Legendary guitarist Wilko Johnson talks candidly to Music Republic Magazine editor Simon Redley, about cheating death and trying to grasp the fact he is still alive – while making plans for a 30th anniversary concert and his 70th birthday.
Looking for a “good angle” in the prep’ for an interview with Wilko Johnson really isn’t necessary. This is the man who was told by medics in late 2012, that he had less than a year to live, diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. A man who refused treatment and resigned himself to his imminent fate, while still performing around the world to say goodbye to his loyal fans.
But a man who was still alive and kicking some 15 months after his diagnosis, astounding doctors. A music photographer friend who is also a breast cancer surgeon, Charlie Chan, urged Wilko to seek a second opinion and set him up to see a friend of his, surgeon Emmanuel Huguet, who eventually told him he could save his life
He underwent a nine hour life-saving operation at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridgeshire, to remove the seven pound and 11 ounce tumour from Wliko’s pancreas, in April 2014. Radical surgery removed his spleen, pancreas, part of his stomach and part of his small and large intestine. After surgery Wilko had to be treated for two life threatening tumours on his lung and liver. After a long period of convalesence, he was given the all clear on the cancer diagnosis and doctors are still amazed he is cancer-free.
In 2017, Wilko is still very much with us, still rocking all over the world and still cancer-free. His career is on a high but the man himself is still trying to come terms with the fact he is not dead! Speaking on the ‘phone from his Southend home on the day he was supposed to be back at the Cambridgeshire hospital to have a six monthly scan, he told me he had mixed up the dates and would now go “next week.”
So. Where to start. Well, first of all, the “peg to hang” our chat on is the release – on 10th March, of a two CD “Best Of” set, “Keep It To Myself – The Best Of Wilko Johnson”, on the Chess label. 25 songs recorded by Wilko between 2008 and 2102, including re-workings of Wilko-penned Dr Feelgood favourites such as “She Does It Right”, “Twenty Yards Behind”, “Sneaking Suspicion” and “Roxette”. Then there’s the imminent UK tour in April and the headline show at The Royal Albert Hall in London in September, to celebrate 30 years of the Wilko Johnson Band and his 70th birthday in July.
Obviously, there is lots to ask him about his health, past and present and his brush with death. But I wanted to begin by going back to his days with the fabulous Canvey Island band, Dr Feelgood. From their birth in 1971 to 1977, when he was sacked amid a bitter row with singer Lee Brilleaux. Many cite that band as the spark that lit the punk fire, and many hold Wilko up as a big influence on their own guitar playing. He himself idolised Mick Green from Johnny Kidd and The Pirates, but Wilko has his very own style.
Wilko employs a finger-style, chop-chord strumming action (the ‘stab’, as he describes it). This allows for chords and lead to be played at the same time, giving a fluency and a distinctive sound very unlike the cleaner swat of a plectrum. Joe Strummer of the Clash bought a Telecaster after seeing Wilko play. This chopping thing while he struts back and forth, front and back of the stage like the ebb and flow of a raging ocean, and those bulging, manic eyes staring wildly at the horizon, always dressed from head to toe in black, has quite a mesmerising effect and is like no other guitarist.
Before we get into the chat with Wilko, first; a bit of history…..He was born John Peter Wilkinson on 12th July 1947, at Canvey Island, Essex. He studied English at Newcastle University before doing a bit of travelling, and then teaching English. But music was a bigger pull, and he quit to form R&B band Dr Feelgood in 1971 with his Canvey Island pals:singer and harmonica player Lee Brilleaux (who died of lymphoma in 1994), and the rhythm section of John B. Sparks, known as “Sparko”, on bass guitar and John Martin, known as “The Big Figure”, on drums. The Stranglers Jean Jacques Burnel said of Wilko’s former outfit Dr Feelgood: ‘I often say to journalists there is a bridge between the old times and the punk times. That bridge is exclusively The Feelgoods. It allowed us to go from one thing to another. That’s the connection, the DNA.’
Dr Feelgood had four successful albums in Wilko’s time, including their live record, “Stupidity,” which topped the UK album charts in 1976. Wilko was gone from the band after 1977’s, “Sneakin’ Suspicion,” album. He formed The Solid Senders for one album and joined Ian Dury & The Blockheads for their album “Laughter”, and a tour, before forming his own band. All through the ’80s, ’90s and into the new millennium he continued to gig in the UK, Europe and Japan. But it was when Julien Temple’s award winning Oil City Confidential came out in 2009, with Wilko emerging as the film’s star, that the world once again sat up and paid attention to his extraordinary talent.
Game Of Thrones
His career took another twist in 2010, when he was offered an acting part in the hit series Game of Thrones, playing the role of mute executioner Ilyn Payne. He appeared in 4 episodes shown in 2011 and 2012. In the same year, Wilko and biographer Zoë Howe released the book ‘Wilko Johnson: Looking Back At Me.’, In 2015, Wilko and Julien Temple teamed up again for the documentary The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson, a film which explored Wilko’s diagnosis of terminal cancer, and the unexpected reprieve that followed. The film would become quite the hit, captivating audiences whether they saw it on the big screen or on BBC 4. Wilko’s new memoir, ‘Don’t You Leave Me Here’, was published last Spring via Little, Brown.
So, speaking to the man himself about his first band, does he think he is recognised enough as a songwriter with Feelgood, as opposed to just that manic stare? “I dunno. But I do remember way back when, with Feelgoods, when we kind of established ourselves and this idea of me as a kind of stage lunatic seemed to be the predominant one. I thought, maybe people didn’t maybe notice so much that I can play the guitar and I can write the songs. But if the stuff’s any good, it will last”.
Why has Dr Feelgood’s music stood the test of time and is so respected today? “When we first established ourselves, it didn’t really surprise me, because what we were doing was such a simple and basic thing. That thing is what all of rock and roll came up from really; 12 bar blues. “Because we were doing it well, it didn’t surprise me that it was successful, and I think it will do the same thing now as it did then, and before we were going. We get quite a number of people come and see us play today, who weren’t actually born when Feelgood were going”.
How does he feel about there being a band out there calling themselves Dr Feelgood, but they do not have one original member? Brace yourself for his answer: “I think they are absolutely useless. They’re a joke. I’ve only seen them once and I thought it was awful, frankly. I don’t make a habit of commenting on what anyone else is doing. Everybody’s got to make a living, but some people have got no pride and no shame.
“It is silly, because they have absolutely nothing to do with what went down with Dr Feelgood. They’re not even playing the same kind of music. As for the show they put on, it’s just nothing like it. All they’ve got is the name, you see.
“Taking The Piss To Use That Name”
“That was the thing; when the bust up happened in 1977, I felt that they are going to come out of it better than me because the name Dr Feelgood was pretty big. The name of Wilko Johnson, not so well known. I had to struggle in many ways to carry on, whereas they kind of cruised on with what we had established. It was powerful enough that over the years, different people have come in to the band and come and gone. I think they’ve had about five guitar players since my time, and three singers. That was really daft, I think.
“As long as Lee was alive and kicking, they had some claim to be called Dr Feelgood. He was an identifiable element and a very big element of Dr Feelgood. But once Lee had gone, I think really they’re taking the piss a bit to use that name”.
Does Wilko ever feel an obligation to play Feelgood stuff with his own band these days, and perhaps get a bit fed up of the old tunes? “I am very happy to do it. Honestly. I know people want to hear these songs. If ever I went to see Chuck Berry, I want to hear Johnny B. Goode. The stuff we play now; we don’t pick it for any reason, you just get to know the songs that go good and play them”.
After Wilko was forced from Dr Feelgood, he didn’t hang about long and set up a new band, The Solid Senders who released one album in 1978. I really liked that band, personally. Got to shoot pictures of their whole set at Leicester University in 1978 or ‘79, and Nine Blow Zero were on support. A blistering gig. But Wilko’s band didn’t last long before they split. Why? “After I was viciously thrown out of Dr Feelgood, I did not know what to do and I remember Vic Maile, the producer, telling me: ‘Man, you should take a year off, until you find exactly the right thing. Take your time, don’t worry, take your time’. But I couldn’t believe him. I said: ‘Man, I gotta get back on the road quick or people will forget about me. So that band came together very immediately (sic), after a couple of false starts. I mean, I was very confused. As I remember it was quite good, before all sorts of things…… like personalities and so forth.
“The thing is; with Dr Feelgood, it was just so great, just the way it worked. It was natural and we were all such friends, and we’d got all that behind us. Everything we’d been through, from playing little local gigs up to wherever we got. That Solid Senders band; everything about it was put together very slip shod if you like; the record deal and everything. There wasn’t the kind of solidarity that Dr Feelgood had had. As quick as it was put together, it quickly faltered”.
So, did the famous Wilko strut and death stare get practiced and planned in front of a mirror? Wilko laughs loudly down the ‘phone. “No I never did. In fact, that was another thing about Dr Feelgood; we never ever rehearsed or deliberated about what we were doing on stage. “It just came from playing and naturally seeing how you could influence an audience. The first time I did see it, I saw it on a video or TV,” he laughs uncontrollably. “I was like, what is that; I was kind of embarrassed”. More loud laughter. “I didn’t know I looked like that. I was like ‘wow’, you know”. What I do when I play, physically it is just a kind of reflection, it’s the way I feel the music. If you do gown the disco and you hear a record you like, you leap onto the floor and start strutting your stuff, man. You don’t care what kind of idiot you look.
“You are just expressing the way the music makes you feel. As it was with what I do on stage. That’s just the way it makes me feel. But it always makes me feel a bit uncomfortable watching it, to tell you the truth”. Wilko reveals he doesn’t like to listen back to recordings of gigs, or watch himself on DVD or TV.
Wilko got a call from The Who legend Roger Daltry to tell him they were going to make a record together, which was after Wilko had been told he was going to die. The album they made, “Going Back Home,” was a major commercial success and got to number three in the UK album charts in 2014. Wilko was gob smacked. “Roger got in touch and said, man, we are doing a record. I had been given 10 months to live, and when we actually got into the studio with Roger, it was in the 11th month, so I was already in extra time.
“While we were recording it, I wasn’t sure if I was even gonna be alive to see the thing released. So I didn’t have any expectations about it. In the circumstances, I was thinking, ‘Ah well, it is a great thing to do to kind of sign off with. A little memorial, if you like’. When it started succeeding the way it did, that was when one of the people from Addenbrooke’s hospital got hold of me and told me they thought they could save my life. Then I am lying in hospital, and they are bringing in gold discs! So, that was an absolute surprise to tell you the truth; you know, a real surprise. I was feeling so shattered at that time. You are lying there full of morphine, and told ‘oh the record’s doing well”, he chuckles. Wilko will be teaming up with Roger again to do something for his Teenage Cancer Trust charity this year. Maybe even busking in the street outside the RAH, he tells me.
So it’s that time in the interview; Wilko on his health, and how he defied medical experts. How are you now, I ask him? “I am absolutely fine, thank you very much. I’m on a daily regime of pills. They removed my pancreas, spleen and stuff, and my body doesn’t produce natural antibiotics to fight infection. I take four pills in the morning and five in the evening, and injections every day”.
“Waking up every morning thinking, ‘ahhh, I’m gonna die’, was actually one of the most fantastic years of my life”.
Has his outlook on life changed since he “cheated death”? “I have always been a miserable so and so and it is funny; that 15 months waking up every morning thinking, ‘ahhh, I’m gonna die,. was actually one of the most fantastic years of my life. I experienced so many highs. Playing gigs to audiences that knew, and feeling all that affection. It’s just great to play rock and roll, and you are in circumstances like that. You have no future, there is no future and so you are going on stage to play, you have got nothing to prove.
“You are not working, trying to build your reputation. This is it, man; there is no future and the past has gone, and you are just in that moment. That’s the way I was living, accepting it and keeping myself sane and thinking; look, in this moment I’m alive and what a marvellous state to be; alive. So, I am going through all these kind of highs, then there was quite an ordeal after the operation. It took a long time lying on the hospital bed, so weak. You are not feeling very many highs at all then.
“Then coming home and still having to carry on convalescing and building up my strength again. Gradually as my strength started returning, and I started coming back into everyday life, I realised; ‘Oh man, I know I’m getting better because the old misery’s coming back”. He laughs again. “I am sat here of an evening, thinking ‘Oh man, I’m miserable,’ and you are thinking, ‘the old guy’s still there’. I’m gonna have my misery always”.
Does he ever ask himself, why me, as to his survival? “No, no. To think you are someone special, and someone is pointing the finger at me, or someone looking down on me because my life was saved, it’s not like that. It’s certainly a very strange thing to go through. When I received the diagnosis, and they say you’ve got terminal cancer, I was completely calm, it didn’t freak me out. I just thought, ‘oh dear, right this is it’. And I resolved to accept it. I didn’t want to spend my time running around after miracle cures or second opinions, or anything like that. I thought, no man, they’ve told you, it has happened to you. The same as 12 years ago, it happened to my wife. I wish someone had been bloody looking down on her, because I wish she was with me, still. But no, she went, you know. It’s just what happens. It’s like saying; oh, someone must have been looking down on me because I was born, and then some years later saying; oh, someone’s cursing me because I‘m gonna die. It happens to us all.
“I think I was more sane (sic) during that year or so than I’ve ever been. Obviously, you have hours in the middle of the night where you think, ‘Oh my God, this is freaky’, and you are on your own and you think’ wow, here it comes’. But I think I am pretty damn-well balanced and sane, but as I got better, my insanity if you like, is returning. If anything could be done about my depression and things like that, I think it’s a little bit late. That’s the way I’ve grown and that’s the way it is. I do get the miseries in the middle of the night now, and they are pretty heavy sometimes. But I never ever felt that bloody bad while I was dying! I never ever for instance; in the night-time thinking about it, I was never in tears or feeling sorry for myself. Never felt anything like that. You can sit there thinking and the situation will freak you out; ‘this is a bit too much to cope with this’, but I never ever felt hard done by”.
“I should have been worm food long ago. It’s too much”.
Does he feel lucky? “Oh yeah, as I said earlier, when they gave me the diagnosis, I was completely calm. I didn’t break down, I was just ‘OK, alright. Wow.’ Now, having been snatched from the jaws of death, if you like, I find it harder now to……When I had the cancer, I felt all the time, ‘Yes; I know I am gonna die’, and I was just glad I wasn’t in crippling pain. I just accepted I was going to die. But if I think about my circumstance now and try and look back on that, I can’t take it in. To think I would be sitting here talking on the telephone, when I should have been worm food long ago. It’s too much”. Yes, he really said that!
Wilko did plan where he wanted to be laid to rest; next to his late wife in an eco-friendly plot he has bought in Essex. They use simple coffins and plant a tree next to each grave, which will eventually become a natural wood. “I know where I’ll end up, but I’ll leave it to them what kind of tree they plant. They can just throw me in or make speeches, and do what they like. But I would like, as they lower me down, to have Bob Dylan singing ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. All of these things in the end, are for the people who are left behind. If you can take your final bow and leave a good memory………I had this kind of romantic image of me disappearing, with just Mr Tambourine Man, as I disappeared from view….”
Well, he isn’t going anywhere just yet. His 70th birthday coming up in July, another milestone, along with the 30th anniversary of the Wilko Johnson Band. Wilko on guitar and vocals, Norman Watt Roy on bass and Dylan Howe on drums. Both Dylan and Norman used to play for the Blockheads with Ian Dury. Wilko too, in 1980 for one album and a tour.
So does the big ‘Seven Ohhh’ play on his mind? “Not at all. But it is very hard for me to grasp that I am here”.
“Keep It To Myself – The Best Of Wilko Johnson”, the double-CD set is out now on Chess/Universal.
By Simon Redley