Tuesday, 22 January 2013
Wilko Johnson Interview from The Times
Wilko interview in full from today's edition of The Times.
‘The doctor said, “You’ve got cancer”. I was absolutely calm. And then later I began to feel almost euphoric’
In the febrile world of showbusiness, farewell tours are common enough. They are undertaken by artists of a certain age planning to spend more time with their grandchildren, the golf course, or perhaps the contents of their wine cellar. Sometimes the warm rush of approbation, and consequent ticket sales, are so impressive that the performer will become mildly addicted. Kiss, the Eagles and Streisand have all been accused of never quite being able to say goodbye.
But there is nothing optional about the farewell gigs soon to be undertaken by Wilko Johnson, one of Britain’s greatest rhythm and blues guitarists, whose former group, Dr Feelgood, were, for a heady year or so in the mid-1970s, just about the biggest band in the land.
Johnson, 65, has terminal cancer of the pancreas and last week announced that he would not be undergoing chemotherapy. Tickets for four last shows in March to say thank you to the fans went on sale yesterday — three of which have already sold out and an extra London date has been added.
In the rock’n’roll business this is surely the first time that an artist has signalled so starkly that there can be no encores.
And yet the tall, thin gent in black T-shirt and jeans splayed on an armchair in his yellow, crenellated house in a suburb of Southend, Essex, has none of the air of a condemned man. He laughs: “Apart from a touch of cancer, I’m fine. Physically, none of the symptoms have started yet. The specialist told me I may have four or five months before they kick in.
“I had the analysis just before Christmas, and I don’t know if the guy was an expert in telling people bad news but he said those words, ‘You’ve got cancer,’ and I was absolutely calm.
I didn’t freak out at all. I mean, I’ve always been a miserable bugger but I felt OK and then later I began to feel almost euphoric, and the strange thing is that the feeling hasn’t worn off. I realise that all the things that I usually worry about don’t matter.” He says he has refused chemotherapy because, at most, it would offer only another three poor-quality months of life — “and that didn’t seem like a good deal”.
On the coffee table in front of us, next to the chess set and the Russian dolls, is a pile of letters from Japanese fans, where news of the illness emerged during recent dates. “It’s funny, I never realised I had touched people so personally. They’re very moving, the ones in broken English are the most heartbreaking.
“We’d finish the gigs with me singing Bye Bye Johnny and I was waving at the fans and they were waving and it should have been sad, but it was great.” He laughs: “Terminal cancer is in many ways a good thing for a show-off.”
It’s an illness, though, that has stalked his adult life: carrying off the lead singer of the Feelgoods, Lee Brilleaux; his chum and bandmate Ian Dury; and, eight years ago, his beloved wife Irene, whom he says he still thinks of every day. “Oh God, that was terrible. We’d been together for 40 years. She was so brave, she never once complained.”
But Johnson insists it’s been a good life. Growing up on Canvey Island in Essex, an odd blend of East End holiday resort and oil refinery grime, he found fame playing choppy lead and rhythm chords with Dr Feelgood. They wore thin-lapelled suits and played a lean, spare rhythm and blues that had a raw excitement that made the loon-panted denizens of prog rock suddenly look very old-fashioned indeed.
Future members of the Sex Pistols, the Jam and Madness all came and mentally took notes. In New York, Blondie wore out the grooves on an import copy of Down By the Jetty (click here to listen to the full album), the Feelgoods’ debut album.
And regularly stealing the show was the frenzied, bug-eyed Johnson and his red and black Fender Telecaster with tunes that transposed Chicago blues to the south Essex badlands.
Soon they were the band of the moment: at a residency at the Kensington pub in West London (he hates the term “pub rock”) a pre-Charles Lady Di and the author John Mortimer were regulars, though he remembers neither. When the Feelgood’s live album, Stupidity (click here to listen to full album), went to No 1 in the UK and they began to tour the States, a Stones-like future of stadium glory briefly seemed to beckon. But Johnson, sole songwriter, rowed violently with the other three (“I could be a moody so and so”). He says he was thrown out; the band put it about that he quit voluntarily.
“I’ve played ever since — either with my own band or with Ian Dury. I mean, what else could I do? But the career was always an accident, we were a little local band, we just happened to be very good.
“Originally I wanted to be a poet. In fact The Spectator published one of my old poems, from 1968, the other day — Get Your Kicks on the B1014 — I was delighted. So not only am I a published poet but I was talking to my son, who lives in the Philippines, and on the news there they described me as Game of Thrones actor Wilko Johnson. So I can add actor to my tally. I played an executioner in one or two shows — I had to look daggers at people then cut their heads off. And it was great because I was mute, so didn’t have to learn lines ... So actor, poet, musician. Not bad.”
There’s an erudite range of domestic interests too. On the flat roof of the house is a dome enclosing a large telescope. Johnson spends hours up there, gazing at the heavens and hopes to see the rings of Saturn “one last time this year”. He studied English at Newcastle University and took a course in old Icelandic and is one of the few English people who can read the ancient sagas in the original. He loves Shakespeare and Marlowe and can — rare for an electric guitarist — quote speeches from Tamburlaine. Julien Temple, who made a film about him and the Feelgoods in 2009 called Oil City Confidential, has called him one of the great English eccentrics.
But Johnson is stoical about leaving all this behind. And as an atheist he is certainly not expecting life ever after. “If you asked me how I feel about knowing it’s over, I would say that sometimes I’ve been feeling truly happy for the first time in my life.
“When we were in Japan we went to this temple in Kyoto and the scene with the mountains behind was sublime.
A light snow was falling and the scene was utterly beautiful. Normally I’d be trying to take this in as a memory. But I thought there’s no point, so I was just in that moment completely and I felt fantastic.”
It’s time to go and, as the photographer and I leave, we notice the graffiti that Johnson has scrawled on the inside of his garden wall — “Viva”, an anarchist symbol, then “Venceremos”.
“Yes, that’s my bourgeois rebellion,” laughs Johnson, “only I can see it ... Yeah, Venceremos, we will overcome. Well, maybe not this time.”
Wilko Johnson performs four farewell concerts: London Koko (March 6 and 10 (extra date), Bilston Robin 2 (March 7), Holmfirth Picturedrome (March 8), Glasgow O2 ABC (March 9). More gigs may be added if his health permits. Tickets: 0844 4780898, thegigcartel.com.