An open letter to Wilko Johnson
It's one of those true defining sounds- the ak-ak-ak- ak attack of the chopping rhythm guitar, the telecaster as Al Capone Chicago gangster machine gun, the staccato rhythms played by the staccato guitarist – the portrait of the musician as the genuine human riff at one with his psychotic chops.
Wilko, you are freeze framed into my consciousness with the black suit and staring eyes and the chopping hand slashing the strings, strutting backwards and forward across the stage like a man possessed with your telecaster like a molten machine gun. You are one of those rare musicians who looks like what they sound like and you totally changed the way the guitar was played and affected so many people of my generation.
The news you had cancer knocked us all out a bit but the following news that you were not taking the chemo and just rocking till the end was so fantastically brave and perfect that it’s been quite inspirational.
This farewell tour you are in the middle of is something else. It’s got to be one of the great rock n roll tours; a purely for the music, celebration of life exercise that sticks a big V sign up at the dread cancer.
There’s only one thing for sure and it's that death stalks us all.
Apart from in rock n roll, where no-one admits it and your breathtakingly brave last stand is quite an emotional affair for us long term fans and even for the causal bystanders. Rock n roll thinks it deals with everything but it rarely deals with the end and there’s a whole lot of power when a true bluesman like you Wilko locks into that zone adding a vital urgency to those already urgent guitar chops.
Our culture is where you are meant to live forever…’You gotta stay young, you can never grow old…’ as the great Ian Hunter once sang and in a sea of endless youth you have dealt the final rebellious card.
In rock n roll there are songs of sex, revolution, driving cars and lots of other stuff. Sometimes death is broached by the darker stars of the scene but it’s rare that anyone actually dancing with Mr. D actually gets out and plays with a high decibel defiance.
Wilko we loved you before all this and we love you more now.
There is something stunningly brave about going down fighting armed with that Telecaster like a heroic gunslinger in his final fire fight. I'm sure it doesn't feel anywhere near as glamorous as that but your final gigs, under the shadow of terminal cancer, are something else. I keep getting reports of great inspirational performances and I keep getting sent reviews for my website describing someone at the top of their game with emotionally stained crowds jammed into battered big back rooms of boozer venues.
By all reports the first shows into the tour have been classic with you zig zagging across the stage with your crumpled back clothes and eyes on stalks, dealing out intense rock n roll and people are saying how alive they have felt. That's quite something.
Everyone is turning up to celebrate you life and at least you now know that you finally have your place cemented in history, unlike ten years ago when you were a hard working journeyman with dedicated fan base, a semi fallen legend who had been brushed aside in the UK's useless pursuit of musical fashion.
Julian Temple's great film Oil City Confidential and Zoe Howe's fab book and your own non stop great shows put you back into the spotlight and you have become some sort of national treasure- a genuine character in a sea of plodders.
I've met you a few times and we had a near miss once.
I was making a history of punk documentary and I insisted you be interviewed in it. I couldn't believe that other histories of the form could edit you out so I got you included. We even managed to get you down to the interview location but because you had to wait for five minutes you were off like a shot, zigzagging out through the door. I apologize now for keeping you waiting but somehow your quick exit was quite fitting. The idea of someone as fast and furious as the great Wilko Johnson waiting patiently seems quite laughable now.
I had a great chat with you on the Stranglers tour last year- we were introduced by the greatest bass player of all time- JJ Burnel, you were as mad as a bat but also dangerously intelligent, armed with that kind of intelligence that finds the real world too slow and boring. You had just delivered a great set, of course, supporting the on form Stranglers- you once shared a flat with JJ in the chaotic year of 1977. It's hard to imagine what the scene was like there but we can imagine lots of hi jinx and definitely a lot of craziness.
Wilko, I would just like to say, thanks for stripping the guitar back to its rudimentary clank and grind. You played with your fingers like a bare knuckle fighter dealing music instead of bloody noses. I know that you always patiently pointed out when I interviewed you that you copied the style from Mick Green, the great guitarist from Johnny Kidd and the Pirates and you learnt his style by slowing down the records to 33 rpm and working out how he did it but you have to admit you really did take it somewhere else. You added a manic intensity and a sawn off shotgun song writing skill that made Dr. Feelgood the stand out band of those confused two years before punk saved us all.
It seems laughable now that you get dumped in with the pub rock scene. Of course you played in pubs, but Ducks Deluxe and Bees Make Honey and the other lardy purveyors of warm lager rock don't seem to be on the same planet as you and you know it.
I always loved that quote about you and your brother going up to London, before the Feelgoods played there, to check out the other bands and laughing at the so called opposition.
You were not being arrogant- you were being honest. There was nothing like you when you burst onto the scene, you were punk two years too early and you got to number one. You stripped rock n roll back to its rudimentary raw power and got rid of the boring stuff. You also dressed like sharp, yet chaotic gangsters- with skinny ties- a look that the holidaying Blondie nicked from you when they saw you destroy Dingwalls at a gig in 1975
No-one wore tight suits then, it was all flares and kipper ties, you had the whole thing down perfectly and Wilko, even if you fucked it all up by walking out on the Feelgoods in 1977 it didn't matter- you had made the statement and changed rock n roll and for that we will eternally be grateful.
Wilko, I know there is talk of doing some new recording and you know what Wilko, can I be a bit selfish here and demand you get in the studio with Steve Albini? He is the best sound recorder in the world and he can make the live sound live and the raw really roar. It's been a dream of mine to hear you recorded by him for years. I know time is tight and all that but I can make this happen- it would be at stunning record and I know he is a big fan of your work.
However it pans out Wilko, I would just like to say thanks for everything, and if I am feeling a bit moist around the eyes and a tad emotional as I write this, well, I'm not ashamed to admit it. Wilko you have more than done your bit, you tore the fabric, you helped to make rock n roll great again, you made the blues contemporary and you played a guitar in a way that affected us all. As I finish this letter to you I look over at my own battered Telecaster and smile…
Wilko I will take this tour in the spirit it’s being played in- a celebration of a remarkable life that is far from over yet…