Wilko Johnson interview: "there’s nothing like being told you’re dying to make you feel alive."

Reporter:

Jamie Bowman

BY rights, this is an interview that never should have happened.

Diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer in 2013, Wilko Johnson was given just 10 months to live.

But four years later, the unmistakable Essex accent on the other end of the phone confirms Johnson is not only alive and kicking but seemingly cured of the disease that threatened to bring down the curtain on over 40 years of rhythm and blues.

“I’m feeling very well at the moment, thank you very much,” says Johnson, when I ask just how he is after such a close shave with the grim reaper.

“It was a strange year last year – but it was actually one of the most fantastic years of my life. Looking back on it now, it seems like a dream.”

Johnson first established himself as a strutting no-nonsense style guitar hero during his time with Canvey Island pub rockers Dr Feelgood.

All through the ’80s, ’90s and into the new millennium, he continued to gig in the UK, Europe and Japan.

But it was when director Julien Temple’s award-winning Oil City Confidential came out in 2009, with Wilko emerging as the film’s star, that the world again sat up and paid attention to his extraordinary talent.

From here on Wilko’s journey became even more fascinating, from taking a significant acting role in the world wide TV phenomenon Game Of  Thrones – playing the silent assassin Ser llyn Payne – up to his tragic diagnosis with terminal cancer.

“Living with this idea that your life was at an end and you were going to die soon  was surreal,” says the 69-year-old. “You wake up in the morning and that’s the first thing you think of.”

Knowing he seemingly didn’t have long to live, Johnson embarked on a breakneck period of activity with an apparent final tour of the UK seeing fans flock to say goodbye to their hero. 

He also starred in a second bio pic from Temple as well as recording the hit album Going Back Home with The Who’s Roger Daltrey.

“It was freaky,” says Johnson. “I was making an album with Roger when I didn’t think I was going to live to see it released.

“The hospital had given me 10 months to live and it was released in the 11th and then it was very successful.

“I was lying in my back in hospital and people were bringing in gold discs!”

Crowning this strange period was the moment Johnson’s diagnosis stopped being terminal.

“I’d met this character at the Cornbury Festival where he was taking photographs,” he explains.

“It turned out he was a cancer surgeon and we went our separate ways. But later in the year he came to my house and told me there was something strange about my cancer.

“I was experiencing acute swelling on my stomach but he said that if I had pancreatic cancer, I should be dead, or at least not very well – when, apart from this huge lump I was carrying around, I was pretty much fit.

“He told me to see this friend of his in a hospital in Cambridge. I was told the cancer was inoperable and I’d sort of accepted that, but then there was this guy telling me they could do it.

“It was going to be a huge operation and groundbreaking because it would have a lot of procedures they hadn’t done before – and somehow they succeeded.

“Waking up from the anaesthetic was incredible. I was on my back in hospital and it really knocked it out of me. But I got to go home and convalesce and gradually I came back.”

In actual fact, doctors had removed Johnson’s pancreas, spleen, part of his stomach, small and large intestines and worked on the removal and reconstruction of blood vessels relating to his liver. 

An 11-hour operation removed a tumour weighing three kilos. “That's the size of a baby,” laughs Johnson.

As part of a busy summer of festival appearances, Johnson and long time collaborator Norman Watt-Roy will perform a headline set at Llangollen Pavilion in July as part of the 20th anniversary edition of the Llangollen Fringe Festival.  

“Things had been on the up and up for us for the last four or five years and the cancer thing came at the wrong time,” he says.

“I love it on the road and I think I’m better off just getting out there and  doing it – that’s when I’m actually happy because I’m generally a miserable so-and-so.”

There’s a new album too and a special gig at the Royal Albert Hall to celebrate his 70th birthday.

“We’ve just started the new album, but we’re doing festivals all summer so we’ll go into the studio after that,” he adds.

“What is it like? The usual one-two-three-four and something about how you’ve done me wrong!

“When I first got the cancer diagnosis I was writing songs and I was looking back at my notebooks and it’s all this miserable stuff. It’s all darkness and arghhhhhh –but we don’t want any of that now.

“Man, there’s nothing like being told you’re dying to make you feel alive.”

 

Wilko Johnson plays the Llangollen Fringe Festival on Wednesday, July 19. Tickets are on sale now at www.llangollenfringe.co.uk or by calling 0800 1455 779.

See full story in the Free Press

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