. Cursing me. I overheard it.

Q Hadn’t there been a bond between Lee and Sparko and Chris that went back to the jug band days? And you came in, as an outsider, and it bonded well and for several years worked brilliantly. But maybe the bond between them was stronger than the bond between you and them?

Wilko: Could well be. But there were all sorts of things about that. When they got me into the band, and remember I am five years older, they first encountered me as – wow – someone to look up to. Lee had quite a bit of admiration for me. What he probably didn’t know was that I had this tremendous admiration for him. I saw him as the star. And the thing is you never tell each other that do you? You don’t say, ‘Hey man, I really admire you!’ If maybe the pair of us had realised the respect we had for each other, it might not have happened. Yes, I did become isolated, cos I was the songwriter, and I had all that bloody worry.

Q Did you really find it hard to write the material, say for the ‘Sneakin’ Suspicion’ album?

Wilko: Lee and I went to Atlanta, to the CBS convention to meet [producer] Bert de Coteaux, cos the Americans wanted that to be their album really. Lee and I were forced to be together for a number of days, and we were getting on all right. Then after that Lee would start coming round my house in the afternoon, and we’d both be sitting there, and we both knew that we were just trying to be friends. I really appreciated him doing that, and I started writing the songs shortly before we went to Rockfield to record that album. In fact, I was still writing some of them while we were there. I was actually writing when they all burst in on me on that final evening and started tearing me to bits. I remember I was feeling really optimistic, thinking ‘it’s all happening’, really pleased with the way it was going, but I now know that while I was sitting there feeling enthusiastic, their knives were already out.

Q Do you think you might have been a bit up yourself at certain points in that period, a bit of a prima donna?

Wilko: I was difficult. Like I say, I’ve never looked back on it and tried to blame anything or anybody, but a lot of the reason I was difficult was because I was isolated and unhappy. The communications had broken down. In fact, during that final ruck, Lee started complaining about me, and he said, ‘It’s just these fucking… silences!’ [laughs loudly] What could I do? I’m sitting there feeling so lonely. And they’re getting uptight, thinking, ‘He’s doing it again, being heavy.’ Really I was just unhappy.

Q They may have seen it as – they were there, four of them including Chris, and this gulf has come about, and they are automatically thinking that the gulf is between them and you. But the gulf might have been between you and the world. The focus is turned on the band but what if you flip it round the other way?

Wilko: You could be right, and I do know that I would have handled things a lot differently if I could be there again now. But then my reaction was to retreat into myself, and throw wobblers just to try and defend myself. From what, I don’t know. I didn’t understand about compromising or anything then, which I understand a little bit better now.

Q What about ‘Lucky Seven’, credited solely to Lew Lewis. I was told recently that all Lew had was the words, and that Sparko produced Lew’s words and Bert de Coteaux sat down at the piano and started riffing on it….

Wilko: Well, I don’t know because I wasn’t there, was I? I ain’t even playing the guitar on that track – that’s how bad it had become – but Lew had written this song, on the back of a fag packet I believe, and he wanted to come down to Rockfield but they wouldn’t let him. I didn’t see Lew at the time. I had nothing to do with him. I didn’t like ‘Lucky Seven’, and that was part of the argument, but it wasn’t what the argument was about

Wilko continued to tell me the story of his departure from Dr Feelgood - nearly 40 years ago - and the precise moment that he knew it was all over. Wilko’s autobiography is about to be published.

 ‘Don’t You Leave Me Here: My Life’ by Wilko Johnson is published by Little, Brown on 26 May 2016

Further reading:
'Lee Brilleaux: Rock'n'Roll Gentleman' by Zoe Howe is published by Polygon

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