Wilko Johnson meets Alex Kapranos for a 2013 interview in The Big Issue. Photo: The Big Issue
Punk icon Wilko Johnson – a guitarist whose distinctive choppy style shaped generations of musicians, though he “never had any ambition to be a rock star” – has died at the age of 75.
The news was announced through his official Twitter page. “This is the announcement we never wanted to make, & we do so with a very heavy heart: Wilko Johnson has died,” it said. “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.”
Johnson’s band, Dr. Feelgood, was a mainstay of the 1970s pub rock movement and a founding influence for the punk scene that followed. He cut an immediately recognisable figure with his jerky “duck walk” and his penchant for hoisting his guitar to his shoulder like a gun.
“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,” he told Alex Kapranos, when the Franz Ferdinand singer interviewed Johnson for The Big Issue back in 2013.
A little starstruck, Kapranos said the punk legend was a game changer for those who came after.
“Joe Strummer got himself a guitar like Wilko’s after seeing him. His influence stretches further than the ’70s. I’m sure I can hear him in the way Alex Turner or Kele Okereke play, and if you look at how I hold a guitar… aye, it all adds up,” Kapranos wrote.
“He inspired a generation to do something different with their guitars, to swap the excess of rock for the violent energy of punk.”
That 2013 interview came just after Wilko Johnson’s diagnosis with terminal pancreatic cancer. He was told that January he had a year to live. Refusing chemotherapy, he instead embarked on a farewell tour, talking about his illness and his mortality with typically refreshing frankness.
“My reaction was not what I would have imagined. It’s altered my perception. We’re all going to die, but generally it’s something in the indefinite future,” Johnson told Kapranos. “You don’t consider it. We feel immortal, or death is something far, far away. Then suddenly – boom – it’s in front of you. It lifted so much off me. The day-to-day hassles don’t matter. I’m not going to be here in a few months, so it doesn’t bloody well matter.”
The cancer diagnosis came eight years after Johnson’s wife, his childhood sweetheart Irene Knight whom he married when he was 19, had died of the disease.
“I’m in love with her still. I still really miss her,” Johnson told The Big Issue in 2015. “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.”
Johnson spent a year thinking he was about to die, but in 2014 he met a surgeon who said he could remove the tumour. After an 11-hour operation, Johnson was cancer-free.
“I had been misdiagnosed,” Johnson told The Big Issue. “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!”
Johnson is survived by his two sons Matthew and Simon. In his Letter to My Younger Self for The Big Issue, he reflected on his love for his children.
“You have kids, oh man, and you love them so much. What can you love more than a three-year-old kid?” he said. “But time is constantly taking them away from you. That three-year-old kid, you’re never going to see him again.”
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