Wilko Johnson faces death with customary coolness

British music is waking up to the debt it owes to one of rock’s greatest, and maddest, guitarists. The man in question is Wilko Johnson and it took a diagnosis of terminal cancer to remind the rock establishment of what an influential musician Johnson has been.

"I feel vividly alive,” the 65 year-old Johnson told the BBC, after announcing the news. "It probably takes imminent death to knock a bit of sense into our heads." And to remind us what a key figure he was in the evolution of British rock.

With Essex pub-rock pioneers Dr Feelgood in the mid-70s, Johnson was a harbinger of punk. His manic and occasionally intimidating stage presence was also the template adopted by many of the punk musicians. Johnson's aggressive musicianship was respected, and carefully plagiarised, by a whole generation of punk guitarists.

He later played in Ian Dury’s Blockheads and toured extensively as a solo performer, retaining a hardcore following of devoted Feelgood fans. Julien Temple’s 2009 documentary Oil City Confidential was the perfect chronicle of Dr Feelgood, and Johnson emerged as a stoical philosopher, as articulate with words as he was with a guitar. He was such an impressive screen presence that the producers of fantasy drama Game of Thrones cast him as a mute executioner.

It was typical of Johnson to announce his diagnosis at the same time as confirming his tour dates for February and March. Cancer is familiar to him, having claimed his wife Irene and the Dr Feelgood singer Lee Brilleaux.

On Radio Four, talking about imminent death, Johnson retained that detachment. "I'm a feather for each wind that blows," he quoted from Shakespeare, "and the wind is blowing me this way now. This position I'm in is strange. I do feel fit and yet I know that death is upon me. I've had a fantastic life, when I think of the things that have happened to me. Anybody that asks for more would just be being greedy. Don't want to be greedy."

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