Ipswich: Punk poet John Cooper Clarke waxes lyrical about his career
He’s the bard of Salford, the punk poet now settled in Essex, but John Cooper Clarke likens himself to Pam Ayres. Entertainment writer WAYNE SAVAGE talks to one of the 70s’ leading voices of punk and youth culture.
“A figurehead for the punk movement . . . really?” asks John Cooper Clarke. You can almost hear him raising an eyebrow over the phone.
“I wouldn’t have put it that strong but go on I’ll buy that. There are worse things to be called, put it that way.”
Poet is good enough for the man whose rapid-fire, biting, satirical style sees him perform around the world.
“If you’ve never heard of me, don’t know what I do, it ain’t as high-falluting as it sounds; it’s not the kind of poetry you would necessarily find in a library... although you can find my stuff in libraries actually. Let’s say I’m part of the entertainment world. Put it this way, many of my fans are not particularly interested in poetry,” he laughs.
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“But people seem to dig it now more than ever, for some reason.”
He’s left an indelible mark on today’s pop culture thanks to work like Evidently Chickentown – used in an episode of The Sopranos – and his fashion style.
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You can hear Clarke’s influence in songs by The Artcic Monkeys, Reverend and The Makers and even Plan B, all of whom are big fans. You can often hear the man himself on BBC 6 Music.
“I love being a DJ. Obviously I’m of the opinion I am the greatest DJ on the planet and that the airwaves are s*** without me,” laughs Clarke, currently between radio gigs. “I’m waiting for somebody to die at Radio 6 music. It’s an ignoble position but I can’t help it.”
Joking he’s got a great face for radio and it’s clearly a passion. I can hear Radio 4, which he calls the background to his day, playing as we speak. “Everybody loves radio in our house. We didn’t have a TV till I was 12 so I grew up with it really.”
Clarke, who recently performed in Ipswich, fell in love with poetry early.
“My late mum [Hilda, an unpublished poet herself] was always interested in poetry, particularly John Betjeman. We shared an enthusiasm for his work. He used to do sort of documentary programmes on the TV in the 60s, travelogues; every so often he would recite one of his own poems about the town he was dealing with. That certainly helped get me interested in poetry.
“My mum started writing poetry late on in her life, she proved to be very good at it. I guess she saw how I was doing it and thought ‘well, if he can do it how difficult can it possibly be’,” he laughs. “Like all the best poets she wrote about the world she knew.”
Clarke particularly liked learning poems off by heart at school.
“I’m sure it’s the on-going nature of children to think they know everything when they don’t know nothing. That’s where schools come in. I was ten and the poem was written by a 30-year-old so obviously I didn’t understand it. But you learn it off by heart and then, later in life, those words come back to you. You realise the value of poetry.”
Success came much later too.
“I was an apprentice motor mechanic, a trainee cutter at a clothing manufacturer; you have to do loads of jobs if you’re a poet. It’s not traditionally seen as a very good, very well paid job,” laughs Clarke, who now lives in Essex.
“I started writing poetry a long time before I became well known. I never considered it as a career [until] I started making money out of it,” he laughs.
“I didn’t see any examples of anybody making a bomb out of poetry. [But] whenever I read it aloud to people they liked it.”
Spurred on by mates telling him he should be in showbiz, he thought why not?
“There were examples of poetry in show-business; people like Pam Ayres for instance, she was doing very well on Opportunity Knocks. Pam was a big influence actually.”
My turn to raise an eyebrow.
“We’re not that different really; I think she writes about her world, I write about mine. We both rhyme, I think we’ve got more in common than differences. We both make a living out of what we do thanks to the fact we’re genuinely popular. I think Pam is probably [my] nearest contemporary.”
I can’t imagine her supporting the likes of the Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, Joy Division, Elvis Costello and Siouxie and The Banshees like Clarke did in the 70s.
“It was just generally a lawless and happy time; fabulous,” he says.
“People say it must have been really dangerous in the punk days doing what I do. For the first couple of shows it was a bit hairy. Even then I could see it wasn’t as bad as the cabaret places I was doing, they were real rough houses.”
“You’d come off in an expensive suit dripping with gob. Touch wood it didn’t last for very long although it seemed to at the time. I thought many times ‘I’m getting out of this game, I can’t afford to be writing suits off at this level’,” he laughs.
The 80s, though, were terrible for Clarke. Punk was on its way out and anybody who was seen to have anything to do with that first wave was treated like a social pariah.
“It was personally difficult because I needed money all the time and there was no way of really getting it other than selling me-self cheap,” says Clarke, referring to his serious addiction to heroin and cocaine speedballs.
“I quit in two ways, gradually and suddenly,” he laughs, “that’s all I can remember really.
“I’ve got a problem with people who are seen as successful going on about their druggie pasts,” he says, questioning the message it sends out. “I question the wisdom of getting them to talk about how they’ve put down a drug habit; most people have it all their lives.
“They used to say in the 60s ‘if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem’. Well, when it comes to drugs I think it’s been proved beyond doubt that I’m part of the problem,” Clarke laughs “so don’t go putting me down as any expert.”
Many of his poems are on the GCSE syllabus and studied by A-level and university students. He feels he and others have helped widen what once was a narrow church; making poetry less cold and classical, more democratic.
“Poetry is the most accessible art form there is. You don’t even have to be literate any more, you can get a Dictaphone. People go on about ‘how do you make poetry more accessible’. B***** hell do you want me to write it for you?
“Anybody who talks can write poetry theoretically. Having said that they can’t,” he laughs, “they’re better off leaving it up to the experts like me.”