Issue 1: Wilko Johnson: The Man With No Plan
Taken from Issue 1 of 404 Ink |Wilko Johnson has never been a man with a plan. His whole approach to life has been to just see where things took him, and roll with it. We’ve all probably tried it once in a while, but few of us have ended up travelling the world in bands, or starred in things like that little known TV show, Game of Thrones, just by rolling with the times.
From the humble beginnings in his home of Canvey Island, Wilko and the inimitable Lee Brilleaux and John B. Sparks formed Dr. Feelgood and became a staple of the pub rock scene in London through the 1970s. With belters ‘She Does It Right’ and ‘Roxette’ in their repertoire, it was all going well until tensions arose, and Wilko left, or was booted out, depending on who you ask. He neverwent back to the drawing board, instead going full steam ahead: he played with a few more bands, including The Blockheads with Ian Dury, but it was The Wilko Johnson Band that stuck, and kept him travelling the world with his guitar in tow for the last several decades.
Each twist has been an unexpected adventure for Wilko, and that’s why, come January 2013, when he was told that he had terminal pancreatic cancer and just ten months to live, he embraced the news in a way that fit with his past seven decades. Today is, quite obviously, more than ten months later than when the news was broken, and now Wilko has written a book – Don’t You Leave Me Here – that takes you through his childhood, life spent with wife Irene, the iconic rise and fall of Dr Feelgood, and that last year of his life… but a few years on.
“I hadn’t written a book before. I didn’t have any method, so I just launched into it haphazardly. Started thinking ‘Ayyy, man, I’m a writer!’, you know?” laughs Wilko. “I’d open the ol’ laptop, tap away pretty good. I found after I got into it, I started getting into some sad stuff, like when my wife died, and aw, man…
“Normally when we remember things, look back on them, we remember them in bits and pieces, we just remember one scene or one day or event or something like that. When you need to write a book, of course you’ve got to remember whole periods in a sequence, and you get to the sad bits and, aw, man, it all comes back on me as if it was yesterday. Oh dear, I was so upset and I couldn’t write. I just opened the laptop and I’m just sitting there crying there and upset like a complete wimp.
“Anyway, I kind of pull myself together and carried on. What the result was – whether it’s good or bad – I do not know.”
The book is indeed a good result and one that takes you down the streets of Canvey Island, around the pubs of London, the stages and studios of the world. With a life so full of stories to tell, it’s unsurprising that as he revisited his life, many stories that were long lost in the back of his memory started coming to life.
When Dr. Feelgood split up, Wilko didn’t look back and instead focused on what music would come next. In fact, when he came to write the book, the band were a mere blip on the radar originally. “When that happened all those years ago I remember, at the time, it was a blow to me,” he admits, “but I resolved to walk away from it and never look badly on it. I just wanted to remember Dr. Feelgood as a great thing and I’ve never in my mind or otherwise indulged in recriminations or anything. So, I just kind of skimmed over it. I just said, ‘Well, we had an argument and broke up.’
“Lemmy [Kilmister, Motörhead] told me that his theory was speed freaks and drunks could never get on well together and that’s what I said. The publishers said, ‘You can’t just say that! You’ve got to explain a bit more.’
“I tried to remember what happened at that moment in time and as I remembered more and more, I thought, those bastards! They did me wrong! They lied about me and they blamed me for that break up and it wasn’t me, man, it was them. And I got quite angry – I thought blimey, man, I was right and they were wrong. They did me wrong and I wasn’t to blame for Dr. Feelgood breaking up, it was them. Right? And, well, that’s it. I really, really never looked on it or relived it or anything up until that moment actually trying to write about it.”
Many stories like that appear in his autobiography that he admits he didn’t really think too much about at the time, instead too busy just rocking and rolling wherever the music took him.
“I’ve lived my whole life drifting into things accidentally,” he reflects. “I’ve never had ambitions or aims, I just let things happen, and Dr. Feelgood was no different. I loved that rhythm and blues music and I just wanted to play, and that’s what we did, without any kind of ambition. I just got swept along with it. When we started that band, as I say, it was just the sheer pleasure of playing music – I didn’t realise that was going to be my life.
“I always thought that Dr. Feelgood was going to be my band, you know? I was never going to go on and do anything else,” he notes, considering whether there was even an alternative to music once he’d had that first taste. “It’s a pretty good life! It’s a very good life. I just wanted to continue and so I did, as ever, keep drifting along and drifting along and that’s how my career has been – consisting of ups and downs. Now I’m an old man and I look back and think, ‘Yeah, that was a pretty good thing to do.’ And I’ll probably be doing it until I drop.”
Wilko means it. When he was living what doctors had deemed his last year on Earth, he didn’t seek out a cure or waste a second trying to buy more time. He lived exactly as he wanted to.
“That year was one of the most extraordinary years of my life, actually,” he beams, adding “when I was dying of cancer. I think everybody must imagine to themselves sometimes, well, what would I feel if one day the doctor said to me I’m gonna die? We imagine all sorts of things.
“When that happened to me, I was sitting there looking across the desk at the doctor and he’s saying those words to me: ‘You’ve got cancer.’ And I was absolutely calm, not a tremor. I said ‘Okay.’
“They told me that they thought I had just a few months to live, and I thought, ‘Well this is another adventure,’” he laughs. “What can you do? Start screaming and crying and fall on the floor? No. You think – wow. This is another one. Walking out of the hospital – it was a beautiful winter’s day, looking up at the trees against the sky – aw, man, it looked so beautiful and suddenly I felt this rush. I felt ecstatic. Man, I’m alive. I’m alive! It was just so intense, and I just hadn’t felt like that for years. You’re looking around and thinking how beautiful everything looks – oh wow! – and so the year went on.
“As I say, it was the most extraordinary year. Lots of strange things happened. At the end of that year, when the time had come that they reckoned I was going to die at ten months and I was already into my eleventh – Roger Daltrey [of The Who] popped up and said let’s make an album together,” chuckles Wilko. “I’m thinking maaan, ain’t life weird? Here I am, my life is ending, and I can’t complain, I’ve just had a fantastic life and here I am ending up making an album with Roger Daltrey.
“When we were making that album I didn’t think I was going to live to see it released. In fact, I did live to see it released, and it was the most successful album I’ve ever done. It got a Gold Disc. I remember thinking, this is crazy man – I’ve got a bestselling album, a Gold Disc, and now I’m gonna die.
“But NO! There was another surprise in store.”
The surprise was a fated meeting with Charlie Chan, a surgeon who also did music photography – he recommended Wilko get a second opinion and so he came to meet Emmanuel Huguet, the surgeon who would save his life. “These doctors found me and told me they thought they could cure me,” he says simply. “And they did. And that was weird upon weird. It was always strange."
While facing death, he was euphoric, full of life by his own account. He’s a couple of years into a future he didn’t think he’d have, and still finds it odd to reconcile this latest twist in his adventure. “Today, I’m looking out my window. It’s a beautiful day here and, again, looking at the trees against the sky.” He bursts out laughing – again. It’s hard not to be swept along in his positivity. “When I got the cancer diagnosis, what did I do? I thought, well: I’ve got ten months left to live, I just want to enjoy it, make the most of these ten months. I didn’t go looking for second opinions or miracle cures, I thought I’m going to go ahead, carry on playing.
“This tumour was growing the whole time. It got so big it looked liked I was pregnant. This tumour was the size of a melon in my stomach. I used to stand on the stage and my guitar used to rock on this tumour. You could never get away from it.
“This whole thing started, me sitting across a table from a doctor and the doctor telling me, ‘You’re going to die.’ A year later I’m sitting again across the table from a doctor and the doctor is telling me he thinks he can cure me. I’ve spent more than a year convinced I’m dying and there’s nothing that can be done and then there was this man, this supernatural guy, telling me that he thought they could do it. And so they did.
“Man, it knocks it out of you. They opened me up and took half of my gut away and as well as this tumour that weighed three and a quarter kilos. They took that out of me, they took away my pancreas and my spleen, they took away half of my stomach, and stitched me up, and then I’m lying on my back weak as a kitten for months recovering in the hospital and at home.
“And here I am.
“It’s weird to say – here I am! If I try and talk about it now, I think here I am, looking out the window at them trees, talking to somebody about it and then thinking ‘Man, I should’ve been in my grave two years ago,’ and that’s very, very hard to comprehend. Here I am.”
Wilko may never have been a man with a plan, but here he is on the latest stop of one hell of an adventure.
Don’t You Leave Me Here by Wilko Johnson is out now. Published by Little, Brown, £18.99.