Wilko John­son

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.

Classic Rock - - Contents - In­ter­view: Ian Fort­nam

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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]


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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