The Point
Last updated: 26 March 2017.

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John Cooper Clarke

I’m not the one who will

have his life turned into legend.   

It won’t be me…

 

It will be John Cooper Clarke

Tony Wilson

 

                   John Cooper Clarke – The Arches, Glasgow 13/10/12 pic by G McIver

 

John Cooper Clarke – the best hair in the world

 

The rumble of overhead trains rolling in and out of Central Station mixes with the ubiquitous thud of techno from the club next door. The punters, all standing, all expectant, stare towards the stage waiting for the arrival of the headline act. The crowd’s demographic ranges from the trendy young things to those on the edge of antiquity and all stops in between.  To all intents and purposes this has the look, the feel and the smell of a music gig. Yet tonight Glasgow’s Arches, self proclaimed “leading European cultural venue” will not be rocking to the sound of guitars or bass but to the earthy northern drawl of one of Britain’s most enigmatic and mythical cultural figures. Performance poet, wit and raconteur extraordinaire - John Cooper Clarke.

 

Each drop of blood a rose shall be
all sorrow shall be dust
blown by breezes to the sea
whose fingers thrust
into the corners of restless night
where creatures of the deep
avoid the flashing harbour lights
in search of endless sleep
there were executions
somebody had to pay
apart from the revolution
it's another working day

(Excerpt from Apart from the Revolution)

 

Clarke occupies a unique place in the UK’s post-punk pantheon of important cultural figures. This is a man who has not recorded or released any new material since the early 1980’s and disappeared from public view for over a decade as he struggled to cope with drug abuse. Rather than being an instantly recognisable figure in his own right he admits to being often mistaken for Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones and in a recent Guardian interview complained, “It’s diabolical how poor I am.”

Yet anyone who saw the BBC4 documentary, Evidently John Cooper Clarke, broadcast as part of the channel’s Punk Britannia series shown earlier this year, would be left in no doubt as to the levels of esteem and affection the former laboratory technician from Salford is held.

Comedian and actor Steve Coogan said, "If I'm talking to someone and go, 'D'you know John Cooper Clarke?' and they say, 'Oh yeah, he's a genius', I'm then, 'Good, you've saved me a lot of time.'"

Bill Bailey stated, "He's a legend, an icon. You've either never heard of him, or you love him."

Billy Bragg, Stewart Lee, Shameless actor David Threlfall, Plan B and Craig Charles all waxed lyrically about the influence Clarke had on their lives. Singer Kate Nash said, “John Cooper Clarke is always going to be a relevant person. People are always going to be discovering him over and over.”

Don Letts, film director, musician and a man at the centre of the punk and reggae explosion of the mid 70’s named Clarke as, “The People’s Poet”, whilst in an NME interview, Alex Turner, singer and main songwriter with the band The Arctic Monkeys said of Clarke, his vocabulary, the way he describes things, things like that encourage you to get better. I first heard him when I was starting to write lyrics, and it showed me what you could be capable of with language. It really gave me a push, you know?”

The documentary has been part of a series of recent events that have once again propelled Cooper Clarke to the forefront of British culture. He found three of his poems being added to the GCSE syllabus whilst the critically acclaimed US TV series The Sopranos used Clarke’s, “Evidently Chickentown” as the music for the end credits for the episode,” Stage 5” in the show’s final season.

 

 

the fucking cops are fucking keen

to fucking keep it fucking clean

the fucking chief's a fucking swine

who fucking draws a fucking line

at fucking fun and fucking games

the fucking kids he fucking blames

are nowhere to be fucking found

anywhere in chicken town

(Excerpt – Evidently Chickentown)

 

The Arctic Monkey’s published some of Clarke’s words on the sleeves of one of their singles whilst Ben Drew, the singer, actor and director better known as Plan B asked Clarke to appear in his latest film Ill Manors. (He performs his poem, Pity the Plight of Young Fellows. Clarke described it as "the view of young people from a jaundiced old twat’s point of view".)

His return to prominence has not been met with universal acclaim however. The Guardian reviewed the BBC4 documentary as, "a film that dealt in myths rather than reality" whilst Mark Monahan in  The Daily Telegraph wrote that the programme "veered too close to comfort towards hagiography (a biography which is uncritically supportive of its subject). His more recent shows have prompted some to opine that he concentrates too much on comedy and anecdotes rather than on poetry yet even his sharpest critic would have to admit that he is widely respected and help in great affection by those familiar with his work.

His performing career began in the early 70’s playing political benefits for the likes of the local Communist Party and CND before he was offered his first paid slots at Bernard Manning’s (World Famous) Embassy Club in the Harpurhey district of Manchester. He moved onto becoming a support act on some of the very earliest punk tours where he won over initially bemused crowds with his rapier wit and the quick fire delivery of his work.

From the late 70’s onwards he worked with a collection of musicians and the acclaimed, if somewhat eccentric Manchester based producer Martin Hannet. Clarke released four albums and eight singles between 1978 and 1982 before embarking on a long battle with heroin addiction that saw him withdraw from writing and performing.

For a while he lived a self confessed, “feral existence” in a flat with fellow addict Nico, the German born model, composer and songstress with the Velvet Underground. In a Guardian interview published in May of this year, Clarke told the journalist Simon Hattenstone;

“…you go into a clinic and they tell you: 'You would have died next week if you hadn't come in here.' I never felt it to be true. If you're shooting up junk, you're a bit cavalier. You overdo it and have to be brought back into the land of the living, but I wouldn't say you embark on a career of drug addiction in order to kill yourself. It's driven by the pleasure principle."

When asked if he missed heroin he said,

"Oh yeah, course. A lot of times I remember it as fabulous. But I can't do that and have the life I have. And I ain't gonna sink the ship just so I can feel a bit better. If I live 'til I'm 80, I fully intend to reacquaint myself with the world of opiate drugs. I think it's ideal for the elderly. It should be there for the asking. If you're over 70, you should be able to go and say, 'Just give me some diamorphine and I won't bother you any more.'"

Encouraged to become interested in poetry by one of his English teachers, Clarke’s collection of work and his method of delivery has garnered much critical acclaim. Radio DJ Mark Radcliffe said of one of Clarke’s poems, Beasley Street - “it’s almost like a kind of poetic Lowry painting…it has as much atmosphere as that.”

The poem describes a street in the devastated, post industrial north of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.

 

In the cheap seats where murder breeds
Somebody is out of breath
Sleep is a luxury they don't need
- a sneak preview of death
Belladonna is your flower
Manslaughter your meat
Spend a year in a couple of hours
On the edge of Beasley Street

Where the action isn't
That's where it is
State your position
Vacancies exist
In an X-certificate exercise
Ex-servicemen excrete
Keith Joseph smiles and a baby dies
In a box on Beasley Street

(Excerpt – Beasley Street)

Billy Bragg said of the poem, “John was in there right at the beginning. He didn’t wait for the miners strike to be told there was something wrong. He was in before a lot of us were in.”

As well as his writing, his refusal to read poetry in anything other than his broad Manchester dialect has been an inspiration to many other artists and writers. The Nottingham based performance artist, Mullet Proof Poet said of Clarke, “Whether he intended it or not I think he took poetry out of those middle class venues and middle class mindset and actually gave poetry back to the working classes.”

His support act at the Arches gig is fellow Mancunian performance poet, Mike Garry. I spoke with Mike after the Arches gig and asked him what it was about Cooper Clarke’s style that was an inspiration?

 

Mike Garry

 

“It’s all about language. James Kelman the Scottish writer once said, “Those bastards are trying to steal our language.” We’ve got to talk how we talk and use our language. Think about primary school and they way children are taught to talk? I think what i try and do is give people a voice. I try and keep it real…without sounding too much like Ali G!”

Speaking in the BBC4 documentary, Garry says of Clarke’s work,

“It comes from the gutters and rises up to the skies and allows ordinary everyday people to listen to poetry and say for the first time that they can connect with a poem.”

Described by the designer Peter Saville as “a genius”, the self proclaimed poet, librarian, Mancunian, father, husband, uncle and brother, Mike Garry’s work resonates with what has been described as the beautiful ugliness of Manchester and its people. In his poem Soldier Boys, Garry writes;

 

Boots scrape on Crumpsall cobbled streets

Inside the boots are fifteen year old feet

Khaki pants tight at the ankle

Grip and hold like a white slave manacled

...

A caravan in the shopping centre

A man handing out leaflets showing boys on adventure

Smiling faces and glowing cheeks

But the leaflets are lies and the caravan man's a cheat

...

And he'll send them off to some sun-drenched front

To fight a war that no one wants

A roadside bomb ends it all

Then home in a box to Lower Crumpsall

(Excerpt – Soldier Boys)

 

Mike performs a short set before making way for Cooper Clarke who is introduced by another figure central to the story of punk in the UK, Johnny Green, the former road manager of the Clash. In typical bullish fashion Green introduces Clarke as, “like Robert Burns…only better!”

The stick thin Clarke emerges to tumultuous applause to begin a 90 minute set that contains only a handful of poems from Clarke’s back catalogue but a whole lot of gags, one liners and anecdotes. He is the consummate performer and has the audience in stitches with stories and tales on subjects as diverse as marine biologists, Terry Pratchet, the democratic nature of pizzas, bad news for New Zealanders and Adolf Hitler…”there was someone who got the face he deserved…if I’d been in Munich in 1934 I could have told them he was a c**t!”

 

 

 

Following the gig I meet with Johnny Green and descend through the corridors of the Arches to the dressing room to meet the man himself. Clarke, cigarette in hand is deep in conversation with a young Australian couple and as I enter the young man said the delivery of his poetry reminded him of a horse racing commentator.

JCC: “That’s really astute. When I was a 13 yr old lad off track betting was illegal. So we had illegal bookies and they used to employ underage kids as runners. When I left school I had to take a big cut in money. I used to go up the kids pictures with a high class box of chocolates whilst the other kids had their cheap shit. Sir Peter o Sullivan…he was the sound track to my young life.

Clarke is welcoming, engaging and humble. A discussion follows about a variety of subjects including hair, antique brogues and sartorial elegance in general. I mention his style and said that the comedian Russell Brand seemed to copy it.

JCC: “Well the hair top of the hairs the same but his is longer. But he’s gone for the tight trouser high heeled boot look. There’s only really so many styles out there. I really like what Russell does. He makes mistakes but deep down he’s a funny guy with his own way of seeing the world.”

We discuss hair further…it really is a talking point. He despairs at the unmanageability his unruly mop and declares that it, “just goes like that…there’s nothing I can do.”

JCC: I’ve got the title of the interview for you. John Cooper Clarke…The best hair in the world. My wife cuts it. How do you describe it? It’s like Rod Stewart but more messed up.

 

The Interview:

 

GMc: Thanks for talking to The Point. You seem to be experiencing a new lease of life culminating in the BBC4 documentary?

 

JCC: …by the way, can I just say at this juncture that was the first movie those guys John Ross and Scotty Clarke ever made since leaving college and they are real proper, solid, working guys. Everybody I speak to says they love that movie. I watched it once to see if there were any unflattering comments. I couldn’t watch it again obviously, that would be a bit sick because it’s about me. Anything that’s got me in it is uniquely embarrassing but people whose opinions I value say it’s great. I can certainly live with it. John and Scotty are consummate technicians, they have great ideas and I hope they make more movies.

 

GMc: Did you notice a change or an upsurge of interest in you since it was broadcast?

 

JCC: Yeh, there’s been a lot but I think I can put it down to a few reasons. The main one is that I never stop doing shows and word of mouth is a force of nature even in this technological age. Also some of my work was added to the GCSE syllabus a few years ago. One of the people studying for their GCSE’s at the time was Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys who was very taken by my work. We’ve met several times since and we’re big mates now. I love his work. Its one thing when somebody likes you but when you love their work it’s great.

 

GMc: He speaks very highly of you in the documentary

 

JCC: Well of course they went global and everywhere they went they would do interviews and they’d drop in my name. Then Ben Drew (Plan B) heard (Evidently) Chickentown on the end credits of the Sopranos and got in touch and we did a show together in a place in Whitechapel called The George Tavern. He said, (adopts cockney accent) “I’ve got some work for you mate.” And I’m in the film Ill Manors. He works so hard, he’s always working and every review I’ve read of that film mentions my piece in it. I was so proud to work on that and I’m on the soundtrack now.

 

GMc: One of the things that seems to have been an inspiration to both Alex Turner and Ben Drew is that you’ve never been afraid to perform your work in your own accent and that’s what both the Arctic Monkeys and Plan B do.

 

JCC: Yeh, well I can’t do anything else. It’s like (the Manchester band) The Fall. They’re working artists you know, they’re not national treasures, they’re artists because they don’t know how to do anything else…that’s like me, we’d do it if you paid us or not.

 

GMc: In the documentary you mention how nervous you were when you played Glasgow for the first time given the reputation of the audience. I guess it’s a very different feeling now. Certainly tonight you seem to be very much loved by the crowd?

 

JCC: Well to be honest that changed within a year. My first gig here was at the old Glasgow Apollo supporting Be Bop Deluxe. They were not a punk band and all their like roadies were going, “we can’t wait to see how you go down!” I thought well shit, punk rock - you’ve got to walk the walk and talk the talk so I went out there and they didn’t like me at all. But about 3 months after that I did a gig in front of a completely different demographic because I came back to the Apollo with Elvis Costello and the Attractions and Richard Hell and the Voidoids and on that occasion it was punk rockers in the audience and they knew who I was. And you know I’m so glad I persevered because ever since Glasgow’s been fucking fantastic to me.

 

GMc: It strikes me as a very brave thing to have done at the time. To walk out in front of a hostile crowd to read poetry?

 

JCC: No, no…it’s not brave, there’s got to be another word for it.

 

GMc: Well if not brave then what then? How would you describe it?

 

JCC: Its just bloody mindedness. I’d think why wouldn’t anybody like me?

 

GMc: I used the word brave because for any artist to go on stage takes a degree of courage but for you to do what you in front of a music audience rather than say a theatre audience or specifically poetry audience.

 

JCC: But I don’t get stage fright because it’s all down to me. I control everything. Every part of it is down to me. But when you’re in a band you get stage fright because you worry if the sound man, you worry about the bass player, you worry about if that drummer is going to hit that note on time and you worry about the whole performance. The thing about me is I ain’t an ensemble player. That’s why I don’t get stage fright. As I was saying earlier I was a bookies runner and met the underworld, I’ve met spivs and gangsters since I was 13 years old and it teaches you some kind of psychology…and it isn’t that admirable, do you know what I mean?

 

GMc: Well you seem to be able to connect with people, rather than just get up on stage and do your thing regardless of whether they like it?

 

JCC: But that’s the thing. I know they’ll like it. I wont have take it or leave it…you have to have it.  I don’t occupy any other ground. That’s why I think it isn’t really art.

 

GMc: It is art though. Although your art seems to have changed a lot from that rapid fire delivery performance poetry of your early days to now an all round evenings entertainment. It’s more like a stand up comedy show with some poems thrown in.

 

JCC: (laughing)… I’ve had to transmogrify.

 

 GMc: Although it’s delivered in your accent it could be an act taken straight from the Las Vegas strip.

 

JCC: I’ve been doing it 30 years and not always in the same places. I’ve covered all forms of show business. I’ve done comedy clubs, rock and roll shows, clubs and theatres and I started out actually in the most unforgiving world of all at the Embassy Club. (Bernard Manning’s club in Manchester.)

 

GMc: How did that compare with punk audiences?

 

JCC: Terrifying. That’s how I could cope, after that punk was a dawdle. They didn’t like poets, no way. That was one thing you could put your money on right there…none of those people were interested in poetry.

 

GMc: Did you ever feel at the end of a gig there that you’d won some of them over or did you feel they just didn’t get it at all?

 

JCC: No…they didn’t get it…but I was being paid! When I first started out my Dad was in the Communist Party and I was in the Young Communist League. It was a communist house but we weren’t fucking daft…do you know what I mean…we had to make a living. I started out doing benefits for the local CP and my Dad would say, “How much are they giving you to read your poetry?” I’d say but it’s a benefit Dad, I don’t get paid. He’d say, “Well anybody will employ you for nothing” and I’ve never forgot it. He was like, “impress me…when somebody pays you let me know.”  So it was great to be on at the Embassy Club and get paid.

 

GMc: You say you were in the Young Communist League. How have your politics changed over the years?

 

JCC: I don’t think they have but I’m obviously not a fucking nutter like I was in my younger days. The older you are the more right wing you get, that goes without saying. Like everybody else my age I think things have just got silly.

 

GMc: Would you still describe yourself as left wing?

 

JCC: Multi-racial, multi-culturism… (laughing) as Gerry Marsden said, (In Ferry Across the Mersey) “we don’t care what your name is boy, cos we’ll never turn you away.” It ain’t a racial thing with me. Johnny (Green) will tell you…I’m an American.

 

Johnny Green joins us for a moment…

 

JG: I won’t interrupt but there is a very serious point and it is this. Inside this Englishman he thinks like an American, he absorbs American culture but delivers what he does in an English accent.

 

JCC: Like Glasgow and Liverpool, Manchester is a western facing port. We’d got James Brown records before anybody and had a flourishing R&B scene. We started with Miles Davis records but you couldn’t get them. You know when Keith met Mick (Richards and Jagger) they both had Bo Didley albums that’s what it was like. That’s what bonded us. That’s what Mod was like in Manchester, only a few of us had them.  I’m half Jewish half catholic. Mod in Manchester was mainly a black/Jewish phenomenon. It was very closed. All them stupid parkas, that was nothing to do with it. If you saw a Miles Davis record and you had a big jacket then by hook or by crook you’d get it…they didn’t have surveillance cameras in them days. If you were a working class lad with aspirations, and mod was aspirational, if you had an office job you wanted to be so smart to make the boss look bad. You’d change your shirt three times a day. (Laughing) It was obsessive compulsive disorder…I swear to god…amphetamines didn’t help, they just exacerbated the situation.

 

I practically lived in a club called the Twisted Wheel. Imagine in 1964 hearing James Brown, you’d never heard anything like that before. We’d got blue-beat, ska before anybody else. Like Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, all western facing ports, we’d all got it first. The whole Northern Soul thing was started by Roger Eagle (a promoter and DJ at the Twisted Wheel) and those records, those Stax records were classic singles that we all loved. I’m a soul boy. The best part of my youth was spent listening to soul music. And it was due to ballast. Those singles were brought over on the merchant ships as ballast along with comic books in the late 50’s. It was worthless. They had to put something in the hold to keep it upright on the return journey. Rather than fill it up with straw they flung in a loads of Batman Comic, Superman comics, Drifters records, the Shirelles, James Brown and they ended up in Manchester.

 

GMc: Do you think that’s one of the reasons that so much musical creativity has come out of Manchester.

 

JCC: Yeh, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, (Johnny Green roars his approval) was doing Northern Soul in 1963, The Hollies…it was great cos we were getting the likes of  Sam Cooke and Howlin Wolf records.

 

GMc: It was always said in the music business that people from Manchester had the best record collections. However, the internet and music downloads may have changed that for ever. You had to work hard then to have a good record collection.

 

JCC: Yeh…now anybody can get anything. We had to walk the streets, we had to read the small ads in newspapers to try and find them.

 

GMc: Do you think those record collections explain why Manchester has produced so much great music? I don’t think there is another city in the UK that can rival Manchester for its creative output over a sustained period of time?

 

JCC: It’s a rock and roll city. A music city. It’s organic. Before the 50’s it was a jazz city. Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis they all played Manchester because of the music buying public here. The Band on the Wall the venue which launched a lot of punk rock bands was established before the war.

 

GMc: When punk came along to Manchester did you think this is going to be a 5 minute wonder or did you think this is the start of something special?

 

JCC: I knew it. It was a force of nature. It was part of the rock and roll spirit that was here in the beginning. It had stayed but just got dormant for a while. The first time I was aware of punk rock and still my favourite…they’re my band…are The Ramones. That was the first time I remember the phrase punk rock being applied to a band. To me punk rock was a return to the core values of rock and roll. I’d stopped buying records for 10 years. I was never a hippy. I just thought those people shouldn’t be listening to music, they should be doing something more useful instead. I saw them as over privileged idiot savants. (Knowledgeable idiots.) To be honest to me there is first of all Elvis and then everybody else. To me he was the seismic shift. Any man that says he don’t want to look like Elvis is a liar. His beauty is Hellenic. The Greeks taught us that beauty is mathematical. The distance between the hairline and the brow, from the brow to the cheekbone, from the cheekbone to the jawbone, from the jawbone to the chin. It has to be geometrically perfect. That’s why beautiful people always look very similar. Elvis’s lopsided grin was just the ruination of many, it was cosmic, like Brando’s broken nose, you can’t be too perfect… (laughing) that would lead to idolatry and all the evils that brings.

 

I’d been in discussion with John for around three quarters of an hour before Johnny Green indicates its time to wind up. (“Even the fucking staff have gone home” he says!)

I thank them both for allowing me the time and the opportunity to conduct the interview. (Earlier in the week John had been speaking to Rolling Stone Magazine…a publication with only a marginally bigger circulation than The Point!)

GMc: Final question related to the politics of your youth, the city of Manchester has undergone tremendous change since your youth, even since I first visited for its music in the late 80’s. In part it looks a shining, gleaming new city but once again, especially during these times of austerity, poverty is an increasing blight. What do you think of Manchester now?

 

JCC: It’s a crystal and steel city and I don’t live there any more. I live in Essex where the blue collar values still hold sway. To me those blue collar values really aren’t there in Manchester anymore but its become the rock and roll capital of the UK.

 

With that we say our goodbyes. John’s National Poetry Month Tour still has a number of venues to play across the UK. He shakes my hand warmly but shoots me a look from underneath those glasses…

“I don’t mind what you write…but don’t make me look a c**t!”

 

John Cooper Clarke might have bad news for New Zealanders, but he’s good news for the rest of us.

for a modern home and cheap electricity
streamlined functional neat simplicity
put yourself on the slum clearance list
dial a dialectical materialist
find out what your net potential is
get married to an existentialist
don't doubt your own identity
dress down to a cool anonymity
the pierre cardin line to infinity
clothes to climb the meritocracy
the new age of benevolent bureaucracy

(Excerpt - Euro communist/Gucci socialist)

 

 

 

See more of John Cooper Clarke and Mike Garry by following the links below;

 

www.johncooperclarke.com

 

36 hours by John Cooper Clarke

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSvuGa47zHM&;feature=related

 

 

Beasley Street, by John Cooper Clarke on The Old Grey Whistle Test

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euD0o0x-jAo

 

Mike Garry performing St Anthony

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wcPWsRUw6A

 

 

Other articles by Graeme McIver in The Point can be found here

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left

Greenpeace

The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books