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24 November 2022

Wilko Johnson’s long goodbye

The late musician on embracing terminal illness, being kicked out of Dr Feelgood and the “soap opera” of his life.

By Kate Mossman

This interview with Wilko Johnson, who died aged 75 on 21 November 2022, was first published in December 2015.

“Tell you what, you can take my PPI refund and shove it up your fucking arse, you c**t!”

Wilko Johnson is well again. In spring last year, he was delivered of the three-kilogram tumour he thought would claim his life, and now he is dealing with a cosmic anticlimax: declaring in public that he was going to die, and then not doing so.

The ­euphoria with which Wilko was meeting his end – captured magically in Julien Temple’s recent documentary The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson – has evaporated, but he is better-tempered than he used to be, he says, after replacing the receiver on the unfortunate cold-caller.

Wilko may be cured but “well” is stretching it. He looks svelte for his age but that’s only because doctors took most of his insides out: his spleen, lower and upper intestines and, of course, the naughty pancreas that was the cause of all his troubles in the first place. He takes 20 pills a day, is diabetic, has to inject himself, and he doesn’t even get a kick out of his morphine tablets. Instead he “doles them out like sugar cubes” to his bass player, Norman Watt-Roy who, as a “stoner”, reacts better to their effects. Wilko’s own trademark psychotic stare and robotic duckwalk were the creative manifestation of vast amphetamine use.

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His was a story so improbable, he tells me, it would have been rejected by publishers if it were a novel, “then sent to a soap opera, and they wouldn’t want it either”. The cancer diagnosis, the decision not to treat it, the public farewell. The full-on career revival that followed. The hit album with Roger Daltrey, the world tours and more press than he’d had since 1977. Then an amateur rock photographer, who just happens to be an oncologist, is watching you at one of your farewell gigs, gets backstage and tells you that if you really had what they said you have, you’d be flat on your back by now. Turns out your cancer is operable. You go in to hospital flanked by your best friend (a boxer) and a Japanese lady, of whom more later. The fan who saved your life is called Charlie Chan.

Wilko’s tale was bigger than a soap opera, though. It was a story about someone having faith in science – too much faith, as it turned out – and about a person’s right to die as they want. It was a story about the morbid appeal of watching someone fade away in real time: once the stuff of sci-fi films, then of Jade Goody and Clive James, who has described his prolonged farewell as embarrassing. Above all, Wilko’s was a story about a man’s ability finally to appreciate his time on earth precisely because he knows it’s going to end.

“They call it the Mercedes,” he says, lifting up his T-shirt and showing me a scar a foot long that forks out on either side, just like the logo. A few weeks back, Wilko and his Mercedes turned up at a music awards ceremony that, he tells me, had particularly naff goody bags. He was a bit of a fish out of water among the other old rockers. He barely knows Status Quo, with whom he has just done an arena tour – though he has a soft spot for their song “Pictures of Matchstick Men” because it was big when he got married 47 years ago. He has shaken Pete Townshend’s hand in the past, he tells me; he’s supposed to be touring with the Who next year. He gets on with Van Morrison – though he must be the only person in the world who does. Wilko is the kind of figure the British rock press has always favoured above the big draw. He represents a whole world of jobbing musicians of the Seventies and Eighties who now live in modest terraced houses in Brighton, or Bournemouth, or Hove, still playing in bands, weathering the periods of quiet, riding the waves of interest when they come again. Folk heroes, in a way: for every Townshend there is your Otway or John Cooper Clarke.

We talk through the serving hatch between the living room and kitchen as he makes two cups of milky filter coffee. After he got better, he went into what he likes to call a “senior depression”. His younger son, Simon, moved in to care for him, to this pale yellow house in Westcliff-on-Sea, the one with the telescope on the roof. Simon seems to have understood that if he was going to become a carer for the most stubborn man in rock, he would have to do so with minimal fanfare. He’s six foot four, but spent the first few months living in the smallest room in the house.

The living room could do, to use the old-fashioned parlance, with a woman’s touch. It’s one of those curiously uneven bachelor spaces where all the stuff seems to have floated down to one end. Wilko’s much-loved wife, Irene, died of cancer 11 years ago: he has a plot next to hers at a green burial site near Harwich. There are pictures on the wall that Wilko painted in the early Seventies, including one of his brother playing a lute. They both had long hair back then: Wilko can be seen in news footage from ’73, protesting against the Occidental oil company, which was building a road through his home town, Canvey Island. He once walked to Afghanistan with 50 quid stuffed down his Y-fronts. But he doesn’t like the word “hippie” – that was invented by the newspapers. “We called ourselves freaks.”

[See also: Nick Cave interview: “I don’t think art should be in the hands of the virtuous”]

Across the water, the “Miltonic flame” of the Shell Haven refinery, which featured symbolically in Temple’s film, no longer burns. It was just one piece of the Canvey landscape through which he explored the idea of Johnson – an English graduate with a love of Anglo-Saxon sagas – as a kind of rock’n’roll psychogeographer, explaining how this strange spit of Essex land fed into the “submarine consciousness” of Dr Feelgood, an R’n’B band that looked like a bunch of used-car salesmen at a time when glam rock and prog were preening their way through England. Was it their defensive toughness; or their creative isolation (“next stop Belgium”); or the romantic parallels they’d draw between their own ugly-beautiful surroundings and the Lou­isiana Delta – the same big brown rivers, the oil refineries lit up like little Meccano cities? Feelgood had the same trajectory as every other teenage band – saw the Shadows on TV, got cheap guitars from Exchange and Mart – but tell the story the right way and it becomes a Boy’s Own adventure. The singer, Lee Brilleaux, Mick to Wilko’s Keith, had a little boat that he’d sail right out into the middle of the water. On Canvey, the bus shelters transformed into jewelled Arabian palaces if you took enough LSD.

In 1975, Dr Feelgood were so ordinary-looking as to be completely exotic. “Where did they come from? They’re so ’63!” the American rock paper Crawdaddy wondered, when they played a Led Zeppelin party. The Stranglers’ Jean-Jacques Burnel says they were the bridge between rock’n’roll and punk. Clem Burke of Blondie said they were gangsters. Johnny Rotten got his stare from Wilko. Paul Weller got his hair from Lee. Lady Diana Spencer came to see them during her nursery teaching days. They were the biggest band in England for a moment, in 1976. But “Mick and Keith” couldn’t keep it together.

[See also: The soft power of Dolly Parton]

Wilko Johnson once said that he imagined himself in old age as a venerable figure, sitting by a mullion window, imparting wisdom to the young people sitting at his feet. The vision came true: he’s the only pub-rock guitarist expected to provide open discussion on matters of life and death. But a lot of his philosophies were dependent on his encroaching deadline. “It was the most marvellous year of my life,” he says. And it’s over now. Wilko had always been, by his own admission, a miserable bugger, choleric and jumpy. All contemporary rock writing focused on his doldrums and his enemies; they were as much a part of his mythology as trashed hotel rooms were to Keith Moon. “For fame, wealth and power, I’d eat shit,” he once said. “You see stars complaining about paparazzi. Bollocks, man, you love it.”

The band drank in hotel bars while Wilko took speed and stayed in his room. “He was a troubled sort of person. They never knew where they were with him,” said Brilleaux’s ancient mum in Oil City Confidential, Temple’s 2009 film about the band. While Wilko casually refers to the rest of Feelgood today as a bunch of twats or bozos, his relationship with Brilleaux was more complex – built on mutual awe, and mutual murderous feeling. Some say Lee was intimidated by Wilko’s university education (Newcastle, BA in English); that’s why he didn’t write songs. When the band imploded in 1977, one of Wilko’s compositions was a trigger – “Paradise”, in which he celebrates loving two women at once: his wife, and his girlfriend in London.

“They thought it was an ego trip,” he tells me today. “What? That’s an ego trip? And in a few weeks’ time they going to [record] a song called ‘Baby Jane’? Oh, piss off!

The temper rises regularly today. His persona is so strong – the pleading intonation, the sideways jaw, the eyes that pop out a lot while we’re first getting acquainted – that you find yourself laughing when he’s being deadly serious. What irks him most is people saying he left the band, when in fact he was kicked out. Dr Feelgood soldiered on for years, but things were never quite the same without their psycho lieutenant, who always appeared to have been dropped down in the wrong band; without him, perhaps they really did look just like used-car salesmen. Lee Brilleaux’s wild energy no longer had anything to bounce off. Even his mum stopped going to see them after Wilko went.

Wilko went to ground while ­journalists “picked over his corpse”, as he put it at the time. Then he formed a band called the Solid Senders, who turned out to be “useless arseholes who took all my money”. He joined the Blockheads, too, but that didn’t last long. He has spent much of his life surrounded by people who are “. . . what’s the modern parlance? Fucking illiterate.”

At least three times, he had a chance to patch things up with the band, and at least three times something got in the way. He recites the occasions with a Johnsonian interest in geographical location. He was in bed with a girl in West End Lane, West Hampstead, when he heard that a meeting between himself and Lee had been set up at the Ship pub on Wardour Street. “But the girl was really pretty, and the long and short of it was, I spent the afternoon cuddling her instead.” The second time, he was in Wigmore Street with his accountant, who told him: “Swallow your pride. Let them have their way, and in the end it will be shown that you are right. Get back together with them.” A meeting was arranged but Wilko was annoyed to find that only some of the band were present. When he pointed this out he was told to call the other members himself. “I said, ‘No, man,’” he remembers, his voice pained. “‘Please don’t do this to me.’ They wanted to make me crawl.”

One of Wilko’s later bands even toured with Feelgood in Japan in the mid-1980s (the promoters sensitively put them in different hotels). “My drummer claimed that Lee was standing in the wings while we were playing, with a kind of wistful expression on his face . . .” he recalls.

Lee Brilleaux was diagnosed with cancer in 1994 and died quickly. He expressed a desire to see Wilko in his last days, but Wilko never went. “I let it be known, that yes, I’d like to see him, but I would actually like someone to come and get me and take me there. I’m not going to go and knock on his fucking door, you know? And anyway, it never happened, I didn’t see him. I had to have someone to take me there. But no one took me there.”

[See also: The high-art cabaret of Christine and the Queens’ Redcar]

One of the things Johnson learned to do, when he was dying, was to contemplate a moment of beauty without trying to preserve it for future recollection. He also describes a strange kind of power that comes with a death sentence. “I look on the street and think, ‘All these people are subject to mortality, but I’m not, because mine is established,’” he said. When he played “Bye Bye Johnny” at a farewell show in Tokyo all he could think was, “What a great bit of show business.” For practical reasons his band booked shows at festivals: the thinking was, if Wilko died, it would be fairly easy to slot someone else in to the bill.

He feels no anger about his misdiagnosis, despite the complex psychological fallout it has left. He has reacted to the larger things in his life with a gentleness that seems at odds with the anger he still feels over the smaller things. He talks about his wife a lot: “She was a good bloke, I don’t know how she tolerated me.” He performs “Paradise” nowadays but he has written the girlfriend out of the lyric.

Until recently there was another woman living in Wilko’s house – a Japanese lady called Yuriko, who moved over to nurse him after his operation. “She’s only little,” he says, “and she’d push me in my wheelchair right through the corridors, out of the hospital and right out to the perimeter fence. I’d be leaning on the fence, pretending I was in the country, while in fact there’s all these tubes coming off me . . . I was pathetic.”

As his condition improved, Yuriko implemented a tough programme of rehabilitation, shouting, “YOU WALK ROUND BLOCK,” whether Wilko wanted to walk round block or not.

He explains that Yuriko was one of his groupies from the old days.

“There were several Japanese girls like this,” he says, “They were what you would call girls rather than women. And they used to come and stay for Christmas. Poor Simon grew up thinking Christmas was a time when the house filled up with Japanese ladies who taught him how to count and swear in Japanese.”

And Irene was OK with catering to Wil­ko’s groupies at Christmas? “Oh, yeah. Irene used to love them – Kaiko, she’s beautiful. They would all come down. Matthew [his elder son who now lives in Dubai] was a teenager and Simon was just a little boy.”

Yuriko is “back in bloody Japan” now and he feels the absence. It was her birthday the other day, though he’s not sure how old she is. His new management is trying to get her a partner visa, but even talking about the forms involved, and the bad grammar of the people filling them in, makes his temper rise again.

“I don’t want to get married again,” he says. “For me, it’s moral. I’m in love with one woman and she’s dead. There’s something a little bit serious to me about marriage and it’s not a dodge to get a visa!”

He is writing his memoirs for Little, Brown and should have a first draft for Christmas, though the experience is “freaking him right out”, as he’s never done a book before. In other ways, he feels like he is still going through a second childhood. A few weeks ago, he realised he’d run out of one of his drugs, Creon, an essential accompaniment to every meal since the removal of his pancreas. “So I’m hunting round the house,” he says. “Yuriko’s on the Skype, so I’m waking Simon up. In the end, we decide the best thing to do is to go up to the A&E to get some more. We’re walking up there, and I’m trotting behind him – I used to walk quite fast. And I see our shadows, and here’s his big, long shadow, and there’s my little shadow, and it looks like I’m a little kid.”

Wilko says that when his time with Feelgood ended he “absolutely knew that the band was the greatest thing I was ever likely to do”. You can’t help but wonder whether, in a strange kind of way, his death sentence replicated the fragile, heady buzz of the fame that hit him in 1975 – a few months of feverish activity laid out before you, dates set, everyone watching, and all you have to do is fly through it all like a bullet. You wonder if he responded to his approaching end in the manner he did because jobbing musicians are programmed to think, breathe, live and be happy in the short term. He may not have been able to bottle the euphoria he felt when he was dying, but I ask him whether he had ever had such feelings before: that sense of being “vividly alive”, the whole world looking suddenly different.

He thinks for a moment.

“There was a period when I realised that the band were going to make it,” he says. “And there’s one moment I’ll always remember. We were returning home from London and when you get to Barking there’s a big flyover, and we were right at the top of it. I looked out and I could see the lights of Essex out before us, and I said to myself, ‘I wonder what is going to happen . . .’”

[See also: The death of the groupie]

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This article appears in the 14 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special