Wilko Johnson: "I won't be dressing up as a prawn for the Royal Albert Hall"

A shot of Wilko Johnson on stage

In late 2012, doctors informed Wilko Johnson that he had a year to live due to pancreatic cancer. However, after making an album with Roger Daltrey, playing a farewell tour and receiving a second opinion, subsequent life-saving surgery presented a miracle cure. This coming autumn, Wilko celebrates his 70th birthday and three decades of solo activity with a show at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

How has your outlook on life changed?

I’ve learned what’s important and what isn’t. Having absolutely accepted that my life was over and miraculously recovering from that, I now try to live in the moment. I hope I’m a bit calmer than before.

Presumably you still need regular check-ups?

Yeah. I go back every six months. The most recent one was still all clear.

You recently sat in with author Zoë Howe to answer questions on Rock ’N’ Roll Gentleman, her book on the late Feelgoods singer Lee Brilleaux. Does her biography accurately portray the man you knew?

Yeah, it’s extremely good. I’m writing my own book at the moment and hers is so well written, it made me nervous about mine! I learned a lot about Dr Feelgood that even I never knew.

Do you still sometimes miss Lee?

Not really. After the bust-up I walked away. We met once or twice afterwards and it was a bit awkward; I found myself looking at my shoes. But it was a long time ago [Johnson left the Feelgoods in 1977].

Did you consider suing the medic who misdiagnosed you?

No. Had he not done so then I wouldn’t have made the album with Roger Daltrey.

You almost make the illness sound like it was a good thing.

In many ways it was. That error launched one of the greatest periods of my life, so I’ve no regrets.

How will you celebrate turning seventy years old on July 12?

I dare say we’ll probably have some kind of do, though it’s weird – I shouldn’t be here. I can’t quite get my head around the fact that in a few months’ time I’m playing the Albert Hall. I don’t think of myself as seventy – I prefer ‘plus four’ [his revised diagnosis was in late 2013].

How often have you played at the Albert Hall?

Three or four times. We supported The Who there last year. But once you get past the front door and all of the symbolic connotations, it’s just a gig.

Will you invite Roger Daltrey? And are you planning a special set list?

I’ve no idea whether Roger will come. And don’t be silly, it’s one-two-three-four and off we go. That’s what I do. It’ll be the usual show – I won’t be dressing up as a prawn or anything.

After the Albert Hall show and a trip to Japan, your band will start work on a new album.

A couple of weeks ago we started looking at material accumulated from before my illness. There’s some pretty good stuff, I think. If I do make another album, I want it to be good. I don’t want people looking at me and saying [in a pitiful voice]: “Oh, look at him, he’s seventy and still grinding it out.” But I’m confident it’ll be good.

Are you planning to play until you keel over?

Yeah, I think so. I’m still physically fit. I’m a miserable so and so – the only time I’m happy is when I’m playing, so that’s what I’m going to do. For as long as I’m still able to do so, playing music will fill my remaining allotted years.

Wilko plays the Royal Albert Hall on September 26.

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Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.