Swindon Link reporter Jessica Durston was overcome with anticipation and excitement for this interview. After seeing Wilko and his band perform back in 2016 at Concert at the Kings in All Cannings, Devizes, she knew she could not leave the festival that day without becoming a long-time fan.
I could never forget Wilko's performance at Concert at the Kings. His jerky, machine-gun style guitar motions, open-firing down across the crowd and his piercing stare as he demonstrated his iconic ‘duck walk’ back and forth along the stage. He is often thought of as a punk rock performer but to me, Wilko’s music transcends genre. His sound cannot be put into one box or category because it takes elements from many places, and fuses them to create a familiar, yet indescribable result.
Wilko should be one of everyone’s musical heroes. The man survived pancreatic cancer that was supposed to have ended his life back in 2013, and he is still rocking on to this day. Even after coming out the other side of this terminal diagnosis, he did not rest on his laurels and continued to be productive with his most recent album release being the incredible ‘Blow Your Mind’ from 2018 – it does just that. He helps to remove all doubt of legitimacy of the phrase ‘you can’t keep a good man down.’
Within the interview we discuss everything from his upcoming tour, to literature, to Game of Thrones, to his unexpected reflections upon his own mortality. I feel we ensured there to be something for everyone.
Wilko and I started off our conversation by exchanging pleasantries, and I enquired about his Christmas and New Year. He explains he has been stuck permanently shielding since the beginning of lockdown and has found himself involuntarily within a perpetual state of boredom and repetitiveness, not being able to leave his Southend home.
Shocked by this discovery, I tentatively enquired: “You’re not going too crazy, are you?”
He replied with a chuckle: “I don’t know, I could be. I could be completely mental. I mean, are you real?”
“Definitely, don’t worry.” I replied.
“Oh okay, I believe you.” Amazing. Even in the maddening circumstances he finds himself within, he can still make light of things and take aim at himself.
Our conversation then turns to his tour. Wilko and his band will be returning to UK stages after his long-term isolation period on 3 February - with his Swindon show taking place on 4 February. Tickets can be purchased at https://swindontheatres.co.uk/Online/tickets-wilko-johnson-swindon-2020
During the tour, Wilko will be joined by special guest John Otway, and I was keen to find out more about what audiences could expect and how he was feeling about getting back to his day job.
He said: “I don’t know. It’s weird because two years ago I had got back from a tour of Finland, and I was looking forward to doing a big tour of the UK and other countries. Then suddenly this covid thing happens and then I’m told all my gigs had been put off for three months. Then three months later. Everything’s been put back another three months.”
The frustration from the lockdown seems to have left Wilko a little bit deflated and in the ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ kind of mindset.
He mused: “I’m a musician, you know? It’s a pretty good living – you’re either doing your thing and playing, and between gigs, you’re walking around looking forward to the next one. When you’re walking down the street and people ask you what you do, you say – I’m a musician. For the last year or more however, I’ve not been a musician. I’ve been an old geezer sat in a room.
“When I get back on tour it will be a case of choosing a selection right back from the Dr Feelgood days all the way up to our more recent releases. There will be some stuff from the latest album ‘Blow Your Mind’ too.”
Wilko has toured with John Otway before and spoke fondly of him, recollecting previous memories he shared when playing alongside him.
“I was speaking to him on the phone last week. We did a podcast interview together recently too. I like Otway and we have always had a good laugh together. I think people that dig what the Wilko Johnson outfit do, generally tend to like Otway as well.
“We did one tour with him and the Hamsters back in the day and at the end of the gigs we would do ‘Born to be Wild’ and I always found it really funny. I was stood opposite Otway and we would be performing looking into each other’s faces, either side of the microphone. It’s fitting as we WERE ‘Born to be Wild!’”
Both Wilko and John have also worked with members of The Who. Otway has worked with Pete Townshend on projects in the past and Wilko released an album with The Who frontman Roger Daltrey in 2014, entitled ‘Going Back Home.’ I couldn’t resist asking him about his experiences in the studio with Roger.
Wilko reminisced: “The Roger Daltrey thing was weird as I was dying at that time. I had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and they told me there was nothing they could do, and they gave me about eight months to live. I was getting on with that and then Roger got in touch and said we should make an album together. I said, ‘well we better do it quick!’ as I was supposed to have two months left.
“I got a bunch of my songs together and got Roger to sing them while I played. It was great for me, and I thought it would be a great final project to get a great singer like Roger to do my tracks. We did it fast as well. We made the album in about ten days! It was funny as we were having such a good time in the studio and yet there was still that realisation that I was going to die. I mean I didn’t even know if I was going to see the release of the album. It was poignant in many ways. When we did release it, it was a massive bestseller. It was the bestselling record I’ve done.”
This conversation steered us into the subject territory of his health complications and his experience with cancer. Knowing that he must have been asked questions about his experiences during what was meant to be his ‘terminal year’, I felt hesitant to ask Wilko what was going through his head at that time. To my delight, he was more than happy to open up and explain where his head was at during what many would look upon as a traumatic time.
He said: “Going through that year thinking I’m going to die…it was fantastic really. It makes you look at the world differently. Sometimes I get little memories of it – you know, what it’s like to walk down a crowded street and you feel like a ghost. You feel sorry for others because they’re all going to die but they don’t know when. There was no mystery in it for me. It was all sorted out. Then when my life was saved – I found myself back with all the mortals again. I was just one of that crowd again.”
“Yeah, it ended up being one of the greatest years of my life. It wasn’t at all what you would imagine. It wasn’t sad. It wasn’t frightening. It was just strange. I remember being in the hospital seeing the doctor that day. He told me I had pancreatic cancer and that they would not be able to operate on it. Everyone wonders what that’s like, what does it feel like. I tell people, when he said it to me, I felt great. I don’t know. When I walked out of that hospital, it was a very beautiful winter’s day. I remember looking at the branches of the trees against this blue sky and it looked beautiful. Everything looked intensely beautiful. I felt really high. I’m walking home and I’m thinking maybe this is delayed shock and I will collapse in a heap – but I didn’t!”
When I asked Wilko what performing was like during this period, and if he felt any different or that he needed to give himself more than he would normally, he replied:
“I just felt well this is sorted out now. It was something I didn’t have to worry about it. I did some fantastic gigs. I did some shows in Japan – we’re quite popular there. That was WOW! I was playing with some Japanese musicians, and it was such a buzz. I was standing on the stage and looking out at the crowd and facing this huge crowd of faces and they’re all in tears, crying and holding up signs saying, ‘We Love You!’ It was great. The last song we played would be Chuck Berry’s ‘Bye, Bye, Johnny’ and we would climb up these stairs away from the stage and we would be waving singing ‘Bye, Bye, Bye’ and it was amazing! I thought wow, this is great showbiz. It wasn’t at all sad. There were some fantastic buzzes that year.
“I’m fit as a fiddle now. I mean I got away with it. I’m 74 now and I’m going to die the same as everyone else now, but I’ve got these extra ten years. Back then I would sometimes sit alone by myself and get these moments of profound thoughts. You think about things, and they really are deep and fundamental thoughts. God knows what those thoughts were now, but I know they were deep! Now I’m back to a different consciousness – I’m back in the world again.”
After this deep discussion, I felt it was time to tackle the second elephant in the room – or rather the Wilko stuck in the room. How had he been keeping himself occupied through each ‘Groundhog’ day he had to experience due to this successful battle with cancer?
“I have been on YouTube – that’s great. Or I’ll switch on the telly and walk round the room and make a coffee. There are people that will turn up to my house wearing protective clothing and masks to deliver food parcels. It’s like a British 1950s sci-fi film, like Day of the Triffids or something! After a while you start to get fed up and realise this lifestyle is really, really, boring. Although I have been reading quite a lot.”
This piqued my interest, as Wilko is incredibly well-read and has a degree in English Language and Literature. I could not resist probing him for the titles he had recently been devouring. It turned out we had both recently finished Orwell’s classic ‘1984’ and shared a laugh over drawing comparisons to his current Orwellian living situation.
He was happy to divulge his recent reading inclinations: “It’s been a lot of cheap science-fiction actually – things like Day of the Triffids! And this morning I have finished Moby Dick. And wow man! What a novel. I’ve read it three or four times I think, and it is just such a great work of literature. I also like a bit of Shakespeare and enjoy a bit of Medieval and Icelandic poetry.”
Did he feel his love for literature and words helped his song writing skills, I wondered? Wilko was happy to enlighten me.
“Song writing is different to me. When I was young, I did try and write poetry. When you’re about 20 or something, everyone is allowed to write some bad poetry – and I did my share. I realised it wasn’t very good and then I started writing songs 3 or 4 years later. I don’t find writing songs the same as writing poetry. I don’t know why it’s different, but it just is.
“Poetry is something that runs a bit deeper than song lyrics and it’s not easy to do. Rock n roll song writing is all about writing a series of like…slogans. They’ll be played loud, and people will hear them. It needs to be something simple but vivid. That’s not easy to do either. So, I failed at poetry, but I feel like I’ve written some good songs.”
In addition to his affinity for literature, Wilko turned his hand to acting and appeared in early episodes of Game of Thrones. He played the role of Ser Ilyn Payne – the Silent Executioner.
“That is the only acting I’ve ever done in my life” He reflected “It was rather good because my character was dumb, and I didn’t have to learn any lines. It was so much fun. It was like being a kid when you are playing at warriors or whatever. I got to dress up in all this real armour with a real sword and all that great stuff. You can really imagine you’re there.
“I started getting recognised in the street by some people that just knew me from Game of Thrones. Unfortunately, I got the cancer then and my role was supposed to have been a bit bigger, but that got cut short. If I had another chance to do something like it again, I would like to.”
The interview wrapped up here and ever since, I have not been able to erase from my mind the image of Wilko eagerly seeing out the rest of his time trapped at home, like a child counting down the days until Christmas – but instead of waiting for Santa, he is waiting to be let loose on stage again.
If reading this interview has not already convinced you to go and see the walking marvel that is Wilko Johnson on his 2022 tour, I will take this opportunity to tell you again. Bloody well go and do it! You won’t regret it!