EARLIER this year I saw Wilko Johnson on BBC Breakfast TV talking about his pancreatic cancer and having six to nine months to live.
He spoke about feeling euphoric, in the moment, noticing things that had never occurred to him before in life.
As a playwright I was immediately inspired to make contact with him. I had seen Wilko perform with Dr Feelgood, in 1976, at the Liverpool Stadium. That performance changed my life.
The results of Alive are mind-blowing.
Art. Great Art. Moves you. Twists your heart and soul. Stays with you like a lover you no longer know but whose memory you’ll take to your grave
I still have a cutting from The Liverpool Echo: Crazy Pop Fans Cause Havoc! I was with a bunch of school mates from Bootle. We were standing on a row of seats which collapsed during one of Wilko’s manic speed riffs across the scorched, Stadium stage.
Thirty-odd years later, I tell Wilko the story and we’re back there, lost in the magic moment of manic rock’n’roll.
Star. Fan. Riff. R’n’B. Life affirming. Visceral. No worries. No cancer. Life ahead a series of events yet to unfold.
It would be twenty years after that ‘ 76 gig that I’d be diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia, leading to a life-saving bone-marrow transplant, which sailed very close to the proverbial wind.
Brave face: Jim EdwardsLast week at The Liverpool Walker Art Gallery, I was Wilko’s guest along with his lovely manager, Rob Hoy. Wilko had been photographed as part of one of the most vital, extraordinary photography exhibitions that I have ever seen.
Art Alive In The Face Of Death is by one of the world’s leading photographers, Rankin, a man normally associated with Kate Moss or The Queen.
For this exhibition, Rankin’s subjects are those who are terminally ill or who have had near death experiences. “Not all will die of cancer,” as wheelchair bound Jim Edwards, in his 60s, fiercely told me at the end of the evening. He has osteoporosis and emphysema.
The results of Alive are mind-blowing. Art. Great Art. Moves you. Twists your heart and soul. Stays with you like a lover you no longer know but whose memory you’ll take to your grave.
Wilko in front of his Rankin portrait with Phil Kelly of band The Trophy Cabinet
First you’re struck by the images. When I arrived with Wilko he was loathe to look at himself. His is an extraordinary portrait. It comes at you like a howling wolf, daring you to look at it. A life lived and etched by a genius photographer. Captured in brutal black and white.
Wilko eventually became seduced by returning to it. What a legacy.
The portraits are of people of all ages with all manner of experiences and conditions. The photographs draw you in. Then you read the stories and look at the picture again and you feel something in your gut. Raw power. Swallow and go onto the next.
I’ve been to art openings before. You get low level chatter. The attendees avoid the art and spend more time looking over the shoulder of whoever they’re with; to gawp at the more interesting/famous/thinner than themselves.
Not this one. This is Alive in Liverpool at The Walker Art Gallery. The air is vibrant, warm, friendly. Strangers smile at one another. Engage. Laugh. Many of those who are portrayed are there. Young and old. Families and friends. Rankin himself: an accessible man who is loved by the subjects in his photographs. He made them feel special. At ease.
Andrew Duffy, 21, says, “It was an honour to work with somebody as famous as Rankin is.”
Andrew told me he wanted to look like Daniel Craig - and when you see the image you can judge for yourself. For my money, Daniel should be so lucky to look half as good as Andrew does in his picture.
Andrew, who has muscular dystrophy, is based at Claire House Hospice and has ambitions to become an actor. When I asked him what his message to those people whose health is in a better place than his, he replied: “Live your life to the full, to the maximum. Make the most of every day.”
Stevie Corrie, 22, is a spirited young woman with a sparkle. A smile that could light a darkened room on a rainy day in West Derby. Stevie has cystinosis, a rare genetic disorder. She said Rankin had made her feel really special. “You only live once, now go for it”.
Now think about all of the people in that room who have, themselves, faced or are facing death. Think about their families, partners and friends. And why they were there. How could something that seems on the surface so morbid and cheerless be so life affirming?
What do the people whose mortality has been threatened or violated know that the rest don’t know?
Phil Kelly poses with Rankin
in front of his portraitPhil Kelly, 48, from indie band The Trophy Cabinet - two years beyond a doctor’s diagnosis of imminent death.
Photographed clutching his guitar he says: “Don't waste any of it. If you have stuff to do, get on and do it. Don't waste a single minute not being true to yourself, trying to be something you are not to please others. Work out how you would like to be remembered if you died tomorrow and start work on that project straight away.”
Is it true that until you recognise that you are not immortal you are not free to live your life?
At one point in the evening I stood with Phil Kelly and Wilko. We chinked glasses. Celebrated being alive at Alive.
I asked them if, at that moment, life was good? We all agreed. “If you can say in a moment of ‘nowness’ that life’s good, then it’s as good as it gets”. So keep going.
And go to see a truly life affirming vital exhibition of now. I salute all of those remarkable people who agreed to have themselves put in the public eye Alive in The Face of Death. You are stars that will shine forever.
And Rankin’s not so bad either.
*ALIVE: In The Face of Death until September 15, Walker Art Gallery, William Brown Street Liverpool L3 8EL. The documentary, Rankin: A Culture Show Special, airs on June 1 on BBC Two.
Wilko Johnson At The Rankin Private View. Picture By Stephanie De Leng