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
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little