Wilko Johnson: 'I'm supposed to be dead' - music hero defies terminal cancer diagnosis to take Classic Rock award

The musician said he was currently 'feeling fine' and joked his farewell tour could get 'embarrassing' if it extends into next year

Adam Sherwin
Thursday 14 November 2013 23:30
Killer chords: Wilko Johnson
Killer chords: Wilko Johnson

"I’m supposed to be dead now,” admits Wilko Johnson, the guitarist who was told that he may not survive past October after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

But on Thursday night Johnson was hailed as a musical innovator by an audience of his rock peers as he prepares to record a final album with Roger Daltrey.

Since being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, the former Dr Feelgood guitarist, 66, says he has never felt more “vividly alive”. Johnson refused chemotherapy treatment so that he would have the strength to complete a “farewell tour” in Spring, where he basked in the adoration of fans.

He continues to perform concerts as his health permits. But the Canvey Island musician, who had previously enjoyed cult status, is now gaining widespread recognition for his choppy R&B guitar style which influenced a generation of axe-wielders from punk to the present day.

Jimmy Page, the Led Zeppelin guitarist, presented Johnson with the Innovator award at the Classic Rock magazine Roll of Honour held at the London Roundhouse, in front of an audience including Black Sabbath, Ray Davies and Manic Street Preachers.

Johnson told The Independent: “It’s very gratifying to be given an award by Jimmy Page because I’ve always admired him as one of Britain’s great guitarists. I’ve received one or two marks of recognition recently. I suppose people want to get them in while I can.”

The musician said he was currently “feeling fine” and jokes that the farewell tour could get “embarrassing” if it extends into next year. “When I was diagnosed they gave me ten months. But they can’t cure this thing so the illness will take its inexorable toll. I have gone past their deadline but it is ultimately going to kill me. So I want to get as much done now as I can.”

Ironically, since the diagnosis, the Essex-based artist has enjoyed “the most extraordinary year.” He said: “It certainly makes you realise you are alive, it alters your whole perspective. I’m looking outside at the leaves and the sun, thinking ‘this is pretty good’. Let’s see how much I’ve got left of it.”

Johnson, who stands by his decision to decline chemotherapy (“I’d rather make the most of the time I’ve got”), is recording a final album with Daltrey, the Who singer, which is expected to mix R&B classics with originals. He hopes Paul Weller will contribute but doesn’t want to be submerged under well-wishing guest stars.

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Scott Rowley, Classic Rock Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief, said: “Wilko is now recognised as one of the quintessential English guitar heroes. Dr Feelgood’s confrontational attitude and his blues guitar style, which rejected the indulgence of prog rock, led directly to punk. Wilko was the precursor to Johnny Rotten’s bulging eyeball stare and Paul Weller has acknowledged the debt that the Jam owed to him.”

Rowley added: “It’s inspiring the way that Wilko has dealt with his illness He was told he only had until October but he says that oddly this has been the best year of his life. So much goodwill has come his way.”

The awards are coming thick and fast for Johnson, who also enjoyed an unlikely screen career playing the executioner in the television series Game of Thrones. Last weekend he was honoured with the Lifetime Contribution prize at the 2013 European Blues Awards.

When Sir Elton John was declared a “genius” at the GQ Awards in September he promptly gave his prize away to Johnson, telling him “You're the f****** genius here. He's too busy living life to think about f****** dying.”

Johnson’s “farewell tour” continues with a show in Swindon on Thursday and a guest appearance with saxophonist Gilad Atzmon at the London Jazz Festival next week. “I’ve got some shows booked for December but I can’t plan further ahead,” he says.

Ozzy Osbourne’s Black Sabbath took three awards at the Classic Rock event, including best album for their reunion release, 13. Guitarist Tony Iommi recorded the album whilst undergoing treatment for lymphoma cancer. Other winners included The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin for the band’s Celebration Day concert film.

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