Monday 28 November 2022

Wilko Johnson

I’m very sad for the passing of Wilko Johnson. I flew to England and got the news when I arrived. I’m glad to be in England at the moment, it seems appropriate - Wilko may have been playing American music but he remains an absolutely English phenomenon.

As soon as I heard Doctor Feelgood I was a fan. I bought their first album as soon as it came out in 1975. Down By The Jetty was not like other albums or LPs of the time. It was in mono and the cover was black and white. It didn’t present the value-for-money facade of the lurid, multi-coloured, Roger Dean gatefold designs and the all-across-the-fireplace stereo spread of other albums, even though it had more tunes on it than seemed possible in the mid-seventies - it contained thirteen tracks, and that was one more than the Rolling Stones first album released only eleven years earlier. I went to the record shop, bought a copy and it changed my life.

There were no wailing guitar solos, no wall-to-wall carpet of deluxe and luscious harmony vocals, and there appeared to be not a single drum fill.  And there were lyrics - direct, poetic and deranged like a gonzo comic strip come to life.

The cars are moving sideways and the traffic lights change to blue
I’m walking twenty yards behind her ‘cause I’m frightened of the damage she’ll do

Dr Feelgood wore suits and ties. They were photographed by a sea wall with a grimy cargo ship parked casually behind them, or outside an old-fashioned barber’s shop where they’d evidently just had their hair cut. They didn’t look like other bands in band photos. They looked like they didn’t give a fuck. And if they suddenly did give a fuck, and if the singer woke up from the daze he appeared to be in, you’d probably be in trouble.

Streets are full of signs, arrows pointing everywhere

Parks are full of people trying to get a breath of air

Listen to the weatherman praying for a drop of rain

Look into the sky, the sky is full of aeroplanes

I imagined I could smell the oil refineries as I stood with Lee Brilleaux, Wilko Johnson, John B Sparks and The Big Figure watching the oil flames burning bright in the full light of day, the sky full of aeroplanes jetting off to some Spanish paradise, their passengers as unaware, as I had been, of Canvey Island, this wonderful and magnificent hell on earth. 

I could hardly believe a person could exist with a name like Wilko Johnson. He was a complete original. He looked like a budget version of Keith Richards, pudding basin haircut, black suit, black shirt buttoned to the neck with no tie - the look was out of time, untenable in the mid-seventies. He was Barbie’s Ken gone loco, a guitar slinging Action Man with eyes like blazing headlights. 

Wilko’s guitar playing is one of the wonders of this world. Left hand almost completely still or moving very slowly, right hand a blur. He played without a pick. I’d never seen or heard anyone play like that. A hacking of chords with wailing notes bending and bursting out of them, neither lead nor rhythm and unlike any other guitarist. Brittle and violent like glass - HH solid state amplifier, no distortion, clean, angular - modern yet deeply unfashionable. And so right.

I saw Wilko with Doctor Feelgood many times, from the early days to the meltdowns and walk-offs at the Hammersmith Odeon and Palais. I saw his subsequent bands, the Solid Senders, the short-lived Wilko Johnson and Lew Lewis amalgamation, and later on I opened for him a good few times. But I never actually met him until the early 2000s. 

The truth is I was terrified of him. He cut such an unreal figure that it was different to see him as  a mere mortal, a human being, one of us. He was the epitome of dark and brooding - he had his demons - he wasn’t always the warm, outgoing and at times hilarious man he was in later life. My perception of him may of course have been coloured by hero worship. 

Not that long after Ian Dury died I was opened for the Blockheads in London at the Jazz Cafe. After my set Wilko burst into the backstage. He came straight up to me. “That was a great set” he said - “You played some things on the guitar that I wish I could do.” I manage to stay cool, accept the compliment, but I was astonished. He made my day, my year, my life. 

Of course, by this time the unthinkable had happened happened - Wilko had lost his hair. He seemed to carry this off with effortless aplomb  - he went from loco black-haired Ken to slack-jawed punch drunk boxer almost overnight. He carried it off because no matter what he did he exuded Wilko-ness. 

A few years ago - about seventeen few years ago in fact - he toured in a package with John Otway and the Hamster who were basically a blues rock cover band with an inexplicably huge UK following. The Hamsters topped the bill, Wilko went on in the middle. At the end of his set he announced: “What follows will be truly bizarre.” And it was. At one point Wilko joined the Hamster onstage for a rendition of Born To Be Wild. He confided in me before the show : “We’ve been studying them - we think they don’t like each other - you’ll never see all three of them at the same time except on stage, and they clearly avoid being in rooms together…” 

Wilko was a poet, a storyteller, highly literate and steeped in the imagery and vernacular of the blues. The most mundane account could turn into an epic tale with wild gesticulations. His big hands would reach up and place the moon in the sky for you - there always seemed to be a stars and a big silver moon in Wilko’s stories - he was a keen astronomer. 

I was booked to open for him at two shows in March 2023. I was looking forward to it immensely. I hadn’t seen him in a long time - I’m an expert at losing touch. I somehow assume people I know will be around forever, but this is clearly not so. I’m going to miss Wilko - the world just lost a true original.

with Wilko at the Jazz Cafe - photo by Karen Hall

Friday 18 November 2022

Battalions Of Better Bass Players

I have a gig this coming weekend playing with my wife, Amy Rigby. I’m principally the bass player in her band though I also play guitar on a couple of tunes on an electronic instrument called an  Omnichord which has been rechristened by Amy as the Omacron. I also sing harmony or back-up vocals.

I was thinking about the difference between preparing for one of Amy’s shows and one of my own. Preparing for my own shows is a quietly fraught affair - I’m filled with fear and self doubt. Getting ready for a show with Amy there’s a marked absence of all this, apart, that is, from my normal low-level insecurity wherein battalions of better bass players agree amongst themselves that they could do a far superior job, muttering about how I only got the job because I’m married to the artist. Normal stuff as I said. 

I can usually keep these fears at bay because I’ve begun to better understand the chemistry between band members, and that the job of being a band member involves so much more than mere mastery of a musical instrument. This isn’t to say I’m a crap bass player because I’m not - I’m actually pretty good. I have other skills too - I can drive, repair equipment, string guitars so they stay in tune, fit more equipment into a vehicle than anyone would have thought possible… Where bands are concerned I’m a pretty good catch.

I still get twinges of He Only Got The Job Because He’s Married To Her, but never mind, I can push that aside.

Amy and I worked together as a unit for ten years and three albums. We stopped doing it when we realised we could make more money, something like a living wage, if we worked separately. But for ten years we were a two piece rock and roll group - not a duo, we preferred two piece rock and roll group. During that time we developed some kind of telepathic communication. We hardly ever looked at each other while we were playing - we didn’t want to be giving each other gooey and sentimental looks - there was an element of steel to it. We found a way to harmonise - to begin with my voice was twice as loud as Amy’s but she got stronger and I got my voice under control. She started playing the piano, I started playing the bass - not that we were beginners in that - I started out on the bass and subsequently played tthe instrument on a lot of my own records - Amy had been lucky enough to have had piano lessons as a kid. As soon as I found she could play the piano I insisted she did and was always quite envious that she got to sit down for part of the set. Together we’re confident in ourselves and each other, exacting, but tolerant and non-judgemental - we’re facing in the same direction, looking for the same outcome. You might say we have each other’s backs.

Amy’s band is a three piece. She doesn’t play the piano onstage, just guitars. She has three of them: a Telecaster, a 12 string Dan Electro, and a Gibson J45 acoustic. She uses a 1972 Fender Deluxe - originally it was mine but it seems to have been co-opted or annexed which is okay because Amy gets a great sound out of it and I actually get a better guitar sound for me out of a reissue Deluxe. I use a big Traynor tube amplifier and a 1x12 cabinet for the bass. Doug Wygal plays the drums and we’re lucky to have him. He lives down the road in Kingston, and before each run of shows we get together to run through the tunes and indulge in a bit of local gossip.

We’re a tight unit. We know what’s right - what to wear and how to be. We don’t grin. I can’t personally abide bands members that grin. That was an early lesson through the great and sadly late Ian Dury - the audience laughed, the band remained stoic, things would get uneasy... I think he got it from in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest - you’re laughing at Jack Nicholson’s character when you realise there’s blood seeping under the door because Billy has just slashed his wrists and bled to death, but you can’t stop laughing. I don't know if that makes sense but perhaps you get the idea.

We have a good time together. When we travel to shows we can rely on Doug for a tale or two - the Soft Machine opening for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, early Bob Seger shows, even the Amboy Dukes (who were great even though it later transpired that their guitar player was an asshole called Ted Nugent). How do you reconcile these things? Is it still okay to thrill to their version of Baby Please Don’t Go

Last night at our rehearsal we discussed the Standells and Steppenwolf. We told Doug about seeing Nick Mason’s Saucerful Of Secrets and how great they were, and Doug recalled how his first band bought an album by Chocolate Watch Band in order to learn their songs only to find the record inside had been substituted for the Pink Floyd’s first album. They quickly realised this stuff was way more psychedelic than Sitting Here Standing by the Chocolate Watch Band, so they learned Interstellar Overdrive instead and never looked back.

Before the show tomorrow evening Amy will probably be a bit tense and nervous, and we’ll try to give her the space she needs to get ready. I’ll probably break out the lens wipes and Doug and I will clean our glasses before we go on. In my mind I’ll be doing my best impersonation of my alter-ego, the great Bryce McCafferty. Bryce is a classic British bass player. He truly doesn’t give a fuck. He shows no interest in the set list which he shrugs off with a tacit You Tell Me What You Want Me To Play And I’ll Play It. The world of Bryce McCafferty is divided into two kinds of people: drinking buddies, and people who don’t interest him. He gets work because his bass playing is, quite surprisingly, effortlessly astounding. I’m actually nothing like Bryce McCafferty.

Amy Rigby
8pm @ The Spotty Dog
Warren Street
Hudson NY