Wilko Johnson Cheats Death

Wilko Johnson battles cancer to record with Roger Daltrey.
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His new album is entitled Going Back Home. Happily, he isn't just yet.

When I talked to Wilko Johnson earlier this year, he was a dead man. The former Dr. Feelgood guitarist was told he had ten months to live after being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer at the end of 2012. He refused all treatment, preferring to play music as long as he could, and record a “last” album with Roger Daltrey. And yet, here he was, talking about that very album, Going Back Home [Chess/UMe], on April 4, 2014, approximately six months after he should have punched out.

Then, on April 30, Johnson entered a hospital in Cambridge, England, to have a miraculous, nine-hour surgery to remove a football-sized tumor (which turned out to be a rare neuroendocrine malignancy that is far less aggressive than “normal” pancreatic cancer), as well as his pancreas, spleen, and parts of his digestive system. Doctors are now “cautiously optimistic” about the guitarist’s chances for survival.

Hopefully, this means that Going Back Home—which features some of Daltrey’s most beautifully powerful vocals in years (sorry, Pete Townshend)—will become less of a final statement, and more of an exuberant celebration of old-school R&B and pub rock.Recorded mostly live in eight days with bassist Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Dylan Howe, Going Back Home is already a hit in England, snagging a Silver Disk Award on May 26 for 60,000 albums sold. The record features ten remakes of Johnson originals from his Dr. Feelgood and solo days, and his playing remains as tough, gritty, and cutting as when he was first trying to emulate Johnny Kidd & the Pirates’ guitarist Mick Green in the ’60s.

Roger Daltrey (left) and Wilko Johnson.

“I was absolutely riveted by him,” says Johnson. “I tried as hard as I could to play like Mick, but I never got it right. Somewhere along the way I developed a style, but my whole staccato, percussive way of playing rhythm guitar all came from Mick Green. I don’t use a pick, so I bleed a lot [laughs]. I bash the strings with my right hand across the back of my nails, and then upwards with my thumbnail.”

For the Going Back Home sessions, Johnson used one guitar, one amp, and no effects whatsoever.

“I played the very first model of my 2013 Fender Wilko Johnson Signature Telecaster [available only in Europe]—which is based on a ’62 Tele—along with a Cornell 1x10 combo,” says Johnson. “I set all the Cornell’s controls to the middle, use the bridge pickup of the Tele, run the guitar’s Volume and Tone knobs full up, and that’s how it stays.”

Johnson’s songs still begin the old-fashioned way— with a guitar riff.

“I play the riff over and over until I can determine what it’s saying,” he explains. “Is it heavy? Is it comical? Then, I write lyrics and melodies to express the feeling of the riff it all started from. For the most part, I’m still playing three chords and 12 bars. I remain very uninformed about any modern developments in music.”

Although he has been ill, Johnson’s recent concerts still find him doing the rapid, herky-jerky stage dashes that have thrilled audiences since his tenure in Dr. Feelgood.

“It’s like this,” he says. “You go down to the disco, and a record comes on that you like, and you get up on the floor, man, and you start doing your thing. You don’t care what kind of idiot you look like—you’re just going with the music. That’s me when I play guitar.”

Watch "Going Back Home"