Dying guitarist Wilko Johnson to rock until the end

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WESTCLIFF-ON-SEA, England — Living has been full of surprises for Wilko Johnson. So has dying.

Four decades in the rock ‘n’ roll trenches have brought the British guitarist obscurity and fame, followed by turmoil, more obscurity and rediscovery. Now the greatest rock star you may not have heard of — songwriter for rabble-rousing 1970s band Dr. Feelgood — is embarking on a farewell tour. Unlike some musical goodbyes, this one is permanent. Late last year, Johnson was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and told he had just months to live.

He says he has never felt more alive.

The 65-year-old musician says that in the weeks since his diagnosis, he’s been unexpectedly happy — “In fact it amounted at times to euphoria.”

“I suddenly found myself in a position where nothing matters anymore,” he said. “I’m a miserable so-and-so normally ... I’d be worrying about the taxman or all the things that we worry about that get in the way of the real things. And suddenly it doesn’t matter. All of that doesn’t matter.”

Johnson says he is not afraid of dying — though he is afraid of illness. He lost his wife to cancer eight years ago, and fears putting his loved ones through the sense of helplessness he felt then.

For now, though, he feels fine. He hopes it lasts long enough to give his fans a rousing send-off. Despite the pain of saying goodbye to friends, he found the recent shows in Japan exhilarating. Music has lost none of its power to thrill.

“The last number we did (in Japan) was Chuck Berry’s ‘Bye Bye Johnny.’ You’ve got the crowd, you’re all going ‘Bye, bye, bye, bye,’” Johnson said, waving his hands.

“And there was a dry eye in the house, actually — it was mine. I wasn’t feeling choked and sad or anything like that. I was thinking, ‘Oh man, what a great gig!”

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