Guitar legend Wilko Johnson has planned a fitting farewell for fans after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. He tells Alison Jones how he is going out on his terms and how he wants – or doesn’t want – to be remembered.
It was a difficult conversation to know how to begin.
How could the etiquette of small talk apply. The conventional chatty ice beaker of ‘‘Hi, how are you?’’ seems insensitive when you know the true response is “I am dying”.
The world knows that Wilko Johnson is dying. He put it up on his website.
He admits it isn’t really his style. He didn’t really want to make a big thing of it. It is just he wanted to squeeze in his farewell gigs, including one at the Robin 2 in Bilston, and needed to explain why there was a matter of urgency.
And to pre-warn fans if he wasn’t feeling well enough to go on, if the symptoms of the incurable pancreatic cancer he has start to affect him sooner than he anticipates.
For the time being, and for as long as he is able, it is business as usual for the 65-year-old guitarist, original member of Dr Feelgood and founding father of pre-punk – though at a slightly accelerated rate.
“There’s been a lot of rushing around. I like things very tranquil but there has been a lot of action, people popping in and out,” he reveals.
“Just after the diagnosis I thought ‘What am I going to do?’. One thing I did was I went to Japan.
“I love Japan. We did two concerts out there and raised £12,000 for the disaster fund. So that was a really good thing to do.”
The selflessness is impressive, that even after he had been given the worst news possible he went on with his plan to help other people who had lived through their worst day.
It was during that fortnight that it started to hit home what his passing would mean, not for him but for others.
“I came back with a whole carrier bag full of mail, letters the Japanese people had delivered. It was a kind of an eye opener.
“I know people like the music and that but these letters were just so full of personal affection. All of them wishing me well.
“It was heartbreaking and really touching. I just didn’t know that people looked on me like that. That they cared about me rather than the bloke that makes all the noise.
“So that was something.”
He even found himself offering comfort to fans who seemed far more distraught about his illness than Wilko himself does.
“After one of the gigs there were a lot of people getting a bit weepy but one young chap came up and he started to say. ‘You are my guitar hero’. I was shaking hands with him and going ‘thanks very much’ and he just burst into tears. He was going ‘You can’t go. You can’t go. I love you. You are my hero’.
“I’d got my arms round him going ‘It’s all right son. Calm down. It’s not that important’.”
Wilko greeted the news that he has less than a year a to live with a mix of pragmatism and euphoria that doesn’t seem to have dissipated yet.
“People have told me about these reactions that can be expected but I don’t feel anything like that at all. I don’t feel anger or resentment about ‘Why me?’.
“The answer to ‘why me’ is simple. Because I’m a a human being and it is something that in this day and age you have a fair chance of contracting.
“When the consultant told me I didn’t freak out at all. I just nodded. I thought ‘Oh right. That’s it. That’s happened’.
“It is simply one of the things that happens to the human body. It is somewhat worse than catching flu because you are going to get better from flu.”
He refused chemotherapy, determined to suck up all the pleasure he had remaining to him rather endure the side effects of a treatment that would gain him just a few more months.
“Chemotherapy makes you ill. I am not going to destroy this last bit of well being that I have got by doing something which, in the end, cannot cure the cancer, cannot even stop it. It can slow it down. It might extend my life by three months but it would be three months of sickness. No, I am not interested in that.
“When I left the hospital I realised I was actually feeling quite high. This has continued ever since.
“Normally I am a miserable so and so. I sit around depressed – mope, mope, mope. Now I realise that doesn’t matter. All the things you sit there worrying about, it all stops. You are just existing in the present moment.