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John Cooper Clarke Interview  

Interviewed by Ian Burns

(Originally published in The Argotist magazine in 1996)

 

John Cooper Clarke, the bard of Salford, is knackered. He's spent the last four days hauling his skinny arse, pillar to post clickety clack, from Colchester to Greenwich to Darlington and finally down to Soho, where he's perfecting his slump in the dressing room at Madam JoJo's, a grotty red velvet nite spot where the boys dress as girls, down by the seamy side.

The shades and birds-nest hairdo are present and correct, as are the beautifully worn-in spit and polished black chelsea boots. To complete the effect, this most stylish of our poets is squeezed into a pair of black bollock-tweaking drainpipes ("I know what yer thinkin'", he'll say, " 'ow can such a rich baritone emanate from such a frail androgynous figure?"), a striped "mod" jacket two sizes too small, and a stupendously colared seventies shirt. If Jarvis Cocker had made Blonde on Blonde, he'd have looked very much like this. He is nervously self-effacing about his appearance after four days of living out of a holdall - “I look a right mess...sorry about that,” but oh how disappointed his public would be if he presented himself in jeans and T-shirt. The hair and shades are all, his very own iconography...hell, he can even wear sunglasses in a dark nightclub without looking like someone you'd like to punch, and that's style. John Cooper Clarke has looked the same, give or take the odd striped jacket, for 20 years. As he's fond of saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Some might say that this sartorial, and indeed tonsorial, attitude extends also to his poetry readings. He's been peddling the same poems for years. He's a seventies poet of no modern relevance (whatever the hell that means). As the coup de grace, some would point to the lack of published work as ultimate proof that the man is in a state of poetic stagnation. I ask him whether there'll be any new material in tonight's show.

“When did you last see me?” About five years ago. “Oh, there will be.”

A collection of his poems, 1981's Ten Years In An Open Necked Shirt, is his only published work, and despite a number of reprints, it is now unavailable. This is a strange situation for one of our better known poets to be in, yet John Cooper Clarke carries with him such an air of comically resigned helplessness that you get the impression that he just can't be arsed with that end of the "business".

“'Well, my stuff ain't in the shops right now because...er...er...well, it's my fault, really! I've not done anything about it. I mean it's gonna happen, but...not with me in charge! I admit, I am well overdue for a new product.”

“Sardonic” is a word that you come across a great deal when John Cooper Clarke is mentioned. I looked it up in my Little Oxford: “Adj. grimly jocular; full of bitter mockery; cynical.” That's the man, officer. He speaks in slow measured tones, rolling his words around and fishing for ambiguities that are ever present in his poetry, and occassionally giving in to a dark chuckle. He is telling me about a book of poems that he is hoping to get published, called Blue Picnic. “They're poems that have a kind of lugubriousness about them, almost to a Morrissey-esque extent...so miserable that they're funny. I mean, I hope people get it, because not everybody gets it with Morrissey, do they? That kind of misery can be incredibly humorous...it's meant to be funny... you don't write that kind of doleful stuff so that people'll come up to you and pat you on the head and say “there there”...you can write about it and make it incredibly enjoyable, you know?

“I'm also writing a novel...my first one...the “selected memoirs” of a Fleet Street hot shot, called One Drink at a Time. The main character is a hard boiled tabloid journalist who writes a column in a drinking establishment called the Pussycat Lounge. It's a well-ploughed furrow, I know, but I think I can bring something new to it...otherwise I wouldn't bother.”

And yet, with a new collection of poems and a novel in the pipeline, as well as a forthcoming role in The Changeling (based on the Jacobean tragedy by Thomas Middleton) and a diary that finds space for around 200 gigs a year, John Cooper Clarke will later tell his audience, “I've made a religion of indolence...I eat a third of a Mars bar a day to help me rest.” But then the truth ain't half as entertaining as the persona, and John Cooper Clarke does love a larf. His performance onstage is often drowned out with the stuff, and it is telling that the poetry he chooses to recite usually comes with a punch line. It is as though he lacks the confidence in his poetry to entertain on its own terms.

“Well, I've got loads of stuff that ain't good enough for performance... well, I s'pose I consider my ones that are good enough. The ones that I write that look OK on the page I just think, well what's the point? I've got millions of 'em. I guess someone else would put them in a book, but I think if they're not good enough to read aloud then what's the point of putting them in a book? I dunno...mebbe I'm wrong,” says the man Time Out calls a "near genius". "I mean, I road test new material all the time. That's the ultimate test, to see how a new poem goes over...and I do get nervous when a new poem is declaimed publicly for the first time.”

His art is a hybrid of poetry and stand-up comedy. “Well, people say it's a cop-out, but I like to keep the audience laughing, you know...if they're laughing then I can tell that they're still interested. I do have the odd poems that ain't a hundred laughs but I feel like I have to ask 'em, ”Did you like that one?" With some of the older stuff maybe the crowd laughs out of recognition, but I doubt that humour has a shelf-life. I don't think that humour is the only thing in my poetry, but then I do tend to concentrate more on that side for performance.”  

 

outside the take-away Saturday night
a bald adolescent asked me out for a fight
he was no bigger than a two-bob fart
he was a deft exponent of the martial arts
he gave me three warnings trod on my toes
stuck his fingers in my eyes and kicked me in the nose
a rabbit punch made my eyes explode my head went dead and I fell in the road

(from 'Kung fu International')  

 

“I've always told jokes on stage anyway, while I'm looking for the next number, like. You don't want to leave them in silence. I always feel it incumbent upon meself, cos even if I'm not on stage for very long, I like to keep every second occupied...it's ENTERTAINMENT...there's now't worse than fumbling about while you look for the next poem, you know- "Sorry about this folks". So I tell a joke. And I know so many jokes that I can just tell them on automatic while I'm busy doing something else.”

I interrupt him to mention a memory I have of him offering a pound to anybody who could tell him a joke that he didn't know the punch line to.

“Well, I don't remember that...” (he pauses - timing is everything) “but I've never paid for a joke in my life! I've never wanted to be a stand-up comedian, though. Don't get me wrong though, I love comedians...well, I s'pose I am a comedian...slightly...certainly when I play comedy clubs I do concentrate on the funny poems, but then last week I did a gig at the Birmingham Readers and Writers Association which was a literary event, so I did the slower, leisurely-walking-pace, observational stuff, some prose...

“When I work on the comedy circuit the onus isn't on me to be a comedian...a comedian has got to be funny or it ain't comedy, but poetry can still be poetry even if it ain't funny, can't it? In a way, I'm lucky that I can keep that sort of balance. When I first started doing readings - this is in the mid seventies - there weren't really any poetry venues, there wasn't a poetry scene, so I useta hafta perform at places like Mr Smith's, a club in Manchester where I did a Sunday night residency for a few years, for an audience that probably didn't even read books. But poetry has always been and always will be a very different way of writing, a minority interest. It's language with its best suit on, innit?”

He does love a rhetorical question, does John Cooper Clarke, sitting there in what is probably not his best suit, amidst the tat of a transvestite's dressing-room. “Places in decline inspire me. I like that. Places with a lugubrious air, like 'oliday places out o' season...Morecambe, Blackpool...Essex is full o' places like that...Southend, Clacton...Southend 'as the sort o' thing where you go to 'oliday resorts and you look at 'em and you think, “Faded Grandeur,” you know...in fact, Southend has the unusual distinction in that you can look around and, even considering the fact that it has declined, you can see that it was never any good anyway. You look at what's there along the promenade...why is the pet shop that's been there since 1958, still standing? Why is the fortune teller no longer there? The Italian ice-cream parlour- 'ow did it end up like that? I never answer these questions meself of course, but you 'ave to ask 'em!

“But I get my inspiration from a lot of places, not necessarily geographical. I mean, say, Beezley Street could be in any town. With a poem like “Love Story in Reverse.” I just thought, “Right! Endless stream of vituperative language!” It's a form, innit?

There's a great song by Louis Armstrong, called “I'll be glad when you're dead, you rascal, you” which is affectionate, but the things he says are unforgivable. So usually when I write it's because I've been inspired by things like that. You think, “Oh, that's a good idea...an endless stream of abuse" and if it rhymes, so much the better. But such poems aren't based on any one person- I'm not that misanthropic - but more a composite. When I was writing that poem, my main concern was keeping to the rhythm, keeping the rhyme scheme rigid, and condensing it, making it relentless and unforgettable. The stylistic end is always the most important.”  

 

Like a dose of scabies
I've got you under my skin
You make life like a fairytale
Grimm
Like a death at a birthday party
You spoil all the fun
Like a fucked and spat out smartie
You're no use to anyone

(from Love Story in Reverse) (or Twat as it was released)  

 

John Cooper Clarke has never been afraid of incorporating the widest number of styles into his work. He is perhaps the only poet to successfully join poetry with rock, and his ascent in the mid seventies coincided with the DIY music boom that gave a voice to urgent young talent.

“Well, I started off writing in a band, The Vendettas, in the late sixties... but, yeah, punk helped because there was a lot 'appening, new places were opening up and getting lumped in with that scene opened up a lot of gigs and opportunities for me. It got me out of Manchester and around the world, really...but I've never felt meself to be part of any movement.”

It was around this time, facing crowds of speed-crazed punk rockaaahs, that he developed his on - stage declaiming voice that one writer has likened to “an auctioneer with a grudge against the world and a sneer as permanently attached as a scar.”

“Yeah, I do read some of my poetry very fast...that did start with punk, really...the high energy side of it. I thought, “Right. I'll read 'em fast.”...and it draws the audience in if they can't get all the words. It's like if you whisper into a microphone then they'll stop talking and listen, cos they feel excluded. If you shout “Shut up!” then they'll just carry on. Like with Chuck Berry in “Too Much Monkey Business” you can't get a lot of the words. I reckon Bob Dylan was influenced by that song when he wrote “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” cos you can never work out the words. Incomprehensibility has its own dynamic, there's no question about it.”

As showtime approaches, the manager of Madam JoJo's enters the room to explain that he can't be sure he'll be in a position to pay in advance, due to so-far sluggish box office action on this quiet Sunday night. I ask John Cooper Clarke if he still enjoys his role as a performance poet, and all the travelling, the living out of a holdall, all the dressing-rooms, all...THIS! “Yeah, I do...I mean, In really enjoy performing. I hate the travelling though, cos I don't drive, but...yeah, I do.”

Later that night, having entertained around a hundred of the faithful with a non-stop stream of poetry, jokes, banter and non sequiturs, John Cooper Clarke bounds offstage with laughter ringing in his ears.

 

 

copyright © John Cooper Clarke & Ian Burns