Mercifully for everyone – except the woman from the local authority on the end of his phone – Wilko’s cancer has yet to take effect. It was just the pie.
As I enter his house in Essex, he’s hilariously scolding said local authority employee for not investigating his food poisoning complaint. You don’t need to know that Dr Feelgood (the band he found fame with in the ‘70s) influenced punk rock – it’s right there in his voice and attitude as he snarls: ‘How much have they wedged you up for, eh?’ before slamming the phone down and concluding: ‘What an obtuse cow!’
What he suggests next though says everything about where Wilko’s head is at in his remaining months: ‘How much do you think they would pay me? I’ve only got a few months left – let’s get as much cash from them as possible and party down.’ It’s this desire to live life to the fullest in the face of death that has finally made Wilko Johnson a national hero. Initially, his spell-binding rhythm guitar playing in Dr Feelgood (not to mention his trademark stare) made him an icon of the bluesy pub rock scene (later an influence on Paul Weller to Blur’s Graham Coxon). More recently, Julien Temple’s 2009 rockumentary on the band, ‘Oil City Confidential’, introduced him to a new generation as a lovable English eccentric. Even the producers of HBO’s medieval fantasy, ‘Game of Thrones’, took note of his headlamp-esque gaze and cast him as a mute executioner.
Yet it’s the sense of unadulterated happiness he’s experienced since being diagnosed that’s touched so many people and made him a national talking point. ‘I’m just glad to be alive,’ he explains ‘everything looks very, very groovy, almost euphoric at times. Just walking down the street is groovy.’ It’s led him to be written about as a figure of spirituality in The Guardian while hundreds of people a day call him ‘brave’ and ‘inspirational’ on his Facebook page. Some even compare him to Gandhi.
To Wilko, this is nonsense. In his mind, he’ll never handle his illness with the same grace as his wife Irene, who died from cancer in 2004. ‘She was an extraordinary person who never complained until she was too weak to stand. She only ever mentioned her illness in two flippant remarks. I just slowly watched her... fade away.’
Sentimentality is not on Wilko’s agenda. He’s determined that the music comes first. Johnson may well end his two forthcoming shows at Koko with a version of Chuck Berry’s ‘Bye Bye Johnny’, but he isn’t trying to solicit cheap tears – it’s simply been his closing number for years. He’s also working to complete an album before he goes, with a clutch of famous collaborators he describes as ‘all sorts of people who were previously in the shadows’. In his last months, Wilko Johnson is suddenly more popular and more in demand than he’s ever been. Is he more tactful? Pfft, hardly: ‘I mean, they’re leaving it a bit late aren’t they? Where were they ten bloody years ago, eh?’
You haven't 'done' Soho until you've been to a gig at The Borderline, simple as. This much-loved venue with a loyal audience has given a platform to countless bands and artists throughout its long history – stretching back over 20 years – and is still going strong today, showcasing both new and revered talent. Head in for a gig on any given day and you could find yourself moshing to rock and metal, getting busy on the dancefloor at an indie club night or perhaps soaking up the sweet tone of a folk, blues or Americana singer-songwriter. It can get a little cramped when the 275-ish capacity fills up, but that's all the better for creating an intimate atmospherewhere between artist and audience, and means you won't have to worry about elbowing your way to the front past thousands of people. A Soho musical institution. We were there when The Borderline reopened in March 2017: