Defying the Doctors | According to the medics, Wilko Johnson should be nowhere near Charlotte Square, having been given ten months to live back in 2013. The former cohort of Ian Dury and founder of Dr Feelgood tells of his life with and without cancer in his inspirational memoir Don’t You Leave Me Here. With Vic Galloway, he discusses a future that he never thought he’d get to experience.
“There was every reason to get passionate.”
“It’s the first book I’ve ever written,” says Wilko on adding ‘author’ to his endless CV. “Once I got into it, you think, “Yeah, I’m an author!”
Almost forensically, the pair detail Wilko’s childhood in Canvey Island, his hatred of his father and how he was often made to say things like ‘Battle of Hastings’ in front of the class to show what happens when you drop letters.
Then comes University, when he studied Old Icelandic literature. “I was the only bleeding one,” he laughs. The others were soft options – books people had already read. He already loved language and poetry, so thought he’d challenge himself, and it’s stuck with him: he says a few things in Icelandic, though we can’t really be sure what… They move onto their passionate uptake against war – they were reacting to Vietnam, fighting out on the streets – “There was every reason to get passionate.” 250,000 people would march on the streets of London. It felt like a revolution.
He travelled the world, got stoned a lot, tells hilarious tales of trying to send dope back home in an embroidered elephant and getting his friends busted by accident. Then we come to his wife Irene, who met “in a perfectly normal situation. She really was this exceptional person.” It’s hard, he says, to describe without gushing and sentimentality, but they were together for forty years before she passed away. She bought him his first proper guitar, a Fender telecaster that he really wanted, emptying her savings account, though not telling her dad.
“I know nothing about making records but I know what I like.”
Hearing music that came around then, he remembers, “Bloody hell. It just had so much power. I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
Dr Feelgood was originally for fun, “We were not playing what was the happening thing. Going against the grain.” Everyone was wearing frocks and singing about going to Mars. They weren’t. They played gigs and were asked to tone it down, so would play covers like ‘Heartbeat’. “Can you imagine Lee Brilleaux singing ‘Heartbeat’?”
“I knew from the minute I saw [Lee] he was a star,” he continues. “All that energy radiated from him. This is not a guy who was designed to sign ‘Heartbeat’.” One review from the early days said all they lacked were original songs in their cover set – their whole set had been original. “They were mistaking my stuff for the real deal.”
Then came a split of opinion and shift in technology. “I know nothing about making records,” says Wilko, “but I know what I like.” They had discovered multi-track recording, where you can overdub and drop new stuff in. “You end up with something completely bland and crappy. The records I like are all recorded at once. I didn’t want to do it like that. I ain’t gonna do any overdubbing.” Live albums often aren’t really live, but for him live needed to have bum notes and all. He stood his ground, the label let it slide because they thought it would fail – their next album went straight to number one on release.
When the band came to an end, he didn’t want to spend his time being bitter about it. He walked away and moved on. On top of the Wilko Johnson Band, he’s had some other oddities like starring in Game of Thrones. No big deal. “I’ve never seen Game of Thrones,” he laughs. He read the description for the role and thought it would be more Xena, he’d get a leather jacket. But when he found it what it was he thought, “Good. I don’t have to learn any lines. Basically I’ve got to give people dirty looks. I can do that.”
“I’m going to die. By the time I got home I was almost ecstatic.”
Which brings us to probably the most notable part of Wilko’s story: he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given ten months to live. It was incurable. When he heard the words, he was calm.
“Everybody must have imagined, ‘How would I react?’” he says. It’s hard to imagine. But when he was told the words ‘You’ve got cancer’, “I was absolutely calm. It was as if he was telling me something I knew all my life.” He left, and it was a beautiful winter’s day. He felt a rush – “Fuck, I’m alive. Everything was vibrating.”
He walked home thinking “I’m going to die. By the time I got home I was almost ecstatic. The whole universe changes. Everything changes. You start realising what’s important to you and what is not. It was one of the best years of my life. It started with a death sentence and ended up with a gold disc.”
He went on a farewell tour – an easy gig, he laughs – and at some point down the road, he met someone who said the fact he was still going so strongly didn’t seem right. He hooked him up with a specialist he knew and “He said he can save my life.”
An 11 hour operation, three and a quarter kilos of tumour removed, every cell of cancer was eradicated from his body. He’s very much alive, living a future he didn’t think he had, and living every second to the max. You didn’t need to be told Wilko Johnson is an incredible and hilarious guy, but hearing him talk about his thrill for life, and embracing death, will just fill you with absolute, unbridled joy. A fantastic, brilliant event.