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Wilko Johnson - a man who has done it all

Wilko Johnson is a man who has played in a successful band, starred in a TV series, published books and beat terminal cancer. He tells his story to Goldmine.

By Alan Brostoff

 Wilko Johnson photographed at Sheffield City Hall on October 7th, 2016. Photo by Paul Crowther.

Wilko Johnson photographed at Sheffield City Hall on October 7th, 2016. Photo by Paul Crowther.

Founding member of Dr. Feelgood, Wilko Johnson is a man who has done it all; played in an internationally successful band, starred in a major television series, published books and beat a death sentence of terminal cancer. Wilko was nice enough to sit down with Goldmine and talk about his past, his current and his future.

GOLDMINE:You are about to celebrate 30 years in music, 70th birthday celebration coming up at the Royal Albert Hall, that’s got to be pretty exciting.
WILKO: Yea, my 70th birthday will be in July and I will play the show in September. It’s quite a nice feeling because when I had my health problems, 3-4 years ago, it has taken this long to fully regain my strength and everything. It’s nice to still be alive and nice to play the Albert Hall.

GM:In your book, “Don’t You Leave Me Here,” you go into great detail about being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Anything that you would share with someone going through this and finding out they have to deal with this?
Wilko: Well, my reactions to it were, quite unexpected. When the doctor gave me this diagnoses, I did not react at all like I would have imagined I would, fear or panic or something like that. I just felt absolutely calm and walking away from the hospital I was calm. I was looking around thinking “Man, I’m alive”. When someone says that to you, “You have cancer and you have 10 months to live,” the moment they say it the whole universe changes. Everything is different. The way I decided to deal with it, I knew they had told me I had less than a year to live and there was nothing they could do, it was inoperable. So I decided at that moment that I just going to live and totally accept that I’m going to die. I’m not going to waste any of this precious time seeking miracle cures or second opinions or anything like that. No, I’m just going to carry on until it knocks me down. Which is what I did. The best way to handle it is to realize that you are alive in that moment, you are alive now. You have to concentrate on that. There is no future, you have no time to make up for anything in the past. You just got to live in the moment you are in. It gave me a certain amount of serenity. It was quite and extraordinary year for me. Ending up with me making the record with Roger Daltrey. It was crazy. Roger had heard that I was dying and got in touch and said that we should do this album, and we did it. As a matter of fact, we were into my 11th month, so I was already on extra time. So I found myself in this extraordinary situation of making a record with Roger Daltrey and thinking I wouldn’t even see the record released. It’s got to kill me soon. The tumor was absolutely huge. It was pushing out my stomach and yea. My advice for anyone is to make an album with Roger Daltrey.

GM: That album did quite well, didn’t it?
WILKO: It did. It did exceptionally well. It is probably the most successful album I have ever made. It went straight to the top of the charts. In fact, it was one of the best selling records of the year. It took the record company by surprise. They actually ran out of copies of the record in the first week to send out to shops. It was selling so fast. And by this time I had encountered the doctors who were going to save my life. And in fact I found myself lying in a hospital bed full of tubes and stuff and people were coming in saying the record is selling well. I was like “Oh, great” I was barely conscious and I missed most of it, when the record was selling. I was feeling pretty poorly in a hospital bed and the record was doing great.

GM: In the book you site Mick Green as an influence for the way you play and how you play. Your playing has a very strong blues basis. Being in England in the 70’s, as punk rock was taking off, how was the sound of Dr. Feelgood and your playing received?
WILKO: What happened was Dr. Feelgood was really succeeding in London in 1974-75 and we were making a real impression. We were very different from everything else going on. We were the basic rock 'n' roll thing. As you said, we had a lot of blues influence in our music. I performance on stage was very violent and we just tried to be exciting and I think that is what a lot of the young musicians were looking at. Most of the punk bands that we grew to know were influenced by Dr. Feelgood. What they actually took from Dr. Feelgood, as most of them were very young people and not very experienced with the blues, was the simplicity and the directness of it.

GM: You are also quite an accomplished actor, having done four episodes of Game of Thrones. Is there any more acting in the near future?
WILKO: Not that I know of. The Game of Thrones thing was a complete surprise. I’ve never ever done any acting before and I just got this call asking if I would like to go audition for this part. I got to London and auditioned and they told me that it was for an American TV series. I said yea, I'll try this, it will be a laugh. I did it and it was tremendous fun. It was really, really great to do it. Wish I could have done more only cancer got in the way. Don’t know if I’ll ever do any more acting.

GM: Any new music that you are currently working on?
WILKO: I have really just started to comeback to myself from the mad events of the last three or four years, and I have been in with my band looking at stuff and we are looking at a new album in November to book time. We got a lot of good riffs, now we got to write the songs.

GM: Anyone out there that you would love to record with?
WILKO: Not specifically, but I would love to do a session with Bob Dylan but that’s because I idolize him. I’m very happy with my band. I’ve got the best rhythm section anywhere with Norman Watt-Roy and Dylan Howe. I just love their playing. It gets me going.

GM: Anything out there right now that you are listening to?
WILKO: In the last week I have been listening to a lot of John Lee Hooker. Like most old people my likes stopped in the 1970s.

GM: Once the new record is completed can we expect to see Wilko in the United States?
Wilko: We have no plans for that but it is something that we would like to do. While I was in the hospital, Roger called me and said get well quick, we want you to support The Who in America. But I was not able to get well quick enough to do that. After the album we will be playing festivals in the summer and then we go to Japan. Things are going very well in Japan. They are adding shows because they are all selling out. That will be good. I like Japan. I glad to be back in gear and thanks for all of the support I got from people when I was ill. During that time I realized that people had a lot of affection for me and the music. All the fans supported me and I hope to see them all again in the near future.