Wilko Johnson: ‘My condition makes being alive all that more intense’

Wilko Johnson Picture: Anthony Stanley/WENN
Wilko Johnson Picture: Anthony Stanley/WENN
Oliver! by Petersfield School in rehearsal before showing at The New Theatre Royal

Petersfield School is asking: 'Please sir can we have some more?' as it puts on Oliver! at The New Theatre Royal

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FOR a man told seven months ago he had only six months to live, Wilko Johnson sounds in good spirits.

As interviews go though, it’s not the most auspicious of starts – I call him at his Southend home at 11.30am sharp – I was told he doesn’t like being held up, and introduce myself to silence on the other end of the line.

But thankfully the former Dr Feelgood guitarist is in accomodating mood.

With a chuckle, he says: ‘My management tell me things I’m supposed to be doing and I just nod my head and only find out afterwards what it was I was agreeing to.’

Considering the subject matter of what follows, it’s perhaps surprising just how often his big, gurgling laugh punctuates the chat.

At the start of the year, the 66-year-old announced he had terminal pancreatic cancer, and that he wasn’t going to have chemotherapy in a bid to prolong his life at the expense of the quality. At the same time he announced his farewell tour – a tour that took in Southsea’s Wedgewood Rooms in February.

After that finished, he was expected to step back from the limelight and take it easy.

But he has since started playing a few festival dates.

Wouldn’t he rather just enjoy his ‘retirement’?

‘At the time, I was of the same opinion myself,’ he explains. ‘But, I mean, I wasn’t taking it for granted that I would get to the end of that tour.

‘Although this retirement has only been a few months, I thought to myself how do I describe myself when people ask what I do? I’m a musician.

‘I realised I had gone two, three months without playing a gig, and it was starting to unhinge me.

‘So when summer came rolling around, then the festivals start coming and there was an opportunity to play.

‘If my health does go when it comes around, it won’t stop the show.

‘It’s like a guy walking along whistling blithely away, not realising that he’s about to smack into a lamppost, you know?

‘The band is good, the music is good – we’re not trotting it out.’

In the mid-1970s Johnson attained a modicum of success as the guitarist with Dr Feelgood, a band now considered among the forefathers of punk with their raw take on rock’n’roll.

Johnson cut a distinctive figure with his choppy riffs and skittering movements as he would jerk back and forth across the stage.

However, he left the group in 1977 after falling out with his bandmates.

In the following years he joined Ian Dury and the Blockheads for a spell before cutting numerous albums and having cult success with his own trio, the Wilko Johnson Band, which also features Blockheads’s mainstay, bassist Norman Watt-Roy, and drummer Dylan Howe.

The day after we speak Johnson is due to fly out to Japan to play Fuji Rocks, the country’s equivalent of the Glastonbury Festival: ‘The Japanese were really keen for me to do it when I played my farewell shows there back in the spring and I said it was out of the question, but here it comes and I’m still on my feet.’

And after that he’s been a late addition to the Wickham Festival line-up, before some other festival dates.

He says: ‘Gigs will come up and they’ll say: “Can you do it?” And I’ll say yes, but it’s always with the proviso: “If I’m fit’’.

‘I will carry on as long as I’m fit. I don’t want to go onstage unwell, I don’t think people want to see that.

‘I’m moving into unknown territory here. The doctors told me I could expect a few months of feeling OK, but we have had that few months and so...’ The laugh is frankly, unsettling.

‘It is a bit freaky. Every time you wake up and you feel a bit queasy, and it’s “Oh no, it’s started’’. I feel privileged though, I feel quite apart from the world.

‘This year I’ve done a lot of things and you just experience things in a totally different way and sometimes you get so intense. It’s almost worth dying to have a year in this condition.

‘It makes being alive all that much more intense.

‘That’s the good side, the other side is...’ he tails off.

Perking up again, he says: ‘It’s all sorted for me, I know how it’s going to end, which most people don’t, and I feel all kind of cool with that.

‘You do a lot of thinking, someone can never describe it to you, knowing about the imminence of death.’

For Wilko, the timing of the cancer was doubly cruel. He’d been enjoying something of a surge in popularity in recent years and getting the kind of recognition many in musical circles felt he’d long been due. A critically acclaimed documentary on Dr Feelgood, Oil City Confidential, was released in 2009. With his charismatic demeanour and unusual style, Wilko emerged from the film as the star.

He says: ‘There were a few things coming along that had pushed us up the slippery slope of public consciousness

‘The Oil City Film really reminded a lot of people about us and introduced us to a lot of people as well, so we’ve been getting two or three generations, many of them who’ve never experienced us.’

While we’re talking, Wilko suddenly becomes distracted – it turns out his 21-month-old grandson Dylan is playing around his feet.

‘There’s been dark moments,’ he admits, ‘but right now I’m fit and looking out into the garden, the sun is shining, I’ve got my grandson here – it’s really groovy.

‘I didn’t even know if I would be sitting here a few months ago and contemplating all of this with this new awareness.

‘Feel it now, you aren’t going to feel it when you’re gone.’

The Wilko Johnson Band is playing on Sunday at Wickham Festival.

Tickets are available at wickhamfestival.co.uk or with cash from Wickham Wine Bar, at The Square, Wickham.