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.
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