Wilko Johnson, the guitarist for the British blues-rock band Dr. Feelgood, has died after a career resurgence after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was 75.
Johnson died Monday evening at his home in southeast England, according to a statement posted Wednesday on Johnson’s official social media accounts on behalf of his family.
Johnson was born John Wilkinson in 1947 on Canvey Island, a marshy, industrial oil town in England’s River Thames estuary. Before forming Dr. Feelgood with other local friends, he studied Anglo-Saxon literature at Newcastle University and worked as a schoolteacher.
They played a then-unfashionable brand of blues and R&B, dressed in cheap suits that made them look like “shoddy bank robbers.” in an era of flamboyant glam and indulgent prog rock.
Johnson’s choppy, relentless guitar style and thousand-yard glare helped give Dr. Feelgood a dangerous edge, earning him a role later in life as silent executioner Ser Ilyn Payne on “Game of Thrones.”
The anarchic outfit inspired bands that would soon drive the U.K. punk explosion, and they teetered on the brink of global fame, scoring a No. 1 album in the United Kingdom, tours in the United States, and a deal with CBS Records. Then, in 1977, Johnson left due to disagreements with charismatic lead singer Lee Brilleaux, who died in 1994.
Johnson later stated, “I’m pretty sure we’d be multimillionaires if we’d been able to follow our managers’ instructions to behave.” However, we did not. We were Canvey Island retirees. We were good friends who fell out.”
Johnson later joined Ian Dury’s band, the Blockheads, and spent years performing to a devoted fanbase, primarily in the United Kingdom and Japan.
Johnson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2012 and was told it was terminal. His creative energies were unexpectedly revived by the prospect of death. He refused chemotherapy, went on one final tour, and recorded a “final” album, “Going Back Home,” with Roger Daltrey of The Who.
In 2013, he told the Associated Press, “I suddenly found myself in a position where nothing matters anymore,” “Normally, I’m a miserable so-and-so…. I’d be worrying about the taxman or all the other things that we worry about that get in the way of the important things.” And then it doesn’t matter anymore. It makes no difference.
“As you walk down the street, you feel incredibly alive.” Take a look at that leaf! You look around and realize, “I’m alive.” Isn’t it incredible?'”
In another twist, a cancer specialist fan offered to assist. Johnson declared himself cancer-free in 2014 after undergoing surgery to remove a 3-kilogram (6.6-pound) tumor. In 2018, he released another album, “Blow Your Mind,” and he continued to perform with his Wilko Johnson Band until last month.
Daltrey paid tribute to “the uncompromising Bard of Canvey.”
“More than anything Wilko wanted to be a poet,” he explained. “I consider myself fortunate to have known and befriended him. His music lives on, but this time there’s no escaping the final curtain.”
Johnson’s sons Simon and Matthew, as well as his grandson Dylan, survive him.
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