- 23 Nov 22
As tributes continue to pour in for Wilko Johnson, we're revisiting Dermot Stokes' reflections on the iconic guitarist, and a cast of other dearly departed legends – originally published in Hot Press in 2013, when Johnson first revealed that he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer.
Originally published in Hot Press in 2013.
Well, you can take a girl out of the Bronx but you can’t take the Bronx out of a girl. We were standing at the side of the stage in Manchester Free Trade Hall. She had a tattoo of a fierce blue cat on her arm. Written underneath was Willy. She looked like a Ronette.
The Immortals were crooning. “She’s a mixed up shook up girl”. She loved it. “Izzn that beyoodiful?” she asked wistfully, softly repeating “just beyoodiful”.
Her name was Toots. It had to be and it was. And Willy was Willy DeVille, lead singer with Mink DeVille. That was him, thin as a pencil, like the rest of his band, pompadour hair and pointy snakeskin shoes with Cuban heels, hanging in his own smoke while the Immortals sang sweet harmony. The tattoo turns up on the cover of Mink DeVille’s Paris-recorded album Le Chat Bleu.
Toots was crazy cool. In his biography of the great songwriter Doc Pomus, Alex Haberstadt described her as half-French and half-Pima Indian, with “a pair of nose rings, snow-white kabuki makeup and a Ronettes-style beehive the colour of tar.” That was her. It was said that she had once put out a lit Marlboro in a woman’s eye just for staring at Willy. Maybe so, maybe not…
The headliners that night were Dr Feelgood. Talk about chalk and cheese. Where Mink DeVille were about soul and style and cool, the Docs were about grit and dust and sweat. They were pure raucous Thames Delta R’n’B…
The essence of the Feelgoods was the smoke and spark between the twin electrodes of Lee Brilleaux and Wilko Johnson, but by then Wilko had left and been replaced by Gypie Mayo. Much as Lee smoked and snarled, the Feelgoods weren’t quite the same in his absence…
After three or four Canvey Island stompers, Willy and I returned backstage. Toots hovered. We talked awhile, got the interview down nice and tight.
After the gig we repaired to a nightclub with the rest of the tour crew. I can’t remember the name of the club. It was crowded, noisy and smoky and full of drink and drugs. We talked as much as we could. Toots and I talked about Van Morrison. At one point Willy nudged me and pointed out a stubby guy with bleached hair. “Know him?” he asked. I didn’t. “Jerry Nolan,” he said. “Noo Yawk Dolls.”
It was a long time ago. If I looked around that nightclub table now most of them would be shadows. Are shadows.
Nolan died in 1992 following a stroke, brought on by bacterial meningitis. Lee Brilleaux died in 1994 of lymphoma.
Toots is dead too. Willy left her during the 1990s. They had both done a lot of drugs but it was cancer that killed her. She was living in upstate New York working as a care provider for old people when she died in 2004. As for Willy, in February 2009 he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C and in May of that year doctors discovered pancreatic cancer. He died in New York City that August.
As we finished our interview Willy said: “You got good hair. Next time you get it done tell ‘em you want a pompadour.” “Yeah,” chuckled Toots, “a pompadooah.”
When I had good hair I flaunted it, but I’m past pompadours now. Just a wash and polish, as they say. The same is true of Wilko Johnson. His pageboy is a distant memory. He’s as shorn and shiny as me.
Wilko’s not dead but he’s dying. He has pancreatic cancer. He recently told the Observer that his diagnosis has given him a new perspective. For him it’s all sorted, he says, and that sets him apart. Death is not in the indefinite future, it’s in the permanent present.
It’s curious. Digitisation bestows an immortality that Willy DeVille’s Immortals couldn’t even barely have imagined in their wildest gospel raptures. Searches yield old photos and recordings and vids beyond number. In these and elsewhere, stars seem forever young and full of life, able to hope to die before they got old because the very prospect was then so distant.
Well, time passes. The sands run out. But as old stars burn out new ones are born. And they too will be forever young until one day they’re not. It’s an endless cycle of birth, death and re-birth, of excitement and inspiration and creation by people teetering on ropes between arrogance and insecurity, between self-importance and self-recrimination, fear and respect, celebration and regret, knowledge and naivety…
The truth is, most of the things we lose sleep over don’t count. When someone sits you down and tells you that you have a year to live, all the excess baggage drops off the cart. In that moment, what matters is whether you can look in your mirror and be at peace with the story you see in the face that looks back at you.
So Nolan and Toots and Willy are gone – and Wilko’s at a point where you live every day as if it’s the last, which it might well be. A couple of weeks ago he played in front of 30,000 fans in Southend-on-Sea. Back home on the Thames delta. When the bell tolls he’ll go out rocking and rolling and without regrets. With his boots on, you might say.
So should we all.
- Lifestyle & Sports
- 20 Oct 22