A free full education should be available to all; the NHS is a wonderful thing; imminent death can focus the mind; love never dies… These and more guiding nuggets from the death-defying guitarist.
The NHS is a wonderful thing; a free full education should be available to all; imminent death can focus the mind… These and more guiding nuggets from the death-defying guitarist.
“On stage you’re reduced to this thing with a guitar making a noise. And it’s rather a good feeling.”
With a personality defined by raw charisma and sheer likability, Wilko Johnson is unmistakable. As his steelyeyed, hairless skull snaps and spins on its slender neck, he’s as vital and alert as an amphetamine meerkat. His charming, instinctive honesty machine-guns flat Canvey Island vowels laced with street smarts, hard-won experience, snippets of apposite poetry and wonder – always wonder – into the ether. Mortality-dodging, gangster-sharp, amateur astronomer Wilko’s eyes are always on the stars.
All these uncontrived assets, the irresistible ingredients of an inarguable national treasure, make it easy to forget that Wilko is also one of rock’s most instantly identifiable guitarists. His choppy, simultaneous rhythm and lead style honed a Mick Green template to a razor edge that paved the way for punk, rebuilt the blues for a new generation and continues to dazzle in defiance of a shrugged-off death sentence.
THE BLUES: POOR MAN’S THERAPY
I first started hearing blues coming across from America when I was learning to play the guitar in the sixties. The music was so powerful and vivid compared to the pop music I’d been listening to before. The power of the blues defined the kind of music I liked. When I first picked up on it, I thought: “I’m always going to love this music, it’s so intense, so great.” And here I am, still loving it.
When I’m on stage is the only time I’m happy. When you step on stage you become a different thing. All of your concerns disappear and you’re reduced to this thing with a guitar making a noise. And it’s rather a good feeling.
AN ARTIST’S TRUE PATH CHOOSES ITSELF
I used to be deadly serious about painting. When I was in out India [travelling. in his twenties] I decided it was what I was going to do when I got back.
Then Dr Feelgood started, and when I realised it was actually going to go somewhere, I had to choose between doing painting or rock’n’roll. So I thought: “What am I going to do? Am I going to spend the next five years starving in a garret, perfecting my painting technique, or do I want to ride in a Cadillac and get all the girls?” I never painted again.
FREE EDUCATION IS A PROFOUND HUMAN RIGHT
There are societies in this world that forbid women to be educated, and I think that this is a terrible tyranny. It’s incumbent on a society, including our own, to provide the absolute best education that they can for every young person, because it illuminates their lives and it’s very important. I have to say that I don’t think our society or government really appreciates this enough. They don’t spend enough on it when it’s one of the most absolutely important things we can be doing because it’s there to enlighten the new generation. To become fully human you must have an education. It’s just as important as a health service, which is another thing you should provide, and another thing the government wants to turn into a sordid business operation. They want to turn hospitals into money-making concerns, and that’s crap.
THE NHS: THE JEWEL IN OUR NATION’S CROWN
I was born at the same time as the NHS, more or less, and it’s a marvellous thing we did as a nation, providing free, full healthcare to everybody as a right. But it’s changing now – it’s all money, money, money. They’re ruining it. And they want to ruin it, because they see it as an expense. And when
I say ‘they’, I mean rich people, the establishment. They’re always going to be alright, man, if they get sick. But me, I need the NHS – and I’m speaking as somebody whose life was saved by the NHS. This magnificent body of people saved my life. In other places you wouldn’t be talking to me now because I wouldn’t have had access to that sort of care. So I love the NHS and we should try to get it back to its original principles. They’re effectively privatising so much of it, and that’s just wrong.
TRAVEL EXPANDS THE CONSCIOUSNESS
When I first went out East I was also expanding my consciousness with other things. When I was young I never thought I was going to be a traveller. I never really travelled far from Canvey Island, and felt my trip to Kathmandu was going to be my travelling done. Then a couple of years later I got into rock’n’roll and that sent me travelling even further. But I’m certainly glad of it. Other places, other people, it provides you with the knowledge that you should have. It’s very easy to think the way things are in your own neighbourhood are the way things should be, but there’s lots of ways to be.
I love it in Spain. It’s very beautiful and the people can really party. They’re so different from the English, and I dig that. I was there at a fiesta once and everyone was up all night, partying on down. It was Easter time and they were all wearing robes and carrying the Virgin Mary through the streets. It was really weird. Then the procession came to a halt and you’d see these guys in the robes leaning by the side of the road having a cigarette and talking; just ordinary people, doing this thing that’s really weird. Could you do that in England? No you couldn’t. We’d be embarrassed. If we have what you call a carnival, it’s just soppy; they’re doing something really intense. And I love Japan, for the beauty of the place but also the people. I love it.
ONE’S OWN IMMINENT DEATH CAN REALLY FOCUS THE MIND
That whole experience led to one of the greatest years of my life, in many ways. Facing death, sitting there at three o’clock in the morning thinking: “Oh fuck, I’m going to die,” that’s something to experience. But it wasn’t always like that. Most of the time I was in a state of heightened consciousness. When you’re in that position you look around you and think: “I’m alive and it’s so beautiful.” ‘To me the meanest flower that blows can give thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.’ And Wordsworth’s right, it does, yeah.
There were lots of funny kicks during that year, playing gigs – sometimes very big ones, like Fuji Rock festival – where you know that everybody knows you’re going to die. And you can’t go wrong, can you? [Laughs]
YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE
I spent a year thoroughly convinced and absolutely sure I was going to die, and the way I dealt with it was that I told myself: “Look, you’re going to die. Don’t sit there hoping for a miracle, just get on with it.” Then after that year, I’m sitting with a doctor who is telling me: “We think we can save you.” I walked out of there and I was actually laughing. It was so stupid. If you saw a thing like that in a soap opera you wouldn’t believe it.
After the operation it took me a long time to recover, but eventually I got back to playing. For a year I’d been playing gigs where everybody was thinking I’m gonna die, now I’ve got to go back out there and go: “I’m gonna live.” It’s not so dramatic.
HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS
In my heart of hearts I come from Canvey Island, which is literally insular, and I think I’ve always got to live near the Thames Estuary. The Thames Estuary is one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. I’ve been to Louisiana, the Himalayas, the Lake District, but there’s something about the Thames
Estuary. I love it.
STARGAZING CHANGES YOUR PERSPECTIVE
Anybody who looks up into the sky on a clear night cannot help but feel moved in some way or another. You’re looking at something that is far beyond your intellectual powers to conceive, the distances. Infinity is an impossible thing to imagine. I’m an amateur astronomer. Professional astronomers spend most of their time doing mathematics and calculations, not looking through telescopes, while us amateurs just want to look at groovy things. If you look at Saturn through a telescope, it’s impossible to believe it’s a natural object. It looks like a jewel. Imagine if someone said to you: “Take two objects, a sphere and a flat ring, and make something beautiful.” I mean, who would have thought of a thing like that? And yet there it is, and many a time I’ve spent the best part of the night just looking at it and thinking I can’t believe it. I just do it for kicks. The kick is just seeing something beautiful. It’s wonder beyond wonder.
POLITICALLY SPEAKING, IGNORANCE IS BLISS
When I got my cancer diagnosis I stopped reading newspapers, I stopped looking at the news on the television. The reason was that I didn’t want to get involved in anything because I wouldn’t see how it worked out, so there’s no point. After my recovery I’ve continued this. I don’t look at the news, I don’t look at papers, so I don’t know what’s going on, and at my age, I don’t really care.
LOVE NEVER DIES
It’s been fifteen years since my wife Irene died, and I can honestly say that half an hour doesn’t go by without me stopping and thinking about her. She was a really big part of my life. I was watching the television the other day and there was this song on that made me think about her. There was a line that went: ‘I’m waiting for you,’ and it made me imagine her searching for me. I went into this fantasy that for the last fifteen years she’s been searching for me, and suddenly, really vividly, I thought she was going to walk in the door and go: ‘Oh, here you are.’ It just knocked me over. Half my life is cut off without her. When I think about Lemmy, I think of the laughs I had with him and think: “Yeah, what a great guy.” I don’t break down crying like I do with Irene.
“Playing gigs when everybody knows you’re going to die, you can’t go wrong, can you?”
Wilko Johnson’s album Blow Your Mind is out now via Chess/UMC.
The Wilko Johnson band: (l-r) Norman Watt-Roy,Wilko, Dylan Howe. Wilko with Dr Feelgood at London’s Marquee club,January 1975.
Wilko Johnson at LondonKoko in 2013.