The Guardian Weekend - September 7, 1996

Songs of Innocence and Experience

Jah Wobble's done the lot - rock 'n' roll, drugs... and train driving. Friend to the Sex Pistols, bass player with PiL, he's since forged his own path, shunning western populism in favour of eastern mysticism. Now he's setting the poems of William Blake to music. Edward Fox meets an original cockney rebel. Main photograph by Antonio Olmos

Jah Wobble is showing me the route of one of the walks he likes to take near where he lives in the East End of London. The new A-Z Premier map is spread out between us on a footstool in the sitting room of his house in Bethnal Green, a room dominated by the largest TV set I have ever seen. With Jah Wobble, going for a walk is not just about getting a breath of fresh air. It is a kind of religious exercise, a descent into a metaphysical landscape of good and evil forces, and of spiritual phenomena most people cannot see.

He draws a wobbly line on the map from Bethnal Green to Mile End, then south to Limehouse, and straight along the Lime-house Cut canal, a muddy stretch of broken concrete and weeds. "From there, I'll either pick up the River Lea, or go round here [the Lea Valley), a very strange, very esoteric area. That's where you had the Danish-English Treaty [between King Guthrun and King Alfred in 886] and all that. It's marshland. I find marshland very strange, because it's dead. It's a frightening place, but I've been drawn there. I did the I Ching last year and it said: 'Whatever you do, don't go near the marshes. No one wants to know a man who goes to the marshes' ... I'll often do a walk like this, and get into a slow rhythm, and the beautiful thoughts come, and you just know everything at that time."

He walks for 15, l6 miles at a time, striding through the urban wasteland like an Australian aboriginal going walkabout.

Of all the regions of the metropolis, only the East End inspires this kind of visionary response. Its turbulent history has left ancient life only thinly buried, and visible, beneath the rubble. Awareness of this has produced a tendency one might call Cockney mysticism. Jah Wobble is a Cockney mystic.

The original Cockney mystic was, of course, William Blake - a poet who, though not strictly a Cockney, spent all but three of his 65 years in London, found in it a complete imaginative universe and wrote lines such as the following, from Jerusalem (quoted in a work by another Cockney mystic, the poet and novelist Iain Sinclair), in which local knowledge inspires the visionary imagination:

Fearing that Albion should turn his back against the Divine Vision,

Los took his globe of fire to search the interiors of Albions

Bosom, in all the terrors of friendship entering the caves

Of despair and death...

He came down from Highgate thro Hackney & Holloway towards London Till he came to old Stratford, & thence to Stepney & the Isle

Of Leuthas Dogs, thence thro the narrows of the Rivers side,

And saw every minute particular.

The Isle of Dogs is near where Jah Wobble lives. He was bound to encounter William Blake eventually, but it took some time. He says he first came across the poet only about four years ago. He has now recorded an album of musical settings for Blake's poems, The Inspiration Of William Blake, which he's releasing this month on his own record label, 30 Hertz, because Island (the major label for which he recorded his previous two albums) didn't think the project commercial enough. It probably isn't. But it is vintage Wobble, with Wobble himself intoning Blake surrounded by an enchanted music that encompasses a world of musical idioms.

The Inspiration Of William Blake is the latest stage in a career of constant upward evolution. Wobble's life can be seen as a mythic plot in which Jah Wobble gets out of the East End, undergoes trials and hardships in the world (including, as we shall see, an Orphic descent into the Underworld), and then returns home, transformed.

The story begins in 1978, when Jah Wobble, aged 20, appeared out of nowhere as the bass player with Public Image Limited, the band that John Lydon formed after the Sex Pistols had reached the end of their brief natural lifespan. Wobble was a native East Ender, raised in Stepney and Shadwell, and met Lydon when both were teenagers going nowhere fast. When Lydon called to invite him to join his new band, Wobble had no musical ability apart from an instinct for playing the kind of thumping bass-lines he'd heard on early reggae records. He stayed with PiL for two manic, drugged years, and then quit.

If nothing else, the time with PiL taught him that he had a real talent for music, and after leaving the band he went on to produce increasingly distinctive and personal material. With his band, Jah Wobble's Invaders Of The Heart, formed ten years ago, he created a rich, atmospheric, cinematic music that drew in musical styles from all over the world, held together by the chemistry he forged among his diverse cast of musicians and by his powerfully rhythmic bass playing. It liberally plundered non-western music and, as time went on, a spiritual dimension became increasingly evident - hence, in part, the affinity for William Blake - most noticeably in the album Take Me To God, released in 1994. This was like a sequence of miniature Graham Greene novels in musical form, in which a western sensibility finds itself lost and deranged in a foreign landscape. The album was almost over-ambitious, tragically top-heavy, with a kind of mad grandiosity.

The myth of Jah Wobble, his wandering and return, can be told as follows.

Wobble, ne' John Wardle, was born in Stepney, East London, in 1958. His father was a clerk in the tea trade, working in Aldgate and at the West India docks before they closed in the mid-Sixties, to be buried under Canary Wharf two decades later. The family was never short of tea: there were tea chests and brown paper packets of the stuff everywhere - one of the perks of the trade. They were Catholic and of Irish descent, as were a lot of Docklands families. Wobble was an altar boy. When the priest rang the bell, he believed the Holy Spirit was present. They lived near St Dunstan's parish church, Stepney, whose churchyard forms an ancient enclave amid the high-rise council blocks. Wobble's grandfather was a lighter man on the river, and Wobble always thought he himself would join the Merchant Navy, as a way of getting out of Stepney and seeing the world.

He would stand in the mud on the banks of the Thames, look eastward, and see visions of oriental cities: Babylon, minarets. At night, he would listen to exotic foreign music on the short-wave radio, drawing the sounds of the world into Stepney.

At primary school, he was always getting into trouble. At secondary school, London Nautical College in Southwark, he was on course to join the Merchant Navy, as expected, but was expelled for bad behaviour. He would always fall in with a bad lot. A few of his friends joined the Merchant Navy as seamen, only to come back after one or two years with drink problems. Wobble never got even that far.

To make matters worse, his parents no longer understood him. But he was able to earn his own money at an early age, which gave him a sense of independence from his family. "At that time, as a 15-year-old, I was picking up like £50, £60 a week, as an office messenger or doing labouring jobs. I never lasted more than two or three weeks in a job. I'd be sacked. I worked up Canning Town, on a loading bay, as a warehouseman. I did labouring jobs, which at that age is very hard because you haven't got the physical strength to keep up. I remember I worked over Bow on a building site and I had to dig a hole and it flooded immediately, within a minute. I broke a pipe that the geezer had warned me about not breaking, right, and he just said, 'Goodbye son', and gave me a fiver. That was it.

After a few months of living like this, he went to Kingsway College of Further Education, which was, as Wobble puts it, "the kind of place where kids who hadn't, shall we say, fitted in too well ended up". This was the turning point, the key to the highway, the beginning of the journey that took Jah Wobble out of the East End and then brought him back again. His knack for falling in with a bad lot led him to meet two other wayward young men, both also named John and with Irish backgrounds, who were to achieve fame in the Sex Pistols: John Ritchie and John Lydon. John Ritchie was later to style himself Sid Vicious, and John Lydon was to become Johnny Rotten.

Wobble especially admired Lydon, who was a few years older. "He was a right c*** then," Wobble said. "He never became one as part of an image; it's the way he was. I thought, this geezer's got a handle on it." Their aim in life was to drink lager.

John Lydon introduced Wobble to the grungy all-day Sunday rock concerts at the Roundhouse in Camden Town, a dope-scented institution of that era. Later, to Wobble's astonishment, Lydon independently announced that he had joined a rock band, the Sex Pistols, based around a clothing store in Chelsea. Wobble suddenly found himself at the centre of something: punk rock.

"Here we were, these really kooky outsiders, and there was this whole scene starting to build around us," he said. They were white-faced, angry, neurotic "young fuckers" in army fatigues, with cropped hair, devouring amphetamines. They were like little orphan kids. "It was like I'd come home."

By then, his parents had thrown him out of the house, so he lived in squats around London, "ducking and diving", living on cider and amphetamines. He was Lydon's friend, but he wasn't asked to join the Sex Pistols because, by his own account, he was too much of a yob.

Sometimes, in a squat with Sid Vicious, he would pick up Sid's bass guitar and try to figure out how to play it. Could Sid actually play anything, I asked, interrupting Wobble's narrative.

"Sid? No. No, of course not," he said, as if explaining something quite obvious. "I'd say, 'Give it here', and play something on it. And he'd look at you and say, 'That's shit'. And I'd say, 'Faaack off, you don't understand anything'." In this way, Wobble taught himself to play bass guitar. "My mate nicked me a bass as well, from over north London - shitty little bass. The action was really high. It was great." Sid Vicious soon afterwards went on to murder his girlfriend and to die of an overdose.

So, when the Sex Pistols burnt themselves out after their American tour in 1978 and Lydon was trying to form a new band, Public Image Limited, he called Jah Wobble and asked him to be the bass player. By now, he had acquired the name Jah Wobble, after a dribbling drunk and incoherent Sid introduced him to someone, and the name John Wardle came out as Jah Wobble. It sounded like the name of some reggae bass player, so he kept it.

Wobble was in PIL for about two years - "four emotional cripples on four different drugs," is how he describes the experience. The band played dark, evil music, and as Lydon, the singer, wailed and sneered, Wobble played thunderous bass. They toured America amid an entourage of shadowy hangers-on with strange attitudes and Hi-8 video cameras. The atmosphere was thick with drug-induced paranoia. Everyone was against them, and they were being watched at all times. In hotels, they'd go on the balcony to talk in subdued voices because they thought the phones were bugged.

He came out of it "knowing what it must have been like to have been in Hitler's bunker". By this time, he had successfully launched himself on his own downward spiral of booze and drugs and mad behaviour. He would start fights and "verbal" people, and then regret it all the next day. He alienated almost everyone he came into contact with in the music business.

By the mid-1980s, although he had begun an interesting solo career he'd "fucked up with music and I'd offended a lot of people, and I'd used up favours and options." His marriage (he has two daughters, now age 13 and 9) began to fall apart as well. These were Wobble's wilderness years.

He said in a magazine interview later, "I was, in some ways, a very sick young man, in others very brave and positive. I used to out of my way to upset people. I was very self-destructive, I lost patience, I didn't' communicate, I was just a drunken bastard. But then I started to envision this beauty, this new way a band from the west could play. In my head, I could hear these eternal rhythms, but in a context that was very up-to-date and contemporary."

It was the beginning of the return, the second turning point. He quit drinking, forsook music and drove a minicab. (He once picked up Lord Owen, a Limehouse resident: "I told him to fuck off.") After a few months, he got a regular job on the London Underground, something few young, burnt-out, punk-rock stars would be capable of. This was Wobble's redemptive descent into the underworld. The only bad thing about it was the passengers.

"I loved it. I did a good day's work for them, and I loved being on the Underground. I loved being under the city." He started as a ticket collector, but was soon promoted to guard, where he learned to drive the trains. It was thrilling, for instance, to drive a Central Line train from Leyton Stone to Mile End, out in the open, then see the green light, pick up speed and shoot through a narrow tunnel into the dark, secret world underground.

He generally worked night shifts, clocking in at 11pm, working on the last train at night and the first train in the morning. After the last train, he'd put his feet up for the rest of the night. "Sometimes, you'd have sleet nights, which is when there's snow and ice on the tracks and you have go out on a train and spread de-icing material to stop the points freezing over." He would read, or indulge in insane talk, or for a walk around the depot. But most of the time there was nothing to do except settle into his own thoughts, let them expand and contract in the passage of time.

Wobble had good prospects on the Underground. He was seen as a "bright spark". He could have been promoted to driver on the Northern Line, where they were short of drivers, after only six months. Among Underground workers, the Northern Line is not a desirable line to work on because it is mostly underground. He left the Underground after only two years, and for two reasons. The first was that he was not assigned to his preferred choice of depot (he'd wanted Leytonstone - the most desirable depot - but got Hainault). The second was that, up on the surface, in the light, his musical career was beginning to take off again. It was 1987.

Wobble had formed the Invaders Of The Heart the year before, while he was still working on the Underground. They played music of "eternal rhythms" he had imagined before he quit the music business. The Invaders Of The Heart were a loose gathering of musicians, among whom was Jaki Liebezeit, a drummer who had been in the influential German rock group Can, whose murky, throbbing, artfully primitive sound often surfaces in Wobble's music.

The core of the group was Wobble, key-board player Mark Ferda, and Justin Adams, a guitarist. Adams was a diplomat's son who had grown up in Egypt and Jordan and had a taste for Arabic music. He was playing music in London when he heard about Wobble. "It was exactly the music I wanted to play," he said. "It had humour, but also a kind of healing spirituality." They met, and clicked immediately, and Adams joined the Invaders Of The Heart for a tour of Europe during Wobble's two-week vacation from his job on the Underground. "At that time in his life, Wobble wasn't that sure about how far he should go in music," recalled Adams, who encouraged him to go forward with the music he was now playing. "I knew what an artist is supposed to be like, and I could see that this guy had something genuine."

They were an interesting contrast: Adams, the diplomat's son educated at English boarding schools, and Wobble, the Stepney tear-away with voracious intellectual curiosity. Adams had been contemplating studying Arabic music academically, "but then I met Wobble", who had a taste for Arabic music, too, but whose ideas were anything but academic. Wobble had a sense of the spirit of the music, the atmosphere it could create. "He didn't care if a bit of music came from the south or the north of Morocco; he wasn't interested in purism." If it sounded good, it all went into the musical cauldron, creating a kaleidoscopic, transcultural hallucination of music. It wasn't for ethnomusicologists.

It took a long time to get a record contract. "We weren't trendy or saleable, and Wobble had pissed off a lot of people in the music business. And we didn't make concessions: we played the music we wanted to play." The breakthrough came with a record called Bomba, which was heard by the broadcaster and producer Charlie Gillett. On the strength of it he signed the Invaders Of The Heart to his label, Oval Records, for which, in 1991, they recorded an album called Rising Above Bedlam. Wobble was back in the music business.

Wobble is now charming to everybody, although he retains traces of a punk rocker's distrust of the recording industry. He runs his own career. As a band leader, he has a talent for creating a working atmosphere that conjures great performances out of his collaborators, some of whom, such as Sinead O'Connor or the American saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, are stars in their own right. Others seem to exist only in the Wobble universe. Conspicuous among this cast of performers, for example, is Natacha Atlas of Transglobal Underground, whose dazzlingly sensual Arabic singing has become a trade-mark of the Wobble sound. She sounds like she's never left Cairo in her life, but she's Anglo-Belgian-Spanish and comes from Northampton and Stoke Newington.

So now Wobble once again lives in the East End, in a modern brick semi-detached house in Bethnal Green, with a satellite dish outside, the big TV inside, and a recording studio upstairs with a computer music system. There is a Roman burial site under the pink cement tiles in his small back garden, and Wobble is aware of the presence of ancient ghosts. His parents - who still don't comprehend what their son is doing, except that he seems to be earning a decent living out of it - have moved out to Essex, like many thousands of East Enders in the past half century. Only Wobble remains, "the keeper of the burial mound". He has a new girlfriend, Zi Lan Liao, who plays the classical Chinese harp, the ku-cheng, and can be heard on his album of last year, Heaven & Earth, and for whom he has written an orchestral piece to be performed in November in Liverpool. In the neighbourhood where he lives, he is seen as a local, but is thought rather reserved in manner. Although a native, he is not quite typical of the area.

After looking at the map, Wobble decides to go for the walk he has shown me. I accompany him as he strides out towards the spiritual interzone of the Lea Valley so that he can show me "these seemingly fuck-all places", near the marshes and oil refineries, where he meditates and wages his lone, samurai-like struggle with untamed spiritual forces that rise like mist from the landscape. His guided tour combines the visible with the invisible. At Limehouse, he points out the Catholic church where he was baptised, and nearby St Anne's Church, designed by Hawksmoor, with its bizarre funerary pyramid in front, flanked on either side by a canal which "carries away evil energies".

We take a detour down to the Thames, which curves around towards Greenwich, hidden on the other side of the Isle of Dogs. For Wobble, the Thames is a gateway to a sort of eastern hemisphere of heaven towards which souls ascend eastward along the river, in much the same way that planes ascend westward along the flight path from Heathrow. At least, that's what I think he means. His view of heaven and earth coming into London from the east is a cosmology of the Docklands. It mirrors the history of its trade, when the world's goods flowed in from east to west along the river.

From Limehouse Basin, we pass into Limehouse Cut, a long, hot corridor of concrete, weeds, stagnant water and industrial archaeology. Fishermen sit at respectful, regular distances from each other on the canal's concrete bank, with little dishes of writhing maggots beside them. Wobble performs martial arts moves.

We stop under a concrete bridge that passes over a canal. "Stop," Wobble says, with an alert expression on his face. "Can you feel that?" I can't feel anything. "This canal is on a ley line. Can you feel the energy?" Traffic rumbles overhead. I still can't feel anything. We carry on towards the marshes, to the border country of the ancient Danish and English kingdoms.

At the end of the walk, we stop for dinner in a cafe on Cambridge Heath Road, where Wobble is a regular with a reputation for consuming vast quantities of food. He orders steak, eggs, chips, mushrooms, bread and butter, salad, a can of Vimto, a cup of tea and a bottle of Evian water.

As it says in the I Ching, "Perseverance brings good fortune and success."