Wilko Johnson: Going Back Home with Roger Daltrey
Photo by Anthony D'Angio
I’m not aware of you and Roger having recorded before – had you ever even shared a stage?
No - never. We just kind of had a nodding acquaintance over the years. We’ve really met for the first time, coming together to do this album.
But listening to this album, it sounds like you’ve been doing it together for years. Of course, Norman Watt-Roy on bass and Dylan Howe on drums were natural choices but how about keyboardist Mick Talbot – had you worked together before?
No, we hadn’t. He’d played with Paul Weller … and I think Dexy’s Midnight Runners. And then the harmonica player, Steve Weston, is a guy from my town and we thought we'd bring him in. Everybody got along really well. It was an incredible experience.
Now when I hear this music, in my mind’s eye I see you brandishing your legendary black Telecaster with the red pickguard. Is that what you used for these sessions?
Well, you see…finally, after 35 years, Fender gave me the accolade of building an official Wilko Johnson Telecaster - it came out last year. I think they only made about five of ‘em (laughs) and they’re all sold out.
And on the album you used…
That’s the thing: I still have all the Telecasters I’ve ever owned – four, I think – but in the last year I’ve been playing my official Wilko Johnson Telecaster … ‘cause I’m so proud of it! (laughter)
Your right hand has always taken a beating over the years from your very aggressive playing style - with no pick. I’ve always thought, “Man – there have to be some serious callouses and scars there. Have you made any concessions of late – taking it a bit easier on yourself perhaps – with lighter-gauge strings or anything?
Oh, no … I really just kind of bash away, you know? It's very crude what I do. And sometimes you bleed. (laughter)
Well, I guess if one really means it, they’re going to draw blood one way or the other.
Yes, I imagine so. That’s what I’ve always told people about the red scratch plate, you know: “You can't see the blood.” (laughter)
Wilko, I know you're not doing this to set an example or make a statement … but you have to be aware that your decision has inspired people over the last year.
Oh, yes. People have written to me - or they’ve come up to me on the street and spoke about finding strength in some of the things I’ve said. It’s quite moving … I mean … all I’m doing is carrying on, you know?
I know, and you’re doing it because that’s the way you’ve decided to do it and that’s that.
Well, yes. Instead of being out and doing rock ‘n’ roll, a person could be sitting at home getting profound and philosophical, I guess.
I’ve read that you have a passion for astronomy. I suppose when you look up into the heavens, it’s a bit like a mechanic looking under the hood … But I wanted to ask you if you ever think about what comes next when you’re looking up at the night sky?
Well … like last year when I thought I had just a few months, I sort of said goodbye to Saturn as that moved out of the sky … said goodbye to the constellation Orion. You know, “Well, goodbye, then – I’ll never see you again.”
And since then, Orion’s come back and so has Saturn … I really didn't think I'd see these things again and there they are – and here I am.
But what comes next? No … who knows? One can speculate ad infinitum, right?
I know you lost your wife Irene – your childhood sweetheart - to cancer in 2004. Do you think if she were still here today, you’d have made a different decision as far as your own cancer?
Oh, no – I would’ve made the same decision. It really wasn’t a difficult one, you see: they told me they couldn't cure the cancer; they couldn't stop it – all they could do was slow it down.
“You’ve probably got about 10 months to live – maybe a year, if you have chemotherapy.” (laughs) That didn't sound like a very good deal to me. I'd rather let the cancer take its course, you know? I know what it’s like to have someone I loved taken away from me … that’s the most painful thing I could ever go through.
When my wife died, it was much quicker; she died within four months of the diagnosis.
But this past year has been so extraordinary – all the things that have happened to me. I’ve really had some marvelous experiences.
I hear you. I could ask you about your plans, but if I’ve learned anything from talking to you, it’s “be here right now."
Yes! (laughs) That’s about the size of it.
Brian Robbins works hard to “be here right now” over at www.brian-robbins.com