Friday 7 November 2014

Pick up thy Telecaster and walk… an interview with Wilko Johnson

Wilko photograph courtesy of Daily Mirror

Biblical jokes aside, it really is a miracle, for if truth bears out, the second coming of Wilko Johnson will match, in modern terms, anything you might find in the good book.

18 months ago he sold out multiple nights at London’s Koko and other places, not only on the strength of his popularity and immense talent, but because also – and the man himself stated as much – it was going to be his last tour. And that he would die from pancreatic cancer by Christmas. ‘Great,’ quipped Wilko. ‘I fucking hate Christmas.’

Bravado aside, and of course a sense of humour comes in handy in such grim circumstances, it seems the doctors may have got it wrong. This is of little comfort to cancer sufferers who have been accurately diagnosed, or the misdiagnosed for whom the kind of column inches that attract the attention of one of the country’s most eminent surgeons are a distinct impossibility.

Wilko went under the knife at Addenbrookes hospital in Cambridge in April 2014 and has since announced he is ‘cancer free’. Fans rejoiced in the news that he may live to strum another day, and much of this may be down to his positive attitude towards his cancer, and life in general.

I visited Wilko in April of 2013, shortly after news of his impending death hit ‘BBC Breakfast’ and other media platforms. And as I left his house, we were fully expecting not to see each other again.

This is what Wilko said:

“We had a great time in Japan in January. We did these gigs and raised a lot of money for the disaster fund. I got a letter from the president of the Japanese Red Cross. We’ve got a lot of good friends out there. This lady I know – she’s such a beautiful spirit - was having dinner with us in Kyoto, it was about midnight, and suddenly she had to leave. She works at the 7-11. The next morning about five we got a cab to Osaka to catch our plane home. We were at the airport and just about to go through into the, er, what do you call it… the forbidden zone? And she was standing there at the barrier. She must have come straight from working all night and made it from Kyoto to Osaka. She’s got leukaemia. She said, ‘Come back to Japan in the cherry blossom time.’ I told her, ‘If I’m still standing, I’ll come back to Japan.’ I couldn’t get back for cherry blossom time, all the hotels were full, but I am going in about a week’s time.

I’ve been living my life ever since January trying to do this and that and wondering if I’ll be alright. We did Japan, France, and while I was in Japan all this global interest started to pick up. I’d had the diagnosis and planned to do a farewell gig on Canvey Island. The specialist said I could expect to feel fit for six months maybe. So we thought right, let’s do a tour. When we embarked on it I just didn’t know if this was gonna hit me, but fortunately I got through it. We played two gigs in Guernsey, and I was getting this flu. Just before that I did the thing with Madness outside BBC Television Centre. It was so cold on that stage with all the horrible icy snow coming in. I stayed inside until it was time to do my bit, but those Madness guys were out there for an hour, freezing.

Then it starts sinking in that there won’t be any more tours. We’ve done some recording. We’ve got a few tracks down. Maybe I’ve got enough for a double album…

I’ve had so many communications… it was a surprise to me. All this interest broke while I was in Japan. My manager put a piece in the local paper apologising because we missed the Canvey Island show, saying I’d been hospitalised. Then they reported that I’d got cancer. Somehow or other the nationals picked it up. I don’t know why. My brother thinks it was because I’d got cancer and was refusing treatment.”

[At this point I ‘apologise’ to Wilko for confessing that I had Tweeted the local paper news the day it was published, which was 24 hours before it appeared online and hit the national press. I gained about 50 Twitter followers immediately, and had at least one national newspaper contact me to see if I knew any more (which I didn’t). ‘So it was your fault,’ said Wilko, I think good-naturedly.]

“When I got back from Japan it was all happening. Every day there are people coming around from the papers and whatnot. I think it’s been because of my attitude to it. But my attitude isn’t something that I thought out, or planned, it was just the way I felt, this elation I felt after I got the diagnosis. It was a fantastic feeling. I was really high. Everybody asks themselves what they would do if told they had only a few months to live. ‘How would I feel?’ But for me it was nothing like you imagine. It was a fantastic feeling.

When they told me – the doctor was pretty good about it – he said, ‘You’ve got this lump.’ I knew, I could feel it, and he told me it was my pancreas. He said, ‘Unfortunately we can’t operate on this.’ That was the first little inkling I got. ‘You’ve got cancer.’ I just nodded. I though OK. It was as if he was telling me a fact I’d known all my life. It didn’t freak me, or anything. Walking out of the hospital, I felt like ‘Wow!’ It don’t half make you feel alive. I was feeling absolutely fine in myself. That’s the mad thing. Yet knowing that you’re dying. I’m not looking forward to the process.

This was all just before Christmas [2012]. Then in January I went in to see the specialist and she told me that… well, I’ve got less than a year. I could maybe expect to feel fit for another six months. She told me they can’t operate on it. It’s inoperable. I’d already decided I didn’t want chemotherapy. What is the point? I’ve got a little bit more time feeling well, what’s the point in deliberately making myself ill? Leaving it to its own devices, I’ve got maybe nine or ten months. With chemotherapy I could have maybe a year! Feeling like shit [laughs]. There is no question of curing it, all it would do is slow it down for a short while. So there’s really nothing that can be done. I’ve had to accept that.

They say you go through all these stages… disbelief, anger… I haven’t had any of that. When they told me, I believed them.  What’s to get angry about? Am I going to write a letter to the council or something? I realise my life has come to its close, and there’s something positive in that, in a way. I walk in the street and see all these people, living like we all live, under the shadow of mortality. They’re all going to die one day. But for me, the issue is decided. It’s not this spectre that we put off into the indefinite future.

I think I’m feeling more and more isolated actually. I absolutely accept it, and I just want to make the most of the time I’ve got. Hence the trips to Japan.”

Do you think the elation you’ve felt is a reflection of your general state of mind throughout your life?

“Well, I’ve always been a miserable so and so, and my normal default position is to be miserable [laughs] and so when I felt this high, I thought I was going to come crashing down from it, it’s just a reaction, but I didn’t come crashing down from it.”

Why are you so miserable, is it depression?

“I wish I knew. I was talking to my brother about it last week. He was telling me I’d always been like this, ever when I was a teenager, which my brother can’t understand. Since the diagnosis… upstairs in my room it’s really groovy. I’ve got all my things in there, my big TV, it’s really cosy, and I sit there surrounded by my stuff. One night I was thinking how great it is sitting in there, just digging being in there. Whereas before, I just thought it was nice, but I was really pissed off! Suddenly that was lifted away. All the things you might be brooding about, they don’t matter. Things that have happened in the past, there’s no helping them now, and there’s no point worrying about the future because there is no future.

All you’ve got is the minute you’re in. It’s great existing at this minute. There’s no point in wishing for more. More, I’m not gonna get.”

18 months later…

Interview transcript to be continued…

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