- 02 May 19
In honour of National Poetry Day, we’re taking a look back at two very different sides of the poetry coin, first with Paul Muldoon and now with John Cooper Clarke.
Jump back to January 2011, when Olaf Tyaransen met the legendary punk poet John Cooper Clarke in Galway...
A wet, windy weekend afternoon in the west of Ireland, and legendary performance poet John Cooper Clarke and your Hot Press correspondent are getting soaked to our skins as we sway exposed to the elements on Galway’s Wolfe Tone Bridge, deep in demented discussion with one of the city’s more genial winos.
We’re both hungover from last night’s restaurant wine, and also somewhat stoned from a more recent spliff, but when the guy staggered over asking for the price of “a cup of cider,” we stopped to give him some change.
Taking in Clarke’s distinctive stick-insect stylings – electrified bouffant hairstyle, long Mafia coat, dark shades and drainpipe trousers – the drunk performed an exaggerated double take.
“Jesus Christ almighty!” he cried. “Is it... John Cooper Clarke?” When Clarke confirmed his identity, he grabbed his hand to enthusiastically shake it. “I used to work the sites over in London. I remember seeing you in Brixton back in the day. What was that one again? ‘Beasley Street’! You were fuckin’ brilliant, man!”
Holding tightly onto John’s hand, as though for dear life, he began to tell us his story, reciting an occasional mantra of, “God bless you, Johnny ... God bless you, Johnny ... God bless you, Johnny...” whenever losing his thread of thought.
After a few excruciating minutes of this, we eventually manage to get away only to discover that there’s a couple of soaked but smiling fans waiting nearby waving tickets for tonight’s show in the Roisin Dubh that they want signed. Ever the gentleman, Clarke (Cooper is his middle name) stops to oblige.
“What can you do?” he shrugs. “You get outta bed in the morning and... it begins.”
He certainly attracts a lot of attention. Everywhere we go, slack-jawed locals tend to stop and stare. Some even take snaps on their mobile phones. Mostly this is because they’re mistaking the 60-year-old poet for one of the Rolling Stones. Clarke’s well used to it.
“I was all cramped up with me bag at the back of a bus the other day,” he tells me. “And this middle-aged woman kept staring at me. Like, really intensely! Eventually she worked up the courage to come over and say, ‘Excuse me, I’m really sorry to bother you – but are you Ron Wood?’ I told her, ‘Yes, love, I just decided to give me stretch limo driver the day off and take the bus instead’.”
Has he ever met his wealthier doppelganger?
“No – I’ve never met Woody. But I reckon he should give us a job as his decoy.”
He might not be a millionaire rock star, but John Cooper Clarke has been famous in his own right for more than three decades now. Dubbed the ‘Bard of Salford’, he first came to public attention in the late 1970s opening for seminal punk acts including Buzzcocks, The Fall, Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello and Joy Division (he played a younger version of himself in Anton Corbijn’s 2007 Joy Division biopic Control).
A bestselling debut poetry collection, Ten Years In An Open-Necked Shirt, and a series of albums – most notably 1980’s Snap, Crackle & Bop and 1982’s Zip Style Method – brought him to a wider audience in the early Eighties. Unfortunately, a debilitating heroin habit mostly put paid to the live work, but a series of lucrative TV adverts for Sugar Puffs cereal, which saw the Bard in constant battle with the Honey Monster, paid some of the bills.
Although he disappeared from public view for most of the Nineties, Clarke – who now resides in Essex with his wife and teenage daughter - has enjoyed something of a career resurgence in the Noughties. His snatch from the jaws of obscurity was largely enabled by bands such as Arctic Monkeys and Reverend & The Makers regularly namechecking him as a major influence in their interviews. The Control appearance has helped, too, and it certainly did no reputational harm when his poem ‘Evidently Chickentown’ was used to play out a memorable episode in Season 5 of The Sopranos. In recent times, he’s been averaging around 200 live performances per year.
As we veer off Quay Street in search of a suitable location to record an interview, Clarke asks me, “What were we taking about before all that stuff ‘appened?”
“I think it was something to do with banana skins,” I reply.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “Baa-naa-na skins! Do you know the way in comics and cartoons people are always slipping on banana skins? It might lead one to the conclusion that they’re actually slippery. But they’re not. I put two of them under me feet in the kitchen and tried to slide across the floor. I got totally stuck. It was like wearing mountain climbing boots. Fuckin’ useless!”
Such surreal conversations are par for the course with the constantly entertaining Bard of Salford. Even on those rare occasions when John Cooper Clarke is being serious, that strongly unaffected Manchester enunciation renders almost everything he says a touch comical (something he uses to great effect in his live performances). He laughs constantly.
Eventually we wind up in Sheridan’s Wine Bar (when we walk in somebody casually calls over, “Ah sure, how’s it goin’, Ronnie,” before studiously ignoring us for the next hour). John Cooper Clarke orders a coffee while your correspondent opts for a refreshing glass of Raudi. The poet reminds me of a line from his as-yet-unpublished poem, ‘The List of Shit That Don’t Exist’: “An onanist without a wrist/ A journalist who isn’t pissed...”
OLAF TYARANSEN: What’s your earliest memory, John?
JOHN COOPER CLARKE: Earliest memory? It’s a long time ago. Hmmm… that’s a tough one, isn’t it? My early childhood was really weird ‘cos there was a lot of deaths in the family at the same time. I got TB when I was a young kid. I don’t remember anything before that, actually. When I think about my early childhood, it’s in hospital.
Did you start reading books then?
No, I don’t think I could read then. You know, it was very early and I missed a lot of school. So I just listened to the radio all the time.
Do you have brothers and sisters?
I’ve got a brother; he’s twelve years younger than me. He’s still living in Salford, works for the GPO. He ain’t flavour of the month at the moment ‘cos they’re out – they’re taking strikes, you know, so everybody hates him! I gave him some stick. We don’t see each other a lot, to be honest. Twelve years is a big gap; he’s got his mates, I’ve got mine. He’s a funny kid, actually, my brother.
What were you like at school?
I fucked around and basically wasted loads of my time and everybody else’s.
What age did you leave school?
Fifteen. It was Catholic Secondary modern, in Salford, and it was a crap school, but nobody left there unable to read. Even the dumbest kids read stuff. But that was quite a thing, wasn’t it? Everybody read, didn’t they, the same paperback with the torn cover. There was not so much TV because it was only on for four hours a night or something.
When did you first realise that you were going to be a poet?
I didn’t know that until I was a teenager. At school we had this really good English teacher for a while. We had this guy, John Malone. “Mr Malone.” He had a glass eye, a bit of a limp. He was always injuring himself on the summer holidays on some outdoor, red-blooded pursuit. You know, he fell 300 feet down a mountain-face in Snowdonia one year. You never knew whether you were going to see him next term or not, he was always doing waterskiing, climbing mountains. So he was this rugged type, but he had a poetic side, which he conveyed to everybody in the class, not just me. Writing that struck a chord, all the usual stuff: ‘Charge of the Light-Brigade’, a bit of Shelley, you know, all the old-school stuff. He used to read from what they used to call Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. Yeah, and Palgrave’s Golden Treasury was kind of the recommended… I wonder if you can still get it. I think it was made for schools. But a great mix of stuff in there. Probably the most modern stuff you would have got would have been Louis MacNeice and T.S. Eliot.
What age were you when you wrote your first poem?
Oh, quite early. About 14.
Can you remember it?
No, I don’t. It was an exercise we had at school. I can’t even remember what it was about.
What’s the first poem you do remember writing?
The first poem I remember writing? Ah, Jesus… it was so long ago! I used to write a lot about, sort of, Manchester at first. Very area-specific, kind of parochial stuff. And I used to make up football chants.
Can you remember one?
No. It’s terrible, innit, not being able to remember any. But they were all totally obscene, and derogatory about the opposing team. They say folk music’s dead, but that’s where it lives – on the terraces. It responds to something instantly – and then 60,000 people suddenly know the words! Completely organic process. But my favourite’s that one – United are playing Liverpool tomorrow – and there’s a great song to the tune of Topcat. ‘Kop-twats,’ it’s called. The song goes, “Kop-twats, you thieving bastards!/ Kop-twats, you thieving bastards!/ We know you all sign on the dole/ And you live in a fucking shit-hole!”
Some tabloid newspaper headlines are almost poetry in themselves.
Absolutely. Especially The Sun. They’ve got the best headline writing in the world. There was a blinder, the best ever, you know when Elton (John) and David Furnish had a civil ceremony back in the day – they’ve been married years now, haven’t they? But the headline in The Sun was: ‘ELTON TAKES DAVID UP THE AISLE’. In a family newspaper?
When did you first start performing?
Oh, that would have been in the late ‘60s. There were several kinds of community newspapers starting up back in the hippie days, in the wake of International Times and Oz. They used to run events as well. And, you know what it was like in the hippie days: they’d put up with anything, them hippies. After that I started performing at this club in Manchester called Mister Smith’s. It was like a cabaret club, and it was aimed at kind of thirty-year-old newlyweds and they’d have people like Matt Monro. Even Shirley Bassey played there. So I got a job kind of MC-ing. I’d do a few poems about places they knew and Manchester people. And it was kind of a [adopts BBC voice] ‘fractured take on modern life’. So I’d do about twenty minutes and then bring on the main act.
What age were you then?
I’d have been 25 or 26. After the ‘60s I left it alone for a bit, and then I got married, moved to Dorset, got a job in printing. So I was in rural south-west England, where I had a job as a printer, because in the meantime I had become a qualified compositor, in the days of lead type, you know. And so I left the poetry. I kept writing it, but I wasn’t doing gigs or anything. And then we went back to Manchester and I got the residency at Mister Smith’s, and I didn’t have to do anything else, it was really good money. It was great, but, because I was trying to make it in that world of cabaret, I kind of dressed the part. I wore a suit, you know, Perry Como haircut. So, by the time punk took up, I already looked a bit… well, I didn’t look like everybody else. I sort of fit in with the punk look: short hair, parallel trousers, skinny suit, in that Paul Weller/The Jam kind of punk look, rather than the Vivienne Westwood end of it. So I already looked the part, and that’s when I started doing gigs with The Buzzcocks and The Fall, and that sort of got us out of Manchester. They were doing gigs all over the place. So I started moving around with them. And then I was seen as part of that punk phenomenon, and it got written up in the NME and all the rest of it.
How did punk audiences respond to performance poetry?
They were all like, ‘What, are you going to do that in front of punks, are you? You’re going to read poetry to punks?’ And all that. But at the time I figured even if I die on my arse, it will get remembered and it will get written up.
Did you die on your arse?
Occasionally. In the beginning it was pretty bad. But it sort of worked because pretty soon everybody thought, ‘Oh, he’s got some bottle, doing it in Kirkby Workingman’s Club, you know?’ You see, it all worked in my favour anyway. I’m glad I did it that way. Otherwise, I can’t imagine what sort of life I would’ve had. Young people who write poetry now, and a lot of them are fantastic, they say, ‘What would you do now, if you were starting out now?’ I couldn’t tell you, you know, it was all very serendipitous for me, the whole punk thing. Because people were interested in song lyrics in the first place. They were lyrically important, the punk rockers. But God knows what I would have done if that hadn’t have happened. There wasn’t any scene for poetry or anything like that – whereas now, there is a bit. There is a bit in London, and the main towns. You know, so I just say to anybody who asks me about it, all I can say really is, ‘Do gigs!’ And then get it out. Get a name and then sell books with it. What can you say?
Although you’ve recorded several albums, your first and only poetry collection was published in 1981.
Yeah. Ten Years in an Open-Necked Shirt.
Did it do well at the time?
It did, really. It sold-out. Yeah, I don’t know why it ever went out of print. Really, it never stopped selling.
Have you any plans to publish another collection?
Definitely. I’ve got loads of new stuff. I think I’ve got enough for more than one book. And I also started doing a book of Limericks in order to cash in on the lucrative Yuletide stocking-filler market. It was aimed at kids but there’s something about Limericks that invites the expression of off-colour sentiments. People feel cheated if there isn’t an obscene pay-off. But this one was aimed at children so I thought, ‘Keep it clean’.
Can I hear one?
There was one like this in it: “I knew a fella called Ken/ He climbed up the hands of Big Ben/ Ascended at noon/ He fell to his doom/ At precisely six-thirty pm.” You can see how it would happen like that. It’s aimed at kids, but the more I did it, the more obscene they became. But it’s a lot of fun, innit, writing the old Limericks. Nice and clean family entertainment.
Who was your favourite out of all the various rock acts you’ve supported or performed with?
Impossible to say, but I always enjoyed working with The Fall. Well, ‘enjoy’ might not be the right word, but I’ve been on tour with them in recent years, and they’re better than ever now. They’re the only ones that I would watch every night.
Given Mark E. Smith’s tendency to fire musicians, they’d have a different line-up every night.
Yeah, yeah. Possibly a different band every night! But punch-ups all the time. All the time. Terrible. I don’t know how he survived. I mean, have you seen Smithy lately? He’s totally fragile, he stood there every day getting a pasting – he never comes off best, you know. Paul Morley did a Radio 4 show about us, it was sort of like an obituary. It was kind of weird listening to it, it was like I had died. I felt like Glen Ford at the end of The Fastest Gun Alive, you know when he fakes his death in the end. You know Glen Ford, fastest draw. And when him and his missus are looking at his grave at the end. It was like that, that sort of weird experience. But the weirdest of all was that Mark was on saying all nice things about me. How many people can say that?
How were the Sex Pistols to deal with?
Oh, gentlemen. Total gents.
Despite all the gigging, you really shot to fame in the UK as the face of Sugar Puffs cereal.
Yeah. That was sort of mid-Eighties, wasn’t it? Fantastic. I really enjoyed that period. I had some albums out at the time as well. No, it was great, inspired, I love them ads. Actually, you can get them on YouTube. Me daughter got ‘em up. She was really surprised when she come across them. Because they got better and better, you know, the ads, they got more slick. They were more kind of state-of-the-art. It got to be like a Tom and Jerry cartoon at the end. There’s one where the Honey Monster flattens me with a garden roller, you know, and they used this mat of me ‘cos I’m totally flattened.
The ads didn’t threaten your punk credibility, did they?
Most people I spoke to laughed about it. They thought they were hilarious.
Was that back in the days when you still got a royalty every time the ad aired?
Yeah, that’s right. They don’t do that anymore. They got out of that market, they do what they call a ‘buy-out’ now. But you got a royalty every time it was shown. It was like, ka-ching! Ka-ching! It was unbelievable, the amount of money. And the way they looked after you, you lived like a king.
On free Sugar Puffs?
Seriously, them 30-second ads, they used to take, like, three days to do. It was unbelievable. Especially since they had kids involved. All them kids were all from some central casting drama school. And they were only allowed to work a certain amount of time each day: child exploitation and all that. So they could only use them for about three hours a day. But they’d never get it right. So, really because of that, you were there, like, a week in a top-dollar hotel, charging everything up. They’d set you up with dinners too. And then mega amounts of money on top. Smashing. Where did it go? Where did it all go? I don’t know. Where and when?
At what point did the heroin kick in?
Well, it was already kicked in, to be honest. I wasn’t really a suitable face for breakfast cereals. But they didn’t know anything about it. I kept it a big secret.
And at what point did it get messy?
Oh, pretty early on, you know, it went messy. But touch wood, here we are. Still alive. All behind me now.
Did you stop writing at that point?
Oh yeah, yeah. You’ve always got other things to do, in that world.
When did your first marriage break up?
It lasted three years! No, but we was too young, you know. What was I? About twenty-one, she was seventeen.
Are you still in touch?
I see her from time to time, yeah. She’s still in Manchester. She seems to have got over it!
You lived with Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico for a while in the ‘80s.
I gotta say it wasn’t really a kind of a romantic situation at all. Not at all. I got married off in the NME. Somebody snapped us going in the house, and married us off. But it wasn’t really like that. I was living in Brixton at the time, and I already knew Nico because she had been living in Manchester around the corner from us, and we used to see a lot of her. And she went on a tour of Italy, but she had neglected to pay her rent before she left. And when she got back all her stuff had been thrown out of the house, and she kind of got her ticket. So she technically didn’t have anywhere to stay, so her manager said, ‘Any room at your place?’ I says, ‘Yeah, sure’. I mean, there was bags of room there. And I already knew her. And she just stayed at mine for quite a while in Brixton. In fact, while she was living there she was making an album, and John Cale came over, her producer. So I had him staying there as well. So I was flavour-of-the-month for a while. There was two-fifths of the Velvet Underground staying at my flat. You couldn’t make it up, could you? It was fantastic.
Do you ever drink before shows?
I have a nip. But nothing, you know… words are shit to remember sometimes, because I go off the point and then come back to it, you know, but you can’t really do that with poetry. The way I’d put it is: it’s another kind of show if you’ve had a bit too much to drink. If you’re drunk you tell yourself it was better. You know, ‘that was better than usual’. Clouded judgement and all that. Do you know, I don’t really drink very much anyway. Last night, that was very uncharacteristic of me. I don’t think I was out of order. Was I out of order at all?
You were grand, except for that bottle you put through the window of the restaurant.
Well, that bottle through the window, and trying to pull somebody’s
wife and …
You went quiet for a long period in the 1990s. What happened?
The ‘90s was really a good time for me, actually. I quit using class-A drugs, and, you know, it was optimistic, really.
When did you meet your second wife?
Evie? Well, we were seeing each other since about ’87, a long time before we lived together. And I moved into hers in the early ‘90s. We had always sort of talked about getting together, but I wanted to clean up before I moved in with her. Because you wouldn’t want to force that kind of life on somebody who is unprepared for it. And then my life completely changed. Me daughter, Stella, was born in 1994. She’s fifteen now. Late parenthood. I totally recommend late parenthood.
Did it change you?
If it wasn’t for her, my life would just consist of hospital visits and funerals. So thank God for her – in every sense. They say they keep you young: actually they put years on you!
Were you working much during the ‘90s?
The ‘90s were kinder to me than the ‘80s, really. I was heading down the pan there, in the ‘80s. It was the decade immediately after punk and really anything that was tarred with that brush began to look quite stale. And then it went from one extreme to the other and everything became a surface gloss: Duran Duran and Wham! That was the total opposite end of the park to the punks, wasn’t it? But even so, I liked some of it.
More recently, bands like Reverend and the Makers and the Arctic Monkeys have been dropping your name a lot.
Yeah, it’s great!
Do you know the Monkeys well?
I do know them pretty well. Great guys, all of them. In fact, I met them about a fortnight before they went global. I’m really glad I was nice to them now! You’re not always, are you? You know, if you’ve just done the gig. I think it was with The Fall in a place called The Boardwalk in Sheffield, and then at the end, we were just about to go home, and the club proprietor said, ‘Would you mind just saying hello to these lads? They’ve hung around, they like your stuff, and they’re in a band. We think they’re going to be really mega’. I said, ‘What are they called?’ He said, ‘The Arctic Monkeys’. There’s some names you can really imagine in the charts, can’t you? And names are important. I thought, ‘That’s a great name. ‘The Arctic Monkeys’’. I said, ‘I certainly will, yeah. I’d be pleased to meet them.’ So, they came in, and they’re all really like shy kids, you know, looking at their feet, and shuffling about. They’re still like that. They’re really sweet, sweet kids. He’s always dropping my name in interviews, which has done me a hell of a lot. In fact, I’ve noticed since that I’ve got a whole new generation of fans, but I’ll tell you how that came about, how Alex (Turner) came to know my stuff – it was at school, because I was on the English curriculum for the GCSEs.
‘I Wanna Be Yours.’ It’s that one, “I wanna be your vacuum cleaner breathing in your dust …” It’s a sort of fairly innocuous one. You can see why that would be picked, you know, no swearing or anything. And then he went home, Alex right, and mentioned this poem to his mum and dad, who obviously knew about us. Because Alex’s parents, I think they’re a bit bohemian. They might have even been punks. I guess at that point they got my records out, and Alex liked them.
I read somewhere that he’s got your name tattooed on his arm.
Yeah, somebody told me about that. I didn’t know it went that far. I think they’re a fabulous band. And he’s a great rhythm guitarist. Plays it high up, doesn’t he, like The Beatles style.
You turned 60 recently.
It’s a fucking miracle, innit? Who knew that’d ever happen?
How did you celebrate it?
There was a surprise party. Me wife and daughter blindfolded me and shoved us in the back of the car, drove me to this pub-stroke-restaurant just outside where I live. And it was great. Loads of people. And I was all, ‘I don’t want no party, not for my sixtieth’. In fact, that’s the last birthday I’m going to fucking have. In fact, I’m even going to lie about that. There’s no way I’m going to admit to being 60. I’ll be 59 for the rest of my life.
When was the last time you were in the States?
1982. Yeah, yeah, too long ago. It was a different place then, New York. I mean, I’ve heard it’s not as dangerous anymore.
I think you’d do really well over there.
I think so too, yeah. Like I say, whenever I run into Americans I’m always amazed that they’ve never heard of me. So, yeah, I’ve got to go out there again. I love America.
Given that The Sopranos used ‘Evidently Chickentown’, I’d imagine a lot more Americans will have heard of you now.
What a shock that was! What a surprise, yeah. Fantastic. I was very pleased about that.
Was it lucrative?
Not yet. I’ve yet to have the payment for it, but I’ve found this, that the world of movies pays very slowly. I’ve still not been paid for Control either. But it has done me a lot of good, I’ve gotta say. You know what I mean, people recognise me from that film. And from that Sopranos thing.
Surely that would be your ticket into a successful tour of the States?
There’s only one thing that would have been better than that – a guest appearance on The Simpsons. I like to think Sideshow Bob is slightly modelled on me. He could be, couldn’t he?
Is that the main ambition now?
Absolutely. That’s my ambition, yeah, a guest appearance onThe Simpsons. Then my living will not be in vain.
Do you, John Cooper Clarke, have a motto or a guiding philosophy in life?
Yeah, from Jailhouse Rock, you know the advice that Mickey Shaughnessy gives to Elvis, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Only do it first!’