If it wasn’t for Wilko Johnson, I wouldn’t be shooting live music. It was his terminal pancreatic cancer diagnosis early in 2013 that made me consider how sad it was that I had no decent lasting memories of any of the many gigs (including Wilko’s gigs) that I’d been to – so I set out to do something about it.
Of course, the one artist I thought I would never be able to photograph was Johnson, who by the end of 2013 was supposed to be dead. What happened next is actually well documented, but in very quick summary goes as follows: Cancer specialist and part-time music photographer Charlie Chan met Wilko backstage at the Cornbury Festival and implored him to get a second diagnosis because if his tumour was as advertised, he really ought not to be playing music festivals any more. The second diagnosis came from Emmanuel Huguet, an eminent surgeon at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, who concluded Wilko’s cancer was operable. An operation to remove the tumour (plus part of Johnson’s stomach, intestines and spleen) was successful and three years after the initial diagnosis, Wilko is still here, alive and kicking. It’s been quite an emotional experience for quite a lot of people.
In 2012, Johnson and music writer Zoë Howe co-wrote a compelling biography of Wilko’s life entitled Looking Back At Me. I’ve a copy of that and it is highly recommended; one of the best music biographies I’ve ever read in fact and I’d urge anybody with even the slightest interest in Johnson to obtain a copy. However, Looking Back At Me pre-dates the final and extraordinary turns in Wilko’s life. Johnson’s latest memoirs Don’t You Leave Me Here have just been published and I was lucky enough to attend the launch of the book at Rough Trade East in Brick Lane, camera in hand.
I arrived early to shoot a couple of portraits of Wilko, plus Zoë Howe, who was there to conduct an interview and Q & A with the audience. It was a true pleasure to actually meet the man and shake his hand. On a private one to one level he seemed a little quiet and frail – but that all changed when he was behind the lens or meeting with any of his fans; he came alive like a Red Bull infused moth around a 100w bulb. Rough Trade had indicated that there would be a live music performance at the event, though nobody had informed Wilko of this, for he was bereft of the trademark black and red Telecaster. Fortunately, a member of the audience had brought one to sign and was obviously delighted when he was asked if it would be OK for Johnson to play it a little later.
The conversation between Wilko and Zoë went exactly as expected; life affirming, engaging, hilarious. The story of Johnson’s year living in the shadow of death and the remarkable way in which he embraced life in the moment with no fear for the future is truly moving indeed and I will never tire of hearing him talking about it. Of course the book is not just about the final three years.
There are lots of great stories within; from Wilko’s earliest memories of Canvey Island’s disastrous flood of 1953 to the joy of seeing archive footage of Dr Feelgood projected big and bold against the Canvey refinery tanks during the filming of Julien Temple’s brilliant 2009 documentary Oil City Confidential. At the end of the conversation, there was just time for a few questions from the audience and for Wilko to fire up the Telecaster that had been leant to him earlier on. He showed us how he seemingly plays rhythm and lead guitar at the same time in a style he admits he aped from Mick Green of Johnny Kidd And The Pirates. It looks easy. I’ve tried it. It’s far from easy.
The evening closed out with the book signing and a very long queue snaking around Rough Trade East that I’d have had to join the back of to get a book personally signed. I opted for a pre-signed one and made my exit. I’d just photographed Wilko for the fourth time, and that was plenty good enough for me.
Don’t You Leave Me Here, published by Little, Brown is available at all good book shops and online retailers. I’ve read mine. It’s a brilliant read.
See more of Simon Reed’s music photography at www.musicalpictures.co.uk