There’s always one farewell tour or another but for former Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson, his appearance at Bilston’s Robin 2 next month really will be his last at the venue after being diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He speaks to Ian Harvey.
Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer late last year and given less than 12 months to live, Wilko Johnson will hit the road on a short tour to bid a final farewell to his UK fans after similar gigs in Japan and France.
“I had this diagnosis just before Christmas and at that time they told me I could expect to live for just under a year,” he says on the phone from his Essex home.
“At the moment I feel absolutely fine, I’m not ill in any way. It’s funny, I’m walking round feeling fit as a fiddle but you get one little stomach ache or something and you think ‘Oh, it’s started’.
“I’ve got every reasonable hope of being able to do these things, the farewell concerts and then, well, that will be farewell.”
The 65-year-old guitarist, known for his choppy rhythm and blues sound and intensely manic, bug-eyed performances, lost his beloved wife, Irene, to cancer eight years ago. However, his reaction to his own diagnosis has been one bordering on euphoria.
“I have remained absolutely calm throughout this,“ he says. “In fact I’ve been in very high spirits, most unusual for me. It’s a kind of positive feeling. It makes you feel very, very alive. Just walking down the street you can feel everything tingling.
“I think it’s probably worse for my friends and so on because they want to help you but obviously there’s nothing they can do. I think it’s very upsetting for them.
“They’ve explained to me at the hospital that there’s no question of beating this thing and so the thing to do is to experience what there is. It’s been quite a marvellous experience really, just living without all the usual nonsense and worries – just to live.”
Johnson has refused chemotherapy, saying: “It’s not a clever drug, it attacks everything. So in effect what you’re doing is making yourself terribly, terribly ill in an attempt to destroy this tumour. They say it might extend my life by three months. I thought, I don’t want three months lying around feeling like rubbish. So there was never any difficulty in rejecting that.”
Johnson’s gig at the Robin 2 hit the headlines when within hours of it selling out, tickets which originally cost just £17.50 began appearing online for over £160.
An online campaign has been launched against the practise of ticket touting but Johnson is philosophical about the issue.
“That’s just the way people behave,” he says. “I think it’s a bit much to expect anybody to act morally just because somebody’s not very well. They’re always there. As long as there are successful gigs there will always be touts.”
Currently back in the studio to finish his final recordings, Johnson says he is genuinely looking forward to his farewell tour.
“I’m just hoping against hope that I remain fit for the farewell concerts in the UK. I’m not going on stage sick or anything like that,” he says.
“I think they’re all going to have a different kind of . . . ambience; when you realise something is actually the last time you’re going to be doing something.”
Referring to his Japanese farewell gigs he says: “It was nothing but enjoyment, the whole thing. It didn’t become sentimental or anything like that, just a damn good gig and we had a damn good time, which is definitely what I want to do. We thought of calling it the ‘Leave Your Handkerchiefs at Home Tour’! I want it to be a good occasion.”
Late on in his life, Johnson has found a new kind of fame, as an actor, appearing in the hit HBO series Game Of Thrones as mute executioner Ser Ilyn Payne.
The producers tracked Johnson down after seeing Oil City Confidential, Julien Temple’s acclaimed documentary about Dr Feelgood’s rise to fame in the 1970s.
“I was delighted with the part because the poor fella’s had his tongue cut out, so I don’t have any lines to learn. All I have to do is walk around and look menacing. And I thought, I can do that, any old time. I can menace anyone,” laughs Johnson.
And (spoiler alert) he even got to chop off Sean Bean’s head.
“Sean asked for it . . . he looked at me the wrong way and that was him done!”
He adds: “I was actually getting fan mail from round the world from people who had no idea that I was a musician. Over the Atlantic they’re referring to me as ‘actor Wilko Johnson’ . . . who also plays the guitar by the way.”
But recording and playing music has been Johnson’s main occupation since his teenage years and beyond his parting of the ways with Dr Feelgood in 1977.
“By the time I was ejected from Dr Feelgood I just realised it was my way of life. It a very congenial way of life. It gets you round the world, you can make a good living and meet a lot of nice people. It’s hard to resist really."
He concludes: “I’ve had a very good time, don’t you worry about that!”
*Wilko Johnson plays the Robin 2, Bilston, on Thursday, March 7. The concert is sold out.