We interview R&B legend Wilko Johnson after he announces new tour for 2017 and a date in York at The Barbican on Saturday 22 April.
By John Hayhurst
‘I’m supposed to be dead!’ So said Wilko in a recent interview, having been diagnosed in late 2012 with terminal pancreatic cancer. But despite the doctors’ worst predictions he continued to perform and present himself with vigour and a new zest for life. In 2013, Wilko announced that, thanks to a second opinion and subsequent life-saving surgery, he was cancer-free.
“Man, there’s nothing like being told you’re dying to make you feel alive.”
Wilko was lured into music by the dark magic spun by his first Telecaster, bought from a music store in Southend, Essex, soon after becoming the strutting, grimacing, six-string rhythmic powerhouse behind Lee Brilleaux in Dr Feelgood. Throughout the mid-70s, Wilko duck-walked his way across countless stages and venues in the UK with Dr Feelgood in the vanguard of the pub rock movement, performing the gutsy down-to-earth rock and roll that was a welcome antidote to prog-rock.
With this economic sound, coupled with that black-suited, scowling look, and the yards he covered across the stage pausing only to twist the guitar lead out from under his feet, Wilko became one of the guitar heroes of the era. His influence was felt in bands up and down the country, and later in the emergent punk revolution (Joe Strummer of the Clash bought a Tele after seeing Wilko play).
Dr Feelgood had four successful albums in Wilko’s time, then followed a busy creative period playing in an early incarnation of the Wilko Johnson Band, the Solid Senders, before he joined Ian Dury’s band The Blockheads, in 1980. All through the ’80s, ’90s and into the new millennium he continued to gig in the UK, Europe and Japan.
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.
2014 saw the release of the hit album ‘Going Back Home’, Wilko Johnson’s collaboration with Roger Daltrey which went to Number 3 in the UK album charts.
In 2015, Wilko and Julien Temple teamed up 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, and earning a ‘Kermode’ award in 2016.
After the initial prognosis of a few months to live, the last minute operation saving your life and now receiving the ‘all clear’, how are you feeling today?
“I’m feeling absolutely fine now physically, I go for scans every 6 months and it’s all been ok. So, as I say – in myself I’m fine, I’m really really good”.
It must feel like you’ve been given a second chance at life?
“Yeah, it’s actually difficult to think about it now, because when they gave me the diagnosis and the Doctor told me you’ve got cancer, there’s no cure and you’re going to die, it didn’t freak me out at all. I was absolutely calm and I accepted it, I didn’t struggle against it, I didn’t go out looking for miracle cures or anything, I understood it and just accepted that was it, and I spent that year expecting that at some point I was going to die.
Then I spent a long time in hospital through that huge operation and immediately afterwards trying to recover my strength, and through all that time you eventually start to realise you’re actually coming back into the world again. Now if I try to think back, here I am you know, sitting here in my room looking out at the trees and whatnot, and thinking I should have been dead by now, it’s really hard. That year every day I woke up in the morning and the first thing in your mind was thinking I was going to die, and I just can’t imagine that now, if I try to understand what a miracle this is, I never expected to see this, I can’t, it’s just too much and I just have to carry on as I am.”
Presume you’ve now been able to make some future plans, whereas before it must have felt like every day is a bonus?
“Well this tumour was growing and my stomach was swelling out, but I was on my feet and fit to do things, and I thought well, I’ve been given 10 months and I just want to have a good time, I’ve money in the bank so I thought I’d just go visit places, play some gigs, and then a lot of mad things happened.
Now, I’m no different really, I don’t know about future plans, I just like to play gigs that’s the best thing for me, that’s the plan, when is it going to stop I don’t know. As long as I’m fit I’ll keep going.”
Has it given you a further creative spark to write new music?
“Yeah we are talking to Universal records about doing another album, which hopefully will start happening quite soon. When I’m on the road that’s when the music really starts to happen, so I’m looking forward to doing that.”
I believe you’ve got a “Best Of” record coming out soon too, did you select the tracks or was it more a record company thing?
“I don’t know – its chaos really, I think there’s a cock up with album sleeves at the moment, and we were away gigging in Finland when all this happened, I’m sure it will all be sorted out. How this all came about – I don’t quite remember, I must have suggested it at some point in the past, but it will be a selection from all my songs from the Dr Feelgood days through to the newer stuff with the band”
How did the recent collaboration with Roger Daltrey from The Who come about?
“Roger heard I’d got terminal cancer and he got in touch and said let’s do the album, we had talked about it years before but hadn’t done anything about it. I said well we better do it quick, so they booked in 8 days at the studio and this was November which was the 11th month, so I was supposed to be dead. So I’m going in to the studio thinking well if I’m gonna die this is probably the last thing I’ll ever do, but you can imagine this was like a fantastic feeling, one minute I’m thinking I’m going to die – but what a way to sign off, doing an album with Roger Daltrey. We thought the album would just be a kind of good time bash, but as we were doing it the producer started to tell us how good it was sounding. Then when it was released it went straight in at the top of the charts and all that, it was one of the best selling albums of that year. I was lying in hospital when all that stuff was happening, people kept bringing silver discs in, and I’m like oh yeah, right..nice one.”
So would you do any other collaborations now?, Paul Weller has always said you were a big influence, would he be a good person to work with?
“These things always happen spontaneously, the thing with Roger happened because of the circumstances around my terminal cancer. I wouldn’t rule it out, it depends what happens, but the circumstances have to be right.”
What can we expect from the gig at The Barbican in York in April?
“You can expect to see me and Norman Watt Roy and Dylan Howe on stage, exactly that, the same thing as usual – playing our rhythm and blues tunes. We’ve played York before a few times but usually in the smaller clubs like Fibbers and the Duchess. The last 3 years have been a bit mad you know, one minute your gonna die and the next I’m playing bigger venues everywhere and selling records.”
You’ve got a big birthday coming up soon (70) how are you going to celebrate that?
“That’s the other mad thing, you can call it 70, or I could call it plus 3. No, I’m not doing a big celebration, I know some people can’t resist that sort of thing can they, but I won’t be moved to do much, I don’t know – maybe we’ll just go out for a Chinese.”
You’ve booked a date at the Royal Albert Hall in September too, that’s a bit special – any surprises planned for that?
“That’s a one off isn’t it, unbelievable that I’m making it to 70 and playing the Albert Hall. We are still planning it all, would be nice to have a few friends drop by, but it’s all early days yet.”
Anymore acting requests following your Game of Thrones role?
“When the producers found that I had cancer, I couldn’t go on to the next series. The character didn’t actually get killed off, and the producers did send me greetings and flowers when I was in hospital, so I thought I might have been in the last one, but that didn’t happen, which is a shame as I enjoyed it. It’s the only time I’ve ever done that and of course my character had his tongue cut out, so I didn’t have any lines to say which was good. I don’t think there will be any more opportunities in the near future.”
Looking back to when you started who were your influences, and what advice would you give to new bands starting out?
“The thing to do is – do what you enjoy the most, that’s how you find your way, don’t try to play something that you think you should be playing or other people tell you to play. Play what you enjoy and develop that sound, that’s how everyone starts. For me Mick Green was my main influence, he played guitar in Johnny Kidd and The Pirates, and when I was learning to play I just wanted to play exactly like him. I tried but I couldn’t exactly do it, so I adapted my own style from it, and it all went on from there.”
Wilko Johnson plays at York Barbican on Saturday 22 April 2017.