Five years ago, Wilko Johnson never imagined he’d reach 70. But now the straight-talking survivor is celebrating the milestone with his first headline show at Royal Albert Hall.
In the run-up to the gig, he tells us about overcoming a diagnosis of terminal cancer, an unlikely collaboration with Roger Daltrey, learning to live in the moment on stage, the effect of seeing The Beatles and Chuck Berry play live, and pretending his guitar is a machine gun.
You’ve just turned 70, you’ve had 30 years with your solo band, and now you’re going to be celebrating at the Royal Albert Hall. Are anniversaries important to you?
Well, no. But the last four or five years have been packed with incident, really. Of course, I found out I had cancer four years ago and was expected to die. They only gave me 10 months to live and, in fact, that was the beginning. A fantastic lot of mad things kept happening, including making a kind of farewell album with Roger Daltrey which became a big hit and left me thinking: ‘Well, what a way to finish up.’ But there were further surprises in store. Doctors from Cambridge had a look at me and said they thought they could operate and save my life, and so they did. And so I never expected to get to my 70th birthday, or get to do the Albert Hall, or have a hit record with Roger Daltrey. Nothing surprises me anymore.
So how does it feel to know that you’re going to be playing your first headline show at the Royal Albert Hall in a couple of weeks?
Obviously it’s quite something. Yeah, I’ve played bigger places but there is a special thing about the Albert Hall, to the extent you go down to the corner shop to buy the bread and milk and you want to tell the bloke:’I’m playing the Albert Hall, you know!’. But you don’t. You keep it cool.
But, like I say, a gig’s a gig. You’re just concerned with getting the best sound you can in there and what the thing looks like, feels like. You just think about it in practical terms like that.
You’ve played there twice recently at Teenage Cancer Trust shows. Considering what you went through yourself, were those shows important for you?
Well, in a way, yes. Because the Teenage Cancer Trust is a huge achievement that Roger’s worked so hard to create. He realised young people with cancer are a special category and they were either getting bunged into children’s wards or put with old people, and that’s not right. Anyway, Roger came into my story when I was actually on the point of dying of cancer and we made this album. A lot of funny things happened to me that year, but working with Roger Daltrey was a good one. So yeah, I would do anything for Roger.
How do you feel about that album, ‘Going Back Home’, now?
I really dig it. In the end, it’s the most special one for me that I’ve ever done, because of the circumstances. It was so strange. I didn’t know Roger very well, I’d only met him a couple of times before, and to find myself working with him in this position. Like I said, the doctors had given me 10 months to live. It was in the 11th month, I was already in extra time, when this thing happened with Roger and I had a lot to think about.
The recording was really going well, we only had eight days, we couldn’t muck about, we just had to do it, bash. But at the same time I’m stepping outside thinking ‘Oh man, things are getting very very weird here. I’m going to die, I’m going to die, but I’ve had a pretty good life, I can’t really complain, and now here I am making an album with Roger Daltrey’. It was all very, very strange. But I’m pretty proud of that album; I think we should all be because it was a real collaborative effort of me, Roger, and the musicians.
Looking back a bit further, what was it like revisiting your past for ‘Keep It To Myself – The Best Of Wilko Johnson’, which came out earlier this year?
I let the record company do all of that. I don’t really listen to my own stuff. Now and then you hear something by accident and you think: ‘Well, that’s pretty good.’
Do you hear your influence in what other people have done subsequently?
I’m often told either by people themselves or just someone saying: ‘Hey, have you heard this? They’re really influenced by you.’ But it never grabs me like that because, of course, anything I do is the result of influences other people have had on me. When I was a teenager I really wanted to be Mick Green and I wanted to play exactly like him. I tried and of course I couldn’t do it and I ended up with my version of that.
But of course I wanted to copy him, because it sounded great to me. If other people get the same buzz off of me and want to do it, I’m just passing that thing along. It don’t belong to me.
Apart from Mick Green, was there anyone else who set you on this rock ‘n roll path?
I saw The Beatles at Southend Odeon, that was quite an experience. I saw them but you couldn’t hear a thing. It was fantastic. When the curtains opened and The Beatles come on, the whole audience of teenagers, including me, just stood up and started screaming and waving our arms around. It was like a football crowd when a goal’s been scored, but just all the time. And of course with The Beatles up there on the stage with their AC30 amps and singing through the house PA, you could just about tell which number they were doing by seeing which guy was singing. So you couldn’t hear a bloody thing, but it was very very exciting.
I also remember seeing Chuck Berry at the same venue, and I’d heard his records but I didn’t know about his kind of stage thing. So when he did this guitar solo and started doing the duck walk, I went: ‘Wow!’ and I think that was the beginning of me learning it’s at least as important what you’re doing physically as what you’re doing musically.
The whole point of rock ‘n roll is to make people excited and if you can make them excited by pretending your guitar is a machine gun, or running up and down the stage, do it, do it! Because it makes the whole thing better. I’m not really a very good player, but I’m quite good at imitating a machine gun.
After all these years of doing it, has the feeling you get from playing live changed at all?
During the year I was dying of cancer, we did a farewell tour of the UK and also a couple of gigs in Japan. And that feeling, man, of standing on stage and knowing you’ve got absolutely no future – the past is gone, it’s too late to do anything about it – and you’re just on a stage at that moment. It’s all there is. And I tell you what, that’s a fantastic feeling.
I’ve kind of gained that, that’s the way I feel now. On stage I just feel happy doing it. When I look back to the old days, years ago with Dr Feelgood, and everyone was looking to us as this special thing, all the time I was going on stage and freaking out about ‘Am I good enough?’. Now I think: ‘Forget all that, man. Just get up there and play. Just enjoy it, don’t worry about it.’ It’s taken me a long time, but I think I’ve got there.
Photo: Simon Reed.
- This article originally appeared on Graffiti.Punctuated.