Wilko Johnson: ‘I’ve been kind of parachuting back into the land of the living’

Wilko Johnson  Picture by Paul Windsor
Wilko Johnson Picture by Paul Windsor

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This is one of those conversations that shouldn’t be happening.

Put bluntly, according to the diagnosis he received in late 2012, Wilko Johnson should be dead by now.

The legendary guitarist, who, as the dynamo in pub rock pioneers Dr Feelgood paved the way for punk, was given a matter of months to live after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Wilko gave a series of interviews that brought him to the attention of many who’d never heard his music, earning him a new audience and widespread respect for the astonishing way in which he was facing up to his apparent death. Grown men wept at gigs on what was, understandably, billed as his farewell tour.

But he vowed to keep playing live as long as his condition didn’t compromise his performance. Back in 2013 he spoke with The Guide shortly before playing Wickham Festival, which was widely expected to be among his last ever gigs.

However, surgeons were able to completely remove the 7lb 11oz tumour earlier this year and now Wilko is returning to Wickham next week to headline the Thursday night.

Wilko Johnson . Picture by Paul Windsor

Wilko Johnson . Picture by Paul Windsor

‘That whole year was very, very strange in many ways,’ he now says.

‘I had this terminal cancer and this tumour was growing bigger and bigger, my stomach was swelling out and I had to buy new clothes to accommodate it.

‘Apart from that I didn’t feel ill. You normally imagine cancer wasting you away – my wife died of cancer 10 years ago, and I watched it happen, it’s a terrible thing – but apart from the swelling stomach I felt fit.

‘I was going on stage and my guitar would actually be rocking on this tumour. It was huge. It wasn’t painful, you could press it and everything.’

I’m like everyone else again. Death is something for the indefinite future. It’s not in my face

Wilko Johnson

Living on what he thought was borrowed time, Wilko recorded an album, Going Back Home, with The Who frontman Roger Daltrey. It hit number three in the charts – giving both men their biggest hit in decades.

‘When we were doing it, it was my first bit of extra time. I had had my 10 months they had given me and we were doing it in November, that was so strange.

‘By that time, I was thinking: “It’s coming now, this will probably be the last thing I ever do”.

‘It was kind of a dream – I can’t complain, I’ve had a pretty good life, and this is a pretty good way to end it up.

‘The album got released and it started doing well – right at that moment, that was when I came to the attention of the surgeons at Addenbrooke’s Hospital.’

When Wilko appeared to be defying expectations, a music photographer friend of his, who also happens to be ‘a cancer doctor on the side’, asked the guitarist to see his friend at the Cambridge hospital, consultant Emmanuel Huguet.

‘The way I handled that whole year was that when I got that diagnosis I accepted it, I believed it, and I thought I’m going to make the most of the time I’ve got left, I’m not going to waste time looking for miracle cures. I ruled that out.

‘And there I was sitting across the desk from Mr Huguet, drawing diagrams and explaining what he thought he and his team could do.

‘I’m sitting there nodding intelligently, but I’m not hearing any of it, I’m thinking, is this guy telling me he can cure me?

‘About three or four days after the operation, my brother was visiting me and Mr Huguet came in with the pathology results, and said they got it all.

‘We just started applauding. This guy’s some hero.’

From there Johnson’s been on the road to recovery, and getting back to gigging after the longest break from the stage in his adult life.

‘I was quite a long time recovering. I was very weak and everything. We did our first gig – it was a benefit gig for Addenbrooke’s and when we did that gig I hadn’t played for a whole year, I had been in the hospital and at home recuperating.

‘I was wondering if I could still remember how to do it, – if I would have the stamina to get through a whole performance. We had kind of rehearsed and did a rough play through a set, and I thought I could do it.’

He laughs at the memory: ‘I forgot about all the running about and the hot lights and that. After we had done three or four gigs, though, I began to get back in gear and it was chugging along.

‘I have to say I’m nearly back. Since coming out of hospital I’ve been kind of parachuting back into the land of the living. Psychologically there are still things, like I’ve spent this whole year thinking you’ve just got weeks in front of you.

‘I can’t quite get used to the idea that life goes on a bit longer, at least for now. I’m like everyone else again, death is something for the indefinite future. It’s not actually in my face.’

The year gave Wilko a new perspective on life: ‘You start understanding what really matters. All those things you get hung up about, you realise they’re just trivia. It sounds corny, but what a privilege, what a wonderful thing it is to be alive, and I’m kind of living on that.

‘You’ve got no future so you’ve got nothing to worry about there. You don’t need to worry about the past because if you’ve got any regrets, you’ve got no time to make amends. All you can do is live in the moment.’

But now he’s got his life back, he’s not getting fatalistic: ‘The kind of insights you get when you’re really faced with death, you can only experience that if you really face death. You can’t pretend to be faced by death. Sometime I used to think, it’s almost worth it, to get a glimpse into what’s true.

‘Almost.’

*Wilko plays at Wickham Festival on Thursday. The event runs from Thursday to Sunday. Tickets for Thursday are £35, £50 for all other days, under-16s half price, under-10s free. Go to wickhamfestival.co.uk