Wilko Johnson talks about guitars and death
Wilko Johnson, cult guitarist from 1970s beat band Dr Feelgood and herald of English punk rock, is on a high – even though he is dying of pancreatic cancer.
The musician, songwriter and sometime actor has watched with amazement as a planned tour of farewell concerts sold out and interest has surged in almost anything he has touched, including the 2009 award-winning documentary “Oil City Confidential.”
One British newspaper has even affectionately dubbed him the country’s latest “national treasure”.
“Why didn’t we think of this 20 years ago?” Johnson said , at home a few miles from his Canvey Island birthplace, near where the Thames estuary opens into the English Channel.
It is the kind of joke, accompanied by a devilish laugh, that makes death far easier to talk about than expected. Johnson, 65, will happily tell you that learning last month that the end of his life is probably less than a year away has not all been negative, with an almost “euphoric” feeling keeping some of his darker traits seem totally in check.
“It makes you feel so alive,” he said. “Just walking down the street, man, everything looks really intense. Any little thing you look at, it almost gives you a kind of childlike consciousness. I’m a miserable so-and-so. I suffer from depression and everything … but all that stuff whatever it was I used to worry about – it doesn’t matter.
“What’s gone, what is and what will be, do not matter.”
What he fears is not death but getting sick. The concerts lined up for February and March depend on his health. “I’m not going on stage sick. I’m not going to have someone pushing me around in a wheelchair.
They’d have to push fast,” said Johnson, whose stage presence is frenetic.
Johnson’s initial heyday was in the early 1970s when Dr Feelgood was bashing out driving R&B rock in pubs and clubs while others such as Pink Floyd and David Bowie grabbed the headlines with prog and glitter.
It was a precursor of the punk music that would soon sweep across Britain’s music scene. The producer of “Oil City Confidential”, Stephen Malit, described the band as John the Baptists to The Sex Pistol’s anti-Christ.
With a distinctly geeky pudding-bowl haircut and a manic stare, Johnson became renowned for strutting like a musical automaton in front of lead singer Lee Brilleaux, who died in 1994, also of cancer.
Johnson’s guitar style added to the aura. A left-hander who plays right-handed, he employs an unusual picking and strumming style that allows him to master a staccato lead and rhythm at the same time.
“When I was a schoolboy and I started learning to play, I learnt left-handed. Well, I was rubbish. Everybody at school played better than me,” he said. He solved the problem by switching to right-hand guitar and learning all over again. The result can be mesmerising.
“It is done with choppy chords and chopping off chords short and in doing so you can make percussive patterns with it,” he said.
Johnson, who is almost always just called Wilko (his name at birth was John Wilkinson), moved on from Dr Feelgood to spend some time with the Ian Dury & The Blockheads and form the Wilko Johnson Band which released its last album in 2005.His eccentricity pretty much stole the limelight in “Oil City Confidential”, a documentary about Dr Feelgood and the petrochemical hub that is Canvey Island.
It turned out not to be his only foray into film. Sometime after – and as a result of his manic performance in “Oil City”, he believes – he was cast in television’s “Game of Thrones”, playing executioner Ser Ilyn Payne who had his tongue ripped out. “Basically, all I had to do was go around giving people menacing looks. I can do that,” he said.
But it is the music for which Johnson will be remembered with his passion passed on to his son, Simon, who plays guitar in a band called Eight Rounds Rapid.
“Nothing like me,” Johnson said. “He taught himself. Well, you don’t listen to your dad, do you?”
Overall, he is cool about what is happening to him. “So far, so good. Happy,” he said.
This is an edited version of a story I wrote for my regular employer Reuters.