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

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
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.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?