Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

Dying star shines as brightly as in his feelgood prime

Wilke Johnson
Wilke Johnson

So, should you go to see an artist perform just because he's dying? I'm in Portsmouth at the weekend and a mate has a spare ticket to see the legendary rhythm and blues man Wilko Johnson play on his farewell tour.

He tells me he had to buy the tickets after hearing how Wilko, at the too-young age of 66, had refused chemotherapy for aggressive pancreatic cancer and would let nature take its course.

Instead, he would embark on a last tour, saying goodbye to the fans who have stuck with him since his Dr Feelgood days.

It is unlikely the man will see 2014. To be fair, my friend knows a bit about his music, but I can't help feeling a little queasy that this tour has sold out all over the UK. It's been a fair while since Wilko could say that.

Johnson's narrative is a classic from the rock 'n' roll storybook. Talent frequently teetering on the edge of oblivion, dedication to craft and self-destruction, fall and redemption. When he goes, an assured place in the artistic pantheon of English one-offs awaits.

The tale is grounded, or should I say sunken, in the mudflats of the Thames Estuary, specifically Canvey Island. Reclaimed from the estuary, Canvey became home to Cockneys fleeing the Smoke for a better life.

That its bleakness and omnipresent satanic oil refinery managed to give them this says all you need to know about the East End after the war.

On the island, four pub-rockers with nothing better to do formed Dr Feelgood. So was born Thames Delta Blues, a not-at-all ironic tribute to the poverty-fuelled music founded on the banks of the Mississippi.

From early days, Wilko was plainly deranged, stalking about the stage with his thousand-yard stare, his guitar as a machine-gun, perfecting a choppy blues fretwork which will be forever his.

He was an inspiration for the Sex Pistols' John Lydon and the Clash's Joe Strummer, who would take the attitude and bring it to a wider audience.

But what Wilko had was longevity. Quite unsuited to doing anything else, he sang the blues and stomped the stage, firing his great riffs into half-filled halls night after night, year after year.

Innovation was out, his pysche, infected by the Thames mud and iron-flat landscape, pulling him back to unreconstructed blues. Anything else would have been a betrayal.

As he went bald, his great Easter Island head became a totem for non-compromise. No wonder he got a part as an executioner in the sword and sorcery TV epic Game of Thrones.

So to the night and the gig at the Wedgewood Rooms is jam-packed with old rockers and a fair few youngsters paying their last respects. Wilko, of course, is having none of it.

At the back of the hall, it's difficult to see him full-length, but every now and again Bald Eagle hoves into view, gazing unblinking under mono brow as he walks the walk he's perfected for 40 years and dares anyone to sympathise.

It's a great gig. Not once does he mention illness and his cracked, pained voice soars. Near the end, he plays a storming version of Chuck Berry's Bye Bye Johnny and waves at us as he sings the chorus. We all wave back.

It's too poignant to dwell on for long and he's off on another rocker. One encore and then lights up. The man who has just months to live has exhausted us all, but he's not hanging around. There are other gigs to be played and merchandise to be sold. The circuit is all he knows, apart from a love of stargazing, and he'll keep going till he drops.

In the past, he has antagonised most of those who love him, but as the end nears it's his incredible energy that sweeps everyone along.

His ambition now extends to finishing his tour and being around to see Saturn one more time. "It'll be here before too long."

In the meantime, the answer to the question is as clear as the night sky under which we now walk home and where his favourite constellation, Orion, sparkles.

Why wouldn't we go? Yes, we went because he is dying, but we also went because he is ferociously, uncompromisingly alive.

Thanks for the memory, Wilko.

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