Wilko Johnson, guitarist for British blues rock band Dr. Feelgood, who enjoyed an unexpected career renaissance after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, has died. He was 75.
A statement released on behalf of his family on Johnson’s official social media accounts on Wednesday says the musician died at his home in south-east England on Monday night.
Born John Wilkinson in 1947, Johnson grew up on Canvey Island, a swampy, industrial oil town on the Thames Estuary in England. He studied Anglo-Saxon literature at Newcastle University and worked as a school teacher before, with other local friends, he received Dr. Feelgood founded.
In an era of flamboyant glam and indulgent prog rock, they played a then-unfashionable brand of blues and R&B, dressed in cheap suits that, as Johnson later said, made them look like “shabby bank robbers”.
Johnson helped Dr. Feelgood, with his choppy, unrelenting guitar style and thousand-yard stare at a dangerous advantage – a stare scary enough to later in life earn him a role as the silent executioner Ser Ilyn Payne on Game of Thrones.
The anarchic outfit inspired bands that would soon fuel Britain’s punk explosion and teetered on the brink of global stardom, scoring a UK No. 1 album, US tours and a deal with CBS Records. Then in 1977 Johnson left amid friction with charismatic lead singer Lee Brilleaux, who died in 1994.
Johnson later said that if the band had been able to follow their managers’ instructions on how to behave, “I’m pretty sure we’d be multi-millionaires. But we didn’t. We were crackers from Canvey Island. We were good friends and we fell out.”
Johnson then performed with Ian Dury’s band, the Blockheads, and spent years playing to a loyal following, mostly in the UK and Japan.
In 2012, Johnson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told he was terminal. The prospect of death unexpectedly revived his creative energies. He turned down chemotherapy, opted for one last tour, and recorded a “final” album with The Who’s Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home.
“I suddenly found myself in a position where nothing matters anymore,” he told the Associated Press in 2013. “I’m usually a miserable so-and-so. … I would worry about the Treasurer or all the things we worry about that get in the way of real things. And suddenly it doesn’t matter. None of that matters.
“You walk down the street feeling intensely alive. You say, “Oh, look at this sheet!” You look around and you think, “I’m alive. Isn’t it amazing?’”
In a different twist, a fan who was also a cancer specialist offered to help. In 2014, after undergoing surgery to remove a 7-pound tumor, Johnson announced he was cancer-free. He released another album, Blow Your Mind, in 2018 and played gigs with his Wilko Johnson Band until last month.
Daltrey paid tribute to “the uncompromising bard of Canvey”.
“Wilko wanted above all to be a poet,” he said. “I was lucky enough to know him and have him as a friend. His music lives on, but this time there is no escaping the final curtain.”
Johnson is survived by his sons Simon and Matthew and grandson Dylan.
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