It is the ultimate “Feelgood” story.
Three years ago Wilko Johnson was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and given 10 months to live after rejecting chemotherapy. Instead, the former Dr Feelgood guitarist embarked on the ultimate farewell tour with one of the final stops being the Wickham Festival in August 2013. It was expected to be one of his last ever shows – except that was not the end of the story. Astonishingly the 67-year-old is now clear of the disease following an 11-hour operation to remove a 3kg tumour and there won’t be a dry eye in the Big Top when he makes an emotional return to Wickham on Thursday August 9.
He said: “I am fit as a fiddle now. Last time I was at Wickham, I was dying of cancer. It will be really nice to be back because that is something I never expected.
“The last two years have been such an improbable series of events. Honestly, I’m not making it all up! It would be a hell of a marketing stunt if I was.
“I still can’t quite get my head round it. After I did Wickham in 2013, I played a few more gigs and then went into the studio with Roger Daltrey to make an album.
“We had talked about it before and never got round to it. He heard I had cancer and said: ‘Let’s do it!’ so I said we had better make it quick!
“And we did. We recorded it in eight days and it proved really popular and sold well and I thought it would be the last thing I ever did. I also thought it was a pretty good way to sign off.
“I had had a pretty good life and making a record with Roger Daltrey was a good way to round things off. I then did a couple of gigs supporting Status Quo and we were joking about old age. They said they were not getting any younger… and I said I was not getting any older!
“That was it as far as I was concerned. I had gone over the time I had been given so I just thought it would be the end after that.”
But Fate had one more twist in store as Wilko met someone who literally saved his life.
He continued: “I met this guy Charlie Chan at a festival. He was a cancer doctor and he was curious about the fact I was not dead. I had this tumour bulging out of my stomach – as I did at Wickham last time – and it made me look seven months pregnant.
“By all rights I should have been dead and he said something strange was going on and he urged me to contact Emmanuel Huguet at Addenbrookes Hospital to see what he thought.
“He said he thought he could operate but it would be major surgery so he did not want to pressure me into it. I said I had nothing to lose so I agreed.
“I went up to Addenbrookes in spring of last year and it was an 11-hour op. They removed a 3kg tumour – it was the size of a baby.”
The 11-hour operation involved the removal of his pancreas, spleen, part of his stomach, small and large intestines and the removal and reconstruction of blood vessels relating to the liver.
“When I woke up I was in so much pain and that is how life was for the next few months. I was very, very ill and kept getting secondary infections. They would put a tube through my back and into my chest and drain two pints of dirty water into a bucket. I was in agony.
“People would come in and visit and say the album was really good and it was doing well and I really did not care. I was somewhere else.
“There was one bright moment though. The album was on the Chess label and I got a silver disc for it. They brought it into the hospital and put it on the wall and the nurse came in and asked what it was. I said it was a kind of award and she asked if it was for playing chess!”
Ironically the album was called Going Back Home – and after months of painful recuperation, Wilko finally returned to the Canvey Island base he feared he might never see again.
“What can I say about Addenbrookes? They were simply wonderful. They saved my life and no words I could ever say would do justice to their expertise and care. I owe them everything,” he added.
“It was such a tough time. Even when I finally went home, I was in so much pain I thought I would never get better but Mr Huguet was on the phone every day saying I would get better – and I did.
“I went to Japan for a holiday and when I came back I was feeling better and decided to start playing again. Obviously the first gig I did was a benefit one for Addenbrookes and that went well. I had not touched my guitar in months but being back on stage was just fantastic.
“Then I did a couple of gigs in Manchester and Glasgow and then supported the Who at the Royal Albert Hall and now I have a few more gigs lined up and I am delighted to be coming back to Wickham.
“It is a great festival with a fantastic atmosphere. I remember the fans gave me a wonderful reception last time and I hope they will be just as pleased to see me back.”
The outpouring of goodwill was a key factor not only in his recovery but also in giving him the strength to face what he thought was going to be the end.
He laughed: “I never realised how popular I was until I was dying! It was a strange thing really. I received so much warmth and love and support from all around the world which really did help.
“After I was given the original diagnosis I went to Japan because I like it there – and they seem to like me. I am quite popular there for some reason and I played a couple of benefit gigs after the Fukushima disaster and then came back with literally bagfuls of letters. Many were written in broken English which made them all the more touching.
“I remember last time I was at Wickham one family flew all the way from Japan just to see me. I got to meet them and they said they felt they had to come over and see me play one last time. Maybe I should give them a refund as I am still here?
“But that kind of warmth really helped. People would come up to me in the street and shake my hand. It was very emotional but I really was ok about dying. It is a lot harder to get my head round the fact I am now still living. I am still coping with that.
“When I got the original diagnosis it took one second for someone to say I had cancer and to turn my universe upside down. But it honestly was not really a negative thing for me. I did not freak out; I was very, very calm.
“I walked out of the hospital and got this fantastic high looking at the sky and the trees and feeling glad to be alive. It was a real surge.
“I thought maybe it was shock and it would all come crashing down but it didn’t. I went through my time with that high and awareness of being really glad to be alive. Apart from the physical suffering and the stomach swelling I was OK.
“I was at ease with the idea of being dead; it was the thought of dying which I did not like. I did not want to be ill and in pain.
“It actually made me a nicer person. I used to be a bastard but now you could not meet a nicer guy. It made me much more tolerant of everything as I was just happy to be here.”
Wilko accepted the initial diagnosis with remarkable stoicism, an outlook which proved an inspiration to all who met him or who read his uplifting interviews.
Although he was at ease with the idea of dying, he has found it much more difficult to adjust to the idea of living.
He added: “While it takes a second to say you have cancer and to accept you are dying, it takes a lot longer to accept that I am OK.
“Coming out the other end and finding I don’t have cancer still takes a lot of getting used to.
“When people talk about plans for the summer, I still can’t do it. I can’t get out of the mindset of only looking a few weeks ahead.
“For a year anything more than a month in the future simply did not exist for me. It is still a bit like that for me now as I am still finding my way back.
“It was incredible though. A week after the op Mr Huguet walked into the room and said he had my results and it was all gone; they had got the whole thing.
“I was with my brother and we just started cheering. I recently went for a check-up and everything is fine. I still hardly dare say the words but I am cured.
“Now I have to decide what to do with all this time I have been given. I am just starting to get back into action and I will be wanting to get back in the recording studio.
“Maybe that might be with Roger Daltrey again, that is one possibility. But I have started to get out all my old notebooks and I am going to start writing some songs now that I am going to be here to sing them.”
Wilko might even return to the hit television series Game of Thrones where he won many admirers as an eerie executioner.
He said: “The Game of Thrones people have enquired about me appearing again. They said it would be possible to write me back in and I would like to do that.
“I did not know anything about it; I was just asked to audition. I thought it was going to be like Xena Princess Warrior or something but when I got to Ireland where they were filming I thought: ‘This is big!’ but even then I did not realise just how big and successful it would be.
“In America they see me as an actor who plays the guitar a bit – which is not quite how I want to be remembered!”
Back in the UK he will be remembered as much for his inspirational outlook on life – and death – as he will for his music and his trademark machine-gun style of playing the guitar.
So, when he strides onto the Wickham stage on August 6 and announces he is delighted to be here, you know he will really mean it!