The News Courier in Athens, Alabama


February 4, 2013

Dying guitarist Wilko Johnson rocks until the end


For a time, it went like a rock 'n' roll dream — a growing following, four albums including a U.K. chart-topper, tours of the U.S., a deal with CBS records. Then came the catastrophic argument that saw Johnson stalk out of the band for good in 1977.

"And then punk came up," Johnson said, "and we kind of got swallowed in the aftermath."

After that near-miss with the big time, Johnson played with Ian Dury's band, The Blockheads, before going solo with the Wilko Johnson band. He has built significant fan bases in Britain and in Japan, where he has played many times over the past 30 years.

A wider audience got to know him through Julian Temple's 2009 documentary "Oil City Confidential," which restored Dr. Feelgood to its rightful place as punk precursor — with Johnson as its wide-eyed shaman and storyteller.

The movie also burnished the mythology of Johnson's hometown of Canvey Island in the Thames Estuary of southeast England.

Johnson recalls Canvey in his youth as "a cowboy town," with dirt roads and wooden bungalows built on reclaimed marshland beside an oil refinery. The blues-loving members of Dr. Feelgood liked to call it the Thames Delta, playing up its exoticism for eager journalists.

"Oil City Confidential" also told a familiar rock 'n' roll story — the close-knit band of brothers torn apart by the pressures of the road.

"We were just such good friends," Johnson said. "And on the way up you felt this absolute power in the friendship we had. No one could penetrate that."

But by the end, he says, "I'd learnt the art of solving all problems in the world by slamming a door."

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