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Looking Back At Me Hardcover – Illustrated, 4 Jun 2012
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About the Author
Zoë Howe is a music writer based in Leigh On Sea. Her books include the acclaimed biography 'Typical Girls? The Story Of The Slits' and 'How's Your Dad? Living In The Shadow of a Rock Star Parent', both published by Omnibus. In addition to writing she has made music radio series for Resonance FM and RTI, and has appeared as a talking head on Absolute Radio, BBC 6 Music, E4 and Planet Rock. Zoë is also a drummer and has worked with Viv Albertine (The Slits), Anne Pigalle, Mick Jones, Southend band The Voronas and Steve Beresford.
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The main problem is the gap in the narrative - almost no coverage is given to the Solid Senders or the Ice on the Motorway albums, there's no discography in the back, no details of musicians and band line-ups, either.
We get more about Wilko's thoughts about the moon than we do about career between 1977 and '81. Now that's just odd. But not as odd as the man himself, who comes across and blinkered, self-serving and really rather nasty. Drug-addled only starts to explain his oddness. It's no wonder he was thrown out the Feelgoods - he must have been a right royal pain in the arse to judge by the "me, me, me!" attitude displayed in this book.
Never meet your heroes, so we're told. Sometimes it's also best not to read about them either. I'll still play the albums but as for the man himself... not my cuppa.
But what sort of book is it exactly? The publishers' blurb promises a `vibrant rock'n'roll scrapbook' - a crass phrase redolent of a hastily-compiled boyband Christmas cash-in. It's not that, fortunately. (And as the book tells us, Wilko favours RnB, not RnR). But neither is this the autobiography the publishers promise, nor is it the biography claimed by co-writer Zoe Howe in her introduction.
That the book is autobiographical in nature is beyond doubt. These are Wilko's own words and most certainly his own point of view. History is written by the victors, as Churchill said, and this is most certainly a selective account of activities and events, as dictated by Wilko and intelligently curated by Ms. Howe. That's the nature of the beast: and as a selective memoir, it makes for an excellent and fascinating read, with lots of new information, insights, artefacts and pictures. I read it in a single sitting. If you're interested enough in Wilko to have read this far, please be assured: you will enjoy this book. Buy it!
There is much to savour: art, astronomy, social history, rock music, an unconventional personal life (he loved many women and he ain't ashamed, apparently) and more. Wilko may not be the `renaissance man of rock' (another toe-curling phrase used by the publishers) but he is clearly an intelligent and perceptive man of many interests and talents. Like Lennon, Davies, Townshend, Bowie and other working-class boys before him, he has perhaps used rock music as the most accessible vehicle for what is probably a greater inner creative talent.
Despite this, one is left feeling that as an artist, Wilko is somehow less than the sum of his parts. An unfulfilled talent perhaps? Maybe so - he left Dr Feelgood in 1977 and `looking back' is an appropriate title: 35 years later, at the time of the book's publication, his music had never risen to those same heights. As he says in the book: `I just threw it away. Or they threw it away.' There is real poignancy, too - his failure to make peace with Lee Brilleaux before the latter's death is clearly a great source of regret and his pain at the loss of his wife Irene is evident.
From scrapbook to biography to autobiography. Or hagiography? It is significant that the great and good of rock music called to testify for Wilko are mainly peripheral (if weighty) figures. Robert Plant and Bob Harris are quoted, but are not otherwise mentioned. Quotes from members of the Feelgood camp - Chris Fenwick (Whitey), Sparko, Big Figure and others - do not appear: perhaps not surprisingly, as the book makes it very clear that the talent, sobriety and correct recollection of all Feelgood-related events belong at all times only to Wilko.
More tellingly, the crumpled, yellowing copy of the NME (from 1977) shown in the book gives up its secrets upon closer examination. The journalist refers to the `stroppy, moody excesses' of Wilko, while Lee Brilleaux is quoted in the article as calling him a `right c***'. And I've heard worse since. I for one would have been happy to accept the imperfection of genius, the fatal flaws of divinity, the feet of clay - perfection is not always believable.
And how will Ms. Howe manage the transition when she writes her forthcoming biography of Lee Brilleaux, I wonder?
The book takes us up to Julian Temple's triumphant 2009 film, `Oil City Confidential' - surely a worthy companion piece to this book (recommendation: buy both). Film and book pre-date Wilko's 2013 terminal illness, miraculous recovery and re-incarnation as National Treasure and media-friendly interviewee, as well as his highly-successful 2014 album with Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home.
A second edition of the book, featuring these deserved career highs, is urgently needed: with these additions, this would surely rank as one of the best rock'n'roll scrapbooks ever.
What was never really discussed and what would have been very interesting was his marriage. He says he was devoted to his wife, Irene, and they were together for 40 years until she died. But his girlfriends were mentioned a lot throughout the book. There was one mention of the band not approving of his "lifestyle" but further detail here would have been interesting, and not in the prurient sense.
And what a world it is. Howe has done a superb job editing Wilko's scattergun verbiage to tell his story. The first thing that strikes you is his voice, both his voice as storyteller and his unique, twisted, amphetamine driven take on estuary English. It's a powerful voice that has been on an extraordinary journey, both physically and intellectually, and it really comes to life on the pages of this book. As Howe says in her introduction, 'this is your portal to Planet Wilko'.
Planet Wilko is a fascinating place that's made all the more interesting by the amount of photos and memorabilia taken from Wilko's personal archive. It ranges from photos taken by the hippie Wilko on his trip to Afghanistan, paintings, press cuttings and photos of the man in black at the height of his powers with The Feelgoods and as a solo performer.
This is the book that fans of Dr Feelgood and Wilko Johnson have been waiting for. A rare example of autobiography it is as interesting and quirky as its author, quite simply it is essential.
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