Before John Lydon’s wild eyes alerted the world to punk, there were Wilko Johnson’s: two saucers on splints, sticking out of a handsome Easter Island head, on an angular body firing away on the guitar.
Before punk’s gobby rush, there was also Johnson’s band – four oddbods from Canvey Island called Dr Feelgood. Fired up by early rock’n’roll, their lyrical landscape was one of girls, drink and the estuary industry around which they grew up: real life with a rough kind of glamour, stripped down to brass tacks. The man behind the lyrics was a schoolteacher who’d studied old Icelandic at university. Johnson foreshadowed punk perfectly: it was always smarter than people thought.
He might have remained a cult character were it not for the incredible story of his last decade: a Julien Temple documentary on his old band (2009’s Oil City Confidential) spurring a new surge of interest, a notable bit part in HBO’s Game of Thrones (Sean Bean was “a gent”), then a diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer, leading him to do the final tour to end all final tours. In 2013, a fan (who was a surgeon) told him if the tumour hadn’t killed him yet maybe it wasn’t terminal. After further investigation, voila: Johnson was saved.
This moving, rambling memoir (his first written alone; 2012’s Looking Back at Me was co-written by rock biographer Zoë Howe) is Johnson’s attempt to square the strangeness of that situation, to describe the thrill, in his experience, of knowing what it’s like to know the limits of your time, before those limits, along with your tumour, are suddenly taken away.
Johnson writes like the Mythical Bloke in the Pub speaks. Offering up a cracker of a tale, before going off on a tangent, he adds enough “anyways” and “sos” to make the more dramatic revelations relatable. When he describes the devastating Canvey Island floods of 1953 (“our house was in the sea”), his post-university jaunt to Kathmandu (“I had £60 stuffed down my Y-fronts”), and his post-Feelgood career as one of Ian Dury’s Blockheads (“somewhere along the way we picked up this character called Spartacus”), he does so without any descent into myth-making – a rare, attractive trait in rock’n’roll memoirs. “I wanted to present Dr Feelgood straight, simple and as it really was,” he writes of his group’s 1976 No 1 live album, Stupidity, at one point. This book brashly follows that lead.
There’s a woman at the heart of this tale too: Johnson’s wife, Irene, who died in 2004. She’s the glue that holds this story together – the title an obvious nod to his grief – and she sounds a remarkable person, tolerating as she did her husband’s myriad indiscretions. Johnson and Lemmy had “trouble over a woman” in the mid-1970s, he says, in a fine section full of punk’s great and good, including John Lydon, but there’s no sign of any marital guilt. The section where Irene dies, however, is full of raw, affecting sentiment, especially when Johnson watches his sons “sat together under the trees… I wondered what they were feeling”. Here, he throws his hands up, showing all of his flaws.
Sadness lifts from him during his illness, a time when Johnson felt “intensely alive”, and his humour also bubbles through, which is often wonderful. Take his reaction to being asked to present a lifetime achievement award to Elton John, who gave the award straight back to Johnson: “Well, these final months have certainly been packed with incident,” he quips. The final sections show a man not sure how to move on, but trying his best to find out. This book – rough, ready, distinctive, touching – surely helped.
Don’t You Leave Me Here is published by Little, Brown (£18.99). Click here to buy it for £15.19