INTERVIEW: Rock legend Wilko Johnson on turning 70, the 'destruction' of Southend and why he doesn't know who Justin Bieber is

By Charles Thomson in Arts

WILKO Johnson never envisaged he would one day headline the Royal Albert Hall – but, says the Southend rock legend, nothing surprises him anymore.

“Over the last four or five years, this is just the way my life’s gone,” he muses.

In 2013, doctors at Southend Hospital diagnosed him with pancreatic cancer and gave him 10 months to live. He rejected treatment and embarked on a farewell tour.

The resulting publicity left him more in-demand than he had been since his Dr Feelgood heyday. It was a ’completely mad year’, he says, culminating in a hugely successful album with Roger Daltrey.

About 15 months after his diagnosis, Wilko wondered why he wasn’t dead yet and sought a second opinion. Doctors found his cancer hadn’t been terminal after all - but by then his tumour was the size of a football and had spread to several organs. The surgery to remove it left him ’very weak’.

“It took me a long time to actually build up my strength,” he says. “I never believed it was going to come back.”

But now he’s been back on the road for two years and, in September, will mark his 70th birthday year with his first headline gig at the Royal Albert Hall – something which, a few years ago, would have seemed impossible.

“What else could happen?” he jokes. “Perhaps I’ll go out to the space station and do a gig.”

Despite being ’naturally very miserable’, he says, he isn’t feeling grouchy about turning 70.

“Well, I mean, it might not have happened at all, mightn’t it?” he laughs. “Perhaps I shouldn’t call it 70. Perhaps I should call it plus four.”

Yet, aside from his Albert Hall concert, he has no celebrations planned.

“I normally take absolutely no notice of birthdays,” he says. “I often let my birthday go by and I don’t even realise.”

He suspects his chums may plot a surprise party but is stumped as to how else he might celebrate: “I have no idea at all. Invite all the bands off Top of the Pops round to my house for a... Oh, we don’t have that anymore, do we? That’s how clued in I am. Like most old geezers, I’m quite proud to be completely out of touch and contemptuous of whatever’s going on.”

He’s not a Justin Bieber fan, then?

“I have heard of this person but further than that I’m completely ignorant,” he says. “I might be, mightn’t I? But I don’t know what it is.”

He has little interest in any music released since 1972, he claims. He’ll still go to see Bob Dylan, or ’travel to Europe to see a good blues man’, but many of his heroes are no longer around.

Asked how long he sees himself remaining on the road, he says: “One thing I made a decision on when I had cancer; that as long as I was absolutely capable of doing my thing, then I will do it. And the moment that I find myself physically unable to – past it, if you like – I won’t do it anymore. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. But right at the minute, I’m bursting with energy.”

With a packed diary, Wilko believes he and his band are currently ’doing it better than ever’. When he first returned to the stage after his life-saving surgery, he had been away for more than a year – the longest break of his career.

“I found first of all that year, I was out of practice and I knew that my playing wasn’t as sharp as it should have been and I was finding myself fumbling things,” he says. “You can cover it all up if you keep a determined expression on your face. But it all gradually came back, and as it’s come back we’ve been doing more and more gigs and the whole thing’s been moving up, which is kind of a weird thing to be happening when you’re 70.”

But there will be no disappearing to Malibu if the upward trajectory continues, he says. Even if he made ’millions and millions’, the biggest move he might make would be to ’a big mansion in Benfleet’.

“I think I have always got to live within spitting distance of the Thames estuary, just because I love it,” he says. “I’ve been all around the world. There are many places that are worthily famous for all sort of things but in the end, it’s round here that feels like home to me.”

That said, he is less than enthusiastic about many of the changes he has witnessed in Southend over the years. He misses the Golden Hind, which his mate ’French Henry’ used to run. The pair of them now wander around the town together, griping about how different it all looks.

He jokes: “One of our things is kind of mooching around going, ’Oh man! Look at this! Look at the seafront, man!’ It’s just so terrible now. It looks all plastic.”

The Victoria Circus has been ’destroyed’, he continues: “That used to be beautiful and across from there you had this fantastic shopping arcade, and it had three streets in it and they all met in the middle, where there was a pet shop with monkeys and parrots.

“Call me old-fashioned, but I thought that was very groovy. And what have we got now? We’ve got this frightful sixties box with Oxfam shops and the wind blowing through it and the escalators don’t work.

“I think Southend’s had a bit of a bad deal, actually, over the last hundreds of years or however long I’ve lived.

“As for that Lego house they built for the student accommodation... I don’t know. I can’t remember what was there before, but one thing I do know; it was better than that.”

So what keeps him here?

“I have to say, and I honestly believe this – I have been around the world and seen a lot of places, but I believe that the Thames Estuary is one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world,” he says. “You just stand there and look out over the river, man – the weather, the sky is constantly changing and the river and everything that it evokes. It’s a wonderful place. I will always be here.”

*The Wilko Johnson Band will play the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday, September 26. Tickets are available from www.thegigcartel.com.

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