Written March, 2013:
Wilko Johnson is currently playing his last-ever series of gigs, following a diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer in January. He talked to the BBC a couple of weeks ago about being given that diagnosis: “We walked out of there and I felt an elation of spirit. You’re walking along and suddenly you’re vividly alive. You’re looking at the trees and the sky and everything and it’s just ‘whoah’. I’m actually a miserable person. I’ve spent most of my life moping in depressions and things, but this has all lifted.”
‘She’s one of them tambourine-shakers, can-rattlers, God-botherers,’ says the man, with a degree of rancour rare, in my limited experience, for someone wearing a Gong tee-shirt. He goes quiet soon after – for the first time in about twenty minutes, he isn’t slagging someone off (so far his victims have included women under the age of 40, teachers, taxi-drivers, R&B singers, Ranulph Fiennes, Kate Middleton, Hilary Mantel and people with DVD players) – and my attention turns back to the noise of the pub behind me, to the touts and the rush-hour traffic, to far-off lovers and the sweet choke of dope smoke and to not knocking my whiskey off the window-sill.
An hour ago, in an even-more-grimy-than-most chicken place on Camden High Street, I’d been sat on a sticky red chair, reading a discarded Daily Express and eating Spicy BBQ Beanz and two strange, vaguely leg-shaped, beige things. I’d been pushing away insistent, familiar prods of Express-induced dread and me-induced melancholy and I’d found myself wondering: how many chickens die every day to keep these places supplied? And then: maybe it’s not chicken at all? Maybe it’s something else they use, some specially-bred cheap-to-keep and easy-to-kill… I don’t know… hamsters? Kentucky Fried Hamster. Or – the Express would love this – human beings: maybe there’s a production line somewhere in Eastern Europe chopping up once-loved former X Factor contestants, dumping them in batter and forming them into fried-chicken shapes to a piped soundtrack of Otis and Aretha?)
Oh dear. Visions of Gareth Gates covered in batter and a thousand cackling Cowells. X Factor: the anti-Wilko. I’m tired. It’s been a long week. I decide at this point to get out of the chicken place. I probably need a drink, that’ll bring me back to reality… so I’m here now, standing outside the Lyttleton Arms, listening to Mr Angry, who’s started up all over again:
‘I don’t think it was a ménage a trois in any shape or form,’ he says, and I think ‘Fantastic! Lovely phrase, lovely idea – I can use that!’ I write it into my phone, a little ashamed, and glance over, see the bored faces of his mates and feel an odd surge of compassion: even his tauntingly, irritatingly full head of hair seems both sad and proud. But he says nothing after that, he seems to be all moaned-out, and I fall back inside myself again, find myself drifting to the last time I was here: squashed at the front of a Jam gig in 1979 when it was The Music Machine, not bloody ‘Koko’, and witnessing an unexpectedly humble act of kindness by Weller… I feel, suddenly, a little breathless, gasping for air while lost years and change and hardening and softening and the tight, dark denial of being a man grab my throat…
Buzz. A text. Three words. I think about Wilko’s son, think about the mysteries of connection and the black anticipation of grief, wonder how easy it is to celebrate your father’s life as you ponder his death. And then I realise, of course, that I do know what that’s like.
There are more menofacertainage in this pub right now than anywhere else in the world. Baseball caps, paunches, pint-glasses held proudly aloft in semi-ironic greetings, remnants of swagger and lust, passions almost-but-not-quite diluted into anoraky pedantry and squeezed-out memories of Eddie and The Hot Rods gigs in ’77. My friends have arrived, we’ve moved inside and we talk about far more weighty matters than anyone else in here – Marvin Gaye, Skyfall and Gareth Bale – and then, suddenly, it’s time to go.
It’s easy, this gig lark, really, it hasn’t changed: meet, drink, stop drinking, cross the road, hand ticket to sneery bouncer, sensibly hand in sensible man-bag and sensible coat to stunning, painfully-young, impossibly-thin cloakroom woman, start drinking again. A fiver for a JD. Another fiver for another…
We slowly start to enjoy the louche, clever, punchy, vigorous support of Wilko’s son’s band (what must it be like to be known forever as someone’s son, someone’s wife, someone’s ex-…?) but they finish all-too-soon and we have to wait for a bit then, patiently of course, tolerantly, respectfully: all the time in the world. I catch a glimpse of Mr Angry at the end of the bar – he’s going on and on again but I can’t hear what he’s saying and I don’t know if that’s a good thing. My daughter replies to the Facebook message I’d sent earlier, the one telling her excitedly who I’m about to see, with a question: ‘Ah right, who’s that then?!’ I decide to report myself to the Child Protection Team in the morning.
And then (at last!) Wilko is on stage – Wilko the half-reluctant carrier of our pasts and our hopes and our maleness and our madness and our mortality – and I get a parallel rush of feeling to the one that greeted the loving text earlier, though this one’s smaller, tauter, more nuanced. Pulling back from the naked flame of emotion, I find myself asking what exactly ‘a certain age’ is. Who cares? Who cares?? Small, insular male avoidances: they sometimes fade into the background when art and real passion come calling and it takes three shattering, stuttering chords to settle into this almost-hero’s wild-eyed, wide-eyed, staring, glaring, silly-serious, old-young, scraping, scratching, pumping, punching, kicking, kissing paean to all those beautiful marriages of black and white music, all those quick, rough, perfect shags, all those painful on-off relationships between Black Yanks and White Brits… I more than settle actually, during those three chords – I disappear completely into this fuck-everything celebration of both Wilko’s and my own insane ordinariness, into no-thoughts, into nothing-but-here-and-nows, into this weird worship of each of us in our exquisite imperfection and transience.
For an encore, Alison Moyet comes on. You’ve never heard so many old blokes go ‘Fuckin’ ‘ell’ at the same time: she’s gorgeous - alive, joyous, just right… She sings All Through The City with him, one of the greatest songs Wilko – anyone – ever wrote, and then she dances off again, dragging a few ageing hearts behind her. And then, before we’ve brought ourselves back, Wilko launches into Bye Bye Johnny and we suddenly remember none of us will ever see him play again.
Afterwards, in the lift at Elephant and Castle tube, someone squeezes in behind me, stops the doors closing, induces glares and threats and tuts. It’s – of course – Mr Angry: ‘Fucking brilliant – best gig I’ve seen him do since June 16th ’78’. An automated voice – ‘Stand clear of the doors please’ – talks over him, shuts him up, and the next thing I hear him say, as we exit the lift and as he steps on my foot, is ‘Bit sad though, wasn’t it?’