"There were a few nurses just chatting and I was certain that they wanted to kill me."
Almost 18 months after Wilko Johnson told Charles Thomson about his impending death from terminal cancer, the pair spoke again about Wilko's miraculous recovery.
Weds 18th Feb 2015, Yellow Advertiser
In two weeks Wilko Johnson will play his first full-length concert since undergoing life-saving surgery for advanced pancreatic cancer. He will perform at the Cambridge Junction, just over a mile from Addenbrooke’s Hospital, where doctors removed three kilogram tumour from his body last summer, along with his spleen, pancreas and part of his stomach. The audience will include Dr Emmanuel Huguet, the surgeon who saved Wilko’s life.
The concert, which sold out within a matter of hours, will raise money for the hospital. Wilko’s primary concern now is whether he’ll make it through the gig.
"I’ve come parachuted in from all this hospital stuff and where have I landed?" jokes the 67-year-old. "Oh, I’ve landed in old age."
It’s more than a year since Wilko played his last full show – his longest break from performing for several decades. The last time we spoke, in September 2013, he was one month away from his projected date of death, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer nine months earlier.
By early 2014, experts were starting to wonder why Wilko wasn’t dead yet. He went back to hospital, only to learn he had been misdiagnosed. His cancer had been operable after all – but now the tumour had grown to the size of a football and spread to other organs. His life could still be saved, but only via a pioneering surgery, which might also kill him.
Still recovering from the massive operation, which left him diabetic and several stones underweight, he is ‘apprehensive’ about his comeback performances.
“I’m still kind of coming to terms with grasping life again and realising that my life is not about to end,” he says. “There’s been a big gap since my last actual gig. Over a year. The most I’ve ever gone without playing guitar in all these years is a few weeks – four or five weeks, something like that.”
How will it feel to start playing again, I ask?
“I can’t say it’s nerve-wracking,” he jokes. “I think I remember how to do it. I’m not one of these people who sits at home all day practicing playing guitar. I must admit, my guitar goes in its bag and it don’t come out again until I walk out on stage, so it’s nothing to me to…”
He trails off and begins having a conversation with his guitar.
“I’m looking at it now,” he says. “Look, I’m hurting it’s feelings. I’m ignoring you!”
He continues: “It will be a bit odd, but I’m really looking forward to trying to get back to playing without this cancer threatening me.”
Did the cancer affect the way he played?
“This tumour they took out of me, weighed three kilogrammes, it was in my stomach and I was still playing at the end of last year before I went into hospital, and my guitar was actually rocking on this tumour, it was so big. So that was all a bit peculiar.
“Now I feel much more myself. I’m the same shape I used to be. I had kind of got used to this bloody great lump flopping about in front of me, but it was never any fun. It’s no fun getting up in the morning and you can’t see your feet,” he laughs.
Whilst his guitar-playing isn’t worrying him, his ability to perform a full gig after the massive trauma of the operation is somewhat of a concern, he says.
"I’ve done a couple of appearances – get up and play a couple of numbers – and what I’m hoping now is that I will have the stamina to do a whole gig. In my mind, I imagine sort of going, ‘One, two, three, four’, and then falling flat on me face or something," he laughs.
I expect Wilko to tell me his first waking moments after the pioneering operation, as he realised he was alive, were a joy – or at least a relief. In fact, he says the effects of the powerful anaesthetic meant he woke into a living nightmare.
"I went through quite a freaky kind of Kafka job," he laughs. "There were just a few nurses, just chatting, and I was certain – and I’m talking about certain – that they wanted to kill me. It was crazy.
"I said, ‘Look, I want to see a policeman’. They went and got a couple of the hospital security guys and, of course, I’m going, ‘He’s not a proper policeman! I want to see a proper policeman!’ I think at one point they had this pipe thing going into my neck and I pulled it out and the blood was pouring out onto the bed."
After surviving the massive trauma of the surgery, Wilko remained in hospital ‘dangerously ill’ with a chest infection.
"As time went by, I began to realise the number of people working on my behalf," he says. "There were teams I never saw, trying to work out what antibiotics I needed. They had to grow the germ culture from this infection and work out how to kill it.
"Although I was very ill there, when I look back on it I have a kind of a pleasant feeling because the staff, from the consultants to the nurses to everyone looking after me, they were just so nice, man! My life is theirs. They saved my life and I will do anything I can to help that hospital."
The hardest part of his recovery came when he returned home, he says.
"I was horribly thin and wrinkly when I came out of the hospital. I would look at my legs, you could see the bone shapes. It’s like you’re getting all wrinkles like an old person. Say I was having a bath, you’re looking down and you see all these wrinkles where your legs join onto your body and you’re going, ‘Oh man!’
“That was the time that was difficult, because I couldn’t believe I could ever recover from this. My body had been decimated. I was very weak and just trying to build my strength up. Like, just walking around the block one time, you know - it’s tough going. You’re hanging on the walls. Man, it would tire you out. But that’s gradually come back now."
Given the carnage that the surgery wrought on his body – you could be forgiven for expecting Wilko to have a somewhat dim view of the doctors who originally told him he was terminally ill – misinformation which dissuaded him from seeking treatment and allowed the tumour to grow and spread for more than a year. In fact, says Wilko, he is ‘glad’ they got it wrong.
“I had one of the most extraordinary years of my life,” he explains. “Even when it was still happening, when I still really believed that I was going to die imminently, I would sometimes sit to myself and think, ‘I’ll tell you what; it’s almost worth it’ – because of the insights and everything it gives you to be in that position. I’m glad I went through it. It taught me a lot of things.”
It was during a trip to his favourite country, Japan, that Wilko’s health took a giant leap forward.
"People had hired wheelchairs for me,” he exclaims. “I said, ‘I ain’t going around in no wheelchair!’ So I struggled along, but then after a few days, suddenly I’m walking with my usual pace and walking up hills."
Now, several months on, he is focused on getting back into shape for his tour.
"I don’t know if I’m 100 per cent of the strength I was before, but I’m certainly fit," he says. "I get apprehensive about starting doing it again. I think you’re bound to. While we’re on the threshold of working again, there are days and weeks when you’re not actually doing anything, and that is no good. That is a recipe for getting very unsure about it and miserable about it. You just get up there and start doing it and then it all makes sense."
In addition to the impending tour and several summer festival bookings, there are a new documentary and possible book on the horizon, as well as a ‘highly likely’ return to the studio with The Who front man Roger Daltrey, with whom he scored a major hit album - Going Back Home - last year. But with his new lease of life, is there any ambition Wilko still wants to achieve?
"I really fulfilled most of the things I want to do in life and in music," he says. "I’d love to play the guitar for Bob Dylan one time. But we shall see. I’ve got a future now."
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