On the brink of death but still creating

Wilko Johnson is about to embark on his farewell tour. He's not the first artist to use a terminal diagnosis as inspiration to carry on performing

When – let's not tempt fate by saying "if" – R'n'B guitar hero and inspirational performer Wilko Johnson takes the stage for his farewell mini-tour at the beginning of March, he will be the latest artist to have taken a terminal diagnosis as a prescription to carry on doing what he does best.

Johnson has pancreatic cancer, the same disease that laid low the man who made the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra famous, Erich Kunzel. The celebrated conductor knew he was dying and yet also kept going. "He was crying," said principal horn Elizabeth Freimuth of the final concert in 2009. "You could tell that he was mourning the end of his legacy." He died a month later.

The man who wrote "Werewolves of London", US singer-songwriter Warren Zevon, was diagnosed with inoperable cancer in 2002. He refused treatment he felt pointless, as Johnson has, and not only began recording his final album, The Wind, with guests including Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, but also featured in a documentary for VH-1 and a David Letterman show special devoted to him, where he sang, and offered the advice, "enjoy every sandwich". Zevon had told journalists he hoped to see the next James Bond movie, and he lived long enough to. It was Die Another Day.

Jazz great Stan Getz knew he had liver cancer in 1987, and carried on performing and recording when the end was clear, almost to his death in 1991. His last renderings of Billy Strayhorn's "Blood Count" are hugely poignant for both their playing and because it was a tune that Strayhorn had finished while in hospital in 1967 in the last stages of his own cancer.

As well as playing live, Johnson has said he wants to record again. Terminal diagnoses have spurred such bouts of creativity from many acts. Lee Hazlewood, who wrote and co-performed "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" and "Some Velvet Morning" with Nancy Sinatra, only went back to the studio in 2005 after he was told his cancer had gone too far. Of the record, Cake or Death, he said, "if [it's] not what you like, hurry… get your money back, because that's as good as it's going to be".

Meanwhile George Harrison showed gallows humour when he wrote what was reportedly his first song for 10 years after doctors gave him a grim prognosis on his cancer. He noted the publishing credit for "Horse to the Water", which he sang for a Jools Holland album in 2001, to "R.I.P. Ltd". He died the same year. Film great John Huston directed his last movie from his wheelchair, festooned with tubes for the oxygen he needed because of his emphysema. He died before the film's release. It was called The Dead.

One of the most extraordinary performances by an actor on the brink of death comes from Edward G Robinson in the 1973 film Soylent Green, where he plays an almost impossibly poignant euthanasia scene. The only person who knew he was dying was his co-star Charlton Heston who wrote: "I've never heard of an actor playing a death scene in terms of his own true and imminent death… Eddie knew it was truly his last."

Five years later, John Cazale played his part in The Deer Hunter after being diagnosed with lung cancer. He was nursed through the shoot by his partner and co-star, Meryl Streep. Like Huston, he never saw the finished film.

A hugely celebrated appearance by someone facing imminent death came from the screenwriter Dennis Potter, who was interviewed at length by Melvyn Bragg for Channel 4 in 1994, just a month after being told that his pancreatic cancer, like Johnson's, was inoperable. Smoking with one hand and holding morphine in a flask from which he drank with the other, Potter told the world that he had called his cancer "Rupert" after Rupert Murdoch, whom he despised for what he had done to the media.

If Johnson does make it on to the stage in March, he won't be the only terminally ill artist who is still drawing crowds in London. Edouard Manet, star of the current Royal Academy show, kept painting floral still-lifes while in huge pain from the last days of his syphilis. They include works of rare beauty.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas