'Don't You Leave Me Here: My Life', by Wilko Johnson - Review

By Sanai, Leyla | The Spectator, May 21, 2016 | Go to article overview

'Don't You Leave Me Here: My Life', by Wilko Johnson - Review


Sanai, Leyla, The Spectator


When I wrote for the NME as a schoolgirl in the 1980s, it was recognised that there were musicians who deserve derision -- those whose egos and clothes' bills dwarfed their talent -- and those who commanded respect. Wilko Johnson, one-time guitarist of Dr Feelgood, was of the latter. Whether pacing moodily on stage, hammering out choppy refrains on Feelgood classics such as 'Roxette', or touring and recording with subsequent bandmates, he was a dedicated grafter with attitude and ability in spades.

More recently, Johnson has been in the news for very different reasons. In 2012, he was diagnosed as having inoperable terminal pancreatic cancer. His fortitude in the face of this diagnosis, together with his refusal of chemotherapy, piqued the interest of the media. And then, as in a fairy story, over a year after his diagnosis, he sought the opinion of a Cambridge surgeon, who performed an operation thought to be curative. No wonder Johnson felt inspired to write a memoir.

He was born John Wilkinson in 1947 into a working-class family on Canvey Island. He describes his father as belligerent, ignorant and violent, and felt 'elated' when he died, aged 56, when Johnson was 16. It is a pity we don't hear more about the relationship. I read this memoir soon after Boyhood Island , in which Karl Ove Knausgaard describes a similar fear and dislike of his brooding, malign father who was also prone to erupt and lash out. Knausgaard provides chilling examples, and I longed for Johnson to do the same.

He fell in love with the guitar at an early age, and after studying English at Newcastle University, travelling around Asia (about which there are too many 'you had to be there' drugs stories) and teaching English, he started to play professionally as Dr Feelgood with friends from Canvey Island. His emotional anchor throughout was his wife, Irene. …

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