Interview: John Cooper Clarke set for 2013 UK tour
Punk, poet and comic recaps 35-year career with humour and fresh insight
Like a recently-awakened raven, all hair teased to eternity and trademark skinny suit, John Cooper Clarke is one of the most unique figures in poetry and punk. His forthright poetry, delivered in a breathless, freight-train rush of breath, was perfectly paced to match the rising punk aesthetic of the late 70s. After releasing a handful of albums and supporting the like of the Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello and New Order, Cooper Clarke suffered a spell of inactivity and addiction which left him producing little to no work for the best part of a decade. In recent years, he's enjoyed a new surge in popularity thanks to savvy teachers fighting for the inclusion of his poetry in the GSCE curriculum, which led to younger fans such as Plan B and Arctic Monkey's Alex Turner citing him as an influence. Onstage, he peers at a massive binder of thoughts, rattling through them in a show that's part performance poetry, part stand-up, part pub ramblings. Laconic and sharp witted, his speech is peppered with wheezy cackling and delicious turns of phrase. Here he talks understanding poetry, audience participation and summer seaside towns.
In the C4 documentary Evidently... John Cooper Clarke, you're described as ‘part freak, part poet, part singer and part comic’. Is that accurate?
I’m all these things. But don’t worry, I don’t do much singing on stage. Only if they beg me. [laughs] Only if I’m begged.
So if someone came to a gig and begged, you’d burst into song?
Yes. I love singing. I’m a great singer. Terrific. I can carry a tune, don’t worry about that. [laughs]
You were initially a lab technician at Salford Tech before you tried making a living at poetry...
I didn’t start out that way. I had a million jobs before I managed to make a living out of poetry. It’s never really been seen as a route to financial reward, so I really didn’t give it a go until I’d had quite a few jobs.
As a last resort?
A last resort! [laughs] I had one chance. When the punk rock thing happened, I thought, ‘Right, I have one chance here to be seen as part of some wider social phenomenon.’ It was a kind of ‘piss or get off the pot’ moment. If I’m ever gonna make it, it’s going to be alongside all this kind of thing that’s going on. So it worked out very well for me that way. While I was still doing jobs I used to send it off to magazines and publications trying to get published. I thought that was the way forward. But it didn’t work. Even if I had got a publishing deal it wouldn’t have given me a living – the financial rewards are not very much. It’s mainly a hobby for people, isn’t it? But thanks to jumping onto that particular bandwagon it put me on a professional footing and from then on I became a professional poet.
Can you comprehend what your life would have been like had that not happened?
No. I’ve got a very good imagination, but it’s impossible to construct a lifestyle that might have been. There are too many imponderables there. I feel very lucky, having said that, to be able to make a living out of doing something that I like to do and that I’m good at. Although the day you become professional is the day when it stops being entirely fun. There’s a kind of pressure involved there. I quite welcome that. I like to think there’s something of the hack about me. I think it’s the highest accolade – or ‘hackolade’ as we call it in the trade – for any writer. My favourite writers are columnists. I love columnists: they have to cut to the chase, they have to deal with whatever bug is up their arse in a hopefully entertaining way. When you become professional you’re not just writing for yourself. From that point on you’re writing for a perceived demographic. It can only be in a very loose way, poetry, because it’s such a personal mode of expression. You can only do that up to a point. I prefer Hollywood films to art movies for the same reason. I prefer the Golden Age of Hollywood. To me, that was movies at their very best because in order to recoup their expenditure they had to appeal to the very real concerns of the most possible people. So to have a little bit of that in any kind of art endeavour is a plus.
There's this image of you taking poetry from the middle classes and giving it back to the every man...
I don’t know whether it’s a class thing. If you’re good, class has nothing to do with it. They’ve done polls, haven’t they, or sociological surveys and vox pops and by a long way the nation’s favourite poem is ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling. That’s the sort of poetry I grew up with. To me, that’s proper poetry. There’s a certain amount of craft involved. I think people of all classes admire someone who does their job well. As I say, it’s totally understandable why ‘If’ is the country’s favourite poem. It doesn’t exclude anybody. People, especially working class people, admire the craft of it. The sentiments in that poem are universal and quite spiritual in a very secular way. In many ways he was a very modern person, Kipling, who’s had a uniformly bad press, ever since the late 50s. He’s been seen as the arch jingoist, some kind of racist. And yet, one of his most famous lines is ‘You’re a better man than I am.’ Not only is he giving him credit for being a human being, he’s actually a better person than he is. I think that one line refutes any charges of racism against the man. It was a colonial period and people thought very differently and I can imagine that was an extremely revolutionary thing to say then.
I don’t think it’s necessarily class. For example, I learned to do what I do the Michael Gove way. We had to memorise poems at school off by heart. And you weren’t rewarded if you did; you were punished if you didn’t. [laughs] But if I was to complain about it, I would be pulling the ladder up because, more than anything else, that is what gave me the skills that I’ve used to earn a living for the past 35 years. In fact, at schools now, this emphasis on accessibility, for instance, is a poisoned chalice. It’s a recipe for dumbing down. Why not be aspirational about it all? Why can’t we better ourselves? The way they teach about poets now, another Johnny Clarke ain’t possible. I got a taste for it by memorising the superior poetry of those who went before me. Let’s face it, when you’re learning the beauty of poetry at school, you’re what, how old? I remember being interested in it when I was around 12. You’re not going to understand the meaning of the poem. That comes 40 years later when you’ve remembered those lines and the same thing might have happened to you that’s happened to that poet and then finally you understand it. You’ve always liked it, but finally you understand it. They do it the other way round now, like ‘what is this really about?’ A poem is not a Rubik’s Cube. You don’t solve it and say, ‘oh I understand it now.’ I’ve listened to Bob Dylan records for most of my life – do I understand what they’re about any more than I did back then? No. If you want to be understood, don’t write poetry. Write a textbook. Compile puzzles. It ain’t like that. Accessible, schmaccessible, I say. People are more interested in what they see as exclusive anyway, aren’t they? It becomes more glamorous if there’s a bit of an effort.
So how do you feel about your poetry being part of the GCSE curriculum?
Oh, I think it’s great. The fact that it’s being forced down the reluctant throats of school children on a daily basis brings great happiness to me. [laughs]
Your performances are very involving - is there an element of audience participation?
I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was audience participation – I’ve always hated that. If I was in an audience I wouldn’t wanna participate. I remember I went to see Hair in 1968. My aunt bought me and my girlfriend tickets and we were in the front row. It was terrible, I was dreading it: ‘Oh no, they’re going to take their clothes off.’ I was with this girl I didn’t know very well. It made me feel perverted through no fault of me own. It was a very traumatic experience. But in the end, even worse, I thought ‘Oh good, it’s on the last number and we can go home.’ But then they were trying to drag us onstage to dance and I’m like ‘Listen. I don’t dance in public.’ I had to threaten to punch one of them. I hate anything to do with audience participation. I used to like it when I was a kid at pantomimes. I think, ‘We’re paying, mate.’ The difference: you’re getting paid and I’m paying. And if I’m paying, you do the work. [laughs] So I assume people don’t like to be singled out when they’re in an audience. But obviously I do check the mass reaction.
The first time you came to Scotland you played the Glasgow Apollo. You said of the experience 'I lasted four minutes, said "let's call it a draw" and fucked off'. How have your audiences changed since then?
There is no typical Johnny Clarke demographic any more, if there ever was. Now it’s 16 to 85, male and female, black and white. There is no typical Johnny Clarke fan. It’s quite amazing really. I cross a lot of territories. There’s kids from all kind of youth tribes, it’s not just punk rockers. Since I’ve been in that Plan B movie a lot of those kind of kids show up. Getting on the GCSE syllabus, that got me a whole new generation of fans, no doubt about it. And among that new generation of fans was Ben Drew (Plan B) and Alex Turner who then dropped my name in all sorts of situations and it’s really revived my career, no doubt about it.
What made you start writing again after a ten-year hiatus?
I don’t even know. I don’t even know what kicked it off. The last five years I’ve written more than I’ve ever written in me life. I’ve no idea why. I don’t like to really analyse it. It’s a bit of a superstition among any artist. Who knows why you dry up? I could blame narcotics and all sorts of things. The 80s were really bad for me. All that was tainted by punk rock was just not what was required in the Thatcherite 80s. I’m not blaming Thatcher, but that whole culture of conspicuous consumption, billion dollar videos and unspeakable clothes. It was just bad for me. I didn’t even wanna be in show business in the 80s. The clothes were so horrible. Everybody apart from Adam Ant looked fucking dreadful. And obviously, I was on drugs. It took me out of the world a little bit. I always had other priorities.
What's your writing process these days?
I’m constantly jotting things down. I work on the move. It’s not like writing a book or anything. I write lines as they come to me. I’m a long hand guy – I’m not a mobile phone or any of those mechanical age things. I’m definitely a beer mat and biro sort of poet.
You said of writing 'write about what you know'. What kind of things move you to write?
It’s my default setting: laughing through the tears. ‘Things are Gonna Get Worse’ is a great example. It’s funny, but not happy. As for writing about what I know – I know a lot of stuff. I’ve accumulated a lot of shit over the years and it’s all up there in the attic of my brain to be rummaged in from time to time at the plight of some social phenomenon or other. It’s difficult to explain the poetic process. Sometimes they write themselves.
You're quoted as saying poetry is 'fucking useless. That’s the beauty of it.’
It is useless, absolutely. If no more poetry was ever written, would the world suffer? I don’t think so. Well I would, actually. I’d have to get a job. [laughs] But nobody apart from me would suffer. The world would still turn. Most things are useless, aren’t they? Most things that people enjoy are without any intrinsic value.
Do you think you've improved as time has gone on?
I was just listening to some old recordings and I’m so much better now than I was then. I listen to it now and I don’t know how it ever caught on in the first place. I was very lucky that people bought it. But now I understand. It’s pretty funny. Nobody leaves without a smile on their faces. That is my solid gold promise to you the customer.
Onstage you seem to be generally content anyway
Well, hopefully some of it rubs off. I’m very happy to be entertaining people and to have a lucrative career in doing so. Who could complain? It’s not like it’s hard work. It doesn’t feel like work.
Everybody wants to do their hobby as a job
Well exactly, what more could you ask for from life? Writing it is the work. I always say a poem is never finished, it’s just abandoned.
You've managed to associate yourself with a very distinctive style - is there a particular effect you're aiming for?
I’m just very conservative when it comes to clothes. I’ve worn the same kind of clothes since I was 16. It comes in and out, it comes in and out. Right now skinny suits are back in again. I wish it wasn’t the case cos that means in three weeks I’m gonna look terribly out of date. I’d rather look ten years out of date than two weeks out of date. Ten years out of date looks like you mean it. It’s damage limitation on me. I wear what looks least bad on me.
Your hair as well
Well thank God I’ve still got that. Male pattern baldness didn’t kick in aged 35. I’d be coming to a garden centre near you.
Some of your lines have been picked up by other artists - Morrissey in particular. How do you feel about that?
Lines from ‘I Mustn’t go Down to the Sea Again’ and ‘Every Day is Like Sunday’ kind of cross over. I don’t blame Mozzer for that. Anyway, I couldn’t be more complimented. Don’t worry, I’ve pointed that out many times. ‘How I wish I wasn’t here’ and miserable English seaside resorts out of season. That’s a rich poetic vein, isn’t it? Who could leave that alone? Who could legitimately call themselves a poet and not write a poem about an out of season British holiday resort? The reason it has such a resonance with me is, apart from the fact that it’s old world, slightly tarnished glamour which is, in itself, a rich seam of poetry there, I lived in Rhyl, North Wales when I was a child for two years on account of tuberculosis. They had to send me somewhere that wasn’t Salford. To be honest, I had a great time. I was alone, but I used to just go out in the morning and come back at tea time and all day I’d be mooching around the closed down fairground and going along the empty pier. And I’d see the holidaymakers come and the holidaymakers go. That sense of a town that wakes up in June and then goes back to bed in September. They [seaside resorts] just had a different routine to any other town. So thanks for noticing that. It’s great to be robbed by Morrissey.