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
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
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.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London