This piece is dedicated to my dear friend T.A. who is heroically battling cancer.
As long time readers know I was inspired to start B&V out of my sheer love of rock n roll music and the joy that it has and continues to bring me. Doing this blog sort of guides my listening. If I’m “researching” an artist or an album it typically means I’m sitting in the B&V music lab sipping something dark and murky, listening to music and prepping my thoughts about it. Although admittedly, events other than LP releases can drive my subject matter. I’ve been away for a week for the American holiday Thanksgiving so I’m a bit behind. This year the Rock Chick informed me we’d be sharing a cabin with our daughter and her boyfriend and his parents “up in the mountains.” Close quarters indeed. Not exactly my “thing.” I mean, I saw Deliverance, rural spaces make me nervous. Roughing it to me means staying in a hotel without room service… Anyway, I didn’t hear much rock n roll this past week… and I don’t know, I just sort of feel better when music is around (if I may paraphrase the movie Barfly). I did manage to hear Frank Sinatra’s “The Way You Look Tonight,” one of the greatest songs ever but there weren’t many musical interludes on Thanksgiving.
While I was up in the mountains in this cabin, in what I considered the middle of nowhere, much occurred in the world. Petty released his long awaited live box set Fillmore ’97. Bowie put out another vault release centered on the creation of Hunky Dory, entitled Divine Symmetry. Both those items will likely find their way to these pages in the near term. Although I may have to wait for Santa’s Little Helpers and Xmas Day for those sets. It always makes for conflict on Xmas when the family is standing around sharing eggnog and I’ve disappeared into the music room to rock out on the new stuff. “Take off those headphones and get down here and help me…” Holidays require compromise or so I’ve learned… but again I’m getting off track here. While I was out “roughing it” I heard the sad news that one of rock n roll’s unsung heroes, guitarist Wilko Johnson (nee John Peter Wilkinson) had finally succumbed to his long battle with cancer and had passed away. In this case it appears B&V is once again driven by sad events rather than just the simple joy of music. Rest In Peace Wilko!
As long time readers also probably know, I like to tell stories about my experience with the artist and their music. I’ve talked about the first time hearing peak mid-70s Aerosmith or Guns N Roses’ Use Your Illusion albums or having my mind blown by the Beatles on Revolver. Listening to music really has two components – the personal and the shared experience. I am attempting in these pages, by sharing my feelings about albums and artists, to take my personal experiences and put them in that shared place in the hopes that others have experienced similar things. And if by reading something here you manage to discover something you haven’t heard before and dig it (as the hippies say) then my job is more than successful. However, in the case of Wilko Johnson I don’t have a long history with him or his music. I’d like to tell you I got in on the ground floor of the genre of music known in England as “pub rock.” I mean, was there ever a more perfect genre for B&V to get into than pub rock? I love to hang out in bars (or pubs) and listen to rock music. Pub rock was apparently a return to stripped down, raw, R&B rock. It was meant to be a rebellion against over produced, slick music, particularly Prog rock. It was largely considered a precursor to punk rock. I’d love to tell you I secretly compiled all of the albums put out by Wilko Johnson’s band Dr. Feelgood and how much it meant to me. Unfortunately, I have heard some Dr. Feelgood, but not a ton. Most people are likely to know Wilko more for his small part in Game Of Thrones as Ilyn Payne who I think was the executioner who cut off Ned Stark’s head.
I do have one connection to Wilko Johnson’s music. Back in 2013 Johnson found out he had cancer. Doctors gave him less than year to live. Rather than give up he kept gigging. He went to an awards show where he sat next to Roger Daltrey of the Who. They hit it off immediately. The next thing you know they’re in the studio together. They knocked out the 2014 album Going Back Home in a week. Wilko had written a handful of new tunes and he wanted to cover Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” but this album is predominantly a collection of covers from Dr. Feelgood (Wilko’s aforementioned first band) with one track from another of Wilko’s bands, the Solid Senders. I remember when this album came out, I bought it immediately. It went to No 3 in the UK. It may have been a sad diagnosis that propelled this album but it is unabashedly joyful rock n roll. I hadn’t heard Roger Daltrey rock out like this on a collection of 3-minute rock songs since he was a young Mod on My Generation. Wilko’s stuff was more blustery and ballsy than stuff written by the at times overly self-analytical Pete Townshend and you can tell Daltrey is having a blast rocking out. Wilko certainly holds up his end. His guitar is at turns crunchy and snarling then soulful. Wilko and Daltrey are the perfect foils for each other.
There is not a dull track on this record. The title track “Going Back Home” starts things off and it just jumps out of the speakers at you. You immediately can tell these guys are older but maybe (hopefully) not wiser. Daltrey’s husky voice engages me immediately. This is no holds barred rock n roll. Steve Weston’s harmonica punctuates the tune perfectly. “Ice On the Motorway” is a chugging rocker and keeps the party going. Dylan Howe’s drumming drives the great “I Keep It To Myself.” Wilko’s guitar is outstanding on this one as well. Listening to this music reminds me of the old dudes at the end of the bar who are talking and laughing too loud but nobody fucks with them. I put “Won’t You Climb Out Your Window” on my Dylan Covers playlist and I’m glad I did. “Turned 21” is a nice change of pace ballad. Wilko alternates between subtle playing and shredding on guitar on “Keep On Loving You.”
“Some Kind of Hero” jumps and struts. I love the line, “I was lookin’ for a good girl, somehow I ended up with mine.” “Sneaking Suspicion” is another “my baby is up to no good” tune. “Keep It Out of Sight,” and “Everybody’s Carrying a Gun” (that recalls some of Dylan’s early electric stuff to my ears) keep things rolling. “All Through The City” ends the album on a rocking note. If you haven’t checked this album out before, here’s the link:
The best news of all is that Wilko didn’t pass in 2014 as the doctors suggested he might. The man held on through 2022. It’s sad we’ve lost this underappreciated, unsung hero but good for him fighting cancer and winning for almost a decade. And for me the best way to commemorate the loss is to crank this album up as loud as I can. It conjures to mind a small, sweaty bar where the band is cooking and the dance floor is full of people with their arms in the air in front of the band and nobody’s dancing, they’re rocking out. That’s not a bad image to leave behind as a rock n roller.
I started off by saying that Wilko’s passing was a sad event and that it was sadness driving this post. But as I sit listening to this album, I realize there is a lot of joy in this music and maybe that’s what’s driving me to post this, joy.
Cheers! and of course, RIP Wilko Johnson!