Wilko Johnson: "I remember"

Amanda Riley-Jones

Wilko Johnson co-founded Dr Feelgood and played with Ian Dury and The Blockheads. He’s defied cancer, made a hit album with Roger Daltrey and starred in Julien Temple’s The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson

…Growing up on Canvey Island

Growing up on Canvey Island

I was born there 1947. It was all fields and wild open spaces then. 

I got the sense from my mum that there was something shameful about coming from Canvey. She was an intelligent woman—a teacher in the later part of her life. She devoted herself to looking after us, but there wasn’t much affection in our home.

My dad was uneducated and violent and I hated him. I detest cruelty to children. I know how terrifying it is. 

 

…Getting obsessed with music

The Rolling Stones put me on to music and I fancied myself with a guitar. I’m left-handed but taught myself to play right-handed. 

I remember hearing I’ll Never Get Over You by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. The lead guitarist Mick Green played a Fender Telecaster and had this way of playing—picking and strumming at the same time. He sounded like an American. Man, I wanted to be Mick Green!

The local music shop had a Telecaster in the window, but £100 was a fortune. My scheme was to save my dinner money and pay off a bit each week, but my future wife Irene paid for most of it. Her mum and dad never knew.

 

…Marrying while I was at university

Marrying whilst at university Wilko Johnson

I went to university in Newcastle to study English. I couldn’t find a band so I stopped playing. I ran the poetry magazine instead and got very interested in medieval literature and old Icelandic sagas. 

I got a letter from my girlfriend Irene saying, “Can we get married?” Even as a child, I thought that Irene was the one thing in the universe I was sure of.

 

"When you have no future, all you can do is live in the minute you’re in."

 

…Becoming a dad and making it big

One of the best times of my life was 1973. We got some gigs up in London on the pub circuit. Within a few months we were getting famous and Matthew was born the same year. Nothing beats having a little kid. I was doing well and had a lovely wife and little boy back home. I had it all!

By then I’d changed my name from John Wilkinson to Wilko Johnson. I wanted something people could chant. We [Dr Feelgood] made our first album, Down by the Jetty, in 1974. Next year, we played Reading Festival. The audience had great big banners saying “Dr Feelgood”. What a feeling! In 1976 our live album Stupidity went straight to number one.

I don’t know why but things had got really bad between me and Lee. I left the band in 1977. I didn’t know what to do.

 

…Joining Ian Dury and the Blockheads

Ian Dury and the Blovkheads

One night I saw Ian Dury and The Blockheads on TV. I was flabbergasted by his bass player Norman Watt-Roy. He performed so brilliantly without being flash—always playing just the right thing. A couple of years later Ian asked me if I wanted to join The Blockheads. Oh yeah! 

There were so many chords in their songs. I’d have them written down on a piece of paper and sometimes, I’ll confess, I just used to turn my guitar off and do the funny walk or something. But I did learn it in the end.

I just fell in with Norman. He’s a really good bloke, a lifelong friend. Ian had all this stage fright, but we were having a really good time playing in front of thousands and thousands of people. 

In 1985 Irene was pregnant with our son Simon and I reformed the Wilko Johnson Band with Norman. We’ve been touring together ever since. 

 

…Losing Irene

I lost Irene to cancer in 2004. It was terrible to see her waste away in front of my eyes. There was nothing I could do. I’m still in love with her and think of her all the time. She was the most beautiful human being I’ve ever known.

 

…Being diagnosed with terminal cancer

Wilko Johnson

I was ignoring this lump in my stomach—it was about the size of an apple. But in 2012 my son dragged me to my local hospital. When I found out I had inoperable cancer I was completely calm and accepted it. The doctor told me I had less than a year and chemotherapy would only give me an extra two months. I decided not to bother. I wasn’t in pain and I wanted to make the most of the time I had left. I walked back home feeling so alive.

I love Japan and went to a monastery outside Kyoto. I was standing on a balcony looking out over the roofs. It was snowing gently and the sun was making the snow golden. When you have no future, all you can do is live in the minute you’re in. It was a perfect moment.

I've played farewell gig in Japan, France and the UK. The feedback I experienced from people was so touching. But I wasn't sad—I was thinking, 'these are great shows!'

 

Read the full interview in our November issue. Subscribe here for more great features