I lived in Bristol for over a decade, and I never quite got around to visiting the SS Great Britain, one of the city’s most popular visitor attractions. Now I live near Greenwich in London – I’ve never visited the Cutty Sark, and I haven’t visited the Tower of London since a weekend trip to the capital with my parents when I was about eleven. I’m sure you can think of comparable local attractions that you have never visited. It’s the same with rock and roll: there are a number of perennial attractions that I’d like to see, but each time they come around I tell myself I’ll catch them next time.
Wilko was one such artist. I’d always thought I’d catch him some time, having been astonished by his bug-eyed performance on the Old Grey Whistle Test, where he seemed to shuttle around the stage on castors, a manic counterpoint to Lee Brilleaux’s seething menace. Last year, Julian Temple’s affectionate documentary about the early years of Dr Feelgood, Oil City Confidential, (which you can currently catch on BBC iplayer) had me texting old band mates I hadn’t seen in years, exhorting them to watch it as soon as they could. But I still didn’t buy a ticket for the next tour of former English teacher, John Wilkinson.
Then we heard about his cancer diagnosis, his decision to reject chemotherapy, his genuine farewell tour, and an extraordinary round of media interviews, the like of which we haven’t seen since Dennis Potter’s deeply moving last interview with Melvin Bragg in 1994. Having been largely ignored by the mainstream media, and even the music press, for the best part of 30 years, Wilko was an unpolished interviewee. Pauses were often long, and his manner was unpolished. However, he is an intelligent and articulate man, if slightly dulled by decades of wholehearted amphetamine abuse, and he spoke in a way that was unusually direct and honest for a media filled with the disingenuousness spin of business and politics, and the empty posturings of fame and fashion.
Much of what he had to say about his experience of diagnosis and facing up to his imminent death reaffirmed the teachings of Buddhism: if you truly face the inevitability of your own death then you feel a great release; you see that many of the anxieties that have seemed to surround you are unimportant, and let them drop away; you feel a great urge to resolve conflicts and difficulties. Wilko, previously a self-proclaimed ‘miserable bastard’, who has been in a state of extended grief since the death of his wife Irene in 2004, experienced a surprising bliss and a sense of being vividly alive.
Two days before Wilko’s final farewell tour gig at Koko, it was announced on Facebook that a further 80 tickets would be made available. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and managed to get a couple of these tickets for what was listed as his final gig of the farewell tour – although I’ve since heard suggestions that there might be further gigs as long as his health holds up.
I’d not been to a gig at Koko before, and it’s a slightly weird venue, with a bar from which you can’t see the band, and terraces of tiny balconies, which betray it’s Victorian music hall origins in a more obvious way than many other venues with similar roots. I’ve learnt that I usually enjoy gigs most when I’m part of the crowd fairly close to the stage – I want to be part of something rather than merely a spectator at something. But there was no way into the scrum of black-shirted, middle-aged men on the ground floor, and so we watched from one of the balconies, where we were able to glimpse Wilko over others’ shoulders – as long as he stayed at his mic, which of course he doesn’t do very much.
Looking back, I was clearly setting myself up for a fall: I imagined I was going to Wilko’s last ever gig – there would be huge emotional scenes, with tearful farewells and guest appearances by Alison Moyet (who had sung with him at the same venue a few days earlier) and maybe others. That wasn’t what I got. What I got was Wilko doing another gig: proficient, and extraordinarily energetic for man of his age even if he wasn’t terminally ill, but just a normal gig.
It seems churlish to complain, and I only dared to whisper my disappointment to my companion as the delighted devotees queued to leave up the single iron staircase (with a number of us wondering aloud how on earth people would get out if there was a fire). The truth is I wanted to love it, I wanted it to be great, I wanted to be able to tell people that I saw Wilko at his last gig and it was fantastic, with the same pride that I tell folk I saw AC/DC with Bon Scott. But it wasn’t like that – at least it wasn’t like that for me.
It’s great that Wilko has had so much publicity, and that the celebration of his life and work has taken place before his death rather than after it, so that he has been able to know the great affection in which he is held. I feel a bit mean saying this, but the truth is that Wilko’s best work and his major contribution to popular music took place nearly 40 years ago. Like many others in rock and pop, his star burnt brightest at the start. I can’t say whether it really is better to burn out than to fade away, but I guess that’s one of the reasons I hadn’t been to see Wilko before – because I wasn’t sure that he could live up to the power and fevered intensity of early Dr Feelgood on his own – even with his great vitality and the support of Norman Watt-Roy on bass.
Perhaps my experience at Koko will galvanise me to get off my butt and buy tickets for the Stranglers and Stiff Little Fingers, and all the other other artists I keep meaning to go and see. I imagine I’d have preferred seeing Wilko in a small club with a few hundred other folk, free from the weight of my own expectations. A couple of nights ago I saw Joseph Porter of Blythe Power playing to 30 people in a tiny cafe, and although I knew none of the material and am unlikely to listen to any of it at home, I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and found it very satisfying. Some charity fundraisers I know used to have a slogan ‘be positive, and have no expectations’ – it’s the expectations that get you every time.
Here’s Wilko saying bye bye that night