I found myself in Aberdeen last night, in the middle of a blizzard of snow, wondering if it were possible to be further away from the Canvey Island of Dr. Feelgood. Not that odd a thought, as I was there to see “Oil City Confidential” at one of only four cinemas in Scotland showing this hybrid rock/cinema event.
Sitting at the start of the second decade of the 21st Century, watching a paean to proto punk, pub rock is probably pretty weird as evidenced by the almost embarrassing smattering of people that left probably 90% of the seats vacant. Director, Julian Temple had melded a strange amalgam of home movies, film noir clips, reconstructions, live footage and talking heads into a fatally flawed film. That isn’t to say it wasn’t a good film, or an interesting one. It was, but it didn’t gel as a film about Dr. Feelgood. Far more, it seemed to be an homage to Wilko Johnson.
If Wilko was dead, not Lee Brilleaux, I could see the point and how it would work; friends and band-mates recounting anecdotes and tall tales but this didn’t work for me – because of Wilko. His stage persona was lithe, frenetic, focussed but as narrator of his own story he seemed largely lost. It didn’t help that I seemed incapable of accepting that the old shambling figure before me seemed nothing more than a detached observer of his own life. This really couldn’t be Wilko.
From time to time, we’d see this narrator play something to illustrate part of the story but the playing, like his words, was all over the place. I met him once. Dr. Feelgood were in the middle of their first U.S. tour but during a few days off, Wilko flew back to London. I was at United Artists offices in the city, sitting in reception when he walked in. The exact details are somewhat clouded by the passage of time but the trip home had been prompted by the non-appearance of a bag of white powder in The States.
The receptionist greeted him warmly and having ascertained why he wasn’t on the other side of the pond, found the missing bag. Wilko then asked for a room with a typewriter and disappeared. On my way out from seeing the press officer, I was walking past an open door when the, by then wired, guitarist called out to me. He’d been busy battering out lyrics on a portable and asked me if I’d listen to some of them and give my opinion. I remember being impressed both with the occasion and words but that’s all the information I’ve retained.
That’s the crux of my problem. I remember the Wilko that I met and yet I seem unprepared to accept that I have aged as much as he has. Somehow, the juxtaposition of the 1970’s high-energy performances seen in the captured live footage, with the guitarist as he is now seemed all the sadder. I wanted an unsullied celebration of this all too English amphetamine fuelled, electric, delta blues. I wanted the snapshot in time.
Canvey Island was itself a major player in the film. The faded fifties glamour of the casinos and holiday camp were a powerful backdrop to the evolution of the band. Even seeing it now, it offered far less pathos than inspiration as we followed one of the regular 2 hour tours that takes fans round all the important Feelgood landmarks.
The fact that fans still take those tours is testament to something hugely important that was sidestepped to a large degree: there was a Dr. Feelgood after Wilko left the band. It might not have been as exciting an era as when he was part of it but it saw the band continue to grow as a group of musicians and Lee Brilleaux take his rightful place as one of Britain’s best blues men. They may never again have had the startling effect that their early years made on the music industry but it can easily be argued that without Feelgood, there would never have been Punk. Unlike Punk, of course, Feelgood weathered the changing musical tastes of several decades and stayed true to their roots. They also remained in the hearts and minds of fans of basic rhythm and blues.
For me, the most poignant part of the film was Wilko sitting with his life in cuttings and pictures spread out before him. I had a deep sense of intruding on a private moment, watching someone access personal memories that should never be lightly shared. That, more than anything else troubled me. It seemed that he had lost his own connection with those events; was seeing them as a third party and yet I understand the reasoning (if there is one).
Despite that pathos there was one real sense of emotion in the film. It came from Shirley Brilleaux, Lee’s widow. She was filled with such feeling for this man that saw her smile, laugh and cry whilst thinking of him. Such simple emotions that were obviously heartfelt left me hungering for more knowledge of her husband. In many ways, Shirley was the unexpected star of this film. She did Lee proud.
When the film petered out there was a break before the video feed was turned on again. It was just enough time to hit the bar and hope for better things to come. I wasn’t expecting much, based on what I’d seen of Wilko and the announcement that Alison Moyet was going to be a guest did not bode well for me. “Alf” from Yazoo with Wilko Johnson? No way!
Strangely, that was the unexpected highlight of the evening. She looked great and sounded amazing! As for the shambolic narrator, a simple truth became self evident – all he needed was an audience. Not a film crew but a real audience that he could strut his stuff in front of – and boy, did he strut! The moves, the energy and, of course, the licks were all there. I just wanted someone to put a “Wilko” wig on him and take me back 35 years. The video feed was stunning. To see every chop of his fingers on those strings, every chord change, was incredible. I just didn’t want to see the bushiness of his eyebrows or the lines on his face that the high definition picked out in minute detail.
Playing counterpoint to Wilko’s machine-gun like guitar was Norman Watt-Roy on bass. Watt-Roy goes back to 1968 with The Greatest Show On Earth, an early signing to the Harvest label. From there he joined Glencoe, then Loving Awareness and finally Ian Dury & The Blockheads. It was an odd sight. He seemed unaware of his guitarist but somehow, as is the case with all great bass players, totally attuned to him. Odd isn’t really the word. More outlandish. Part gargoyle let loose; part Orang Utang; part octopus. A figure dancing to his own tune yet producing the most incredible runs far beyond the reach of many. His dexterity on the fretboard and his obvious skill with picking and slapping the strings between the bridge and first pick-up was totally breathtaking.
There was one other guest onstage. A leather-jacketed harmonica player that looked totally familiar and yet I couldn’t believe I was seeing. Charles Shaar Murray, one of the greatest music journalists ever, showed he really knew how to blow a blues harp and paid a fine tribute to the one man missing from the stage – Lee Brilleaux. Somehow, that tied it all together. Wilko’s guitar was as good as it ever was but his singing was weak and reedy.
Alison Moyet lifted the event, as did C S M but really all it did was point out that Dr. Feelgood was at its best when the original line-up was together. A stunning guitarist capable of great lyrics and a wonderful vocalist who could make a harmonica wail unlike anyone outside the American blues elite. One thing is certain, Lee and the Feelgoods are missing from today’s music and that’s sad.