In January 2013, Wilko Johnson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Rather than subject himself to the medical treatment the former Dr Feelgood legend spent the next six months living life to the full. Before Johnson was given a surprise all clear in 2014, Pat Gilbert witnessed his remarkable act of defiance and chronicled a life less ordinary. A year on from Johnson's death in 2022, we revisit their encounter in full...
A hot, sticky evening amid London’s summer heatwave, and a crowd gathers at the Royal College of Art on Kensington Gore. Tonight is the preview of More Than Fair, an exhibition of Ian Dury’s paintings from the ’60s and early ’70s, featuring self-portraits and Pop Art-style pictures of vampish women with bare bosoms. Around 9pm there is a flutter when a pale figure clad in black suddenly makes an appearance – some might recognise him as the mute, gnarly executioner Ilyn Payne from the HBO sword and sorcery TV series Game Of Thrones, but to most he is simply Wilko Johnson, the Dr. Feelgood legend.
Resuscitated as a cultural icon after the extraordinary success of Oil City Confidential, Julien Temple’s 2009 documentary on the Feelgoods, Wilko’s reputation as a loveable English eccentric – equal parts bullish R&B purist, working-class intellectual and star-gazing loner – is well established. At the makeshift bar, he talks warmly about Dury’s art. “It just reminds you once again – what a guy.”
The exhibition comes 13 years after Dury’s passing from cancer in 2000, making an uncomfortable link with Wilko, who in January this year was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which will end his life in the coming months. Everyone acts ‘normally’ around Wilko tonight, a reflection of his own remarkably sanguine proclamations about his illness, but everyone knows the score. Very soon the cult hero who influenced a generation of performers – The Clash, the Sex Pistols, The Jam, Madness, and beyond to today’s groups like The Strypes – won’t be with us any more.
Yet before he goes, he’s happy to speak several times to MOJO about his inspirational and often downright strange life and times in music, from having Number 1 records in the mid-’70s before being fired from the Feelgoods, to finding sanctuary among the punk fraternity and fielding phone calls from Elton John.
“I’ve had more than anyone could ever ask for,” he says. “I’ve always been a bit of an oddball. Sometimes I think, If only I had followed a conventional career path… but it wouldn’t have happened with me. I’m sure I would have asserted my stupidity somehow.”
Canvey Island, Essex, February 2013. Low skies streaked with grey clouds, rain spitting noncommittally. The town on the Thames Estuary that gave birth to Dr. Feelgood in the early 1970s is still as it’s portrayed in the band’s mythology: a shabby, end-of-the-line seaside resort, abutting miles of oil storage tanks, refineries and jetties. But today its industrial landscape and bleak views across the Thames to north Kent seem less romantic than familiar – one of many down-at-heel English coastal towns. The Admiral Jellicoe, the 1930s pub in the High Street where the band took journalists for marathon booze-ups, is also a recognisable stereotype – mock Tudor front, forecourt parking, brewery ales.
A 30-minute drive up the road, the man who found poetry and inspiration in Canvey awaits us in his present home, a seemingly ordinary terraced house in a suburb of Southend – ordinary, that is, until you spot the observatory he has built on the roof to facilitate his passion for astronomy. Wilko answers the door dressed head to toe in regulation black, and grins shyly, as if mildly bemused anyone should want to drive all the way to the extremities of Essex to talk to him. Inside, an indelibly male, musicianly scruffiness prevails – Wilko’s beloved wife Irene succumbed to cancer eight years ago – and the low coffee table at which we sit is covered in bills and newspapers, next to an open laptop. To complete a picture of a man whose public image is not at odds with his private persona, a blues compilation blasts out of a small CD system.
Our first meeting comes just weeks after Wilko’s diagnosis, and MOJO’s attempts to pussy-foot around the elephant in the room are swiftly torpedoed. “By ‘it’, do you mean my cancer?” he interjects in that famous whiny Essex drawl. “I found it really hard to phone my friends and tell people, it was better when I could leave a message and say, Can you call me? I went through it myself watching my wife die. Being absolutely helpless. Here was the dearest thing in the universe, dying, nothing I can do. Now I’m in that place. It’s worse for everyone else. You see the tears brimming in their eyes and you think, Come on! Rob, my manager, is intercepting thousands of e-mails, some of which mention all these cures. Oh man, I can’t deal with that. One said I’d be all right if I became a Muslim (laughs).”
Wilko talks animatedly of the “strange elation” he felt after learning his days were numbered, and getting used to odd sensations such as realising there was no longer much point in committing things to memory. Shortly after learning of his illness, he played some dates in Japan to help raise money for the tsunami victims. “On a day off we went up to this Shinto temple,” he says. “These mountains looked like a painting, a very fine snow was falling, with the sun shining through it was golden. Apart from some school kids there was no one about. I was just in the moment, and that moment was so perfect. All those little niggles in life, like worrying about your tax return, all gone. Irrelevant, laughable (laughs). Every day like this makes you feel very alive. I feel better than ever before.”
Wilko’s upbeat reaction to his impending demise – he’s declining chemotherapy as it won’t substantially extend his life – makes our meeting easier. Behind his X-ray glare, he’s an easy-going and compelling conversationalist, closing his vivid blue eyes when he speaks and taking long pauses, as if in silent prayer. His bile is reserved mostly for what he calls “stuck-up” types and the figures in his career who’ve disappointed him: notably the other Feelgoods, who effectively sacked him from the band in early 1977 after a growing chasm emerged between them.
Yet he’s the first to admit that he’s not the easiest person to work with, having been dogged from his mid-teens by debilitating depressive episodes. “I was consciously feeling at 15 or 16 these down moods that lasted for a day or two and then I’d go back up again,” he explains. “There was no way of getting out of it. I was pissed off; they talk about manic depression, I could have done more of the manic stage, more of the up. I’ve always been… melancholy. Sometimes it’s paralyzing, you can’t get out of bed. I can never remember writing a song in that state. If you want to keep out of that state to write songs – (mock mysteriously) you can, one way or another.”
With chemicals you mean? “There are very effective chemicals to deal with these things (smiles), and I’ve spent many years of my life sodden with them.”
Wilko Johnson was born John Peter Wilkinson on Canvey Island in 1947, a date that made him too young to be a contemporary of the Stones but old enough for their brash Thames Estuary take on rhythm’n’blues to hit him like a train. They instantly became “the guiding light”, directing him to their source material – Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf. His rebellious teenage streak was fostered by a rancorous relationship with his gas-fitter father, a violent, sullen brute.
“He was a bastard, I hated him,” he spits. “I take after him, I’m left-handed, and I hated being like him. He wasn’t just uneducated, he was stupid with it. The older I get the more I look like him. Every time I shave, I see that bastard looking back at me. So I thought by eradicating his name I could start my own dynasty.”
His dad died when he was 16, liberating the young man already playing guitar in local beat bands, a spirit of freedom he vowed to cling to at all costs. “There was no one telling me what to do any more,” he says. “My brother and I were laughing at his funeral. Towards the end I got him – ‘Don’t fucking talk to me like that!’ I never hit him. I wish I had.”
Falling in love with a girl called Irene Knight, whom he met at a school dance, Wilko soon became something of a local Canvey Island hero, playing in rival bands to the other future Feelgoods, including the five-years-his-junior Lee Collinson – later ‘Brilleaux’ – another local kid obsessed with the blues. Photos from the time show Johnson pretty much as he’d appear a decade later – a handsome, lantern-jawed rocker with dark clothes and a Mick Jagger hairdo. Indeed, he grew his hair long when it was dangerous on Canvey to do so, and then did what writer Hugo Williams wonderfully described in a 1975 essay on the Feelgoods as “drop out in reverse”. In 1967, Wilko hung up his trusted Telecaster – initially bought in instalments from a music shop and then paid off by Irene – and headed off to read English at Newcastle University. A hippy sojourn afterwards left him stranded in India and repatriated by aeroplane, courtesy of the British government, after he’d run out of money. Needing a new passport on his return, he formally changed his name to ‘Wilko Johnson’ and a legend was born.
Hanging on Wilko’s living room wall is a painting of a violin he made in 1965, staying up all night to finish it. It was the first piece that convinced him he possessed the ability to make it as an artist. In 1971, while earning money back in Essex as a supply teacher at a girls’ school, he found himself at a crossroads. Dr. Feelgood were by then coalescing as a band, with Wilko on guitar, Lee Brilleaux on vocals, John ‘Sparko’ Sparks on bass and old school-friend John ‘The Big Figure’ Martin on drums, and people on Canvey were even paying to watch them play their then-unfashionable and outmoded brand of R&B. But at the same time his painting was becoming obsessional.
“I had to make a choice, I couldn’t do the two things,” he recalls. “Shall I starve in a garret with a paintbrush and a smock, or shall I ride in a Cadillac and get all the girls? I went with the band.”
By 1973, Dr. Feelgood had become a fixture on the London pub circuit, performing at the Tally Ho in Kentish Town, The Kensington in Earl’s Court and the Lord Nelson in Holloway Road. They were probably not the only group in the pubs playing raw, old-fashioned rhythm’n’blues, but they were certainly the most young, committed and extraordinary. Nothing about them looked remotely rock-starry or glamorous; in fact, with shortish hair and cheap nylon suits they looked like jack-the-lad villains from an episode of Budgie. Mott The Hoople, Uriah Heep or Queen they were not.
On-stage, while Brilleaux barked out his vocals in a beer-stained white suit jacket he never washed, Wilko looked like a tailor’s dummy possessed by demons, staring manically over the audience’s heads while skittering across the stage, in forward and reverse, as if dodging machine-gun fire. Though left-handed, Wilko played his Telecaster in the conventional right-handed pose, chopping and tugging at the strings without a pick. The effect was a hybrid rhythm-lead style almost impossible to mimic. “My mission in life was to be exactly like [Johnny Kidd & The Pirates guitarist] Mick Green,” smiles Wilko. “I thought, You people think I’m clever but I’m just copying the right guy. Now in my old age I realise there was something good going on there.”
United Artists signed the group in 1974, and the following year their debut LP, Down By The Jetty, appeared, mixed in mono (“’cos it sounded better, we weren’t trying to be retro”). Nine songs on the album were written by Wilko, using images from Canvey Island and the conventions of ’60s 12-bar R&B, albeit given a speed-freak dynamic. “I wrote the songs for Lee Brilleaux to sing, I had his voice and persona in mind,” says Johnson. “I’ve never written a song about jumping on a freight train, but I’ve incorporated the landscape round here, which I find quite romantic. The person in my songs is an ordinary guy, subjected to all the terrible things women can do to you.”
A second LP, Malpractice, was released in late 1975; then, to gloss over the fact Wilko was struggling to amass new material (he found it hard to write on tour, and the group were now playing 200 dates a year), UA put out the live Stupidity, which went to Number 1 in September 1976. By then, the Feelgoods’ influence on the swelling punk and new wave scene was clear, having signalled that there was still a hunger for raw, back-to-basics rock’n’roll. Wilko, in particular, seemed to have hit a nerve: Joe Strummer lifted Wilko’s Telecaster-slung-like-a-machine-gun poses and manic stare; Paul Weller regarded Down By The Jetty as a touchstone for The Jam’s early, blue-collar Mod rock.
But a rift was developing between Wilko and the others – they drank enthusiastically, the guitarist didn’t; his melancholia led to a preference for solitude, the others liked the group’s gang mentality. Matters came to a head during sessions for Sneakin’ Suspicion in early 1977, just as the group were poised to become potentially massive.
“CBS had taken us for America and loved us, they were gonna spend money on us, but relationships were getting strained,” he explains. “We had this great guy as a producer, Bert de Coteaux. But what he couldn’t do was prevent this outburst, which was due to the antagonism between me and Lee. What it was about, I don’t know.”
The row had started over the song Paradise, which Brilleaux felt he couldn’t sing, as it talked about loving two women simultaneously. Other material was considered and rejected, before tempers flared and Wilko was suddenly ousted. Some 36 years later, he still seems upset by events.
I think Dr. Feelgood lost it, they threw me out, they planned it.
“I think they lost it, they threw me out, they planned it,” he fumes. “The final argument that split the band came just after they had all my new songs in the can. They never missed a step, they did the Hammersmith Odeon gig we were due to play with a new guy [Gypie Mayo]. I was in a terrible state for months. The day of Hammersmith Odeon I got on a tube packed with Feelgood fans, who were all shouting at me, thinking I was going to the gig, but me and my son got off at the stop before.”
The Feelgoods MkII were, he says, a betrayal. “After I left they went for that Prisoner look, like Patrick McGoohan – dork city! One minute you had the meanest-looking band in the world and the next they’re in blazers and scarves riding penny farthings. Sorry, mate, that’s shit. They lost all their class then. But they still had Lee, so had the right to call it Dr. Feelgood.”
A year after his sacking an attempt was made to reinstate Wilko, a mutual friend arranging a clandestine meeting between Brilleaux and the guitarist at the Ship pub in Soho. “Lee apparently wanted me back, and I wanted to go back,” explains Johnson. However, in a move that would set a pattern for much of Wilko’s subsequent career, he somehow dissuaded himself from taking the commercially sensible path. The night before the proposed meeting he met up with a girlfriend, and come the following lunchtime was still in her arms. “I was more interested in the girl – so I just didn’t turn up.”
Brilleaux continued to front the band until his death from cancer in 1994, and the two men never properly made their peace. According to the guitarist, the rest of the group approached him soon after Lee’s death to plead with him to lead the group, citing a lucrative career playing live in Europe, but he declined, wanting “the memory to remain pure. There aren’t even any original members left now, some people have no pride and no shame.”
Following his ejection from the Feelgoods, Wilko admits he felt “freaked out and didn’t know what to do”, and naturally assumed the punk and new wave explosion, with its Year Zero mentality, would “consign me to the dustbin of history”. Instead, he found many of its key players eager to befriend him. He shared a flat for a while with The Stranglers’ Jean-Jacques Burnel and, having been approached by Joe Strummer in Oxford Street, even invited The Clash over to his West Hampstead home to hang out.
“When I got back Lemmy was there and I told him The Clash were coming over,” laughs Wilko. “He said, ‘Bloody Clash! Did you see what their roadie said about our last single in the NME?’ I thought, Wouldn’t it be great to have Motörhead and The Clash having a punch-up in your front room? But it was all very convivial. All these [punk] people saw me as a bit of a mentor. They’d all seen Dr. Feelgood and weren’t shy of expressing it. That was quite good.”
In 1978, Wilko formed a band called the Solid Senders, signing to Virgin for one album (“at a time when people were talking telephone numbers”), before trading on and off for the rest of his career as the Wilko Johnson Band. But that was not before becoming an honorary member of a group of other 24-carat British eccentrics with whom he’d gel perfectly.
It’s July 25, five months after our first meeting, and Wilko is performing as a special guest of Norman Watt-Roy at the launch for the latter’s new solo album, Faith And Grace, held at the Rough Trade shop in Whitechapel, East London. Mercifully and unexpectedly, since doctors told him his cancer would ‘kick in’ within five or six months, he’s still in good health. His emotional ‘farewell tour’ of April, in which fans came to pay homage amid tearful scenes, is now a receding memory, and it transpires he’s been feeling chipper enough to perform sporadic festival dates – in fact, he is due to fly to Japan in the morning to play Fuji Rock.
Wilko seems customarily matter-of-fact about the rapturous reception his gigs have been getting, and the outpouring of affection the knowledge of his diagnosis has fuelled. “I know my farewell tour was emotional for people, but I didn’t feel that sentimental myself,” he says. “I was just pleased everyone had a good time, they were really good shows. Then when I stopped playing I got bored, I was just another bloke walking around the streets, so I agreed to do some more dates. I’m just going to go on as long as I can.”
Norman Watt-Roy has been bassist in Wilko’s band since the early ’80s, having met Johnson when Ian Dury invited the latter to join Ian Dury & The Blockheads to record and tour their Laughter album in 1980. It was the perfect home for the guitarist – among a bunch of highly individual, musically gifted oddballs – and though recording the album was a chore (“I refused to play to a click track and the sound engineer wanted me to do overdubs – ‘overdubs’! I HATE that word!”), the two years he spent on the road are among his happiest memories. “There were so many of them in the group,” he chuckles, “a whole coach load! I was in this web of intrigue with all these people with issues going back before I joined. There was always something to laugh at.”
After the Blockheads, Wilko settled in to a life as a club act, and recorded only sporadically for small labels. The truth was he lacked ambition and felt he had little to prove in a world that had long moved on to digital recording and bouffant haircuts. “By then I had no special motivation to go to a studio, I knew I was on the way out,” he says. “I thought, Fuck it, you make a record and then the silly bastards will just slag it off because your time has gone. I’ve never had a proper manager until the last two years, I don’t have a direction in things.”
Money was never the issue. “I’ve had plenty of moments when I’ve felt like a millionaire,” he adds, “when you can (snaps fingers) get anything you want and do anything you bloody like. I’ve had that feeling. It’s quite good, but not to be concentrated on. I’ve always been solvent, I’ve always been comfortably off. A lot of that is down to Irene, she looked after the domestic economy – no one can chuck me out of my house because it’s MINE.”
A new career path seemed to open up in 2011 when the TV series Game Of Thrones cast Johnson as the deathly-looking King’s executioner after seeing him in Oil City Confidential, but illness curtailed talk of appearing in the series shot this year. Since learning of his cancer, Wilko has finally made attempts to record a new album, even attending a session in a studio outside Southend featuring The Damned’s Rat Scabies on drums and the MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, an early inspiration whom he’d first met in 1972 at the Wembley Rock’n’Roll Festival, where the nascent Feelgoods were backing former Joe Meek protégé Heinz.
But recording has been familiarly chaotic and haphazard. “Sometimes I think, What’s the point?” muses Johnson. “There are days when I feel really apathetic. But, yes, I think we’ll get it finished at some point.”
Post-diagnosis, other well-known names have been keen to wish him well, including a famous piano player. “Elton John phoned me up the other day,” smiles the guitarist. “He’s involved with The Strypes and said, ‘You’ve got to meet this band, they hero worship you.’ ’Cos the reception in my house is so bad, the woman putting us in touch was standing in my front garden on her phone saying, ‘Is Elton there?’ I thought, What the hell are the neighbours going to think? (laughs) But we had a really good chat.”
So does it please him that a new generation of bands looks up to him? “I realise that there are some fantastic teenage bands doing that Feelgoods stuff that comes from me,” he says, “and it’s good that’s carrying on. It gives me a nice little feeling.”
And with the gig over Wilko says goodbye, and leaves to get some sleep before his flight to Japan. MOJO collars Norman Watt-Roy and asks whether Johnson has changed at all since the diagnosis and renewed media interest in him. “Nah,” he laughs. “Wilko doesn’t do change. He’s always the same. He’s just Wilko, isn’t he?”
A true gent, genuine inspiration and national treasure. How we will miss Wilko Johnson when he is gone.
This article originally appeared in MOJO 239.