Interview: Wilko Johnson
If there’s ever a man who brings a definition to the phrase “a new lease on life”, Wilko Johnson is that man. After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few years ago, the ex-Dr. Feelgood guitarist was given just ten months to live. Then, after embarking upon an emotional farewell tour and recording an album with Roger Daltrey, the miraculous happened. His friend, cancer specialist Charlie Chan, persuaded him to seek a second opinion, and following a radical 11-hour operation, a tumour the size of a baby was removed. The 69-year old is now cancer free and continuing to do what he loves best: playing loud, gutsy rock and roll to his fans. Tom Green-Fuller heard the story straight from the horse’s mouth as he caught up with the Wilko ahead of his UK tour.
Hi Wilko! How are you?
I’m really good, man. I’ll be honest, I’ve only just this minute heard about this interview but I’ll try my best!
That’ll do fine. So, you’re back on tour again. How does it feel?
I don’t really know [laughs]. I suppose I’ve just been doing it so long that it’s become one of those things. I think gigging’s good for you, really. You know, there are some days when you’ve not got a gig and it’s like “what a beautiful day, man, let’s go and enjoy the sunshine!” but you just think “nah”. With gigs, you’ve got a commitment to get out there and do something you really enjoy. I like it.
You mentioned not so long ago that the last tour with Roger Daltrey may be the last thing you ever do, so how have you approached this one differently in light of everything?
Well, the thing is, the last couple of years have just been so weird! It was quite an experience going from playing little clubs to making this album with Roger. The other thing is, I had so many things on my mind at the time, and I honestly thought this was the last thing I’d ever do; I didn’t even expect to live to see it released. Then all of a sudden, the doctors from Addenbrooke’s Hospital told me that they could save my life, and they did! I’m just happy to be alive, and the only real fresh perspective I’ve got now is that everything after that is a bonus. I’ve found myself really enjoying the fresh air, saying hello to my neighbours, all of that stuff. I just do what I have to do and I enjoy it. Bring it on, man.
Speaking of the album with Roger, how did that come about?
Well, about four or five years ago (before I got ill), I was chatting to Roger at this awards ceremony and he suggested making an album together. We had several attempts at making it, but Roger’s a busy man and he was always whizzing off to America and whatnot, so it was sort of left on the burner. Then as soon as Roger heard I’d been diagnosed with cancer, he called me and said, “We’ve got to do this record now!” He came straight back into the country and we made it in eight days! It’s the quickest album I’ve ever made, I’ll tell you that.
And how does it feel to be able to hear the release now?
Over the moon, man. You see, my outlook was always basically: “I’m gonna die. I’m not gonna waste time on miracle cures, but I’ll just make the most of what I’ve got” – and that’s what I did. I then ran into Charlie Chan, who at some point who basically directed me to the doctors at Addenbrooke’s, and when they cured me … wow! … I could’ve fallen to my knees and kissed the feet of every one of them. I’m so grateful for what they’ve done and the new life they’ve given me.
Has this inspired any new songs for the tour?
[Laughs] You must know me by now after all these years! I’m a one-trick pony man! I just love doing my thing, and fortunately people like it when I do my thing. I’m just happy to be performing, I just want to get on stage and scream “I’m alive now!”
On the subject of people liking it when you do your thing, how did you feel about the new direction guitar music took in the ’70s after more people heard the punk-style Dr Feelgood sound?
It was a strange thing, but it was a really nice feeling. I suppose that sort of thing happens to a lot of people, and it must’ve happened with me too. You just hear a sound that really knocks you out, and if you’re a musician, you think “I want to do that!” Then you try, you get it wrong, and then all of a sudden, bam! You’ve got your own style. It was so obvious to me that all these punks had seen Dr Feelgood, and it was great that they just developed it into something brand new and exciting, something that was their own. Yeah, it’s a great thing to see and hear.
So you’ve now stepped up to the microphone on tour. Considering you’ve spent most of your career duck-walking up and down the stage, do you find it tricky to stay still and singing in one spot?
No, not really. Obviously, I sing my bits, and then I’ve got bits where I’m just playing guitar, and I can run up and down and all over the place (that’s obviously my favourite bit). I just do what I’ve always done. My purpose in playing is to generate excitement, and that’s all rock ‘n’ roll is really – making something exciting.
Just one more question for our readers who might have spotted you in Game of Thrones. Any plans to lop off any more heads as Ilyn Payne?
I really hope so. One minute I’m really getting into acting and enjoying it, next thing – Bloody cancer! Obviously, the producers couldn’t really keep me on if they thought I might suddenly drop dead in the middle of filming, but they were always visiting me and sending me flowers in hospital, which was really great of them. But yeah, I really hope to get back to acting at some point as I loved every minute of it.
Wilko Johnson comes to Sheffield City Hall on the October 7th. Get tickets and more info at www.sheffieldcityhall.co.uk.
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