Wilko Johnson – the former Dr Feelgood guitarist – announced in January this year that he had terminal cancer, and that he wouldn’t be undergoing chemotherapy to extend his life a little. He said he felt “vividly alive”, and that he would be playing a few “farewell” shows, if his health would allow, and announced a brief tour.
So I went to Koko in Camden last night to… what was it? A farewell? A send off? A celebration of Wilko’s life? A reminder not to take life for granted? It was all of these. And it was also just a damn fine gig.
To me, Wilko is a local hero. He was born – below sea level – on Canvey Island, a few miles away from where I live. I went to his book signing last year at Rough Trade East where he was in turns witty, charming and an excellent story-teller. His book ‘Looking Back At Me‘, co-written with Zoe Howe, is a superb scrapbook of his life, documenting his love of his wife (who died a few years ago), episodes travelling in the Far East, the rise of Dr Feelgood and Wilko’s more recent interests in the stars (he has built himself an observatory by which to star-gaze and there’s a Facebook page lobbying for him to succeed Patrick Moore as ‘The Sky At Night‘ presenter).
He stood onstage that day, guitar in hand, and told of being inspired by a disastrous MC5 Wembley appearance. He demonstrated how his percussive and unorthodox style of guitar playing developed. And with his band – featuring former Blockhead Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Dylan Howe he rocked out and played some great tunes.
At Koko last night, he looked really well. He focused on playing and there was less stage banter, until a string broke during encore ‘Johnny B Goode‘ and Wilko changed the string himself without stopping the song, confessing “Without my glasses I can’t only not see the tuning peg, I can’t even see my guitar”. He did it anyway: who needs a guitar tech when you can change a string onstage halfway through a song?
Opening the set with “Everybody’s Carrying A Gun”, and playing classic songs including ‘Going Back Home’ and ‘Roxette’ the sell out crowd was soon warmed up and forgetting that this would be our last chance to hear those classic Dr Feelgood songs played by the man who wrote and played on them. No-one plays the guitar quite like Wilko Johnson: it’s such a distinctive style.
With his trademark red curly wire attached to his telecaster, Wilko moves onstage like he is attached to a spring, darting this way and that, and then being pulled back to where he began. Now showing his sideways march across the stage, then machine-gunning the crowd with his guitar. With his speed-freak eyes and broad grin he is alternately a punk rocker and blues legend.
Then a surprise: “Here’s someone we people from Essex are very proud of..” Wilko declared correctly – and modestly – introducing Alison Moyet who joined him for two songs including “All Through The City”.
The Billericay-born singer has a great voice and it was great to see two of Essex’s finest onstage together.
By the third encore Wilko bade the ecstatic crowd farewell. It didn’t feel sad. It just felt like we had seen a great gig from one of rock’s greatest performers. The merchandise stall did a decent trade in Wilko Johnson masks after the show.
Whilst his health allows, Wilko plans to play these shows and record an album with his band. The cameras were there last night to record the show also. To make the most of the time left – to add to an already rich life, as evidenced by his book, and the Oil City Confidential film.
“Thank you”, Wilko acknowledged to the crowd at the end of Jonny B. Goode, “Good night”. He then shrugged a little and forced an almost apologetic smile “…and Goodbye…”
Record #161: Dr Feelgood – Roxette