Wilko Johnson, an English rock guitarist who played for the band Dr. Feelgood and influenced a generation of rockers, died this week at 75.
Johnson died at his home in England on Monday, according to a statement posted to his social media accounts on behalf of his family.
“This is the announcement we never wanted to make, & we do so with a very heavy heart: Wilko Johnson has died,” the statement read. “He passed away at home on Monday 21st November. Thank you for respecting the family’s privacy at this very sad time.”
Born John Peter Wilkinson in 1947, Johnson helped form the band Dr. Feelgood in his native Canvey Island, Essex in 1971. The band was described by Stranglers punk rocker Jean-Jacques Burnel as “a bridge between the old times and the punk times.” Johnson was known for his electric stage presence and percussive style of guitar playing.
“People say, ‘Well, how did you do that?’ It’s quite simple, you see, it’s like riding a bike, easy to do, hard to explain,” Johnson told a crowd at a 2012 music demo when describing his unique playing technique, before launching into a series of “stabbing chords” and blues riffs.
Johnson announced in 2013 that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was told it was terminal, yet he elected to forgo chemotherapy. Johnson’s wife and childhood sweetheart, Irene Knight, had died of cancer in 2004, according to an Independent report.
Over the next few years, Johnson played a series of farewell shows.
But in 2014, Johnson declared that he was cancer-free at the Q Awards show in London. While accepting an Icon Award, he said he underwent an 11-hour surgery where physicians removed a tumor that weighed nearly 7 pounds. “That’s the size of a baby,” he told the audience during his acceptance speech.
“If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that you never know what’s going to happen,” he said.
Johnson continued performing and also made his acting debut in the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” playing the role of Ser Ilyn Payne, a mute knight and king’s executioner. On the show, he was known by his menacing stare and for laying the sword to one of the show’s most beloved characters, Ned Stark.
After his death was announced Wednesday, musicians poured out statements of praise for Johnson.
“Wilko Johnson was a precursor of punk,” English singer and activist Billy Bragg tweeted. “His guitar playing was angry and angular, but his presence — twitchy, confrontational, out of control — was something we’d never beheld before in UK pop.”
Jimmy Page, founder of Led Zeppelin, said he was sad to hear of Johnson’s passing. He said he attended one of Johnson’s farewell shows in 2013 in Camden Town, London.
“The atmosphere was electric,” Page said in a tweet. “This show was originally billed as his farewell tour. But, thankfully, he continued performing and thrilling crowds until recently. I really admired him and we’ll all miss him.”
Alex Kapranos, lead man for the Scottish rock band Franz Ferdinand, called Johnson “bright, thoughtful & an astonishing story teller.”
“His unique, wired playing & stage presence thrilled & inspired many guitarists, myself included,” Kapranos wrote on social media. “His presence will be felt for many more years.”
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