Wilko Johnson: the rock star who lived in ecstasy while under a death sentence

Last night, courtesy of Michael (son of Micky) Fawcett, I went to the premiere of The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, director Julien Temple’s almost abstract movie about the legendary British guitarist who also played mute executioner Ilyn Payne in Game of Thrones. There is a trailer on YouTube.

It is a companion piece to Oil City Confidential, Julien Temple’s 2009 film about Wilko’s band Dr Feelgood.

The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson was going to be about Wilko dying of terminal cancer, except Wilko did not.

The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson poster

The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson poster

Charlie Chan, a friend of Wilko’s who juggles being a music business photographer with being a breast cancer surgeon, realised that there might be some hope. Surgeon Emmanuel Huguet operated on Wilko for nine hours at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge and the result was there to see last night.

Ironically, Michael Fawcwett told me, Wilko survived because he did NOT take any chemotherapy treatment. He just accepted he would die, did concerts and last year made a hit album Going Back Home with Roger Daltrey as part of his ‘farewell’.

“I decided,” said Wilko, “just to accept the situation and go through it and die, to live whatever life I had left and go with the flow, whether it was booking gigs or Julien making a film.”

Wilko’s wife Irene had died of cancer in 2004. So it goes.

Walk performing at the 100 Club last night

Wilko performing at the 100 Club last night

If Wilko had taken the chemotherapy treatment, he would have been too ill to survive the operation which saved his life. So his acceptance of death resulted in his life continuing.

The film had a special relevance to Julien Temple because, at the time it was being made, his own mother was dying. So it goes.

“All the twists and turns,” said Wilko, “that happened during that year…”

“That’s the thing about a documentary,” said Julien. “You don’t know where it’s going. There’s something fantastic about the element of chance which is what life’s about, really. If you over-script things, sometimes you… You would never write a film like this. No-one would believe a fiction film if you had written it like this. Who would ever believe a rock star so erudite?”

“If you wrote it in a book,” Wilko said, “it would be condemned as an improbable fiction.”

After the screening (L-R) Sheri Sinclair, d Derick ‘The Draw’ Hussey, Julien Temple & Michael Fawcett

After yesterday’s premiere (left-right) Sheri Sinclair, Derick ‘The Draw’ Hussey, Julien Temple and Michael Fawcett

After the screening, I went to the 100 Club in Oxford Street, where Wilko and his band played a one-hour, sweat-pouring, full-throttle gig. I had thought the 100 Club had closed but, like Wilko, it is still very much alive.

In the red-walled basement club, I bumped into Edinburgh Fringe regular Ronnie Golden aka Tony De Meur of the former Fabulous Poodles. His girlfriend Grace Carley was executive producer on The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson. 

“I love this club,” Ronnie/Tony told me. “I remember it from the late 1970s. It looked almost exactly the same. It’s just a brilliant, brilliant shit-hole. In those days, there was no air-conditioning and they had a stall over there that sold Chinese food so you had this smelly stench and everybody smoked so the air was filled with smoke and this stench. It was insane and our drummer passed-out on stage. The sheer heat and everything.”

Ronnie Golden, former Poodle, at the 100 Club last night

Ronnie Golden, former Fabulous Poodle – 100 Club last night

“While he was performing?’ I asked.

“Yeah,” said Ronnie. “And it happened in the Marquee Club too. He was susceptible to passing-out.”

“What,” I asked, “did you do when he passed out on stage during the gig?”

“We walked off and they played some music on records and then we came back on again.”

“With the drummer?”

“Yeah. It happened in Philadelphia too. But he would always rally very well.”

When I left the 100 Club, I walked to Oxford Circus station with Emmanuel Huguet, the surgeon who saved Wilko’s life. I asked him, perhaps tritely, what it is like being a surgeon.

“You get to meet some very interesting people,” he said.

There is a video on YouTube of Wilko Johnson and Roger Daltry’s Going Back Home.

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Filed under Death, Movies, Music, Rock music

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