Stories of Strife and Survival with Wilko Johnson

Stories of Strife and Survival with Wilko Johnson

Emotional extremes characterised a chat between famed musician Wilko Johnson and DJ Vic Galloway – and that was before they even got to the devastating cancer diagnosis that forms the main subject of his memoir, Don’t You Leave Me Here. A wiry, mercurial presence with a florid turn of phrase, Johnson spoke intensely of his hatred for his father (“Stupid, ignorant, uneducated, violent…”) and of his deep love for his childhood sweetheart and wife of forty years, Irene (“She really was an exceptional person – speak to anyone who knew her”).  Both of these towering figures are now deceased; but Johnson himself, to his own great surprise, lives on.

When his doctor told him in 2013 that he had terminal pancreatic cancer, he felt a deep sense of resignation. “It was as if he was telling me something I’d known all my life.” And he held out no hope whatsoever: “If there’s only so much time left, I’m not going to waste any of that time trying to find a miracle cure.” Instead, he went on a farewell tour and recorded what he assumed would be a final album. Well, so much for farewells. Radical surgery – the removal of a tumour that weighed more than three kilograms, along with a considerable percentage of Johnson’s internal organs – succeeded in leaving him cancer-free.  “A year had gone by and I was not dead… Something strange was going on here.” The album, meanwhile, was a hit. “It was an extraordinary year: so many twists and turns. It started with a death sentence and ended with a gold disc…”

Johnson had experienced twists and turns before. A working class boy from Canvey Island, Essex, he faced early mockery for his accent – only to find himself prized by earnest lefty peers further down the line. “They might have had a go at me at grammar school, but when I got to university, I was a star. Genuine dropped aitches!” The value of keeping things a little rough held true once he had established a career as a musician, playing guitar and songwriting with the pub rock band Dr Feelgood. When the band made its 1976 live album Stupidity, Johnson insisted against the wishes of the record label that it retain some raw edges. “When people come and see us play, they hear bum notes – so that’s what you hear on the record.” The label conceded. “’We’ll let Wilko have his way, and it will fail….’ It went straight to number one. I was very magnanimous!”

Rejecting slickness and sophistication was part of the appeal of Dr Feelgood, though it ran counter to the fashion of the day. “We were not playing what was the happening thing. They were all wearing frocks and singing about going to Mars, and we were… not doing this. We were against the grain.” Which, for this lover, fighter, survivor and uproarious storyteller, would seem to be par for the course.

More articles