"People will be putting it together when I'm gone..."
Wilko Johnson tells Charles Thomson about an upcoming collaboration with Roger Daltrey and why why his last recordings won't include any 'cancer dirges'.
Weds 11th Sept 2013, Yellow Advertiser
Wilko Johnson live at Village Green, 2013. (C) Charles Thomson
Wilko Johnson is inspecting a shiny new 1962-spec Fender Telecaster guitar at Southend music shop PMT. He’s not thinking of buying it. He’s giving it away. Later this year, the signed model will be auctioned to raise money for the Teenage Cancer Trust.
The guitar is a limited edition. Black with a red scratch plate, the signature model was designed by Fender in Wilko’s honour. He was first contacted about the idea roughly two years ago – about a year before he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Then, in January, he was given 10 months to live. Until it was physically released into stores, nobody could be sure whether Wilko would live to see his signature guitar go on-sale.
“They’ve been dithering about a year to get the thing into commercial production,” he laughs. “It’s taken all this time. I don’t know why. At one point I was thinking, ‘Well, I hope they get it done before I die’, you know? But they’ve done it, so at least I’ve seen it. Jolly good, too.”
Wilko is at PMT on Queens Road – the same road where he recorded some of his most famous Dr Feelgood compositions – to sign several of the guitars. One will be auctioned for charity, four have already been sold and the rest will go on display in PMT stores around the country.
He has been using the prototype guitar on stage for the past year, as well as in studio sessions for what will become his final recordings. He has been reported as working on two albums but tells me that after attending the GQ Awards last week – where he presented Elton John with a ‘Genius Award’, only for Elton to hand it back and declare Wilko the real genius – it could even be three.
“I bumped into Roger Daltrey again,” he says. “I’d encountered him a year or two ago and we decided to make an album together. That had all kind of got swept away but he was there the other night and we said, ‘Come on, let’s do this thing’. So it may be three [albums]. But on the other hand, I’m so disorganised it may be none at all. I’d really like to do this thing with Roger. I hope it will happen because I like Roger and I think we could do something good together.”
Wilko hasn’t returned to the studio since embarking on a festival tour this summer. He chose to play festivals, he says, because if illness struck the show could go on without him. He is unsure whether his final recordings, which he began laying down before hitting the road, will come out before or after he succumbs to his cancer.
“I think what’s going to happen in the end is I’m going to just keep sporadically recording stuff and maybe people will be putting it together when I’m gone,” he says. “I’m not a recording type of person. It’s always a lot of dithering about. But I hope we will have something done before I go.”
However, it seems Wilko may have time to complete his final projects, as he so far appears to be defying doctors’ predictions.
“They did tell me in January that I would have eight months feeling healthy and that I would be dead in October,” he explains. “But it don’t look like I’m gonna make the deadline. I may even last into next year.”
He will use the time to lay down some more tracks inspired by the news of his shortened life expectancy.
“There are a few more things I want to record,” he says. “I wrote some songs right after getting this diagnosis actually. For some reason I started writing songs.”
“Will it be a bit of a morbid album, then?” I ask.
“Absolutely not! No. I can’t have any truck with that. It’s like, in April we did our farewell tour and in a way, you could make that into a big weepy occasion. But it wasn’t like that at all, actually. It was just good gigs and everyone had a good time. The music I want to continue to make, I think, generally should be a laugh – not a cry.
“As I started writing songs after getting this diagnosis I did find that some of the lyrics were coming out obliquely referring to it. I realised, for some reason, I’m going on about bloody clocks ticking and stuff like that. But I ruthlessly expunged anything maudlin. You know, to me, music should be an up and the point of making music is not to make people concerned about your bloody problems. It’s to take everybody’s mind off of everything. So no, there’s not gonna be any cancer dirges.”
Wilko Johnson at Village Green, 2013. (C) Charles Thomson
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