Wilko Johnson Q&A: "Lemmy sussed me out as a speed freak"

Former Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson smiling
Wilko Johnson: a man who cheated death (Image credit: Kevin Nixon\/TeamRock)

Diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in January 2013, former Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson elected to eschew chemotherapy and head out on the road. His extraordinary ‘final’ year culminated in a No.1 album with Roger Daltrey (Going Back Home), a surprise last-minute re-diagnosis and an 11-hour operation to remove a three-kilogram tumour. His autobiography is titled Don’t You Leave Me Here.

Do you believe in God?

My mother brought me up as a convinced atheist, and this is how I’ve remained throughout my life. I’m a rationalist and a materialist, so no I don’t believe in God.

What’s the biggest misconception about you?

In the early days of Dr. Feelgood, people would approach me with a kind of caution, as if I was some kind of psychopath. It was quite useful sometimes; it gives you a little bit of privacy.

What are the best and worst drugs you’ve taken?

The worst, far and away, is alcohol. I was an acid head in the sixties. I loved that. But you have to leave it behind. It’s too much.

What is your biggest regret?

I sometimes think I regret the bust up with Dr. Feelgood. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if that hadn’t occurred.

Have you been approached to rejoin Dr. Feelgood since Lee Brilleaux’s death?

Yes [laughs]. But that would be lunacy. If I was ever going to rejoin I should have rejoined the proper Dr. Feelgood with Lee.

What can you do that no-one else can?

I used to be able to drink a cup of hot coffee quicker than anyone I’ve met. I had this technique of blowing over my tongue while drinking.

Who’s the fiercest: Roger Daltrey or Lee Brilleaux?

Oh man, they’re such different people. The whole Dr. Feelgood stage dynamic centred on me responding to Lee’s ferocity. Look at pictures of Feelgood and I’m always looking across at him. Then I’d barge into him and he’d send me off on a silly-walk solo. And, Roger… Well, he’s Roger Daltrey!

What was your biggest waste of money?

Just last week I was hunting around and the mission was to get a reel of gaffer tape. But on the way I got a bit pissed, went into Maplins and I come walking out with one of those drones. So we got it home, and I can’t even make the propellers go round. It’s an expensive one, but I can’t be bothered with it.

To which Shakespearean role would you be best suited?

Probably Timon Of Athens. He’s partying down with everyone, they’re all spending his money and then he runs out of cash and freaks. He’s got these soliloquies where he’s just so bitter, railing against mankind. I can relate to that.

Where do you stand politically?

When I was at university I was left-wing. Back in those days I thought of myself as an anarchist. I didn’t vote. In fact I’ve never voted. Over the last three decades I’ve got more disillusioned with politicians generally.

What’s your favourite Lemmy memory?

When Dr. Feelgood signed to United Artists they gave us some gigs supporting Hawkwind. After the first show, Lemmy came up to me and said: “You’re really pleased to see me. You don’t know it yet, but you are,” and pulled out a huge bag of whizz. He’d been watching us on stage and sussed me out as a speed freak.

What in your life are you most proud of?

What we did with Dr. Feelgood, influencing and becoming part of the story of rock’n’roll, I’m quite proud of that.

Have you ever felt that your recovery cheated you out of the perfect death?

Yes. That extraordinary year of facing death is fading like a dream. The way I handled it was to live in the minute and to absolutely accept that I was going to die. As time passed I came to accept the universe and, if it hadn’t proved painful and extended, then it would have been a perfect death. But now that I’m back in the world and the future’s indefinite again, I’ve regained a normal consciousness and fear death the same as everyone else.

Was coming to terms with living a difficult process?

After the operation it took a long time to recover. I was very weak. Then as I slowly regained my physical strength I realised that I was no longer living with the euphoric consciousness of imminent death, and I started to get depressed. I’ve always been a miserable so-and-so, so becoming gloomy again is a good sign of my returning health.

What will be written on your tombstone?

‘Part Two’.

Ian Fortnam

Classic Rock’s Reviews Editor for the last 20 years, Ian stapled his first fanzine in 1977. Since misspending his youth by way of ‘research’ his work has also appeared in such publications as Metal Hammer, Prog, NME, Uncut, Kerrang!, VOX, The Face, The Guardian, Total Guitar, Guitarist, Electronic Sound, Record Collector and across the internet. Permanently buried under mountains of recorded media, ears ringing from a lifetime of gigs, he enjoys nothing more than recreationally throttling a guitar and following a baptism of punk fire has played in bands for 45 years, releasing recordings via Esoteric Antenna and Cleopatra Records.