"Nothing surprises me anymore... Perhaps I'll go out to the space station and do a gig!"
As he approaches his 70th birthday and the biggest solo concert of his career, Wilko Johnson talks to Charles Thomson about ageing, his 'naturally miserable' personality, the destruction of Southend and why he doesn't know who Justin Bieber is.
Thur 11th May 2017, Yellow Advertiser
WILKO Johnson never envisaged he would one day headline the Royal Albert Hall – but, says the Southend rock legend, nothing surprises him anymore.
“Over the last four or five years, this is just the way my life’s gone,” he muses.
In 2013, doctors at Southend Hospital diagnosed him with pancreatic cancer and gave him 10 months to live. He rejected treatment, which doctors said would only have extended his life by two months, and embarked on a farewell tour.
The resulting publicity left him more in-demand than he had been since his Dr Feelgood heyday. It was a ‘completely mad year’, he says, culminating in a hugely successful album with Roger Daltrey.
Then, about 15 months after his diagnosis, Wilko started wondering why he wasn’t dead yet. He sought a second opinion from doctors at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, who concluded his cancer hadn’t been terminal after all. He had been misdiagnosed. But because he had not sought treatment, Wilko’s tumour had grown to the size of a football and had spread to several organs. The surgery to remove it was major and left him ‘very weak’.
“It took me a long time to actually build up my strength,” he says. “I never believed it was going to come back.”
But now he’s been back on the road for two years and, in September, will mark his 70th birthday year with his first headline gig at the Royal Albert Hall – something which, a few years ago, would have seemed impossible.
“What else could happen?” he jokes. “Perhaps I’ll go out to the space station and do a gig.”
Wilko jokes a lot but, contrary to his jovial, larger than life persona, says he is actually ‘naturally very miserable’. Being diagnosed with cancer did ‘change his consciousness’, he says; he gained a new, positive outlook, learning to appreciate each waking moment. But that euphoria began to dissipate when he learned his days weren’t numbered after all. Following after his life-saving surgery, “as I came home and started recuperating, I thought, ‘Ah, yes sir, I must be getting a bit better because my misery is returning’.
Despite his pessimistic disposition, though, he isn’t feeling as grouchy about approaching 70 as many others do.
“Well, I mean, it might not have happened at all, mightn’t it?” he laughs. “Perhaps I shouldn’t call it 70. Perhaps I should call it plus four.”
Yet, aside from his Albert Hall concert several months later, he has no celebrations planned.
“I normally take absolutely no notice of birthdays,” he says. “I often let my birthday go by and I don’t even realise.”
He suspects his chums may plot a surprise party but is stumped as to how else he might mark the occasion.
“I have no idea at all,” he says, “Invite all the bands off Top of the Pops round to my house for a... Oh, we don’t have that anymore, do we? That’s how clued in I am. Like most old geezers, I’m quite proud to be completely out of touch and contemptuous of whatever’s going on.”
He’s not a Justin Bieber fan, then?
“I have heard of this person but further than that I’m completely ignorant,” he says. “I might be, mightn’t I? But I don’t know what it is.”
He has little interest in any music released since 1972, he claims. He’ll still go to see Bob Dylan, or ‘travel to Europe to see a good blues man’, but many of his heroes are no longer around.
Whilst we're on the subject, I ask Wilko how long he sees himself remaining on the road.
“One thing I made a decision on when I had cancer; that as long as I was absolutely capable of doing my thing, then I will do it," he says, quite seriously. "And the moment that I find myself physically unable to – past it, if you like – I won’t do it anymore. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. But right at the minute, I’m bursting with energy.”
With a packed diary, Wilko believes he and his band are currently ‘doing it better than ever’. When he first returned to the stage after surgery, he had been away for more than a year – the longest break of his career.
“I found first of all that year, I was out of practice. I knew that my playing wasn’t as sharp as it should have been and I was finding myself fumbling things,” he says. “You can cover it all up if you keep a determined expression on your face. But it all gradually came back, and as it’s come back we’ve been doing more and more gigs and the whole thing’s been moving up, which is kind of a weird thing to be happening when you’re 70.”
But there will be no disappearing to Malibu if the upward trajectory continues, he says. Even if he made ‘millions and millions’, the furthest he might move would be to ‘a big mansion in Benfleet’.
“I think I have always got to live within spitting distance of the Thames estuary, just because I love it,” he explains. “I’ve been all around the world. There are many places that are worthily famous for all sorts of things but in the end, it’s round here that feels like home to me.”
That said, he is less than enthusiastic about many of the changes he has witnessed in Southend over the years. He misses the Golden Hind, which his mate ‘French Henry’ used to run. The pair of them now wander around the town together, griping about how different it all looks.
He jokes: “One of our things is kind of mooching around going, ’Oh man! Look at this! Look at the seafront, man!’ It’s just so terrible now. It looks all plastic.”
The Victoria Circus has been ‘destroyed’, he continues.
“That used to be beautiful and across from there you had this fantastic shopping arcade, and it had three streets in it and they all met in the middle, where there was a pet shop with monkeys and parrots. Call me old-fashioned, but I thought that was very groovy.
“And what have we got now? We’ve got this frightful sixties box with Oxfam shops and the wind blowing through it and the escalators don’t work. I think Southend’s had a bit of a bad deal, actually, over the last hundreds of years or however long I’ve lived.
“As for that Lego house they built for the student accommodation... I don’t know. I can’t remember what was there before, but one thing I do know; it was better than that.”
So what keeps him here?
“I have to say, and I honestly believe this – I have been around the world and seen a lot of places, but I believe that the Thames Estuary is one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world,” he says. “You just stand there and look out over the river, man; the weather, the sky is constantly changing and the river and everything that it evokes. It’s a wonderful place. I will always be here.”
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