Now that death isn't imminent, Wilko Johnson feels good
Imagine being told you've got less than a year to live. And then imagine being told actually, that's not the case. Wilko Johnson talks to Andy Welch about survival, putting pen to paper and how he knew he'd always love Chess records
WILKO Johnson shouldn't be in this cafe. It's not that the former Dr Feelgood guitarist and songwriter is barred or anything – it's that he shouldn't really be anywhere.
In 2013 he was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer and given just 10 months to live. That was extended to 12 months with chemotherapy, but after weighing it up, he opted to go without, and face death head on.
There was an emotional farewell tour, an album recorded with The Who's Roger Daltrey, and visits to friends around the world to say goodbye. But, of course, Johnson didn't die.
The turnaround is largely down to Charlie Chan, a passionate music photographer and fan of Johnson's music, who also happened to be one of Britain's leading surgeons. After taking photos of Johnson at the Cornbury Festival in 2013, Chan met the guitarist and explained his theory of misdiagnosis. Other experts were consulted, and it transpired Johnson didn't have the most common type of pancreatic tumour after all, but a rarer, less deadly, kind.
A little while later, a team of surgeons set about removing said tumour – which weighed a massive 3kg – along with Johnson's pancreas, spleen, parts of his stomach and intestines, and some blood vessels from around his liver. The operation took 11 hours – but 68-year-old Johnson is now fit, healthy, and cancer-free.
The remarkable details, along with other amazing tales from his life and career, can be found in his recent autobiography, Don't You Leave Me Here.
"It's a good story," he says, smiling. "It had occurred to me once or twice during the cancer that it would make for a good book, but I would never have done it without pushing from the publisher. I didn't have the time."
He says he didn't have a particular approach, other than to "get stuck in and see what happened" – which, having read the book, sounds very much like Johnson's approach to life in general.
Born on Canvey Island in Essex in 1947, he had a tough childhood – he recalls in his book how, aged 16, he was elated to come home from school one day to find his dad had died – but found joy in literature.
After realising he was never going to cut it as a poet, he discovered music, eventually getting his first proper guitar when his beloved Irene emptied her savings account to buy the Fender Telecaster he'd set his heart on.
He graduated from Newcastle University before travelling around India, then returned to Essex to work as an English teacher. Not long after, he formed Dr Feelgood, hugely influential pub-rock pioneers who paved the way for punk.
While Johnson says his dreams of becoming a poet were shattered after realising he was no good, there are great passages of his book that suggest he may have been wrong, while at other times, his writing is blunt to almost artful degree.
Sitting with him for an hour or so, this is almost exactly how he talks. He details in a brilliantly off-the-record rant exactly what he thinks of Glastonbury Festival, and then moments later, describes fantastically the feeling of walking around with a terminal diagnosis.
"When I was getting into an emotional experience, I just tried the best I could to get into those feelings," he says. "I don't know whether I succeeded, but I gave it a good go."
The book opens with his performance at Fuji Rock Festival in Japan in 2013, his guitar perched on top of his protruding stomach because of the giant tumour inside.
He then rewinds to the beginning, looking back at his time in Dr Feelgood, becoming a member of Ian Dury's Blockheads, through to his solo career and stint on Game Of Thrones (Johnson appeared as mute Lannister executioner Ser Ilyn Payne).
"The publishers said I was skimming along, missing too much out. They said they wanted to hear more about the Dr Feelgood split. In my mind, it was 38 years ago, and I wondered if anyone was interested.
"I suppose it was fairly momentous at the time, but it was a long time ago. So I dug deep and started writing an account of how the argument started, and how I got kicked out of the band when we argued," he says, righting the incorrect assumption that he left the band in 1977 of his own volition.
He says he's not a nostalgic person, apart from when he hears certain songs on the radio, and it takes him back to a time or place.
None more so than his favourite Chess Records hits, which Johnson recently had the chance to pull together for a compilation album (Wilko Johnson Presents: The First Time I Met The Blues – Essential Chess Masters), for the Chicago-founded blues label.
"The first time I heard a Chess record, it literally stopped me in my tracks. I used to say then, as a teenager, that I would always love that music," Johnson recalls. "Now I'm an old man, I know I was right.
"The label wanted 40-odd songs for the album and I just reeled them off," he adds of the compilation. "I didn't need to listen to anything to work it out and get a list, it was all there."
How does he feel now, when he looks back on being told he had 10 months to live?
"I was at home the other night, thinking, 'Come on, man, get yourself back into that consciousness, into that frame of mind'. I wanted to imagine that I was going to die, to speed myself along and get that sense of urgency back.
"But you can't," he says. "When it's happening to you, you wake up in the morning and it's there, that feeling, that realisation. Perception of the world around you is different from the second the doctor says: 'You've got cancer'. Bam – your universe changes.
"My life was over and I was going to die. Walking around with that consciousness, you do feel isolated from everyone else, above them in a way. I was special.
"All these people around us," he adds, gesturing out of the window, "they are mortal, in the grip of mortality. But for me, the issue was sorted. I was going to die, and soon. I was not a victim of mortality any longer. It was decided."
What isn't decided is what Johnson is going to do next. He's got the book and the Chess compilation to promote, but then he's not sure. He'd love to return to Game Of Thrones, seeing as his character hasn't been killed off.
"I've learned not to look too far ahead," he says.
:: Don't You Leave Me Here: My Life by Wilko Johnson is published by Little Brown. Wilko Johnson Presents: The First Time I Met The Blues – Essential Chess Masters, is out now.