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Wilko Johnson: ‘I believed I was going to die – then started to feel alive’

In this interview from the Big Issue Archives, Dr Feelgood’s Wilko Johnson on an incredible year of living with cancer, his teenage diaries – and the last kiss he gave his wife

Wilko Johnson, legendary guitarist in Dr Feelgood and later the menacingly mute executioner Ser Ilyn Payne in Game of Thrones, has died at the age of 75.

A former English teacher, he was widely regarded as one of the most innovative guitarists of his time, influencing the British punk movement of the late 1970s and all the bands that followed.

In 2015 he spoke to The Big Issue for his Letter To My Younger Self interview, detailing his childhood, discovery of music, young marriage and diagnosis with pancreatic cancer in 2013.

At the time he was given just 10 months to live but, speaking to the Big Issue’s Jane Graham two years later, he detailed the joy at hearing he had been misdiagnosed and how the cancer had been removed. 

Details of his death have not been shared, but a statement posted to his Twitter account on November 23, 2022, reads: “This is the announcement we never wanted to make, & we do so with a very heavy heart: Wilko Johnson has died.

He passed away at home on Monday 21st November. Thank you for respecting the family’s privacy at this very sad time. RIP Wilko Johnson.”

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This interview is testament to the strength of character which powered him on for another nine years after his initial diagnosis and for which he will always be remebered.

Rest in peace, Wilko.

I kept a diary when I was a teenager. It’s excruciating to read it now. Me getting really uptight about stuff that’s going down. I’d love to get in a time machine and go to that teenager and slap him round the head. You absolute twat! You have no idea. None of this matters. But then again, every now and again you find this tiny hint of something that will become really significant, like a record you’ve bought.

I hated school. Oh dear, I hated it. School’s horrible, isn’t it? There you are being dictated to by mediocrities with leather patches on their elbows. You’re actually oppressed. You always get these celebrities telling you about these teachers who changed their lives. It amazes me. I can’t think of a single one of those people I have anything but contempt for.

I knew very little about music but when I was about 15 I fancied playing the guitar, getting all the girls. Through learning the guitar I started to find out about music. I heard The Rolling Stones and I thought – wow. Then I looked into what influenced them. So I discovered American blues music. I never had any ambition to be a rock star. It was just fun. I’d never have believed I was going to have decades living the dream in the world of rock ’n’ roll.

I got to walk her home and I kissed her outside her gate. It knocked me off my feet

Girls weren’t a big worry when I was a teenager because I was very happily married by the time I was 19. And I remained so. Me and my missus, we were together until she died 10 years ago of cancer and I… well man, I’m in love with her still. I still really miss her. I first saw her down Canvey Island youth club, when I was 16. I can still picture her standing there. Then my band played the school leavers’ party and I danced with her, and her friend told me I’d been dancing with Irene. That’s the first time I heard her name. A few weeks later I got to walk her home and I kissed her outside her gate. It knocked me off my feet. I just went Blammo! And I remember when she died, I went to see her in the morgue. She was lying on this table. God, Jesus man… She looked like a saint. And I kissed her. And she was cold. I remember that last kiss and I remember the first kiss and there were 40 years in between.

Everybody must have asked themselves, ‘What would my reaction be if the doctor told me I was going to die’. When I was told [in 2013] that I had terminal, inoperable cancer, the way it struck me – I was immediately calm. I resolutely set myself against ever indulging in false hopes or looking for miracle cures. Although this tumour, which ended up at three-and-a-half kilos – the size of a baby – was growing inside me, I still felt healthy. I wasn’t losing weight or in any pain. So I didn’t want to waste the very little time I had left.

I spent the whole year after I was diagnosed believing life was at an end. I moved into this strange, intense consciousness. It was very interesting. I saw everything differently. I was thinking so intensely, having real insights about life that I can’t even put into words. I believed completely that I was going to die and I accepted it absolutely. And I started to feel alive.

Just over a year after my diagnosis, I met this top surgeon who told me he could operate. I had been misdiagnosed. I remember this very impressive man sitting by my bed telling me what this big, complicated operation involved and I was just looking at him thinking, is this guy telling me he can actually cure me? After a year of accepting there’s no cure? Is this just another mad thing that’s going to happen this year? Before I knew where I was, I was waking up in hospital. Then a couple of days later the surgeon came to see me on the ward to say he had the lab reports and they’d ‘got it all’. I was sitting with my brother and we started applauding!

None of that would have happened if I hadn’t been facing death

If I could go back and whisper in my ear at that moment of my terminal diagnosis that I was actually going to live… would I? No, I don’t think I would. During that year, so many amazing things happened. My farewell tour, making the album, everything was so emotionally charged. People came up to me in the street and shook my hand. I remember a gig in Kyoto, it was absolutely rammed… Oh man, at the end of this song, Bye Bye Johnny, I looked down and just saw a sea of faces with tears in their eyes, looking up at me, singing ‘Bye Bye’. It didn’t make me sad. I thought it was amazing to feel such affection. I came home with sacks full of letters from these people who really cared about me, written in broken English, which made them all the more touching. None of that would have happened if I hadn’t been facing death. There were times on stage when it was so overwhelming that I thought, you know what? It’s almost worth it.

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I’m parachuting back into the land of the living now. For a while I was actually afraid to say out loud that they got all the cancer out, that I’m cured. But I can say it now. When I look back at that year, it’s almost like a fading dream. And now I’m back to being like everyone else, dreading going to the doctor in case they tell me I’ve got cancer. I don’t think, oh that’s alright, I’ve done that before, I’ll just have a groovy, insightful time. All the old fears have come back. And I know I’m really getting better now ’cause misery has descended upon me again. I’m back to the old me, moping about the place.

If I could go back and live one time in my life over again, I’d go to the mid-’70s. Things were good for me then. I had everything I ever wanted. Money. Sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Dr Feelgood were doing great. I had my little family. I always had a video camera and I have hours and hours of home video footage. When I watch them I see Irene – that doesn’t upset me, she’s there, that’s great. Then I see my son, a little toddler, in the back garden and oh dear, he breaks my heart. You have kids, oh man, and you love them so much. What can you love more than a three-year-old kid? But time is constantly taking them away from you. That three-year-old kid, you’re never going to see him again.

Originally published July 2015

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