Wilko Johnson, guitarist and singer for the British pub-rock band Dr. Feelgood, died on Monday at the age of 75. The news was confirmed in a statement posted to Johnson’s social media accounts.
“This is the announcement we never wanted to make, and we do so, on behalf of Wilko’s family and the band, with a very heavy heart,” the post reads. “Thank you for respecting Wilko’s family’s privacy at this very sad time, and thank you all for having been such a tremendous support throughout Wilko’s incredible life.”
Born in Canvey Island, Essex, England, Johnson attended the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and graduated with his BA in English Language and Literature. After spending some time traveling abroad in India, he returned to Essex, where he joined a group called the Pigboy Charlie Band, which eventually turned into Dr. Feelgood. The initial lineup included singer Lee Brilleaux and bassist John B. Sparks, with drummer John Martin joining shortly afterward. Within two years, they were mainstays of London’s pub-rock circuit. Their first two albums, Down by the Jetty and Malpractice (both released in 1975), were well received, but their breakthrough arrived with 1976’s Stupidity, a live album that reached No. 1 in the U.K. Johnson stayed on for one more album, 1977’s Sneakin’ Suspicion, and then left following band disagreements.
Over the years, Johnson performed and recorded with various bands, including Solid Senders, Ian Dury’s Blockheads and the Wilko Johnson Band. His most recent album, Blow Your Mind, was released in 2018. Johnson also acted, appearing in the first and second seasons of Game of Thrones.
In early 2013, Johnson was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, at which time he revealed he had roughly 10 months to live and that he had elected not to undergo chemotherapy. He embarked on a “farewell tour” that same year. In 2014, he teamed up with the Who’s Roger Daltrey for 2014’s Going Back Home, which featured re-recorded versions of Dr. Feelgood songs. “I thought that was going to be the last thing I ever did,” Johnson told the BBC at the time.
He was told by doctors in 2014 that his cancer had been misdiagnosed and was more treatable than first assumed. That year, he underwent a successful 11-hour operation, though he often spoke about how his experience shaped his attitude toward the eventual end of his life. “I didn’t plan to feel that way about death,” he said to The Guardian in 2015. “That’s the way it got me. One of the ways I dealt with it was to absolutely accept it, and think, ‘Right, they’ve told me this thing is inoperable – if I’ve got 10 months to live, I just want to do it, I don’t want to spend 10 months running around after second opinions or false hopes.’ In a way, it was a kind of comfort zone, accepting that I was going to die and all the questions of mortality had been sorted out for me. I dunno, if that communicated something positive for people, that’s marvelous, but I didn’t intend to.”
Johnson continued performing until his death, most recently on a tour around England.
Since the early days of his career in Dr. Feelgood, Johnson’s approach to guitar playing — a choppy, R&B style that relied on his fingers, not a pick — inspired countless other musicians, including John Lydon, Joe Strummer of the Clash and the Jam’s Paul Weller. He also influenced U.S. bands like Blondie and Television.
“Wilko may not be as famous as some other guitarists, but he’s right up there,” Weller once said. “And there are a lot of people who’ll say the same. I can hear Wilko in lots of places. It’s some legacy.” Following Johnson’s death, many artists – including Jimmy Page and Billy Bragg – expressed condolences.
In an interview earlier this year, Johnson spoke about how his outlook on life had changed since his recovery. “Back then I would sometimes sit alone by myself and get these moments of profound thoughts,” he said to Swindon Link. “You think about things, and they really are deep and fundamental thoughts. God knows what those thoughts were now, but I know they were deep! Now I’m back to a different consciousness – I’m back in the world again.”
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