Wilko Johnson, English guitar great, dead at 75: ‘First and foremost, I’m an atheist,’ he told us in 2015

12 days ago The San Diego Union-Tribune

Wilko Johnson’s formidable musical impact in his native England in the 1970s and beyond was a matter of record. So was his ability to defy death for nearly a decade after being told in 2013 that he had incurable cancer and had less than a year to live.

Johnson died Monday at the age of 75 at his home in Westcliff-on-Sea in southeastern England. His death was reported by his family in an online post that did not disclose the cause.

Having faced death head-on after his 2013 diagnosis of incurable pancreatic cancer, Johnson viewed each day as a gift. He did not, however, grow more spiritual.

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“Well, first and foremost, I’m an atheist, so I never had to reflect about that. I just believed I’d return to the oblivion I came from!” a laughing Johnson told the San Diego Union-Tribune in a 2015 interview, which appears in full below.

“But, certainly, during the year that I was dying, well, it was great. I mean, you see things really intensely and you actually realize you’re alive. If you know in your mind that this life is going to be taken from you, very soon, oh, man! I just had so many deep feelings of being. It makes you realize what things are important and what things aren’t. Things that would really freak you out before, you say: ‘Man, it doesn’t matter.’ ”

Perhaps better known to many Americans for his wordless role as Ilyn Payne, the mute executioner in the HBO TV series “Game of Thrones,” Johnson’s musical impact in the U.S. was minimal.

Not so in England, where his intensely rhythmic, slash-and-burn guitar style as the co-leader of Dr. Feelgood proved highly influential. His band served as a vital link between pub-rock and punk-rock and his death inspired online tributes by such varied musicians as Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Kapranos and Who singer Roger Daltrey, with whom Johnson recorded the bluesy album “Going Back Home” in 2014.

“I thought the record with Roger was the last thing I’d ever do,” Johnson said in his 2015 Union-Tribune interview. “I said to him: ‘We better do this really quick.’ We recorded it in 8 days. I was very pleased with the result, although I thought I’d be dead when the record came out. Then, the next year, there I am — lying in the hospital — with morphine drips and all these tubes going into me. And people are coming in, and saying: ‘The record’s selling really good!’ ”

In a post on The Who’s website on Wednesday, Daltrey wrote of Johnson: “I was lucky to have known him and have him as a friend. His music lives on but there’s no escaping the final curtain this time.”

Singer-songwriter Billy Bragg sang Johnson’s praises Wednesday in a Twitter post.

“Wilko Johnson was a precursor of punk,” Bragg wrote. “His guitar playing was angry and angular, but his presence — twitchy, confrontational, out of control — was something we’d never beheld before in UK pop. (Johnny) Rotten, (Joe) Strummer and (Paul) Weller learned a lot from his edgy demeanor. He does it right. RIP.”

Johnson performed in London as recently as last month. His memoir, “Don’t You Leave Me Here: My Life by Wilko Johnson” was published in 2016.

“I spent this (past) year thinking my life was measured in months,” he said in his 2015 Union-Tribune interview.

“Now, when someone talks to me about doing something in six months time, I can’t take it in. I’m still trying to get used to the idea that my history now extends a little further than Christmas time.”

Here is Johnson’s complete 2015 San Diego Union-Tribune interview.

‘Game of Thrones’ executioner beats death

After being diagnosed with terminal cancer, legendary English rock guitarist (and periodic actor) Wilko Johnson made an album with Who singer Roger Daltrey and prepared to die

BY GEORGE VARGA
JAN. 25, 2015 6 AM PT

After playing the role of an executioner during the first two seasons of the acclaimed HBO TV series “Game of Thrones,” Wilko Johnson received a real-life death sentence.

In early 2013, the English rock guitar legend disclosed he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. After being told he had less than a year to live, he opted not to undergo chemo therapy or any other treatment. Instead, he quickly recorded “Going Back Home,” his wonderfully raw and gritty joint album with Roger Daltrey. The Who singer was a longtime fan of Johnson’s solo work and of Dr. Feelgood, the pioneering band the veteran guitarist co-led in the 1970s.

The hulking Johnson, whose bald head and perpetual scowl were perfectly suited to his role as executioner Ilyn Payne on “Game of Thrones,” then mounted a farewell concert tour in his homeland. In this case, “farewell” took on a decidedly ominous tone. The life-and-nearly-death sequence of events that ensued was more surreal than any TV script writer could dream up.

“I had this tumor in my stomach that you could see; it’s about the size of a fist,” Johnson recalled, speaking by phone in late December from his London home. “I was treating it by ignoring it and hoping it would go away. Eventually, my son forced me to go to the hospital. And they said: ‘You’ve got pancreatic cancer and about 10 months to live’.”

The prospect of imminent death might cause most people to plunge into depression. But it had exactly the opposite effect on Johnson, who — against immense odds — is still alive, if not yet completely well, and looking forward to celebrating his 68th birthday in July. He has not, however, grown more spiritual after somehow cheating death (about which more in a moment).

Wilko Johnson at London's Rainbow Theatre,

Guitarist Wilko Johnson is shown performing with his band, Dr, Feelgood, at London’s Rainbow Theatre in early 1975. The band provided a vital link between English pub-rock and the punk-rock revolution that soon followed.

(Andrew Putler / Getty Images)

“Well, first and foremost, I’m an atheist, so I never had to reflect about that. I just believed I’d return to the oblivion I came from!” Johnson said with a hearty laugh.

“But, certainly, during the year that I was dying, well, it was great. I mean, you see things really intensely and you actually realize you’re alive. If you know in your mind that this life is going to be taken from you, very soon, oh, man! I just had so many deep feelings of being. It makes you realize what things are important and what things aren’t. Things that would really freak you out before, you say: ‘Man, it doesn’t matter.”

Johnson, whose slash-and-burn guitar style influenced a generation of punk-rockers in England, chuckled ruefully.

“Sometimes, you think that it’s almost worth it — having cancer — to get these insights,” he said. “I just hope I carry some of them on with me into this new life I’ve found.”

That new life did not come easy.

During Johnson’s highly emotional farewell tour, the tumor in his abdomen grew larger and more pronounced. As a result, his electric guitar stuck out at a decidedly odd angle when he played it on stage.

The striking visual disparity that resulted, coupled with the fact he was somehow still performing, caught the eye of Johnson’s acquaintance, Charlie Chan. A London cancer surgeon who is also an amateur photographer, Chan approached the guitarist after one of his farewell shows.

“He was wondering how I was still up and about on this tour,” Johnson recalled. “He said: ‘If you have pancreatic cancer, you should either be dead by now, or — at least — certainly not able to be doing gigs.’ If Charlie hadn’t popped up, I would be dead.”

Chan insisted Johnson go to Oxford to undergo more testing. Doctors there discovered he had a rare neuroendocrine tumor. According to Pancreatic Cancer UK, a research organization, neuroendocrine tumors account for less than 5 percent of all pancreatic tumors and usually grow much more slowly than other tumors. Better yet, neuroendocrine tumors can be treated and cured.

As a result of this new diagnosis, Johnson last year agreed to treatment. Last April, he underwent 11 hours of radical surgery at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. There, doctors removed a 6½ pound tumor, along with his pancreas, spleen, his large and small intestines, and parts of his stomach.

“So, now,” Johnson said matter-of-factly, “I’m diabetic as a result of the surgery. But I don’t really care too much about food. In fact, there are very few restrictions; it’s just a matter of keeping your insulin level right.””

He laughed again.

“It really is crazy, when I think about all this,” Johnson said. “It’s just mad that I’m still here.”

However, having looked death in the eye — and lived — he is not mad about the misdiagnosis that he had terminal cancer.

“I don’t want to look back and get uptight about stuff that went down,” Johnson said. “I had that year thinking I was going to die. And, like I said, it was a marvelous year, in many ways. But, yes, they got it wrong. They told me I had about 10 months to live and that, if I had chemo, maybe a year. I said: ‘Man, I’m not doing that. I’ll just have my 10 months while I can.’

“So I just left it alone and didn’t seek a second opinion. And this tumor was huge. My stomach was bulging and it weighed three kilos when they took it out of me. So, yeah, they got it wrong, but it all just worked out, this crazy year. I don’t want to sit around criticizing doctors. Fortunately, some great doctors got to me in time.”

Ironically, Johnson’s cancer diagnosis came soon after the publication of his 2012 autobiography, “Looking Back At Me.”

In yet another twist, it was during the four months he spent convalescing in a hospital after his surgery that “Going Back Home,” his critically praised album with Who singer Daltrey, became a commercial hit. It sold 500,000 copies in England alone. Filled with brash rock and blues — Johnson wrote or co-wrote 10 of its 11 songs — the album’s title track begins with a sharp lyrical manifesto: “I want to live the way I like.”

“There are a lot of my songs that take on new significance,” noted Johnson, who is slowly easing back into performing live. “When I do that song live now, it’s always good to bash out that first line — ‘I want to live’ — which, yeah, I think I do.

“I thought the record with Roger was the last thing I’d ever do. I said to him: ‘We better do this really quick.’ We recorded it in 8 days. I was very pleased with the result, although I thought I’d be dead when the record came out. Then, the next year, there I am — lying in the hospital — with morphine drips and all these tubes going into me. And people are coming in, and saying: ‘The record’s selling really good!’

“This last couple of years has been beyond anything I could imagine. I keep remarking to my friends: ‘Man, if you saw this written in a book, you just wouldn’t believe it.’ It’s just been improbable, spending a year facing death, then suddenly realizing you’re not facing death. I’m still in limbo a little. But, hey, let’s have a happy new adjustment!”

Bonus Q&A with Wilko Johnson

Q: You nearly died. Has it been harder to adjust physically or psychologically?

Johnson: “Physically, I’m nearly there; I think I’m getting better and better. Psychologically, I’m still trying to adjust. I spent this (past) year thinking my life was measured in months. Now, when someone talks to me about doing something in six months time, I can’t take it in. I’m still trying to get used to the idea that my history now extends a little further than Christmas time.”

Q: You were in the hospital for a total of four months after your tumor was removed. What was the first thing you did when you got out?

Johnson: “Funnily enough, it was to go home and get into my bed. (laughs) It was like: ‘This is my room and my bed’.”

Q: Are you gradually working your way back to performing on stage?

Johnson: “Yeah, I’ve done a couple of shows where I’ve got up with bands and played two or three numbers, and that was all fine. Now, it’s a question of: ‘Have I got the stamina to do a whole gig?’ But I have been playing (my guitar). I still remember how to do it — 3 chords, 12 bars — you can’t forget it. It’s like riding a bike.”

Q: How did you get cast as the executioner on the TV series “Game of Thrones?”

Johnson: “They got in touch with me, and asked me to audition. I think they wanted someone who could give dirty looks to people. And I gave them dirty looks, and they said: ‘You’re hired!’ the only direction they gave me was to say: ‘Everybody hates this guy and the children are all afraid of him’.”

Q: You’ve gone through this near-death experience and survived. Did having a good sense of humor help you to get through this?

Johnson: “Yeah. Sometimes you gotta see the funny side, when you can. I went through a lot of pain after the operation. I couldn’t get up, because I had all these tubes in me and I didn’t feel good. But, sometimes, I’d see the funny side of things.

“The record with Roger (Daltrey) was doing very well. It came out on Chess (Records) and, eventually, this (framed) silver disc (for sales of 500,000 albums) arrived. They put it in my hospital room. After a while, a nurse came in, looked at it, and said: ‘What’s that?’ I said: ‘It’s a kind of award.’

“She looked at it again, and said: ‘Oh. Do you play chess?’ ”
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