Wilko Johnson, an English singer, songwriter and guitarist, chats with Kevin Cooper about his cancer diagnosis, his time with Dr. Feelgood, his friendship with Norman Watt-Roy and his forthcoming tour of the UK
Wilko Johnson is an English singer, guitarist, songwriter and actor, particularly associated with the band Dr. Feelgood in the 70s. Johnson and Dr. Feelgood have been credited as one of the founding influences of the English punk movement.
After graduating from the University of Newcastle, he played in a band called the Pigboy Charlie Band, which evolved into Dr. Feelgood, a mainstay of the 70s pub rock movement
Johnson developed his own image, coupling jerky movements on stage (his so-called duck walk) with a choppy guitar style, occasionally raising his guitar to his shoulder like a gun. His style formed the essential driving force behind Dr. Feelgood during their initial years, including the band’s first four albums, Down By The Jetty, Malpractice, Stupidity and Sneakin’ Suspicion, all released between 1975 and 1977.
He left the band in April 1977, following disagreements over the tracks to be included in the Sneakin’ Suspicion album. Johnson maintains that he was kicked out of the band, while the remaining band members claimed that he had left voluntarily.
In 1980, Johnson joined Ian Dury’s band, The Blockheads. He then re-formed The Wilko Johnson Band, joined by Blockhead bassist Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Salvatore Ramundo.
Johnson stated in early 2013 that he had terminal cancer, and announced he was going on a farewell tour. On 22 March 2013, he played what was announced as his final show guesting with Madness on the television programme Madness Live: Goodbye Television Centre which was broadcast on BBC Four. Afterwards he stated that he would not be able to perform his two final homecoming shows at Canvey Island due to ill health and would not be performing again. He was due to spend his final days recording a farewell album with the Who’s lead singer Roger Daltrey. The album, Going Back Home, was released in March 2014.
On 30 April 2014, it was announced that Johnson had undergone radical surgery to treat his illness, and the doctors were hopeful that his prognosis would be good. At the Q Awards later that year he announced that he was cancer free having undergone surgery.
Now busy preparing for a tour of the UK, he took some time to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Hi Wilko how are you today?
I’m fine thanks Kevin, how are you?
I’m good thank you and before we move on let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.
And just how is life treating Wilko Johnson?
(Laughter) what can I say. To be honest life is a bit tedious at the moment. I am waiting for the tour to get started so at the moment I am spending a lot of time at home doing nothing. As we are speaking I am looking out at my back garden and to be honest it is looking like a dismal prospect so I will have to get that sorted out anyway (laughter). So as you can probably tell I really am looking forward to being back out on the road as soon as I can (laughter).
It is well documented that back in January 2013 you were diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer. What kept you going through what can only be described as a very dark period?
The way that I look at it is you simply have to carry on with your life. However, if you get a bad day it really is awful and you think that it will never end. But you have to keep telling yourself that it will end and you have got to live for the good days. Obviously there are days when you are unable to say ‘I feel good’ because you actually feel like shit. You simply have to wait and hope that the good days outnumber the bad days. To be totally honest that is the best that you can do.
You are getting ready to tour the UK once again aren’t you and from what you have already said I sense that you are chomping at the bit to get back out there (laughter).
(Laughter) yes, thank goodness. It’s fair to say that I am only really happy when I am playing. What you have to remember is that I am a miserable so and so (laughter). However, when I get out there on stage I seem to turn into somebody else. It gives me the chance to leave all of the other nonsense behind, even if it is just for a very short time.
I have spoken to Norman (Watt-Roy) about you in the past and he tells me that you are far from miserable.
(Hysterical laughter) bless him. All that I can say to that is that I may have a smile on my face but my heart is bleeding all of the time (laughter).
You will be playing Rock City here in Nottingham on Friday 21st April. What can we expect?
We are playing Rock City are we, well it must be true if you are telling me so (laughter). Well actually I have to say that you can expect the same old thing; I do what I do and that’s what you will get. Please don’t expect any surprises. I suppose that the only surprise is that I am still here doing what I do (laughter). Whatever happens on the night, what I can tell you is that it will be a great show.
Talking of surprises you have got Mollie Marriott, daughter of the late Steve Marriott opening for you. Just how good is she?
(Laughter) I have to be honest with you and say that I have absolutely no idea. It has got nothing at all to do with me who opens for us (laughter).
You are a very tight knit unit with Norman on bass and Dylan (Howe) on the drums.
Listen, this band is so good it’s great for me to be able to play with them. The band has come together over these last few mad years and for me it is such a pleasure to be out there playing with this band. In fact it is the band that keeps me going. I get up and it all starts and then we are going and going and going (laughter). It’s good.
We have briefly mentioned Norman; you two are extremely close, almost inseparable.
(Hysterical laughter) don’t you mean insufferable (laughter).
What is it about him that makes you smile?
It’s the fact that he is always laughing, that’s what he does, he plays the bass and laughs. We are like two old women once we get started (laughter).
And what about Dylan, just how good is he?
What can I say, Dylan is a good lad and an absolutely brilliant drummer. He is a fine fellow and a damn sight more practical than me so much so that I leave all of the business side of things to him (laughter).
Are there any signs of a new studio album?
It’s funny you asking me that because we are all thinking along those lines right now. We have a meeting with the people from Universal Records coming up shortly when we will be discussing that very thing.
Are you always thinking about lyrics for songs?
Yes I have and sometimes I can sit down and write a song just like that. Other times I might just have a riff or something in my head which then drives me mad as I have to find the right words to go with it (laughter). Sometimes they can drive you barmy for years. In fact I have still got things going round in my head that are probably left over from the Dr. Feelgood days, clanging around in there that I never did anything with (laughter).
In 2014 you recorded and released Going Back Home the album that you recorded with The Who’s Roger Daltrey. What was it like working with him?
(Laughter) well we actually recorded the album in November 2013 after I had been given ten months to live. Here I was with Roger recording the album in the eleventh month so I was already in extra time (laughter). We had a very short period of time in which to get the album finished, in fact it was just eight days. We didn’t even have any time for rehearsals. So you can imagine just what I was going through. I kept thinking that the album was going to be the very last thing that I ever did but on the other hand here I was making an album with Roger Daltrey (laughter). In a strange way things were pretty good and it all worked out so well that the album was one of the best-selling albums of that year.
So the album is one of the biggest selling albums of the year, you think that you are well into extra time, just what did it feel like to be told that you may be able to be cured of your cancer?
It was strange because we were doing so well with the album, all of the time I was thinking that I was going to die and then out of the blue the surgeons at the Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge told me that they thought that they may be able to save my life. And in fact they did. So while the record was selling well I was lying on my back in a hospital bed.
Are there any plans for a follow-up album?
(Laughter) to be totally honest with you Roger is a very reclusive person and he is also a very busy person. He is currently working hard arranging the concerts for the Teenage Cancer Trust and believe me, he really does work so hard on behalf of that. I will be performing with him shortly although at this moment in time I have no idea where or when (laughter). We may talk about a new album again or perhaps we won’t; I just don’t know (laughter).
Taking you all the way back to your days in Dr. Feelgood, were they good times?
Yes they were although that is now a really long time ago (laughter). Those days were so absolutely different from my life now. I sometimes look back at those times and think that it was just a mad thing that happened to us.
You never set out to be a musician did you?
No, that’s right. I never wanted or intended to be a musician, I always wanted to be a painter. It was just a crazy accident when Dr. Feelgood happened. There I was and I was stuck with it (laughter).
Once you made the decision to become a musician did you ever think that you would still be doing it today?
Absolutely not. When it started becoming obvious that Dr. Feelgood were going to succeed I remember walking over the fields thinking was it the right choice for me because I actually wanted to be a painter. I had wanted to devote the next few years to developing my painting technique and stuff like that. At that time I thought that I would probably be in the band for five years at the most (laughter). If somebody had said to me that I would have been doing it until I was forty years old I would have laughed at them. Now here I am still doing it and I am seventy this year (laughter).
You recently wrote your autobiography Don’t You Leave Me Here: My Life did that help in any way with your recovery?
Yes, you are right, I did write it but I can’t really remember very much about it (laughter). I wrote it very fast and you have to remember that I had never written a book before. They originally asked me to write it because of all of the interest in my cancer. So I thought that I had better write a biography and start it by telling the readers just who I was and then move on to the cancer. However, the more that I got into it, the more personal it became and so it was at that point that it turned into an autobiography. When I first starting writing it I thought that it was rather cool and easy and found myself typing away at all hours of the day and night (laughter). I actually started thinking that I was a writer and even thought about buying a silk smoking jacket for me to walk around the house in (laughter).
It was great but then I got up to the sad part where my wife died. Normally when you look back on the past you see it in flashes, very short episodes. However, to remember something sequentially day by day was hard at the beginning then all of a sudden it all came back to me as if it was yesterday. Remembering the past started to break me down. I wasn’t sleeping and I would be up typing at three o’clock in the morning. At that point I really did not want to do it; I was only getting three hours of sleep a night, it was destroying me. However, I decided to try writing a paragraph at a time and that is how the book got finished.
Having gone through all of that, are you glad that you did it?
Yes I am and I really do wish that I had spent a bit longer on it. I have since thought about a lot of other things that I could have said (laughter). I think that for what it was it worked out good.
Who would you say has musically inspired you along the way?
If we are talking about the guitar then that would have to be Michael Robert ‘Mick’ Green who played with The Pirates both with and without Johnny Kidd. I always wanted to play like him because when I was learning how to play the guitar I heard a Johnny Kidd & The Pirates. I spent all of my time wanting to play exactly like him. I tried so hard to copy Mick but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get it and so I ended up with my style.
Now testing your memory, what was the first record that you bought?
(Laughter) I can tell you that, it was Hit The Road Jack by Ray Charles. I had heard it on the radio during the week and on Saturday I ran straight out of the house down to the local record shop and bought the record. Thinking about it I have still got it (laughter).
Who did you first see playing live in concert?
That would have been at the local Odeon cinema where they had artists and bands playing on the Odeon circuit. The very first real artist that I saw playing live was Chuck Berry. After that I was fortunate to see Roy Orbison and then The Beatles.
What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?
The one song that always has me in tears is If Not For You by Bob Dylan. That song always makes me think of my wife. Every time that I hear that song it brings a little tear to my eye as I think about her. Even now that she has gone, it can’t fail. So I would have to say that is probably the one.
On that note Wilko let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me. Good luck with the tour and I will see you at Rock City.