Reading the autobiography of Wilko Johnson at this particular time is going to be slightly affected by the guitar legend’s current state of health, but I will try to overlook that in reviewing the book, though its safe to say it gives some of the stories Wilko tells an extra resonance.
Starting out as a photo book chronicling Wilko’s musical career, co-writer Zoe Howe soon realised the stories that accompanied the photos and sketches she unearthed with Wilko would make them all the more interesting. So, rather than a straight autobiography, what we get in Looking Back At Me is a combination of images from Wilko’s life alongside what seem to be pretty direct transcripts of the man’s stories.
While its fair to say Wilko’s time in Dr. Feelgood, the band that made his name, takes up a fairly major chunk of the book, we do get a deep insight into other factors of his life, particularly before the Feelgoods.
It is this pre-Dr. Feelgood section where the book is at its best as Wilko spins a tale, and reading the book it really does feel like he is telling you these stories directly, through his youth on Canvey Island, to grammar school in Southend and on to university and the beginnings of his relationship and marriage with Irene, who it is clear was nearly as much a part of the Wilko Johnson story as Wilko himself – although at times in a decidedly unconventional, but it would seem ultimately honest and true, marriage.
Amongst this section the parts that fascinated me most were the sections chronicling Wilko’s travels to India where he paints a vivid picture of the journey, one which feels almost mythical at times, but is always kept grounded thanks to the storyteller’s own brilliant and unique take on the English language.
Once Dr. Feelgood enter the picture we get, for a few ‘chapters’ at least, a fairly conventional rock ‘n’ roll autobiography with tales of both the music and the excess that went along with it, however, as the Feelgood years come to an end we get something that you don’t often see in these kind of books – a genuine sense of regret from the author.
It’s this, which continues into some of the stories of his life immediately post-Feelgood, that really allows the reader to know this is Wilko’s story, straight from the horse’s mouth, and not forced into being a glossy fairytale as drug problems, bad artistic choices and the loss of once essential personal relationships are lost and show a man seemingly in decline.
Thankfully that’s not how it ends though as the feeling I got by end of the book, which brings us up to date with tale from the set of Game Of Thrones, where Wilko plays “The King’s Justice” Ser Ilyn Payne, and his interest in astronomy, was one of positivity in a life lived to its full.
While Wilko Johnson may be something of a cult figure in the rock ‘n’ roll world his story is certainly one worth hearing, and, thanks to the style of this books creation, it really does feel like Wilko is telling you his fascinating story in his own poetic way.