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Wilko Johnson, British guitarist for Dr Feelgood, dies at 75

Wilko Johnson, the British guitarist who founded the incendiary 1970s blues-rock band Dr. Feelgood, recorded with singer Roger Daltrey of The Who and played mute executioner Ilyn Payne on the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” died on November 21 at his home in Westcliff-on-Sea, south-east England. He was 75 years old.

He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2013 and later underwent experimental surgery. His death was announced on his social network media sites.

Offstage, Mr Johnson seemed a most unlikely rock star – a former English teacher specializing in medieval literature and Icelandic sagas, an acquaintance that probably served him well when he was cast in ‘Game of Thrones”.

In HBO’s sword and fantasy series, Mr Johnson portrayed Ser Ilyn Payne, a royal executioner rendered mute after his tongue was removed on orders from the Mad King. Although Mr Johnson had never acted before, he said he found the job easy.

“They said they wanted someone really sinister who looked at people with daggers before killing them,” he told a British reporter. “Staring at people with a dagger is what I do all the time, it’s like second nature to me.”

Indeed, his quartet, Dr. Feelgood, masters a raw and uncompromising style. His music – an amped-up, high-energy take on Chicago blues and early rock and roll fueled by Mr. Johnson’s hyper-aggressive guitar work – anticipated the intensity of British punk bands such as the Clash and the Sex Pistols.

“The words came to you like a blowtorch Chuck Berry,” music writer Nick Coleman once joked.

On stage, Mr Johnson cultivated an eccentric appearance, moving back and forth in time to the beat of the music with robotic precision. He wore ratty black Nehru jackets and always sported a scruffy pudding bowl haircut.

His guitar technique was striking – literally. He struck the guitar in an up-and-down motion with no pick, his right hand – the strumming hand – positioned like a crab’s claw. Early in his career, the fingers of this hand were bleeding bare flesh hitting the strings. A red pickguard hid the blood.

(Decades later, when his guitarist son Simon imitated the style and got the same bloody hand after playing, Mr Johnson told a reporter: “I was proud to see him bleed in the name of rock ‘n’ ‘ roll.”)

With Dr. Feelgood, Mr. Johnson’s captivating presence was matched by that of Lee Brilleaux, the band’s vocalist and harmonica player, who often seemed ready to burst into violence on stage.

Mr Johnson often wrote for Brilleaux’s gruff, staccato voice, such as with the opening words of ‘All Through the City’, which depicts a working-class industrial tableau of fires from chimneys: “Stand up and watch the towers burn at the day break.”

Mr Johnson and his mates grew up near the oil and gas terminals of Canvey Island, commonly known as ‘Oil City’, an island in the Thames Estuary. They recorded their first album in 1975 and became part of the mid-1970s British musical movement known as pub rock. Like the punk scene to follow, pub rockers kept their music at street level, preferring small clubs to gigging arenas.

The band proved hugely popular in England with hits such as ‘Sneakin’ Suspicion’, ‘Roxette’ and ‘All Through the City’. Mr Johnson wrote and co-wrote several of the songs and also created the band’s distinctive logo of a smiling man wearing sunglasses.

Behind the scenes, the group was under tension. Mr Johnson said he used amphetamines but was abstinent, which set him apart from his heavy-drinking bandmates. “And it’s come to a situation,” he told the Essex Chronicle, “where I’m in my room trying to write songs and they’re all at the bar drinking a glass.”

His bandmates fired him in 1977 while recording their fourth album, and he said he was “devastated” to have been separated from people he considered family. During this time, Dr. Feelgood was overshadowed by the punk scene he helped energize. Brilleaux died in 1994 of lymphoma. Mr Johnson’s role in the band was highlighted in the 2009 documentary ‘Oil City Confidential’, part of a trilogy of films by director Julien Temple about British punk.

After leaving Dr Feelgood, Mr Johnson divided his time between leading his own trio and performing with Ian Dury and the Blockheads, which he joined in 1980. (Dury, known for mixing Cockney dialect humor with funk and reggae beats, died in 2000.)

In 2013, Mr Johnson announced he had terminal pancreatic cancer and an upcoming tour would be his last. He then recorded the album “Going Back Home” with the singer of Who Daltrey and did a second farewell tour with him.

In concert, Mr Johnson pointed to what he called “the baby” – a large mass protruding from his lower abdomen – while Daltrey held his microphone to the guitarist’s stomach.

John Peter Wilkinson, whose father was a gas fitter, was born on July 12, 1947 in Canvey Island. He graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and in 1971 joined the Pigboy Charlie Band, a band that became Dr Feelgood. The new name was taken from a 1962 blues hop by Piano Red.

His wife, Irene Knight, died in 2004. Survivors include two sons, Simon and Matthew, and a grandson.

Following his cancer diagnosis, Mr Johnson described a newfound serenity.

“You walk with a different consciousness,” Mr Johnson told the Observer, a British publication. “You look at other people and think they’re all living under this terrible threat of mortality. For me though, it’s settled, and that sets me apart.

He added: “I’m not going to pull out a book of sayings, though.”



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