Wilko Johnson Cheerfully Discusses Death, Depression, Cancer….and Canvey Island

Wilko Johnson was at Rough Trade East last night in conversation with author Zoë Howe to discuss his new book “Don’t You Leave Me Here”. 

The former Dr Feelgood guitarist has written about his extraordinary life: chart topping success, the argument that led to the break up of the band, his time with Ian Dury and of being the only person to be able to keep up with – and nearly have a fight with – Lemmy. In latter years Wilko has enjoyed a career revival sparked by a Julien Temple documentary. In a cruel twist of fate in January 2013 he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Whilst playing a farewell tour, he was approached by a fan called Charlie Chan who was a photographer and also happened to be a cancer surgeon (I know, you couldn’t make it up). After a further referral to a specialist cancer doctor, Wilko discovered his life could be saved after all. 

He has lived a full life, so here are some pearls of wisdom from Wilko Johnson himself from last night’s launch:

On being told he had terminal cancer

I was completely calm. I walked out of the hospital on a beautiful winters day and looked at the trees and thought “I’m alive, I’m alive!”. By the time I got home I was ecstatic and that feeling lasted several months. 

From the moment the guy said to me you’ve got cancer everything changes. The universe changes. Everything is different. I was really high on it. 

On playing gigs when everyone knows you are dying

I went to Japan to say goodbye to all my chums there, do a couple of gigs and everyone knew I was dying, and wow! You can’t go wrong! They were fantastic gigs. It’s really good to just play. The future is a universal blank. You ain’t got nothing to prove and because everyone knows…you squeeze the maximum out of it!

On the fan who fought his way backstage and subsequently saved his life

I was talking to this photographer (Charlie Chan) at the Cornbury Festival and it turned out not only was he a photographer he was also a cancer surgeon. 

(Later that year) Charlie thought there was something strange because by that time I should have been dead or very very seriously ill. The tumour was the size of a melon. 

When I was diagnosed at Southend General hospital they told me quite definitely this condition was inoperable. 

He had a look at me and told me he wanted me to go to Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge to meet his old Oxford university friend Emmanuel Huguet. 

Mr Huguet had look at the scan and said. “Yes we can operate on this”. 

On being told his life might be saved:

I had this strange feeling. 

Being condemned to death I absolutely accepted was I was going to die and there was no hope. I didn’t want to worry about false hopes, second opinions or miracle cures. To be confronted by Mr Huguet and he was telling me I was going to live was strange. I’m sitting there thinking “Is this guy telling me I might live?” “Yeah, he is”. 

Mr Huguet later told me he saw my scans done at Southend General and in three seconds he knew what it was and that it wasn’t inoperable. 

So if Charlie Chan hadn’t popped up yes I would have died. The tumour was big, it would have burst and that would have been it. 

But what Southend general told me was true: I was going to die if an operation wasn’t done. 

On living with a death sentence – and then discovering the cancer could be treated:

I’m glad I had that year. It was extraordinary….

On Canvey island….

“When I was growing up it was more or less rural, people living in caravans and things like that. It’s changed. There’d be all these bungalows along the road. It used to be strange, mysterious. You used to get this mist like dry ice, but now it’s all built up. But is it the same? I took a friend from France to Canvey and we went into the Monaco for a drink and he said “It’s weird”, so it’s still got it!”

On the argument that led to the split of Dr Feelgood

“In this book I had to think what really happened. I never thought of it for forty years. And I started remembering and I started thinking “Those Bastards!” They were wrong, and I was right! It’s all in the book!”

On his legendary onstage energy

“Where do I get my energy from onstage? It’s sheer panic!”

On life after cancer…and dealing with depression

“I suffer from Depression. But one side of my returning “thing” is I started getting the misery again. The elation I experienced when I was actually going to die is all fading from me like a dream – and I’m back to the old misery – but I’ve still got the panic onstage!

Don’t You Leave Me Here by Wilko Johnson is out now. 





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