John Cooper Clarke, The Bard Of Salford Makes A Rare Appearance At Harrogate Theatre 4th July


Dubbed “The Bard of Salford” and given the moniker “punk poet” with his biting, satirical, political and very funny verse delivered in a rapid-fire performance style, John Cooper Clarke was initially the support act for many seminal punk bands such as the Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, The Fall, Joy Division, Elvis Costello and Siouxsie and the Banshees, John was soon headlining his own gigs and drawing huge crowds of fans.

Since the punk days, he has been recognised as one of England’s most important poets and performers, who enjoys performing now more than he ever used to.  Sky TV recently dedicated an entire night’s programming to John, he has been interviews for a special feature for BBC’s The Culture Show, and he made a brief cameo as his younger self in the Ian Curtis biopic Control.

John has recently been trying his hand as a radio presenter with a series of programmes on BBC 6 Music. The shows have been massive hits with a younger audience and more are in the pipeline.  Appearances at numerous festivals in 2010 include Latitude, Green Man and Irelands Electric Picnic have helped showcase his talents to younger fans.

John continues to write new, vital poetry, and regularly perform live all over the country and no less than 3 of his poems are now in the GCSE syllabus, including the remarkable Twat. He is studied by many A-level students and his poetry is prolific within UK and Irish University courses.


“John Cooper Clarke is pleading with the photographer. Not outside, please. It’s windy and the great punk poet is worried about his barnet. “I’m 63 and need all the help I can get. It’s not that I think I’m some matinee idol. Quite the reverse. It’s damage limitation.” He’s still got a touch of the young Bob Dylan about him, but these days he’s more likely to be mistaken for the raddled Ronnie Wood.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, Clarke was huge, in a cultish way. (Snap, Crackle and Bop, his most successful album, reached 26 in the charts.) He was a lab technician at Salford Tech when he began performing his verse, backed by a folk group, the Ferrets. His poems were about everyday life: package holidays to Majorca where “the Double Diamond flowed like sick”, and the fact that you’d never find a nipple in the Daily Express. They were smart, rude and angry (“The f**king weed is f**king turf/ The f**king speed is f**king Surf,” goes the magnificently dystopian Evidently Chickentown – although the recorded version, which once closed a grim episode of The Sopranos, had “bloody” instead of “f**king”).

Then he disappeared – lost to heroin. “I didn’t write for at least 10 years.” No records, no books and no money. The decades ticked by. But now he’s back: DJing on Radio 6, appearing in the new Plan B film Ill Manors, gigging a lot and – most importantly – writing poetry. Tonight, he is the subject of Evidently … John Cooper Clarke, a documentary kicking off BBC4 and Radio 6′s Punk Britannia season. Clarke was a seminal influence on the punk movement, and might well be its most enduring. In the documentary, Steve Coogan says: “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, ‘Good, you’ve saved me a lot of time.’”

Clarke is having his photo taken and I’m staring at him: toothpick legs, 28-inch waist, huge hair, polka-dot cravat and matching handkerchief. Was he rich in the old days? “No. I ain’t waving the victim flag, but considering the massive impact I’ve had on British culture, it’s f**king diabolical how poor I am.” What does he mean? “Everybody that read one of my poems went off and wrote poetry. They said that about the Velvets, didn’t they? They didn’t sell many records, but everybody that saw them formed a band.” He looks at the photographer. “Make me look handsome, David. I know I’ve f**ked you around and you hate my guts, but please. Please. And not just good for me age. Good.” He laughs loud and the sun bounces off all the gold. How many gold teeth does he have? “About half a dozen. Honest, I’m worth more dead than alive, Simon. He he he he he he!”

We sit down and order drinks at the Heights, a bar 15 floors above London’s West End. “Dirty Martini, a couple of blobs of olive oil over the top. Good for you, keeps you regular.” People can’t keep their eyes off him. He starts talking – about anything and everything, from how we were all happy under Harold Wilson, to how the Ramones were every bit as good as the Beach Boys, to the genius of Chuck Berry. “He’s got cheekbones you could hang your coat on. Very handsome man. Greatest lyricist in rock, obviously. You read the lyrics and you’re just singing the song. Every beat is spoken for. It’s a tragedy he’s remembered for My Ding-a-Ling.”

And now he’s on to the movies: from the gold fever of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to the improvised genius of John Cassavetes. He’s an encyclopaedia of 20th-century culture, with added jokes. Most apparent is his joy in language – forever mixing and matching unlikely words, sounds and ideas in a voice tough as Tarmac. Does he know everything about everything? “I know everything about movies. When my ma went shopping, she’d stick us in the Rialto and say, ‘I’ll pick you up on the way home.’ There were half a dozen cinemas within a quarter of a mile. That was my babysitter, the movies.”

A woman walks up to us with a camera. “Can I have a photo, please?”

“Yes, of course,” he says.

“Say cheese, Ronnie. Hey, I used to be a Wood before I was married.”

“All right darlin’, take care sweet’eart,” he says in his best Cockney. He looks at me as she leaves. “It doesn’t cost you nothing, does it?”

I ask what he did all those years he wasn’t writing. “It was a feral existence. I was on drugs. It was hand to mouth.” Has he still got track marks? He lifts up his sleeves. “No, I’ve got no veins left.”

One story about this period was that he had hooked up with Velvet Underground singer Nico. It’s only partly true, he says: they were living together in Brixton, but not as a couple. Ach, that’s disappointing. He smiles and says that’s everybody’s response. “Who wouldn’t like to think you were with one of the 10 most beautiful women in the world, official – and that was in the day of Brigitte Bardot and Julie Christie.”

Did Nico ever make a pass at him? “Well, we were junkies so it doesn’t really come up. It’s not a physical world. It’s just not a sex drug, heroin. You just don’t get round to thinking about it.” Do any junkies have an active sex life? “I’ve known it happen. Yeah, but not guilty. Ha ha ha ha!”

How close did heroin come to killing him? “Well, you go into a clinic and they tell you: ‘You would have died next week if you hadn’t come in here.’ I never felt it to be true. If you’re shooting up junk, you’re a bit cavalier. You overdo it and have to be brought back into the land of the living, but I wouldn’t say you embark on a career of drug addiction in order to kill yourself. It’s driven by the pleasure principle.”

Does he miss it? “Oh yeah, course. A lot of times I remember it as fabulous. But I can’t do that and have the life I have. And I ain’t gonna sink the ship just so I can feel a bit better. If I live ’til I’m 80, I fully intend to reacquaint myself with the world of opiate drugs. I think it’s ideal for the elderly. It should be there for the asking. If you’re over 70, you should be able to go and say, ‘Just give me some diamorphine and I won’t mither you any more.’”

Clarke grew up a Catholic and still has faith. “People who believe in God are happier than those who don’t. I’ve never met a happy atheist.” He lives in Essex with his French wife of 22 years, Evie; they have a daughter at college. It’s not his first marriage, but he won’t tell me how many times he’s been married. “Let’s gloss over that. I don’t want to sound like some tragic Hollywood type. I’m a romantic.” He pauses. “I don’t like the idea of deflowering an unmarried woman.”

Instead, he tells me how he and Evie met, on Friday 13 November, and how they bonded over Baudelaire. “I had this translation of Les Fleurs du Mal. I love Charles Baudelaire. Him and Shakespeare are the only people I think are better than me. I swear to Christ, I think I’m better than every f**ker. When I finally met the wife, languages were her thing. So I said, ‘Is that a good translation?’ And she said, ‘I couldn’t imagine a better translation.’” And that was that.

He says he has never felt so content, not least because he’s writing again. Now his poems tend to be more to do with ageing and mortality. Inevitable really, he says: so many people have died around him (including Nico, in 1988). “Increasingly, I have to deal with bereavement. I could go to five funerals a week. But that many vol au vents isn’t good for you. He he he he he he!”

Time for another martini. “Cold, not tepid this time, please.” Underneath his shades I can see a pair of pale blue eyes. Next he enthuses about John and Pauline Prescott. “That time he took that 100-yard trip in the Jaguar and the green fascists took him to task and his answer was: ‘Pauline had just had her hair done.’ Every working-class geezer knew where he was coming from. He is the last politician with integrity. Have you seen pictures of him as a young man, all quiffed up, in the Merch [Merchant Navy]? He was a good-looking fella. Tony Blair or John Prescott? OK, take the piss out of John Prescott if you like, but who would you rather wake up next to: Pauline or Cherie? Pauline looks like Elizabeth Taylor at her peak. What a goddess. Beautiful!”

He shows me his notepad – full of word puzzles and half-completed poems. He never stops these days, he says, and tells me about his latest work in progress. In the past, he has proposed that, for National Poetry Day, all human affairs be conducted in rhyme, with the exception of the emergency sevices. But now he’s decided there need be no exception. He grins. “You go to the doctors, the doctor says, ‘I understand your question./ Now here is the answer./ It isn’t indigestion./ You have stomach cancer.’ To which you reply, ‘My imminent estrangement/ has come as quite a shock/ I’ll make the relevant arrangements./ Thanks for the information, doc.’ What d’you think of that? It’s good, isn’t it? It could even bring a much-needed smile to the cancer sufferer’s face.”

He falls about laughing. “I thought of it on the way in. How good is that? Ha ha ha ha! Terrific, kid. Terrific.”



By Andy on June 12, 2012

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