It’s been one of the year’s big stories, the legendary Wilko Johnson -one of our most influential guitar players- was diagnosed with terminal cancer in January. The months that followed saw remarkable sporadic gigs and an ongoing celebration of the guitar player’s life as well as an outpouring of love and affection for the key gunslinger guitarist who virtually made the Telecaster the guitar of choice for the mid-late seventies. Wilko of course was also the key songwriter in the band that did more than other to create the template and space for the punk explosion, Dr Feelgood, with their stripped down take on classic R ’n’ B and their speed freak gangster image.
Louder Than War got a rare chance to catch up with the great Wilko Johnson recently, and learn about his inspiring take on his condition & death.
Louder Than War: How’s things Wilko?
‘I’m feeling pretty well considering. I just had a nice day out in London yesterday and I also received a nice letter from Elton John which was really heartening. What a good fellow! He gave me an award the other night at the Mojo Awards and he then sent this really nice little letter saying ‘hello’ and ‘nice meeting you’ – what a good bloke!’
Louder Than War: I saw that photo of you with Jimmy Page- it seems everyone is coming out to pay their dues!
“I did meet him once briefly in the seventies in Los Angeles and last year he started coming to our gigs, like when we played the 100 Club. I finally met him at the Mojo awards and we had a good chat and we discovered that we both have the same guitar hero because we are both into Mick Green.”
Louder Than War: It’s been an odd year for you, hard to imagine really, with lots of ups and downs, making for a really strange lap of honour for you…
‘This year has been extraordinary. I’ve had so many good times, both in terms of being on holiday in Japan where I was grooving on the tranquility of the temples and then things like doing the gigs this summer.
After the farewell tour in April I did retire, but I didn’t like retirement- even though it’s going to be a short one! (laughs) Then the summer came around with the Japanese pressing me to do Fuji Rock and I said alright I will do if I’m still fit. I did it and I still don’t know when my health is going to break down. Having agreed to do that I then got the festivals in the UK and they have all gone really well.
The gigs have been great, sometimes the band has been going so good that I come off and think, ‘oh man I’m sorry I’ve got to die because the gig has been so good!’ then there was the stuff like Elton John and being interviewed on Breakfast TV- unlooked for situations that were really amusing in the middle of moments of hideous terror- those moments can be terrifying.
Louder Than War: When we first read about your illness we were shocked and wondered how long you have got.
‘I was feeling absolutely fit when I went to the doctors and they found this big tumor inside me. What they told me in the diagnosis in January, after we were saying to them how long can I expect to feel fit, was that I had a few months. I was saying I want to do gigs and book them in advance- how long can I expect until I get ill and they said 8 months which has gone now. Done. They told me they thought I would die in October and that I had ten months to live, so that’s 8 months of fitness gone by and I still feel fit so unless it gets a move on we will miss the deadline to coin a phrase (laughs).’
Louder Than War: How do you plan your gigs now?
‘Having done the festivals this summer things then came more day by day- so we have done the final gig that we have booked, but there could be more. Obviously I want to get on with some recording as well. It would be great if I managed to squeeze an album out. I may take another couple of gigs on in London as long as I’m fit. I think I will survive into next year now. I wasn’t expecting to get this far but I got that set in my mind as a framework to work by. At first I thought I would not see Christmas, which was alright by me as I fucking hate Christmas (laughs). I got this bet on with my mate Francis Henry and he said ‘you will see Christmas’ and I said, ‘no way- I’m not really fit enough.’ It’s a dumb bet! If I win I will be dead and if he wins I will have to pay him a 100 quid- so I lose out either way. Bad move (laughs).’
Louder Than War: So what’s the current situation?
‘I can expect to be in radiant good health for a little while longer. I got to wait for it to strike now. Apparently it’s really quick when it comes. If it wasn’t for the fact that I have this great big lump inside me that’s giving me this thing that looks like a beer belly- this big bulk in front of me, this tumor sticking out of my guts, I would probably be going to the doctors and saying you got the diagnosis wrong! I don’t feel any physical illness yet this lump is definitely there, this big thing.
Louder Than War: How is the recording going?
‘We started some time ago and we got half a dozen tracks done. There is also a couple of little recordings that I might be involved in with other people, a couple of big names. I think we got enough odds and sods recorded so far. I have written some songs after the analysis and I keep working on things on and off. I go between enthusiasm and apathy. Some days I think I got to get this recorded and then the next day I think what’s the bloody point! I rely on the guys to drag me down to the studio. It’s different live, if I’ve got gigs booked there is a certain time to get onstage and that is really good as it makes me do it, if that was left to me I would be going oh no! It’s very good for me mentally to be doing things because when I’m sitting on my own it gets a bit negative.’
Louder Than War: Do some of the new songs you have written relate to your condition?
‘I did find some referring to it obliquely in the lyrics- lots of stuff about clocks ticking and stuff like that. That’s not the sort of thing I normally write songs about. To me songs are ‘I love you baby but you done me wrong!’ that’s what I do (laughs).’
Louder Than War: Have you noticed the recent upsurge of bands in your style- bands like The 45s and The Strypes?
‘This a really great development. I have seen these guys and they are terrifyingly young. They are doing this stuff which has picked up from where the Feelgoods left off in the seventies and they are going to be doing it after I’m gone. It’s a really nice feeling. I don’t give a toss what happens when I’m gone but seeing some of these bands was quite touching, seeing them striving for what we were striving for long before they were born is great.’
Louder Than War: I saw that picture of you with The 45’s. What will your legacy be? You are in a curious position to judge your own legacy, to almost see it being formed.
‘Really, I don’t think in terms like that- partly because I really don’t care when I’m gone. When I’m gone people can make of it what they want. If people forget me that’s fine by me and partly because I’ve always been somebody who has done live music. It’s something you can’t do when you are dead and whether some elements will carry on with these new people, well that will be nice but what they do with it is up to them not to me.’
Louder Than War: What will become of your legendary Telecasters?
‘That’s another thing that made me feel happy- Fender are making a custom Wilko Johnson Telecaster. It’s a great honour. It took them long enough but it’s nice to see. When I think of when I was a kid getting my first Telecaster and that one day Fender would make a Wilko Johnson Telecaster, well it really is quite nice.’
Louder Than War: It’s an honour more for them than you…
‘(Laughs) you could say that!
Louder Than War: How many Telecasters were sold in the seventies because of your style?
‘Blimey I used to wonder that (laughs). I must have sold a lot of guitars for them indirectly or directly. The thing is that when Joe Strummer played a Telecaster it sold loads and that I suppose is ‘cos of me because he got one because of Dr. Feelgood. I should be getting a percentage! There’s thousands of guitars out there (laughs). It’s pay back and for my boy- not for me though- the royalty on each one won’t come in till next year and I probably won’t be here then.’
Louder Than War: I saw you play in April at Kokos. It was an amazing gig. You seemed to have more energy and joy than before- how do you psych yourself up?
‘I’ve been doing what I have always done. I haven’t been getting into the goodbye business. They’ve been good gigs. I just like playing. A lot of people have been saying this year that I have looked happier onstage than I have ever before when they’ve seen me and there is a happiness about doing these gigs. The band have been really good and it’s been enough to put a smile on your face!’
Louder Than War: Are the gigs therapeutic?
‘It’s always been like that. When you get on stage you step into this different personality and leave everything behind and become this thing. You are not too worried about cancer and that’s when you do the funny walk with the guitar and the guitar solos…’
Louder Than War: The walk – it’s iconic- are you aware of it when you are doing it?
‘Well yeah, I would say in some ways it’s like when you are down the disco and had a couple of drinks and you hear a record you like and you start dancing and you don’t care how much of an idiot you look like. You just do it. It’s the same with me onstage, I go with what I feel and what it looks like, well I don’t know- I’m not addicted to looking at films of myself it’s just that’s the way the music makes me feel and I’m off!’
Louder Than War: Its become an iconic stage move. There’s a gunslinger cool about it.’
‘Yeah yeah! It’s my little thing yeah!’
Louder Than War: Will you get the album out this year?
‘Well with regard to anything like that, I’ve got to do it soon because I’m not sure how much time I have got left, presumably the recording of anything like that must be finished this year.’
Louder Than War: Does it matter to you if the release is posthumous?
‘If they have to put it together after I’m gone then so be it, it would be nice to get it done whether I’m there to see the completion, I don’t know.
Louder Than War: Who’s producing and engineering the album? Yourself?
‘Of yeah of course, there are a couple of other projects that I mentioned before that may happen with other people which will be produced by other producers, there’s a couple of big names who want to do something with me and at least one of them may come about- again it will have to be fairly soon because I can’t say let’s do it in the spring…!’
Louder Than War: What is your everyday life like now?
‘I’m not sure what my everyday life is now! Yesterday I went to London, to the British museum and I was walking down Oxford Road and people were coming out and shaking my hand. It was really good, people know what’s happening to me and I think that people who normally recognize me and pass by think it could be the last time they may see me and they shake my hand and wish me well. It’s a really good feeling that people care about me. It really helps me.’
Louder Than War: The atmosphere at the gigs has been amazing.
‘That’s why I have been enjoying them. I think there is no point in worrying about what I could be, let’s just do this gig.’
Everyone is coming out for it and that’s nice. It would have been horrible if it had ended up like a 70s revival tour but I don’t have to do that fortunately.’
Louder Than War: Do you have any regrets?
‘To be honest the bust up with Dr. Feelgood is the one thing I do regret. We will never know what could have happened, especially now looking back and it seems really pointless how it all ended. I don’t know what the trouble was, I was part of it but I don’t know what it was. I regret that but you do what you do- what the fuck can you do.’
Louder Than War: There was a lot of pressure on Dr. Feelgood…
‘The pressure you’re getting is the pressure you’re seeking. There was plenty of pressure but it’s not that difficult with people giving you plenty of money and telling you how great you are or ‘I want to go to bed with you’ kind of pressure- that’s the pressure you can put up with.’
Louder Than War: Was there a lot of pressure to be number one?
‘ For me maybe, especially as the songwriter, when you start off you are writing songs for the love of it and then you are writing songs for the next album and attempting to maintain a standard and that could be quite a freak out.’
Louder Than War: What’s the relationship like with the surviving members of the band now?
‘It’s great Sparko and I got up together and played with The Strypes recently. We are all pals. Figure wrote me a beautiful letter actually- all about our childhood together. We are all friends and it would be the same with Lee if he was still with us.’
Louder Than War: I remember reading about you traveling around India before you formed Dr. Feelgood- all sounds quite mystical and not very Dr. Feelgood! Is this something you tap into now?
‘When you go onstage you leave everything behind. You do what you do and it has nothing to do with thinking about the Buddha which is something I do. I’m interested in mystical things. When I went to India it was really good hitch hiking to Katmandu and I spent a beautiful time in Afghanistan when it was a peaceful place. It’s horrible to see what has become of it in the last thirty years. That was a very mystical time in my life and when I look back I think wow! Wandering round India on my own!
But I’m a convinced atheistic and I don’t have any mystical ideas about life and death.’