Wilko Johnson, British rocker who defied cancer, dies at 75

LONDON (AP) — Wilko Johnson, the guitarist for British blues rock band Dr. Feelgood who experienced an unexpected renaissance after being diagnosed with terminal cancer has passed away. He turned 75.

A statement posted on Johnson’s official social media accounts on behalf of his family on Wednesday said the musician died Monday night at his home in South East England.

Born John Wilkinson in 1947, Johnson grew up on Canvey Island, a marshy, industrial oil town in the mouth of the River Thames in England. He studied Anglo-Saxon literature at Newcastle University and worked as a teacher before joining Dr. Feelgood founded.

In an age of flamboyant glamor and indulgent prog rock, they played a then-out-of-fashion brand of blues and R&B, dressed in cheap suits that made them look, Johnson later said, like “sloppy bank robbers.”

Johnson helped Dr. Giving Feelgood a dangerous edge with his jerky, relentless guitar style and a thousand-foot stare – a look terrifying enough to land him a role as the silent executioner Ser Ilyn Payne in “Game of Thrones” later in life.

Inspiring bands that would soon spark the punk explosion in the UK, the anarchist group teetered on the brink of global stardom, scoring a No. 1 album in the UK, touring the US and landing a deal with CBS Records. Then in 1977, Johnson eloped amid friction with charismatic singer Lee Brilleaux, who died in 1994.

Johnson later said that if the band had been able to follow the managers’ instructions to behave, “I’m pretty sure we’d be multimillionaires. But we didn’t. We were guys from Canvey Island. We were good friends and we got into fights.”

Johnson subsequently performed with Ian Dury’s band, the Blockheads, playing to a devoted fanbase for many years, largely in the UK and Japan.

In 2012, Johnson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was told it was terminal. The prospect of death unexpectedly revived his creative energy. He turned down chemotherapy, decided to do one last tour and recorded a “final” album, “Going Back Home”, with The Who’s Roger Daltrey.

“I was suddenly in a position where nothing mattered anymore,” he told the Associated Press in 2013. “Normally I’m a miserable so-and-so. … I’d worry about the IRS or all things what we worry about getting in the way of the real things And suddenly it doesn’t matter anymore None of that matters.

“You walk down the street and you feel intensely alive. You’re ‘Oh, look at that leaf!’ You look around and you think, ‘I’m alive. Isn’t it great?’”

In another twist, a fan who was also a cancer specialist offered to help. After undergoing surgery to remove a 3-kilogram (6.6-pound) tumor, Johnson announced in 2014 that he was cancer-free. He released another album in 2018, “Blow Your Mind”, and played gigs with his Wilko Johnson Band until last month.

Daltrey paid tribute to ‘the uncompromising bard of Canvey’.

“Above all, Wilko wanted to be a poet,” he said. “I was lucky to have known and had him as a friend. His music lives on, but this time there is no escaping the final curtain.”

Johnson is survived by his sons Simon and Matthew and grandson Dylan.

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