Friday, 8 March 2013

Wilko Johnson


It would be easy to get a little mawkish over the news that one of your favourite musician was dying. The temptation to crawl with a sentimental and slushy pen over career highlights is palpable. That situation is impossible with Wilko Johnson. The legendary r ‘n’ b guitarist announced in January that he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He had refused debilitating chemotherapy which would only be palliative at best and instead was choosing to wring the most out of his remaining good health by going back on tour, and recording new material.

This isn’t an approach that would work for everyone. But it is typical of Wilko’s unique way of dealing with life’s challenges. First the music media and then mainstream news began picking up on the story when he consistently and genuinely used terms like ‘uplifting’, ‘inspiring’, and ‘euphoric’ to describe his predicament. I challenge anyone not to be moved by the interview he gave to Radio 4’s Front Row a few weeks ago where he put his condition into perspective and talkes with such warmth about his family, his music and his priorities.

On a more personal level, my challenge was about getting tickets for his farewell gigs. I’ve seen Wilko play live nearly every year for the best part of a fifth of a century and felt that as an act of loyalty I should be there.  Respect here to the promoters and management who resisted the temptation to hike up ticket prices, play overly large venues or extend the tour. I sat online for an hour or so after the tickets went on sale and bagged three at £20 for Koko in Camden. I confess to a few long moments of internet anxiety during that morning. Each time my fumbling digits hit the ‘buy tickets’ button, I was rebuffed with an auto-generated response declaring ‘This event is not available. Please select another’. My blood pressure rose a little. But soon realised that although the press release said tickets would be on sale at 9.30am, in fact no-one had bothered to update the web links until about half past ten. That’s precisely when I bought my tickets. This is the nocturnal entertainment industry after all.

The first few gigs sold out the same day and another at Koko was quickly added. It was no surprise. This would be the last chance to see a genuinely influential and properly unique British guitar genius who was choosing precisely the conditions under which he would depart the scene.

Wilko’s profile has seen a resurgence following the excellent Julien Temple biopic ‘Oil City Confidential’ in 2010 and last year’s biography ‘Looking Back At Me’. I just about managed to get hold of a signed copy of the latter at the launch (blogpost here) last Summer. Though I have to confess that the book isn’t an easy read. It is put together as a stream of consciousness. This is an approach that suits Wilko’s character perfectly, but becomes a random and scattergun wander through a few hobby horses and remembrances. From the fans viewpoint, I wanted to know much more about the relationship with Lee Brilleaux, the Feelgood’s brilliant vocalist (especially about his death), and the rest of the band; some reflections and anecdotes about the writing and recording sessions; an honest view about the reasons behind his split with the band and at least a nod to a meaningful retrospective of his recording output since the Feelgoods. Apart from all that it was reasonably entertaining I suppose…

The touts were mlling round Koko in force by the time I turned up to the adjacent pub at 6.30pm. No surprise, given the exposure the short tour had been given. They really are scum bags. Reports of tickets being sold online for 100% mark ups abounded in the weeks before the gig. Three lads in the boozer next to us had a spare one to sell and went outside to find a real fan who could use it. They succeeded but not before receiving abuse from touts who wanted to rob this geezer of £80 for the ticket.

Koko is a magnificent venue. It’s a Victorian multi-tiered and domed music hall wrought in gilt and shiny ceramics. It looks unprepossessing from the outside, possibly because the main floor is buried 25 feet underground. On entering the edifice at pavement level, it is quite a surprise to emerge from a little tunnel in to the auditorium at 1st floor balcony level. 

And what a treat to find bottles of Theakstons Lightfoot nestling in the fridge behind the bar, rather than tin cans of Worthington’s smoothflow at a fiver a gassy time. We tucked into a round whilst trying to work out why Viv Albertine from The Slits, the scheduled support act, had morphed into a terrible bastardisation of The Buzzcocks crawling from the wreckage of a crash with Dr Feelgood’s wardrobe circa 1976. A terrible, one-dimensional punk band called Eight Rounds Rapid, apparently.

Wilko, on the other, beer-clenching hand, smashed the joint. He served up a furious, high octane performance that was a life affirming celebration of all that is good about real music. Here’s my full review for the GRTR website, so I won’t repeat all that now. Suffice to say his and the band’s usual lofty standards were exceeded. The addition of a top of the range PA courtesy of a better venue, and a packed crowd intent on Wilko feeling their love simply enhanced the quality of the experience. As my mate said, it was an “I was there” night.

Photo: (c) Simon Jay Price

Long live Wilko. You are an inspiration.  

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