John Cooper Clarke appears like a man out of time. He is stick thin, dressed in shiny black boots, tight black straights, sharp shirt and buttoned-up Sixties jacket, topped off with impenetrable Raybans and an enormous, spiky, dyed black barnet. At 61, Clarke is wrinkled, his lips have shrunk, and his teeth are full of bits of gold, but otherwise he looks exactly the same as when he was the poet laureate of punk, the self-styled bard of Salford, a comic wordsmith with almost household name status.
“You know what I like to think of myself as? Adam Adamant,” Clarke declares, recalling the short-lived BBC series from 1966 about a Victorian adventurer in swinging London.
“They chip him out of a block of ice, he used to work for the secret service just before the end of the Crimean War, and he comes into modern London with his Victorian value system. He goes into a Wimpy bar: 'May I see the wine list?’ Being au fait with technology and 'down with the kids’ will only take you so far. There’s a rich vein of humour being a Luddite.”
Clarke has such a precise way of enunciating things, with twists of emphasis in his rich Mancunian accent, that everything he says sounds like a routine. With his verbally dexterous, comically surreal poetry of everyday absurdity, he enjoyed a period of meteoric success between 1978 and 1982, scoring hit singles, touring with the Sex Pistols and Elvis Costello and releasing six acclaimed albums.
Clarke is the godfather of British performance poetry, a star of alternative comedy before there was even a circuit on which to ply his trade. “At the beginning, there was no chance I’d get published so I thought I’d give it a go live. I had to perform in rock band places and working men’s clubs, where you wouldn’t expect to find poetry. I ploughed a lonely furrow.”
Punk put him on the map. “Lyrics became important for a while in the late Seventies. Patti Smith was a poet and a rock star, as much one as the other, the distinctions were a bit blurred and then you get swept up in it. Punk poet, it’s a good enough term.”
In 1981, he published his only poetry collection, Ten Years In An Open-Necked Shirt. His trademark style was to tackle fads and pop cultural obsessions. In “Kung Fu International,” for example, he describes being repeatedly mugged by martial arts obsessives. “People say to me: 'Did that really happen?’ Of course not. But when I wrote it in 1975, there was the Kung Fu television series, Bruce Lee was on at the pictures, Carl Douglas was in the charts with Kung Fu Fighting.
“I worked it into some kind of everyday scenario. None of these are written from experience. It’s all conjecture: what if I married a monster from outer space, where would that get me?”
I’m not sure where it did get him. After 1982, he seemed to fade from view. He would pop up from time to time, performing in insalubrious settings. He squired former Velvet Underground star Nico and there was, by all accounts, a long dalliance with heroin, which came to an end in the Nineties. He subsequently settled into a relationship (his partner, Evelyn, sits in on the interview, laughing at many of Clarke’s shaggy dog tales). They have one daughter, Stella, and live in Colchester.
Clarke is none too forthcoming about where his career went. “After a while, there’s always something better to do than write poetry,” he says. “It turns from what you used to do when you should have been doing something else to the something you should be doing when you’d rather be doing something else, d’you know what I mean?”
None the less, he claims he is working on new material. “There’s always new fads to chronicle,” he says.
Like what, I ask. The internet? Twitter? Facebook?
“Oh no!” he says. “I like to keep a certain retro charm about what I do. A good one I’ve written lately is 'Pies’. I thought it’s what they expect of a Northerner, why not go with it?”
Things seem to be moving back into alignment for Clarke. He has been repeatedly name-checked by Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, appeared as himself in the Joy Division film Control and had his small-town classic “Evidently Chickentown” feature in an episode of The Sopranos. “I’m very proud of that,” he says.
Our interview takes place at the Latitude Festival’s poetry tent where young performers, in awe of Clarke, come up to pay their respects. He is performing on the Fringe, at the Udderbelly.
“It’ll be more of the same only more so,” he laughs. Contemplating his position in British comedy and poetry, his lost years, the possibilities of a comeback, Clarke can only smile. “I don’t know the answer. What I do is the most organic thing in the world. It could only have turned out this way. Like it or not, it could only have turned out this way.”