Friday, 15 November 2013

Double Header - Wilco Johnson

In January this year, during an extraordinarily frank radio interview, Wilco Johnson announced that he had terminal cancer. What could have been a sympathetic but heartbreaking revelation turned into one of the most inspiring audio broadcasts I've ever heard. No grim, stoic pronouncements, or determinedly upbeat optimism that so often suffuses a tragic revelation of this nature. Instead Wilco spoke with refreshing directness, strength and a no-nonsense sincerity - all tinged with warm humour and not even the most microscopic trace of self- pity.

His words reached well beyond the legions of fans already familiar with Wilco Johnson's music and have given him a somewhat folk-hero, national-treasure status. 

Fast forward to a Friday morning in early August, just getting everything set-up for a busy day of work before heading to Sussex for a shoot in the afternoon, and an urgent call from Sophie at the Independent. An opportunity to make a portrait of Wilco had just arrived on the diary, but it was slightly complicated because the only details they had were the time and location. Nothing else, no other contact details.

"Leave right now because it's a long way and you only just have time to get there"   -   So I did.

Arriving at Wilco's house, I knocked on the door and waited for a response… Nothing. So I waited on the doorstep for a few minutes, trying to discern if there were any sounds of movement in the house. 

I knocked a few more times - never certain how loud or how many raps would be considered polite. When there was no reply, I phoned the pictures desk, they had a number for someone who deals with incoming enquiries for Wilco, so I called and left a message on his voice mail.

Knocking repeatedly on the front door of a dying man, whom you personally admire (and a 'national treasure' into the bargain) is NOT a good feeling. So, assuming that it might be cancelled, I withdrew a little way down the street so as not to look like I was hounding him and I waited for word from his publicist.

After an hour or so, with no call, and time receding, The Independent decided to call it off and reluctantly told me to go. However, I got my start in photography at a press agency and the golden rule is that you always give it one more try before you leave. Old habits are hard to shake so I headed for the door. 

Almost before I got to the step, it yawned open and there stood Wilco himself in a black t-shirt and jeans, looking somewhat quizzical.

I introduced myself and he explained that he had no clue that I was coming but that if I could wait a few minutes he'd have a shave and put a clean shirt on.

He came back downstairs and continued chatting with an old friend of his, who was there in his house, while I set up my lights. He smiled constantly, talking and laughing... until I raised the camera, at which point his face became serious and he took on a piercing expression. It was like being stared down by an eagle.

I asked him if this look was a response to the nature of the interview.

"No," he said, "I just don't like smiling in photographs very much."


Time (and backdrops) were fairly limited so I settled on a location in Wilco's hallway, daylight flooding in from the window above the door and my portable flash jammed into what little space remained on the opposite side to try and give some variety of tone.

In the short session we spoke a little about music and his passion for astronomy and what he liked about his guitar. It was hard to reconcile the open, cheerful way in which he chatted with a complete stranger (me) whose journey to his door was mostly precipitated by the fact that he was (and is) terminally ill. 

We use many expressions when we talk about terminal cancer. We say 'battling with cancer' and 'suffering with cancer' or we refer to 'the fight against cancer'. All of which embody the struggle with the disease on both a personal and clinical level.

But Wilco Johnson has such an easy manner that you get the impression he's almost been liberated by cancer

To be clear, I do not of course mean to imply that he is happy about it, or that he doesn't have to deal with the pain and the countless other horrific symptoms of his illness. But his response is a kind of laser-clarity, born of the decision to live in the moment.

I thought about this for a while on the journey from Essex to Sussex and began to suspect that this is how he's probably always been - decisive, straightforward, un-phased by life.

Maybe the greatest testament to his character is not how terminal illness has changed him, but the way in which he hasn't allowed it to change him at all.

No comments: