The Big Interview: Wilko Johnson
I’M feeling fine apart from this bloody cancer,” Wilko Johnson says by way of an ice breaker.
In January, the former Dr Feelgood guitarist issued a statement on his Facebook page informing fans that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told by doctors that he had less than a year to live. He then announced he was going to do a farewell tour this month consisting of four dates with gigs in London, Glasgow, Bilston, near Birmingham, and Holmfirth.
It’s been a tough few months for the 65-year-old musician. “I felt this lump in my stomach and did what most blokes would do and ignored it,” he says, speaking from his home in Essex. “I hoped it would just go away but then my son visited me before Christmas, he’d come over with his son from Manila, and he dragged me to the hospital.”
He underwent a series of tests and scans. “Just before Christmas I went back in. My first question was, ‘Is it cancer?’ And they said they didn’t know.”
But when he went back, his doctor broke the grim news. “Me and my family had been theorising what it might me, we thought it would probably be a cyst. I didn’t think it would be cancer so I wasn’t expecting them to say that,” he says.
He was told his cancer was inoperable and that there was nothing they could do. But rather than falling apart, he felt strangely uplifted.
“When they told me I felt this sense of calm, even though it came as a surprise. Normally I’m a miserable so and so but I remember when I left the hospital I felt a sense of euphoria. Things that annoyed me suddenly didn’t matter. I was hit by this realisation that the past, the present and the future doesn’t matter and I could just be. Suddenly everything becomes very clear, you hear the birds singing, you feel the wind on your cheeks and it really makes you feel alive.”
After Christmas, Johnson returned to see the specialist who told him he had nine or 10 months left to live. He turned down the chance to have chemotherapy when it became clear it might only give him another couple of months. “I felt fine and I asked how long I could expect that to last because I wanted to do a couple of concerts and a bit of recording and I was told four or five months.”
Faced with his approaching death, Johnson has thrown himself into his work. “A few weeks back, I was in Japan for a couple of gigs in Tokyo and Kyoto, where we raised thousands of pounds for the earthquake disaster fund. They’ve always been very supportive of me over there and this was an opportunity for me to say ‘thanks,’” he says.
The gigs were emotional, especially for his loyal fans. “I finished with the Chuck Berry song Bye Bye Johnny with me waving to the crowd and I could see tears in their eyes. People were holding up signs and you would think it would bring a lump to my throat but I was fine, all the time I just felt this natural high. There’s nothing I can do about it so there’s no point being sentimental. I was really up for it and they went really well and that was the important thing for me, putting on a good show.”
Johnson has just played three successive nights at the Greystones pub in Sheffield and is about to embark on his short farewell tour, which takes in the Picturedrome in Holmfirth. It’s a venue he’s played before and he is looking forward to Friday’s sold out show.
“It’s a really good place for gigs. It’s got a proper stage where everyone can see and it’s a great venue for some good old rock n roll.”
Farewell tours have become fashionable in recent years with some performers seeming to make more comebacks than Lazarus. But in Johnson’s case there is a sad finality to his forthcoming shows. “At the moment I don’t feel any ill effects but if I’m feeling sick then I’m not going on stage because I want people to remember me as I was,” he says.
There is an admirable defiance about the way he’s dealing with a situation we all dread facing. Johnson lost his wife, Irene, to cancer eight years ago and says he gets more emotional thinking about her than he does about his own predicament. “I’m just hoping to continue for as long as possible and since the diagnosis I’ve started writing more songs, which is typical of me leaving it all to the last minute,” he jokes.
Johnson’s life has revolved around music for more than 40 years, although he insists he didn’t set out to become a musician. “It was purely accidental, it wasn’t an ambition of mine,” he says.
He was brought up in Essex and learned to play guitar as a teenager inspired by the Rolling Stones. But rather than following in their footsteps he went off to university to study English before returning to Canvey Island where he grew up.
He was working as a school teacher in the early 70s when he met singer Lee Brilleaux and together they, along with two friends, formed Dr Feelgood. “We were a bunch of mates who wanted to play rhythm and blues and we set up a pub rock band. We just did it for the pure joy of it.”
Initially they played the clubs and pubs in and around Canvey Island where they gained a popular following, before moving on to the bright lights of London. “It just exploded,” he says. “All of a sudden I was a musician and I never escaped.”
Dr Feelgood’s distinctive rhythm and blues sound revolved around Johnson’s choppy guitar style. Although this, along with their edgy, high octane live performances, seemed out of step with the times. “The music scene was dominated by very elaborate prog rock and glam with lots of big light shows. Whereas we were four guys bashing drums and thrashing guitars, but it was exciting and it seemed very revolutionary.”
Johnson became known for his driving riffs and holding his guitar like a machine gun and pretending to shoot the crowd. “If you go out to a disco and a song comes on you like you want to get up and dance and you don’t care if you look like an idiot. Well, it’s the same with me on stage. I just go with how I feel, I’m not one for standing still and looking at my shoes.”
The band’s first album, Down by the Jetty, came out in 1974 to popular and critical acclaim and two years later their live album, Stupidity, topped the charts. Dr Feelgood started out as a raw pub band and paved the way for the punk scene that followed hot on their heels.
“I got to know all the punk bands personally, The Clash, the [Sex] Pistols, The Stranglers, and they all said they’d been influenced by Dr Feelgood, as we disappeared down the plughole,” says Johnson, laughing. “I shared a flat in Hampstead with Jean-Jacques Burnel, the bassist from The Stranglers, and we had all sorts of people staying there. You’d get up in the morning and trip over Billy Idol.” However, in 1977 Johnson left Dr Feelgood over musical differences and after spending time in the musical wilderness he was given a new lease of life by another influential musical figure, Ian Dury, who invited him to join the Blockheads. He jumped at the chance although he admits it was something of a culture shock. “I was used to knocking around in a small band and they had this big entourage and I used to sit back whenever there was an argument,” he says. “Ian was a brilliant guy but he could be a difficult fellow sometimes, especially after a drink.”
After playing with the Blockheads for a couple of years, he left to embark on a solo career which has kept him ticking over ever since. “I’ve never been the kind of person who plans their life. I got into music by accident and I’ve let it take me where it wants. There have been ups and downs but I’ve always managed to make a living, and a rather nice living, from playing live music and I’m grateful for that.”
Now with the end drawing near he’s determined to make the most of what time he has left. “I’ve been back in the studio to work on a new album, although whether I’ll be around to see it or not, who knows.”
As for his farewell gigs, he says he would like to go out with a bang. “I hope my health holds up. I’ve had a good life and if I can round things off with a few really good gigs then I’ll be a happy man.”
Wilko Johnson plays the Picturedrome, Holmfirth, on March 8.