We may not have heard the last from Wilko Johnson. After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January of 2013 and given 10 months to live, the British guitar hero, an alumnus of Dr. Feelgood and Ian Dury’s Blockheads, is still with us. The bonus time allowed him to see the release of “Going Back Home,” his new collaboration with the Who’s Roger Daltrey, and now he’s even thinking about hitting the studio yet again.
“I have written some new songs this year,” Johnson tells Billboard. “I was gonna make a final album of my own and, anyway, this Roger Daltrey thing was what we did and it’s done rather well, so I don’t know. I’m still alive, so maybe I can get something more done.” And unlike “Going Back Home,” which reprises some of the material Johnson wrote for Dr. Feelgood — which he jokingly notes “was kind of politely ignored” back in the day — and other older songs, the next project, should it happen, will focus on originals.
“They’re all typical of what I do,” Johnson says. “They’re kind of riff-based stuff. I started writing things before I got this cancer diagnosis, and after that I started realizing quite a lot of these songs were moaning on about time passing and doom — but don’t worry, they’re very simple, nothing philosophical! But I didn’t notice I was tending to think about clocks ticking and stuff like that. But it’s nothing too sophisticated, I promise.”
Johnson says he considered recording some of the originals with Daltrey, who he befriended at a British awards show about three years ago. “Roger suddenly said, ‘Y’know what? We should make an album together, and we did make some attempts to get it together, but it just never happened,” Johnson recalls. “Then last year, when Roger heard that I’ve got cancer, he came bouncing back and said, ‘We’ll do that album!’ I said, ‘Well, we better do it quick!’ And we did do it quick; it took us about eight days.” And the two rock veterans decided to focus on hard-hitting versions of Johnson songs that reflected their shared passion for Johnny Kidd & the Pirates — including “Going Back Home’s” title track, which Johnson wrote in 1975 with Pirates’ guitarist Mick Green.
“Well, when this idea originally came up I thought that we would maybe make an album of covers of, like, 60s soul music or something like that,” Johnson says. “Anyway, under the circumstances, it did come about I thought this may well be the last thing I would do, so I’ll take the chance to have a bit of a retrospective and delve back (to) a few of these songs that I haven’t played for a long time. They’re all from various points of my past.”
Johnson and Daltrey — who’s donating his proceeds from “Going Back Home” to the British Teenage Cancer Trust he co-founded — played one show together on Feb. 26 at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, and Johnson says they’re talking about trying to do more. Meanwhile he’s continuing to lead his own band through as many shows as his health will allow, including a recent run opening for Status Quo.
“I can’t arrange things too far in the future ’cause I don’t know whether that future will exist, so we have to do things kind of step by step,” Johnson notes. “Obviously you go up and down; sometimes it’s a lovely day and it’s such a buzz to be alive, and then of course you find yourself at 3 o’clock in the morning sometimes going, ‘Oh, help me!’ Your moods change. It’s kind of a different way of living; you really do have to dig the moment you’re in and enjoy the present because that’s all there is. There’s no point in speculating about the future, because the future’s not there — blimey, I’m getting philosophical! But I don’t have any desperate, unfulfilled ambitions or that kind of thing. I’m just trying to kind of wrap my life up, and I’ve had a good time. I’ ve been through a lot of great things in my life, so, yeah, I’m pretty pleased with myself.”