Wilko Johnson was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in January last year. Told he had less than a year to live, the renowned guitarist, a founding member of Dr Feelgood, immediately embarked on a farewell tour. The months passed, and he found he had no reason to slow down.
I meet him just before he plays a concert in England. In the small dressing room backstage, Wilko is sitting on a stool with his back to the mirror, dressed in his customary black suit, black shirt and black boots. His drummer and manager sit on a sofa, discussing tour dates that reach as far into the future as August.
This was not part of the plan. In November Wilko recorded an album with Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home , that is already a bestseller on Amazon, even though it has been available only to preorder. Now, at the age of 66, Wilko defines the entire period before his diagnosis as BC – before cancer – when he lived his life on different terms. His autobiography, Looking Back at Me , came out in 2012. Because it's BC, he is working on an updated version.
“I did think this year would be a tapering-down, but the plan is to just keep going until it hits me. I was supposed to have been dead in October. And in fact the first thing that I’ve done with my extra time is I’ve made the album with Roger Daltrey. I just don’t know how long I’m going to live.”
He and Daltrey recorded the album over eight days in November. They performed together at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, in west London, last month, to rave reviews. Onstage, they laughed as Daltrey held his microphone to Wilko’s stomach.
“It went really well. Roger’s really excited by it all. It was a little bit nerve-racking, doing a gig like that, a one-off thing that we just got together,” he says. “There’s no point in stopping, because if you stop what you do is sit at home and start dwelling on it.”
Wilko says a euphoria overcame him when he got his diagnosis, and it’s a feeling that has stayed with him. “On the way here today I was in a kind of rapture looking out at this beautiful winter’s day, thinking I’m alive, I’m alive when I’m supposed to have been dead. So it’s still there – but you can’t walk around with a soppy grin on your face all the time.”
Wilko studied medieval literature at university and briefly taught English. “I’ve got a lot of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton in my head that I can recite to myself at any time.” Does he find any comfort in it? “Not comfort, no. What oft is thought but ne’er so well express’d. I think poetry stills your soul. Whatever that’s supposed to mean. I mean, there’s no help anyone can bring to me. Nobody can say, ‘It’s not happening. You’re not dying.’ So what is there to say? There’s nothing to say.”
The man contains multitudes. He played the mute executioner in Game of Thrones , and he once considered being a painter. Some of his paintings appear in his autobiography. "I was quite serious about painting. But I had to choose between painting and rock'n'roll. I had to think, Do I want to spend 10 years in a garret, perfecting my technique, or do I want to go on a ride in a Cadillac and get all the girls?"
His manager says they hope to play in Ireland next month. Wilko laughs. “See, April is just not real to me. I’ve got this blank future. I’ll think about April when April comes – if it comes. It’s just month by month. We’re going to Japan next week, and I’m just thinking, Right, I just want to be okay for that, for that two or three weeks.”
"I declined any treatment"
Wilko hasn't seen his doctors since his diagnosis. "They're the people who told me I was going to be dead by now, so I haven't been back to them for another estimate." He is not tired, he says, and is in no great pain. "I declined any treatment, so they've got no interest in me until I start to break down. They said, 'You've got about 10 months to live. If you want to take chemotherapy , we can give you maybe a year.' So it was ridiculous. Chemotherapy really destroys you. I was feeling fine, and just for the sake of a wretched couple of months . . . There was no difficulty in that decision."
Wilko, who has always suffered from depression, finds solace in his music. “Ever since my wife, Irene, died, 10 years ago, I found the only time that I wasn’t thinking about her was when I got on stage, because you get very self-possessed on stage, concentrated down to one little aspect of you. Sometimes I think about the cancer on stage. I think, Blimey, this might be the last one.
“Today was quite ecstatic, just looking at the trees and the sun and thinking, I’m alive.” He laughs. “You’ve got to be in a position where your death is coming before you can feel that. It’s incredible. I’ve never been able to feel like that before.”
So he’s consciously living in the moment. “That’s what I try to do. Sometimes it’s very difficult. Sometimes you get in a black mood, and you get very apathetic, and everything seems pointless. And you don’t want to live in those moments. The number of actual dark nights of the soul that I’ve had is very few, since this. I think I’m generally a happier person than I was before.”
Wilko is a convinced atheist and a keen astronomer. He has a dome on his roof, with a telescope, where he goes to look at the stars. Is being a man of science related to his atheism? “It’s just the way I look at everything. Astronomy can give you all sorts of ideas, but none of them involve an old Jewish man with a white beard up in the sky.” So has he no sense he will be reunited with anyone? “No. If I thought I was going to be reunited with Irene I would have killed myself 10 years ago. I would’ve done. But, no, I won’t ever see her again.”
Wilko hasn’t much time to look at stars these days. “I got a new hatch fitted to get up on to my roof. The old one got blown away in the recent storms. I think I’ll climb up the old ladder shortly. I mean, Orion is already leaving the sky. And I said goodbye to Orion last year – ‘I’m never going to see you again.’ But it’s up there now.”
He’s due on stage soon, and he starts to pace the room, breaking up biscuits and eating them. “I normally pace before a gig. But this isn’t a good room for it. I normally pace in circles. Anticlockwise, always. I don’t know why. It probably just means I’ve got one leg shorter than the other.”
"I used to bleed quite a bit"
His red-and-black Fender Telecaster waits on a stand beside us. One day as a boy Wilko saw an electric guitar in a classroom at school, a student's woodwork project. He was fascinated, so he pestered his parents for one of his own. He has a unique no-plectrum style, and the red scratchplate hid the blood. "I used to bleed quite a bit, actually. I was playing with my son lately, and he'd say to me, 'Dad, what do I do about all this bleeding?' And I said, 'You know, you just have to give over to it or use a plectrum."
He is a fan of his son’s band, Eight Rounds Rapid. He also mentions The Strypes, the teenagers from Cavan. “They’re really good. Very young. I played with them in Canvey Island.”
Besides Japan, Wilko has tour dates in Sweden, and there are rumours about Glastonbury. “It’s getting a bit embarrassing,” he says. “I keep saying emotional goodbyes to people and then meet up with them again six months later.” At what point does it stop being a farewell tour? “We did our farewell tour. Now we’re just doing tours.”
That night he darts and struts across the stage, as he always has, to classics like Roxette and Back in the Night , stretching the red guitar lead as far as it will go, then retreating, all the while glowering like something wild on a leash. The sweat pours off him; he lifts the guitar up and plays it behind his head, show-off that he is.
For the encore he storms through Johnny B Goode , the crowd roaring along. There is no sense of finality here.
Wilko is due to play at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Belfast, on May 3rd . Going Back Home is released on Monday