“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 like, ‘Good, you’ve saved me a lot of time.'”
For John Cooper Clarke evangelists such as myself, Steve Coogan kind of nailed it when he voiced the above words in BBC4’s 2012 documentary Evidently… John Cooper Clarke.
The high barneted bard from Salford first came to public attention in the mid-1970s, when he compered punk gigs, performed before The Sex Pistols and became pals with Tony Wilson. His barbed verse, all performed with a jarring Salford snarl, is an uncapped source of laughter and entertainment, but for every uncouth giggle, there’s an ingenious internal rhyme, or a profound statement lurking underneath. To read Clarke closely is to really get inside his genius, and this perhaps overlooked insightfulness that landed him on the GSCE syllabus some years ago – inspiring a young Alex Turner to start penning similar lyrics of suburban discontent.
Now 65, he’s spent the past decade touring the UK, writing new material and enjoying something of a revival. In some ways, his influence is far greater now than in his punk so-called “heydey” – despite the fact that the decades in between, he went a little AWOL – opting to take smack with Nico and appear in Sugar Puffs ads instead of putting pen to paper. Now clean, coherent and charismatic as ever, he plays Dublin’s Vicar Street on Saturday evening. We gave him a call before the event to talk punk, poetry and hanging with Michael D.
When was the first time you came to Dublin?
I first came to Ireland a very long time ago. It was one of my first gigs, in the 1970s. I played in a very small venue called the Project Arts Centre, with a lesser known poet whose name was Michael D. Higgins.
I hear he’s doing pretty well for himself now.
Yeah, I’ve heard he’s your president. I’ve got friends in high places in Ireland, so be nice to me in your magazine. I’ve always liked the Irish because they’ve got a very poetic spirit. The Irish are very good at poetry.
They’re good at craic, too.
Well yeah, there’s that as well. Which works nicely for me, because my gigs have a bit of both. It’s an evening’s entertainment.
What was the last poem you wrote about?
You remember those old drinks cabinets that look like the front of a ship? I found one of those in an antique shop, and started thinking to myself about what it would be like if I bought it, and my wife and I started having nautical themed drinking parties. Everyone would be round my house all the time. Not only would they be getting the booze for free, they’d be also be allowed to smoke, and that would make my house the most popular bar in England. No one would ever leave, and then I’d be stuck trying to get them out. I thought a lot about having this drinks cabinet. The ups and the downs.
Do still you entertain much?
We have people round. My wife has friends, at least.
Do your friends ever ask you to start reeling off poems?
You know what, they never do. “Buy a ticket” is what I’d say if they did.
You used to get heckled a lot, but I don’t suppose that ever happens any more. Do you ever miss the banter?
It never happens any more. I used to get it a lot, when I started out – playing Working Men’s Clubs around Manchester. People always ask me if it was hard playing to a punk crowd, but to be honest, after playing those crowds, punk was a doddle.
Which passion came first, literature or music?
Music came first because it was always around the house. Fifties and sixties records that my uncle would bring over – Elvis, The Beach Boys, Nat King Cole, Chuck Berry, Ella Fitzgerald. American music.
You’re often described as a “punk poet”, but you actually started performing before punk. Do you feel it’s a misrepresentative label?
I can see why people call me that, because punk is when I first came to public attention. It gave me a platform. But it’s also quite a restrictive brief – you have to write something that’s a bit jagged and immediate, and I’d like to think that my poetry covers a much broader spectrum than that – that I can write poems that are more reflective as well. But I’m not offended by it, I don’t mind. It’s a bit reductionist, but most of these labels are.
Do you think people tend to romanticise punk?
I think it gets misunderstood. Because punk very quickly changed into something else. When it started, it was something very much on the fringes – like most avant-garde things, it started off in art colleges and the like. But then it became something much bigger, almost like an agit prop machine, and that’s when it entered the mainstream consciousness. But I’ve always been very interested in the very early days of punk, and American punk – bands like The New York Dolls and The Ramones, and even before that, The Velvet Underground. Lou Reed’s lyrics were a massive influence.
Was it weird to hear the Arctic Monkeys cover I Wanna Be Yours?
Oh, it was lovely to hear it sung by them. It’s a very romantic poem, but written with a smile on my face – so they’ve managed to convert what was a throwaway track into a very tender love ballad, by not doing very much. But that is the genius of the Arctic Monkeys. They’ve made it sound like their own. It’s not really a cover version because they’ve converted it into a song. A song and a poem are two very different things.
You’ve tried to put your poems to music before yourself, but you weren’t very keen on them.
Well, I got mixed results. But it’s a different art form, without a doubt. Poetry should stand alone, the music should be built in when you write it. It’s a kind of music made out of language in a way. I’ve been thinking about recording something with a drummer, though – something non-melodic – or maybe just with no backing. Like I say, it should stand alone.
Do you think the literary crowd still looks down on performance poetry?
I think the very term “performance poetry” was invented by what you term the “literary crowd”. And that is – people who like poetry, and are good at writing it, but can’t read it. Plenty of people who write good poetry can’t recite it. I heard a wax recording of Oscar Wilde reading The Ballad of Reading Gaol and it’s terrible. Instead of handing it over to one of our many unemployed actors, which is what I think they should do, they’ve invented this term – “performance poetry” like it’s some kind of different thing entirely. It’s just poetry. I’m a poet. I’m just reading it. I’m not juggling with knives or balancing on a tightrope. Where does the performance come in? It’s not like I’ve got a dog up on the stage with me doing tricks.
You’ve got quite a distinctive look. Has anyone ever described you as a style icon?
Once or twice, yeah. [laughs] But I can’t believe that anybody would want to look like me. If you want a picture of the most elegant guy I can think of, after Charles Baudelaire, I would say Keith Richards on the steps of Chichester Crown Court in 1967. That’s the look I’m aiming at. Black jacket, white shirt, pinstriped trousers, simple block colours. Low maintenance, that’s the thing to go for.
Your hair doesn’t look like it’s low maintenance.
My hair is the highest maintenance part of the look. Gravity-defying haircuts need constant attention.
Are you a bit of a mod?
Without a doubt. The only youth tribe I’ve ever been a fully paid up member of, if I’m honest. Back in the Twisted Wheel… My taste in clothes hasn’t really changed since 1966. I’ve still got items of clothing from way back when because I’m very difficult to fit. If I find a coat that fits me I have to take very good care of it.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a poet?
It’s all I can do with any great skill. I’ve never even thought about doing anything else. I’ve always got a piece of paper and a pen with me, it’s all very low tech. It’s got to be the most accessible art form in the world, poetry. I’ve never had anything from the arts council. What could I ask for? All they could say to me is, “Ere, ave a quid and get yersen a biro.” You don’t even need to be literate. You could just get a dictaphone.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
My dad told me, don’t work for nothing. People will put up with anything if it ain’t costing them anything, but if you’re selling tickets, the onus is on you to be entertaining. It pushes you to be better.
Do you have any regrets?
Not any more, because I’ve got a good life. I’m very grateful for that. Somebody up there must like me because I haven’t done anything right, but yet I’ve wound up with a beautiful life.
Are you a bit of a romantic?
To a sadistic degree.
To win one of 5 pairs of tickets just leave a comment below with the name of your favourite John Cooper Clarke poem.
John Cooper Clarke plays Vicar Street on Saturday 17 May at 8pm. Tickets cost €29 and are available here
Words: Rosa Abbott / @VertovVertov