Words by Tia Clarke
AU is in the backstage room of the Black Box venue in Belfast. We turn to our left and John Cooper Clarke, the original punk poet, is sitting beside us. With his jet-black, Cure-esque hair, long spindly legs clad in skinny jeans, patent Chelsea boots, silk scarf and heavy black-rimmed glasses with red lenses, he cuts a distinctive figure for a 61-year-old. He is in town kicking off an eight-date Irish tour and our interview is rolling over into dinner at a local Cantonese restaurant.
The self-styled poet has always insisted that he has never been ambitious. He has never had a huge PR campaign behind him, but now, aged 61, his poems have become the hip reference point for a new generation of artists, like Arctic Monkey Alex Turner. After years of existing under the radar, the John Cooper Clarke renaissance is finally afoot. And guess what, he’s lost none of his edge.
The poet has been a major figure in the punk scene since he opened for acts like the Sex Pistols, Joy Division and The Fall in the late Seventies. It’s not hard to see why when he steps up to the mic, his visceral social observations and elegant wordplay charged with attitude and energy. If words should be used like bullets, then John Cooper Clarke uses syllables like bombs. Live shows are a mixture of classic gags and spoken word poetry, inspiring and hilarious in equal measures.
I ask Johnny about his colourful life as our mountain of food arrives. His manager and some other companions join us. The Bard of Salford invites us to “‘av a taste of me stewed aubergine’” as he tells AU his interest in poetry was awoken at school with “old fashioned, 19th Century stuff” like “Rimbaud and Baudelaire”. The young Mancunian found poetry was a hobby he got really good at. “I started showing people and they liked it too.”
After getting “nowhere” sending his work to publishers, an opportunity cropped up at a working men’s club in Manchester. He wrote about life in Manchester – “nothing too taxing”. The poet recalls one of his earliest works ‘Salome’ going down well. “It had swearing in it, which helps.”
But what was it like to be part of the punk explosion in the late Seventies, and how did Cooper Clarke get swept up in it? “I didn’t understand the Sex Pistols when I first saw them, but when I saw The Fall, I got it. ‘Cause we knew Mark [E. Smith] y’know, his mum worked at the post office. One minute Mark was this schoolboy, the next he was the singer in this fabulous band.”
Cooper Clarke says the penny dropped for him when he realized how lyrical punk songs were. “At the time I was doing working men’s clubs trying to make it as a sort of nightclub entertainer”. He wore a uniform of suits and Chelsea boots in the vein of The Jam. “So I didn’t look hippy and if you didn’t look hippy, you fitted in with punk alright.”
Former Buzzcocks singer Howard Devoto was the one who first suggested Cooper Clarke play the punk venues. “The idea was to pump it out to as many people as possible”. You can imagine the kind of reception a skinny poet from Manchester got from the hoards of punk fans waiting to see the Sex Pistols. Was it really as bad as we’ve heard? Did they really hurl all that abuse and gob spit at him? “That was awful, the spit, cause I wore suits.”
So a lot of dry cleaning was involved then? “Yeah, it was awful. I actually started wearing a leather jacket for that reason – simply wipe clean with a damp cloth at the end. I had three mohair suits ruined by gobbing. I thought, ‘I’m in punk rock now’, so I started wearing the old Ramones outfit.”
He still maintains that the punk venues weren’t as bad as the working men’s clubs, which where so rough, he jokes, they came with their own coroner. “But I won them over in the end. I got a residency in a place called Mr Smith’s. It was a step up from the working men’s clubs.”
His manager Phil cuts in between mouthfuls of spare ribs to tell AU that Mr Smith’s was the coolest club in Manchester. The two reminisce about singers who played there in the Seventies. “Mel Tormé, The Velvet Fugs? You know him? Matt Monro?” John Cooper Clarke is humming the tunes and we feel as if we are getting a lesson in popular music history.
What about Mark E. Smith, is he really as grumpy as he comes across? “Actually we were with Smith coming home from Electric Picnic. It was lovely to see him. He’s a normal sort of guy and always a total gent with me, I’ve never seen his dark side.”
Manager Phil sheds some light on the enigmatic singer, whom he managed for years. “He’s a lovely fella, although he can be a bit grumpy at times. One of my biggest regrets in life is not keeping the faxes he used to send me every night. As he got increasingly drunk they got funnier. I should have kept them and published a book.”
There was a story doing the rounds about Mark E. Smith getting into a car thinking it was a taxi and it was Badly… “…Drawn Boy!” Cooper Clarke finishes off AU’s sentence. So this one’s true then? “Yeah, it is. Mark and some mates were all out caning it all day in Manchester, at some Tony Wilson thing. In the end, Mark got into the first car he saw. He was telling the driver, ‘Take me to King’s Road! Drop me at King’s Road!’ [JCC's impression is spot on- it sounds like he has a mouth full of marbles] and it was Damon Gough at the bloody wheel! He didn’t have the heart to tell him – ‘No Mark, I’ve just collected an award. I’m Badly Drawn Boy!’ They got to his house and Mark’s checking his jacket saying, ‘Don’t ‘av me card on me’. So he took his teeth out and left them in the glove compartment and went off home”.
According to rock ‘n’ roll legend, Gough watched which door Smith went into, drove round the block a few times, knocked on the door and said, ‘Mark, you left these in the glove compartment!’ to which the singer shrugged. “You couldn’t make that up, could you? I don’t know where it comes from,” ponders Cooper Clarke. “What about the time somebody took him for a meal? The waitress brought over the menu and he just looked at it and shouted, ‘Av ya got wabbit?’”
Nico, the stunning German singer with The Velvet Underground, shared a flat with the Cooper Clarke in the Eighties. “We muddled along fabulously. She didn’t eat much, I didn’t have to cook for her. She was self-catering all the way.” This could have had something to do with the fact that Nico was addicted to heroin, as was the poet for much of the decade. Indeed, he performed his live show less frequently during this time and has said in hindsight, “There is no happiness down that street.”
Things have been on the up since then and a massive interest was sparked in the original punk poet when his song, ‘Evidently Chickentown’ was used in one of the closing sequences of The Sopranos. “The fact that any of those people even thought about me at all is remarkable to me. I wouldn’t have thought they’d ever have heard of me. It’s a big deal. It’s one of the poems I’m most proud of.”
And how does he feel about the younger generation referencing him, like Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys?“I like them a lot. Well, he read my stuff at school, all his generation did, it was compulsory. I’ve always wanted it to be compulsory, ram it down the reluctant throats of the young. Didn’t do me any harm!” he quips.
Recent live shows have been peppered with some fantastic new poems like ‘I’ve Fallen In Love With My Wife’ and a biting take on aging, ‘Things Are Gonna Get Worse’. Any new work coming up? He reveals that he is getting a punk group together. “Jack Shit and the Zeros is our name, our big role model being seventies punk rockers The Dictators.”
He’s also written a special piece called ‘Pity the Plight of the Young Fellows’ for a film being directed by rapper and director Plan B. Johnny hums Plan B’s smash single ‘She Said’. So he’s down with the kids, then? “Ever since Alex, I guess. I’ve got a completely trans-generational audience. People from about 14 to people in their 60s in the audience.”
Recent years have seen the live show shift towards more of a stand-up act than the performance poetry side – was this something he did consciously? “I don’t even think about it that much. I’m not very analytical about what I do and I find a lot of people like me, who are in show business or the arts are like that. You don’t want to analyse it too much or the bottom might fall out or you might become too knowing. It’s a delicate thing that you’ve got. If you’ve got something that’s good, you don’t really want to pick it apart.”
At this point a young girl comes over and asks, “Is that Ronnie Wood? Me and my sister have been sitting there all night debating if it was.” It’s the millionth time Clarke has had this case of mistaken identity but he takes it all in good nature. “I’m like Ron Wood’s decoy!” he says, as he sets the girl straight.
There’s something that’s eluded Johnny tonight – the words to his new poem ‘I’ve Fallen In Love With My Wife”. It comes to him in a flash and he recites the entire poem to finish off our night. [Excerpt]
“I’ve fallen in love with my wife,
She populates my days,
She ain’t that far from a carving knife,
Better keep her in my gaze.”