Wilko Johnson: 'You have to live for the minute you're in'

The Dr Feelgood guitarist talks frankly about his terminal illness. Lee Rourke meets Wilko Johnson

Wilko Johnson is one of the world's most famous guitarists you've never heard of. His idiosyncratic choppy playing style is credited with influencing a legion of punk guitarists. To a generation born long after punk, Wilko might be better remembered as the executioner in the TV series Game of Thrones. TV stardom or a life of rock'n'roll seems far away as he sits cross-legged on his sofa at home in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex. Now 66, Johnson grew up a mere stone's throw away, on Canvey Island in the Thames estuary: a flat, densely populated land mass surrounded by creeks and marshland, famously dominated by a colossal oil refinery, a rich source of inspiration for songs he wrote while guitarist in Canvey's cult heroes Dr Feelgood.

He seems well and in a good mood, relaxed. Seems, because last year he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. "I've never felt more alive," he says. "It's one of the most intense years I've had. The things that used to matter – bills, worrying about the future, thinking I could change the past – don't matter to me any more. They're nothing to me now. I'm embracing the present." It's easy to believe him, too. He says this with a smile, casting a glance at his garden. "I mean, look at that tree out there. I can sit here looking at it all day. It's a beautiful thing that makes me tingle. I can feel everything bursting through me." Everything? "Yeah, you know... life, the real stuff."

Such philosophical honesty is refreshing, and it's no surprise to Wilko that the media has renewed its interest in him. "Oh, there's been TV people and broadsheets wanting to talk to me almost every day now. It must have something to do with that fantasy everybody has: what would I do if the doctor said to me I've only got a few months to live? So when that did happen to me, my reaction was not what I would have thought. I just got on this fantastic high, and I feel intensely alive. What you have to do is you just have to live for the minute you're in."

It is a take on life that's served him well. In the mid-1970s, when Dr Feelgood burst on to the world stage, displaying their visceral, R'n'B-driven angst, it was Wilko who seemed most conscious of the ride. "I always knew what we had was good. Even when we were kids, playing outside the pubs on Canvey, it felt good. It happened quickly. It was Lee [Brilleaux] who had it; it was all because of him. He crackled with electricity and I fed from him. Lee was the wellspring and I just went with it, experiencing every minute. I always knew it would end, too. Everything went right, until everything went wrong."

Wilko left in 1977 when things turned bitter. Some say he was pushed. "I think it was Lee and me, we just didn't get on in the end. I mean, if we walked into the same room, one of us would walk out – it got that bad. The animosity we felt for each other was something else. For the life of me I don't know why. I mean, we were always different. But we always admired each other. I regret we never expressed that to each other – our admiration of each other." It's almost as if he feels things might have turned out differently. "Maybe, yes."

The differences Wilko refers to are literature, poetry and art. Before Dr Feelgood, Wilko was an English teacher who'd graduated from Newcastle University with a degree, specialising in medieval literature and the Icelandic sagas. Before that he'd been a political activist who'd travelled the hippie trail through Afghanistan and India. He wasn't your average working-class Canvey Island lad. His paintings hang on the wall above him, surreal things that seem to echo the literature he was reading at the time. "I played in bands before university, but when I went up to Newcastle I couldn't find a band, so I quit playing. I started writing poetry and painting. The sagas I was reading, they blew my mind, just so poetic and brutal. The painting came naturally. I continued painting after the travelling, especially when I got back to Canvey. I took it seriously, too. Working on my technique, you know. And then the band just seemed to happen by accident and I stopped, but it never left me. Ironically, the last piece of artwork I did was the Dr Feelgood logo – my most famous piece."

He speaks in loops, repetitions and tangents. His voice carries the scars of a life on the road in a rock'n'roll band that you don't hear in younger musicians these days. His living room is packed with electrical recording equipment, radios, dials and spools. It's as if he is sitting in his own control room, tuning into the outside world around him, listening to snippets of life before the signal fades, or he moves on to something more interesting along the dial.

"The great literature I've read has never left me. It's always there, reverberating through my head. I love Shakespeare. William Blake, too. William Burroughs has always felt like a friend. I can't think of Dr Feelgood without thinking of Dr Benway in Burroughs's Naked Lunch. I see him as Dr Feelgood." Wilko is laughing as he recounts his love of Burroughs. It's as if Wilko knows something, too. Something the rest of us don't. "I look at people now, walking to and fro through the city, along the streets, and I can't help but think: you don't know. You don't know what it means to be alive. And I guess they won't know until their doctor sits them down with the dreaded news."

Wilko's still smiling. "I've never been a pub man, but lately I've started going to the Railway in Southend. I go for the music mostly, but I also like it in the day, when it's quiet. I like to sit in there and think. I like to sit there and think of all the good things."

Curriculum vitae

1947 Born John Peter Wilkinson, Canvey Island, Essex.

1965 As a teen he would play his first Fender Telecaster for half an hour every Saturday while he saved up the £90 to buy it.

1968 Marries Irene Knight. She goes on to become his booking manager. The couple have two children.

1970 Graduates from Newcastle University with a degree in English language and literature, becoming one of the UK's few speakers of Old Icelandic.

1971 He meets future Dr Feelgood bandmate Lee Brilleaux, following a brief encounter as teenagers, and joins his band Dr Feelgood. They reach No 1 in 1976 with their live album Stupidity.

1977 Wilko leaves Dr Feelgood and forms his own group, the Solid Senders.

1980 Joins Ian Dury's Blockheads and co-writes several songs with Dury.

1985 Forms the Wilko Johnson Band. They have been touring ever since.

2004 Irene Knight dies of cancer.

2009 Julien Temple releases Oil City Confidential, an acclaimed documentary about Dr Feelgood.

2011 Appears in Game of Thrones.

2013 Diagnosed with terminal cancer in January.

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
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.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    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