The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson was going to be about Wilko dying of terminal cancer, except Wilko did not.
The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson poster
Charlie Chan, a friend of Wilko’s who juggles being a music business photographer with being a breast cancer surgeon, realised that there might be some hope. Surgeon Emmanuel Huguet operated on Wilko for nine hours at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge and the result was there to see last night.
Ironically, Michael Fawcwett told me, Wilko survived because he did NOT take any chemotherapy treatment. He just accepted he would die, did concerts and last year made a hit album Going Back Home with Roger Daltrey as part of his ‘farewell’.
“I decided,” said Wilko, “just to accept the situation and go through it and die, to live whatever life I had left and go with the flow, whether it was booking gigs or Julien making a film.”
Wilko’s wife Irene had died of cancer in 2004. So it goes.
Wilko performing at the 100 Club last night
If Wilko had taken the chemotherapy treatment, he would have been too ill to survive the operation which saved his life. So his acceptance of death resulted in his life continuing.
The film had a special relevance to Julien Temple because, at the time it was being made, his own mother was dying. So it goes.
“All the twists and turns,” said Wilko, “that happened during that year…”
“That’s the thing about a documentary,” said Julien. “You don’t know where it’s going. There’s something fantastic about the element of chance which is what life’s about, really. If you over-script things, sometimes you… You would never write a film like this. No-one would believe a fiction film if you had written it like this. Who would ever believe a rock star so erudite?”
“If you wrote it in a book,” Wilko said, “it would be condemned as an improbable fiction.”
After yesterday’s premiere (left-right) Sheri Sinclair, Derick ‘The Draw’ Hussey, Julien Temple and Michael Fawcett
After the screening, I went to the 100 Club in Oxford Street, where Wilko and his band played a one-hour, sweat-pouring, full-throttle gig. I had thought the 100 Club had closed but, like Wilko, it is still very much alive.
In the red-walled basement club, I bumped into Edinburgh Fringe regular Ronnie Golden aka Tony De Meur of the former Fabulous Poodles. His girlfriend Grace Carley was executive producer on The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson.
“I love this club,” Ronnie/Tony told me. “I remember it from the late 1970s. It looked almost exactly the same. It’s just a brilliant, brilliant shit-hole. In those days, there was no air-conditioning and they had a stall over there that sold Chinese food so you had this smelly stench and everybody smoked so the air was filled with smoke and this stench. It was insane and our drummer passed-out on stage. The sheer heat and everything.”
Ronnie Golden, former Fabulous Poodle – 100 Club last night
“While he was performing?’ I asked.
“Yeah,” said Ronnie. “And it happened in the Marquee Club too. He was susceptible to passing-out.”
“What,” I asked, “did you do when he passed out on stage during the gig?”
“We walked off and they played some music on records and then we came back on again.”
“With the drummer?”
“Yeah. It happened in Philadelphia too. But he would always rally very well.”
When I left the 100 Club, I walked to Oxford Circus station with Emmanuel Huguet, the surgeon who saved Wilko’s life. I asked him, perhaps tritely, what it is like being a surgeon.
“You get to meet some very interesting people,” he said.
Guy Combes last week at Vout-O-Reenee’s (Photograph by M-E-U-N-F)
In a blog last week, I mentioned going to Vout-O-Reenee’s – Sophie Parkin’s club “for the surrealistically distinguished” – to see Guy Combes fascinatingly surreal show Auntie Rene’s Memory Box Is The Smallest Museum in The World. Guy Combes is a man with a luxuriant moustache.
In yesterday’s blog, the untold (by me, but not by her) story of writer/editor/artist/bohemian Molly Parkin kissing jazz legend Louis Armstrong was mentioned by comedy performer Matt Roper.
Molly Parkin at Vout-O-Reenee’s gallery opening last night
Last night, Matt and I went to see the opening of the Stash Gallery at Vout-O-Reenee’s – The first exhibition is a retrospective of Molly Parkin’s paintings 1954-2014.
While there, I had a chat with Guy Combes, who claimed to have read my blogs.
“I think research is much over-rated,” I said. “I don’t know anything about you at all, except that you have a luxuriant moustache and used to be in a comedy duo called Moonfish Rhumba.”
“Usual story,” said Guy. “Failed actor. Robin Williams said comedy was his therapy, not that I’d compare myself with Robin Williams, of course.”
“Well for one thing,” I said, “you’re not dead.”
“Or depressed,” said Guy, “though I have my moments. Anyway, Robin Williams said that, between his acting jobs, he got really ‘down’ so, as a way of therapy, he started doing stand-up. There was no mental illness, just boredom. Obviously, I have a level of mental illness: you’ve got to have.”
“So you HAVE read my blogs!” I said.
The new Stash Gallery at Vout-O-Reenee’s
“Yes,” he said. “The suicide one. I’ve got a story, though nothing quite as exotic as that. I was sent to boarding school and I hated it and, in the process, I drank a bottle of shampoo. The boys in the dormitory found it very entertaining. They were giving me shoe polish and all sorts to see if I could imbibe as much as possible until a snotty prefect decided to pack me off to hospital.”
“Thus,” I suggested, “you are here in this private club for surrealists.”
“Probably,” laughed Guy.
“Boot polish is an interesting one,” I said. “It’s solid.”
“Yeah,” agreed Guy. “It took a bit of chewing. It was probably the best performance I’ve done, because all these boys were giving me all these different things to imbibe and I would find different ways to look like I was but not. With the shampoo, I put my tongue in the bottle, so I wasn’t actually drinking much at all.”
“University?” I asked.
Guy Combes at Vout-O-Reenee’s last night minus shampoo
“No,” said Guy. “I was taking lots of drugs at the time and was very interested in Alice in Wonderland and there was this place in Bournemouth… a theme park about Alice in Wonderland… There was a girl who is now a member of Vout-O-Reenee’s as well – Julia Pittam – and she got the job as Alice and I got the job as the White Rabbit because I needed to get my Equity card somehow. So I was running around the theme park trying not to get beaten up by children and then I got promoted to being the Mad Hatter.”
“Is that promotion?” I asked. “I don’t know the hierarchical structure of Alice in Wonderland theme parks.”
“Well,” explained Guy, “the owner was originally the Mat Hatter. Rich toff. Land-owner sort. It was a good learning process, a great way to develop a skill of working an audience because the airport was opposite the theme park. Or maybe that was the drugs.”
“So,” I said, “you wanted to be an actor, you became a rabbit and now you are making, I imagine, a good living appearing in TV commercials for Eat.”
“As Mr Mozzarella,” said Guy. “Yes. Well, that’s running until Christmas and then they’re stopping it.”
There is footage on YouTube of Mr Mozzarella at the Corby Parliamentary By-Election in 2012.
“You’re very memorable Mr Mozzarella,” I said. “Have you done other commercials?”
“There was one,” said Guy, “which kind of segued into the Mat Hatter – I got a job as Barbara Windsor’s sidekick in a bingo ad and they dressed me as the Mad Hatter.”
“What were you doing?” I asked. “Throwing gambling chips around?”
“Barbara Windsor was the Queen and I was Jackpot Joy… No, no… I was Jack. She was the Queen of Hearts and the girl who played Joy went on to get a part in Game of Thrones as the prostitute.”
“You’d be good in Game of Thrones,” I said. “You have a medieval face.”
Game of Guys – Is this a good medieval face?
“Yes,” said Guy. “One of my favourite comedy gig heckles was Look out! Here comes a medieval terrorist!”
“But you’ve never done stand-up?” I asked. “You’re an actor.”
“I’ve attempted it,” said Guy, “but it never really works. I realised, with me, everything has to have a character attached to it. I struggle with myself.”
“Which one of you wins?” I asked.
“You’re married,” I said.
“So you are a sensible, level-headed married chap.”
“My dad was a bank manager,” said Guy, “and I think I’ve inherited some of that. Today I was at home doing the car insurance and organising all the bills and sorting out our mortgage.”
“So,” I said, “sort-of level headed with odd things thrown in.”
“I got a good job in the middle of the Edinburgh Fringe this year. My agent phoned me up and said: They want a moustache in Germany.”
“Do you get a lot of moustache-related work?” I asked.
“Well,” said Guy. “It’s amazingly useful. You get all these actors out of work and, if only they just grew something…”
“I was,” I said, “watching the TV news the other day and there was this research scientist saying that, in 25 years time, people who have lost their legs will be able to re-grow their legs but, for some reason, not their feet. They would still need artificial feet.”
“So I was in Edinburgh,” continued Guy, “and they flew me to Berlin. Lovely. They shot me first thing in the morning with the Berlin skyline, just as the sun was coming up, and all I had to do was smoulder, look into the camera and say What are you looking at? in German.”
“You can speak fluent German?” I asked.
“Surely,” I said, “they have people in Germany with moustaches?”
The Kaiser: a man, a myth, a moustache
“Apparently not of this size,” replied Guy.
“Did the Kaiser live for nothing?” I asked. “What do you want to be ultimately? A respected actor not a comedy person?”
“It’s just a magical journey,” said Guy. “I don’t know where it’s gonna lead next. I suppose I’m just compelled to do certain things. At the moment, I’m working on various comedy characters that I’m going to be taking around comedy clubs.”
“Stand-up comedy?” I asked.
“Character stand-up,” said Guy. “When I did my show here last week, people seemed to enjoy the song and the puppets. So I think more songs, more puppets. I think I will pop down to Pear Shaped and try out some things. I wanted to work some more with the Aunt Rene thing, but I think I’ve sorted exhausted that. It all started going quite dark last week.”
“Dark is good,” I said. “It will get you reviews.”
Guy Combes eating his Aunt Rene’s brain in show last week (Photograph by M-E-U-N-F)
“Ye-e-e-e-s,” said Guy. “But what happened the other night was un-planned. The eating of my aunt’s brain. That took me by surprise. I wasn’t sure how to end the show. I thought: I’m either going to have to throw her brain into the audience like some clown would do… or get someone up to eat it… or I’m going to have to eat it. I don’t know if it was fitting for the memory of my auntie to eat her brain in front of loads of strangers. But maybe that’s the way to go. Maybe that’s where my future lies.”
“Eating people’s brains?” I asked.
“Maybe,” said Guy.
Guy at the gallery with a woman who had been gored by a bull
And then we went off to look at the Molly Parkin exhibition.
Guy got talking to an interesting artist who told him she had been gored by a bull.
Foolishly, I did not record her story and did not get her name or contact details.