WILKO JOHNSON - I'm alive at Louder Than Words
"If you are faced with imminent death, you find out what is real and what is not," the truly magnificent Wilko Johnson told a rapt audience not two hours ago at the Louder Than Words Festival here in Manchester. "Then when I was told I wasn't going to die after all... well sorry everyone. I didn't die after all, and it was a bit embarrassing."
Wilko was here to present the Writing Award named after him to a girl called Chiara from Edinburgh whose 350-word essay on the significance or otherwise of the record charts won the prize, as judged by his eminence Barney Hoskyns, author, rock critic and the founder of the website Rock's Backpages which Just Backdated refers to constantly. Before he did so Wilko was interviewed by John Robb, which turned out to be the easiest assignment ever since Wilko just started talking and didn't stop for the best part of 20 minutes, taking us through his ordeal with such eloquence and good humour that at the end the entire room rose to acknowledge his bravery and candour.
"I had been told I had an inoperable tumour and would not live longer than six months, so I did a farewell tour and at the end of it I was still standing... then after a year when I didn't die I saw another doctor named Charlie Chan. He said it was curious that I wasn't dead."
The initial diagnosis, of course, turned out to be wrong. The tumour, which weighed three kilos, was removed and after a period of recuperation, when simply walking around the block where he lived was an effort, he has made a remarkable, nay miraculous, recovery.
Along the way, of course, he made the album with Roger Daltrey, in just eight days. This project was something that he and Roger had discussed three years previously, and it wasn't until Roger read about Wilko's plight that he called up, in essence saying that if they didn't do the album soon - and quickly - then it would never get done. Then, of course, it turned out to be enormously successful. "A silver disc was delivered to me in hospital," said Wilko. "I was full of tubes and morphine when the nurse gave it to me. Oh yes, very good, I told her."
Describing what it was like to be alive when the whole world thought he would soon be dead verges on the surreal. "I was high," said Wilko. "I have always been a miserable sod but it would be wrong for me to say that I felt happy for the first time in my life. It was a... good feeling, and it lasted and lasted and lasted. And when I didn't die Roger came up to me and said, 'Let's do another album'."
The euphoria hasn't stopped. The near death experience has elevated Wilko into realms of celebrity that had hitherto eluded him, an ironic state of affairs considering his well-earned reputation as the guitarist whose machine gun stutter influenced just about every punk band in the UK. Fender promptly awarded him a signature Telecaster, in red and black like the one he's always played and which he painted himself, though it does appear the people from Fender didn't seem to know who he was at first. And next year he'll be touring as support to The Who in the US, thus performing in front of audiences far greater than he's ever faced before. The whole messy business has resulted in Wilko finally getting the recognition he has deserved for years.
"Nothing," he concluded, "can surprise me any more."