5 minutes alone: Wilko Johnson

Ex-Dr Feelgood man talks machine-gun guitar and beating cancer

Wilko Johnson: "I can play three chords, and 12 bars, and back that whole thing up with a bit of machine gun."
(Image: © Kevin Nixon/Future)

With a new autobiography out, the former Dr Feelgood man tells us about shooting his fans, overzealous cleaners and cheating the Reaper…

I got my first real six-string…

"One day, I saw an electric guitar at school. I was fascinated. I didn't know anything about music, I just liked the look of this thing.

"I'm left-handed, so my first electric - I don't remember its name - was left-handed. But it was terrible. The action was about an inch above the fretboard, so every time you tried to play a note, you got this kind of Chinese finger torture. I was useless. Everyone at school was better than me.

"Then I got the opportunity to buy a slightly better right-handed guitar: a Watkins Rapier. It's such an awkward thing to change over to playing right-handed. It's counter-intuitive. It makes you feel freaky. And in the midst of all this freakiness, holding onto a pick was one job too many. That's why I don't use a pick."

Shoot to thrill, play to kill…

"When we started Dr Feelgood, we wanted to excite audiences. Lee Brilleaux [singer] was an absolute natural: he had a kind of nervous energy, that was his personality. And when he got on stage, there was a kind of violence about him. I took my cue from that, and bounced off Lee.

"We found out that if you're playing rock 'n' roll, whizzing about a bit and holding your guitar like you're shooting a machine gun, then it excites audiences. That's purely what it was about. The guitar makes a good pretend machine gun. It's built for that."

Do you remember the first time…

"The songs on [Wilko's curated Chess records compilation] The First Time I Met The Blues were so important to my development as a guitarist. As I was learning to play in the mid-60s, if you ever saw a disc with the Chess label, you'd get excited, because you knew there was some great music on there.

"When I first heard stuff by Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, it was just so exciting and mysterious. I thought, 'I will always dig this music.' And I was right. Here I am now - I'm an old man, and I still dig it. To me, everything about that style of music is the right way to do it. Call me old-fashioned..."

I can't stand losing you…

If you put a determined expression on and play loud, people are convinced. I don't rehearse. I don't practise at home. The only time I pick my guitar up is when I walk onstage

"I kept my HH combo amplifier that I used in Dr Feelgood. It was stuck in the back somewhere, for ages. But then this bird come along and she was clearing out my house. And she gave this thing away to some scrap collectors, right? Well, what could I say? She did this quite innocently. But it's gone. So that's a shame."

I'm easy like Sunday morning…

"My guitar playing is very simple. It can be explained in five minutes, and it's served me all this time. I can play three chords, and 12 bars, and back that whole thing up with a bit of machine gun. And that's it. It's simple. But it works.

"If you put a determined expression on and play loud, people are convinced. I don't rehearse. I don't practise at home. The only time I pick my guitar up is when I walk onstage. So that's how technical I am. I don't think people come to see me to hear any marvellous musical innovations."

You and I are gonna live forever…

"Here I am. It's almost impossible to take in, the idea that I'm still alive [Wilko was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in 2013, before making a miraculous recovery]. That whole year, it's like a strange dream. But I hope it's changed me for the better. I think I'm a bit more tolerant now. Living with the idea that your life is about to come to an end, it forces into you what's important, and what's not."

Wilko's new autobiography, Don't You Leave Me Here, is available now, as is his curated Chess artist compilation album, Wilko Johnson Presents: The First Time I Met The Blues.

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