John Cooper Clarke, who has suffered and survived the troubles that traditionally distract a poet – tuberculosis, poverty, and opiate addiction – stands on a corner in central London pondering a new and unexpected challenge: adulation. “I just never dreamed,” he tells me, “that things could ever get this good.”
Across the road, outside London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire, fans are gathering to watch the poet. The 2,000-seat venue, which has hosted entertainers including Bob Dylan and David Bowie, has proved to be a little small for Cooper Clarke. Like his concert last October at the larger Royal Festival Hall, the event sold out many weeks ago. For the latter event, touts have been demanding more than £200 a ticket.
It’s a level of popularity that is unprecedented in the history of performance poetry. His predecessor as the people’s Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, never performed to this size of crowd. There were events hosted by beat poets at the Royal Albert Hall in the Sixties, but they were ensemble shows and they didn’t always sell out. There is little question that Cooper Clarke could, should he so wish, fill that historic Kensington venue single-handedly.
Nobody saw this coming. Four years ago, I remind the poet, we were shivering in driving rain on the seafront in Brighton, just after midnight. It was National Poetry Day. Cooper Clarke had not been deemed worthy to participate in that event. He’d just finished a show in a small theatre and we were looking for somewhere to eat.
The performer, who is still occasionally stopped in the street and asked how much he charges to haunt a house (“That,” he replies, “would depend how many rooms you have”) is the sort of figure that cab drivers don’t stop for. When we eventually arrived at the one diner that was still open, the owner, not being a man of letters, was initially reluctant to let him in.
Cooper Clarke doesn’t bear a grudge. There are good reasons, he argues, for judging by appearances. “I do it myself,” he says. “You could argue that prejudice and the ability to generalise is what separates us from the lower mammals. These are the very reasons for our survival as a species. Let’s say you and me were in Peckham. In a back alley. Alone. After closing time. Seven young guys are approaching us, wearing hoods. Now you, being unprejudiced, would give them the benefit of the doubt. You would persuade yourself that they could be Franciscan monks. Whereas I, in that situation, tend to err on the side of caution. Why? Because I’m prejudiced.
And that,” adds the poet, who is 66, “is why I have lived to be considerably older than you are.”
I spent three months, off and on, on the road with Cooper Clarke for this article, and this monologue has found its way into his act. “I judge by appearances,” he tells audiences. “People tell me I shouldn’t. And you know what I say? Two words: Hitler, Nuremberg. I may be simple minded. I may be prejudiced. But if I’d have been around in Bavaria in 1935, I could have told them. [Pause] He’s a cunt. I could have saved the world a whole lot of heartbreak. Consider the dinosaurs. They died out. Why? Because they weren’t prejudiced. The dinosaurs,” he goes on, “took people as they found them. With horrible results.”
In the early Nineties, in a pub in Withington, South Manchester, Tony Wilson, the late founder of Factory Records, stopped in the middle of a sentence concerning another of his favourite subjects, himself, then told me: “You know, it isn’t me.
I won’t be the one whose life is turned into legend. It won’t be me. It will be John Cooper Clarke. Because John has extraordinary talent and he has lived a life of frightening extremes. Each of these things,” he went on, “makes it far from absurd to compare him to Baudelaire, or Verlaine, or Rimbaud.”
“Bloody hell,” says Cooper Clarke. “Fancy Tony saying that.” An edited version of Wilson’s observation, reproduced as graffiti on the wall of an underpass, served as the opening scene for Evidently John Cooper Clarke, director John Ross’ remarkable 2012 documentary for BBC4. Mention of the people who queued to pay him homage in that documentary – from Stewart Lee to Bill Bailey and Arthur Smith – causes Cooper Clarke, a naturally modest man, visible discomfort.
Ross’ film has been one of a number of factors in the poet’s belated but rapid ascent from cult artist to international icon.
Others include the use of his anthem ‘Evidently Chickentown’ to close a final-season episode of The Sopranos; his memorable appearance in Ill Manors, the 2012 film by Plan B, and the tireless support of other younger artists, notably Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys. “I met the whole band when they were starting out,” Cooper Clarke says. “They were unusual in that they were very nice, if that isn’t an insulting word; very shy and immediately endearing. I am so glad that they have had the huge success they have. They deserve it. What a fabulous band.”
Cooper Clarke’s audience, once a sea of grey, now has a healthy quotient of 16-25s. He connects with a young audience precisely because he has never attempted to deny his years. He has embraced old age as an opportunity to indulge the kind of recklessness traditionally associated with youth. It’s a peculiar sort of fame, driven by social media, word of mouth, and thriving in defiance of almost total indifference from the English literary establishment. “I’ve been in Time magazine,” he says, “but don’t wait to hear me on [BBC Radio Four’s] Poetry Please.” “Sometimes,” the actor Steve Coogan once said, “I ask people:
‘Have you ever heard of Cooper Clarke?’ If they say, ‘John Cooper Clarke? Yes. He is a genius,’ I think, ‘Oh, thank God for that.
That’s half an hour of my life you’ve saved me, having to explain it to you.'”
The emaciated figure, the shades, and the obsessive attention to the minutest detail of his wardrobe (“the only casual item I own,” he tells me, “is a Levi’s jacket”) mean that he is occasionally mistaken for the Rolling Stones’ Ron Wood. “That was great for a while,” he tells me, “Until Ron was in the news for having that fight with his wife. After that, old ladies started to hit me in the street with their umbrellas.”
His wisest recourse at such moments is to start talking. Cooper Clarke’s Salford vowel sounds remain untarnished by two decades in the South East. While there’s nothing affected about his accent, the poet luxuriates in its extremes much in the way that fellow poet Linton Kwesi Johnson savours the cadences of Jamaican patois, or George Sanders revelled in the languid elegance of old-school English.
If you haven’t previously encountered his work, you might start with ‘I Married A Monster From Outer Space’, a poem inspired by the 1958 film of that name. “When we walked out, tentacle in hand / You could sense that the earthlings would not understand / They’d go nudge-nudge when we got on the bus / They’d say, ‘It’s extra-terrestrial, not like us / And it’s bad enough with another race / But fuck me, a monster from outer space.'”
Since he first began performing in Mancunian working men’s clubs in the mid-Seventies, he has evolved a unique stage act that is part comedy, part knockabout verse, part rather more moving – serious poetry whose profundity slips by you without you quite noticing.
Even though he’s lived in the South for 25 years, one thought recurs, as I travel to meet him in his adopted home town: What can they make of him in Colchester?
We meet in the Kings Arms, a genteel coaching inn in the main street. It’s a place with heavy oak doors, tasteful decor and a few unobtrusive pictures. Looking at one, I remember the poet once telling me that he had “never seen a work of art that would not be improved by the addition of tropical fish”.
Cooper Clarke has lived here for the best part of 25 years with Evie, his Picardy-born wife; the couple have a grown-up daughter, Stella. He still seems a little bewildered by his recent trajectory, which has seen him appearing on shows like Have I Got News for You? and Football Focus. His occasional Sunday afternoon shows for BBC 6Music have been a joy to compare with Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour. (By some bizarre coincidence, I find out later on that, at the same time as we begin this conversation, Channel 4’s Countdown had as its guest the comedian Jon Culshaw, who gave an impression of the poet reading one of his finest pieces, ‘I Wanna Be Yours’, which is covered by the Arctic Monkeys on their 2013 UK number one album AM). “I first saw you opening for bands at clubs like The Electric Circus in Manchester when I was still at school,” I tell him. “Even then, I remember wondering how on earth you’d come to be there.” “I fell into it,” he says. “I think because I already looked like a punk.” “It’s hard to convey the aggression of those audiences.” “The bottles were bad. The phlegm could be equally intimidating in its own way. At the same time,” he adds, “they were a picnic compared to the working men’s clubs. I mean that crowd wanted crooners, strippers; they might fleetingly tolerate a magician. The one thing you could guarantee was that they didn’t share an overpowering enthusiasm for poetry.”
He seemed to have arrived fully formed, performing brilliantly incisive poems such as ‘You Never See a Nipple In The Daily Express’. (“This paper’s boring, mindless and mean / Full of pornography, the kind that’s clean / Where William Hickey meets Michael Caine / Again and again and again and again / You see all kinds of ugliness and hideous excess / But you never see a nipple in The Daily Express.”)
It can’t have been easy, I suggest, opening for the Sex Pistols and The Clash. The latter band’s former tour manager, the writer and cycling journalist Johnny Green, now looks after Clarke on the road. The role of driver and minder, which Green has adopted out of affection, is one that the poet describes as “Gentleman’s Travelling Companion”. “Those gigs could be tricky,” Cooper Clarke says, referring to the punk era, “but at least broken glass and saliva are an acknowledgment that you are actually in the room. Imagine trying to read in the interval for…” It is quite hard to convey the venom with which he delivers the next three syllables. “…Genesis. I’d have been killed not by hostility but indifference. They’d all have been sat in the bar, meditating on their flares.” “Have you ever seen Genesis?” “No,” he laughs. “And I’ve never heard their albums. But I know by their name that I hate them. Anybody who calls themselves Genesis is well overdue a good hiding, you know what I mean?”
One of his regular companions on the road, in the early days, was Elvis Costello. “On one tour,” Costello told me, “John went on between Richard Hell and The Voidoids and ourselves. The fury of the crowds really was quite alarming at that time. They spat and yelled at John because he was merely speaking. What he did was extremely brave, especially for a self-confessed coward.” (“My family crest,” Cooper Clarke once remarked, “is four white feathers on a yellow streak.”) “His saving grace,” Costello added, “was that he was really fucking funny.”
In his autobiography The Big Wheel, Costello’s former bass player Bruce Thomas describes an incident at a Copenhagen hotel when Cooper Clarke’s room was substantially rearranged.
Costello’s musicians debated where to dump the pillow case in which they’d hidden the shattered glass from a picture frame above the poet’s bed. “The hotel roof is decided on,” Thomas wrote, “but the parcel needs a warning message. The wording is discussed. ‘Danger’? No.
‘Broken Glass’? No.”
The poet, Elvis Costello recalls, taking up the story, eventually appeared and announced that he’d left a sign reading: “Beware. Shards.”
That last word, Costello says, “was rendered hilarious by his voice in a way which is just impossible to replicate in print. I think,” Costello continues, “this might be why he is not greatly regarded by literary snobs. They may appreciate ‘a voice’ when it comes from ‘the underclass’, and they can indecently patronise it; but do they ever recognise ‘a delivery’, as in performance? I believe that John Cooper Clarke should be regarded as being among the very best writers in Britain. As for people who sneer at him as a ‘performance poet’ – didn’t Homer declaim?”
On stage, Cooper Clarke delivers a mixture of stand up and poetry that is unlike any other act before or since, and in that sense, to use another word that would make him cringe, he has invented a genre. Clarke, who claims [bogusly] on stage at Shepherd’s Bush that he is half-Jewish, delivers old school gags such as: “Hooker opens up in a new area. Introductory offer: she’ll do anything you want for a fiver. But you have to keep your request down to three words. Queues round the block, as you can imagine.
The first guy goes in, ‘screw me stupid.’ She does the business. He leaves, tired but happy. The second guy, a bit more kinky, says, ‘beat me up.’ He pays the money and limps home after receiving a severe pasting. The third punter – Jewish guy – hands over his fiver and says, ‘paint my house.'”
His delivery, stage presence, and an enviable ability to think on his feet, mean that, like a great actor or musician, he bears repeated viewing. He has his set pieces, such as ‘Home Honey, I’m High.’ This is “an advert,” as he explains, “that I wrote for the Martini people, on the understanding that I would receive a year’s supply, or a lifetime’s supply, whichever was the greater, of their enervating beverage.” “Frontal lobes just had a trim,” it begins, “or did you meet the Moonies? Wrong on both counts, Jim … tee many Martoonies.”
His celebrated haiku has developed into a routine that can last 20 minutes. “The haiku,” he tells Shepherd’s Bush, “is a three line discipline perfected in the 17th century in Japan by a poet called Matsuo Basho. This is a poem of rigidly defined structure: five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables. I thought very carefully before I embarked on mine,” he explains. “Because you know what the Japanese are like. There is no Japanese term for ‘near enough’. Get it wrong by even half a syllable, and you are condemned to an eternity of spitting on your ancestors, after committing ritual suicide in a public place. Now the spitting on your ancestors… push comes to shove, I could live with that. “Now that I come to think of it,” he adds, “Spitting on my ancestors is what I do best. But the ritual suicide; that’s not really my cup of tea. So I came up with this. ‘Haiku #1’ I call it:
‘To convey one’s mood / In seventeen syllables / Is very diffic.'”
He’ll intersperse such knockabout material with classic writing like ‘Beasley Street’, a stunning evocation of the trials of the underclass, which sounds like Engels’ prose accounts of the Mancunian slums crossed with Bob Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’. I remember sitting backstage one night with Cooper Clarke and the late Chris Sievey, alias Frank Sidebottom, another former cult hero who has been propelled to mass fame, in his case posthumously, through Lenny Abrahamson’s film, Frank, released earlier this year.
Sievey, who was sharing the dressing room and about to go onstage, started reciting Cooper Clarke’s poem ’36 Hours’, a gruesome meditation on joblessness, incarceration and death. “Time flies, slides down the wall,” Sievey said, from memory, his eyes half closed.”Part of me dies under my overalls / I close my eyes and a woman calls / From a nightmare… / Shave, shit, a shower and a shoeshine / That’s it – sack time / Everybody looks like Ernest Borgnine….”
He turned to Cooper Clarke. “I have two heroes in my life,” he says. “You and John Lennon.”
The poet laughed. “John?” Sievey said. “Yes?” “I’m not joking.”
On stage, such classics as ’36 Hours’ may be followed by some surreal monologue that might or might not recur in a subsequent performance. At one point in London he addressed the problem of “The social menace of STIs – sexually transmitted infections, by which Britain leads the world by a sizzling 64%. I had that AIDS once,” he adds, as an afterthought. “I don’t want that again.”
STIs, he continues, “are what STDs used to be called and before that – give it a name – VD. But we couldn’t live with that. VD, with its hard, accusatory consonants. That judgmental ‘V’, hanging over romantic proceedings like the Damoclean sword of justice, rendering enjoyable sex utterly impossible. Here’s the difference between STI and VD. [Mimics doorbell] ‘Oh, hello Audrey. You’re late home.’ ‘Yes mother, I had to go to the doctor.’
‘Anything wrong?’ ‘Yes, mother. I’ve got an STI.’ ‘Oh, you poor thing, I’ll put your electric blanket on. Can I make you cocoa?’
Whereas [doorbell] ‘Oh, hello Audrey. You’re late home.’ ‘Yes mother. I’ve got VD.’ ‘Move to another country, you sick, dripping, filthy, home-wrecking little bitch. I have no children.'”
If you’ve seen him regularly over the years, you might be surprised by the material he’s dispensed with, or revives just occasionally. This includes lines like “I’ve got amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I can’t remember what happens next” and his list of “songs I wrote where I made one mistake in the title, that later became big hits for other artists.” They include “Wherever I Lay My Hat, That’s My Hat.”
Gradually, and very quietly, John Cooper Clarke has become one of the finest stand-up acts in the history of the art. It is a small part of what he does.
He was born in Salford, on the north side of Manchester on 25 January, 1949 and has one brother, Paul, 12 years his junior. His father George was a skilled engineer. Hilda, his mother, worked as a cleaner. She was also an unpublished poet. “If there’s a gene, I got it from my ma,” he says. “Her writing has this effortless quality. I’d love to get it published. She loved John Betjeman, and she introduced me to his writing.”
His fragile frame is the result not, as some assume, of his years as a heroin addict, which are long behind him, but a legacy of the TB he suffered as a child. I once went clothes shopping with the poet, and the store owner had to explain that he had nothing to fit Cooper Clarke (5’ 10″, chest 32″, waist 27″, weight 116lb.) “I was ill all the time as a boy,” he says. “I was sent to Rhyl, to live with my auntie Eileen; she died of tuberculosis.” “Who caught it off whom?” “I’ve never really known,” he says. “I always assumed she must have had it first, being older. But once I’d had the disease, it left me prone to every kind of pulmonary disorder. I had friends but they were out indulging in robust pursuits, which I was excluded from because I had to stay indoors. I think that made me cultivate an inner life.”
His father worked at Trafford Park, the biggest industrial estate in Europe. “I remember that Manchester air was officially declared the worst on the planet back then,” he says. “Trafford Park looked like the gates of hell. I remember thinking, this must be what Stalingrad was like. Trains coming down the middle of the road. I loved it, man, I loved it. Even though quite often you literally couldn’t see it for the smoke. Occasionally it would appear out of the mist, just for a day, like some demonic equivalent of Brigadoon.” “Remember that poem you wrote about Lowry?” “I’ve lost that.”
I’ve kept a copy of this piece, which he gave me in the late Eighties; a poem he knocked out in 20 minutes for a commission. “Trafford Park is working well / Its pestilential ethers swell / Malodorous clouds like sombre shrouds / Dividing heaven from bloody hell / Where idle hands are the devil’s dowry / Knock-knock rent-man Mr. Lowry.” “Well,” Cooper Clarke says, “he was a rent man, wasn’t he?”
His physique has become an integral part of act. One of his more recent poems takes its title from an ironic heckle he received in Manchester, “where drug-taking is of course compulsory.” It’s called “Get Back on Drugs, You Fat Fuck”.
He’s developed a routine in which he describes being invited to perform at the Bulimic Society’s New Year’s Eve Party, in Kensington. Arriving late, he is unsure as to whether he has found the right venue. “But once I got in there,” he tells the audience, “I knew I was in the right place when the clock struck twelve and a cake jumped out of a girl.”
As a teenager at secondary modern school, he was a mod. “That,” I suggest, “can’t have been easy.” “It wasn’t. Where I grew up, the one unmistakable sign of homosexuality was to betray some interest in your appearance.”
He worked in the fairground cafe in Rhyl, “and then in the laboratory stores at Salford Tech.” He got married at 21, to Christine, four years his junior, then became an apprentice type compositor, based in Dorset.
Neither marriage nor routine employment suited him at the time.
He moved back to Manchester, focussed on his art and was eventually spotted by the head of CBS, the late Maurice Oberstein.
“I went to get the Buzzcocks,” Oberstein once told me. “I was too late. I figured I had to sign somebody.” As it happened, the record company boss conceded, he stumbled upon the more enduring talent.
One of the frustrating things for admirers of Cooper Clarke is the limited amount of work he has published and recorded. His last original solo album was released 32 years ago, which is all the more irritating because the four collections he did record for CBS, especially Snap Crackle & Bop (1980) and Zip Style Method (1982) remain remarkable testaments to his gifts as a writer.
Cooper Clarke is largely indifferent to them. He doesn’t care for the musical arrangements, by yet another ‘late’ associate Martin Hannett, acclaimed producer of, among others, Joy Division.
The poet has something of a gift for talking his own work down. “Which is odd,” I suggest, “because, just to take one couplet from ‘Beasley Street’ [from Snap, Crackle And Bop]: ‘There’s a dead canary on a swivel seat / There’s a rainbow in the road’; these are lines that any poet from TS Eliot to Betjeman would have been very proud to have written. Actually if it sounds like anybody, it’s Rimbaud.”
Clarke looks uncomfortable. “Well, I shouldn’t say it, but I really do love that couplet.” “The rainbow I imagine is oil in a puddle…” “Right.” “But where did you get the dead canary from?” “I believe I was thinking … you know that bit in On the Waterfront where they throw the informer off the roof, and the line is: “He could sing, but he couldn’t fly”. Budd Schulberg, Clarke adds, “what a writer. Is there any better way of saying ‘stool pigeon’?”
I remember John Humphreys on Celebrity Mastermind, earlier this year, beginning to tease Cooper Clarke by asking him what the difference was between ‘performance’ poetry and [by implication] ‘proper’ poetry. “I told him the answer is that I read my stuff out loud and I get paid for it. But all poetry – all writing – is aural. Poetry, especially, is meant to be heard. Shakespeare wrote for actors. He would have been very surprised if he had found out that people would sit in a room poring over his words in a textbook.”
It would be wrong to dismiss John Cooper Clarke as nothing more than a naïve creator of knockabout rhyme. This is a man whose work has been praised by, among others, Jack Kerouac’s co-conspirator Gregory Corso, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, both of whom he knew.
‘Mere verse’ as some might call it, is the kind of thing that everybody thinks they can do – and they’re quite right, they can.
Really, really badly. You might look up a piece by our former Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, written to commemorate Prince William’s 21st birthday. “Better stand back / Here’s an age attack / But the second in line / Is dealing with it fine… / It’s a day to celebrate / A destiny, a fate / It’s a taking to the wing / A future thing.”
The reason John Cooper Clarke has been so patronised, Liverpool poet Adrian Henri once argued, “has to do with his association with music. Apart from the one collection [Ten Years in An Open-Necked Shirt, which originally appeared in 1981, superbly illustrated by Steve Maguire] he has never been published. People don’t expect to sit down and read him.”
To enjoy a renaissance, Cooper Clarke concedes, you must have been dead for a period. In hiscase there were more than 15 years of struggling, moribund times where he was writing little and barely going out. There are many subjects he does not enjoy broaching on the record, and heroin is chief among them. His response has become something of a mantra. “It’s like any addiction. First it’s great, then it isn’t; then it’s hell.” “You can’t pretend that it never happened.” “No. And I am very lucky to be here really.”
But drug addiction really is the most tedious of subjects.
Because it’s very unusual that somebody manages to kick it. The one message I would like to send out is that this is not something you can pick up and leave alone just like that, you know. Neither is it exotic or romantic. Believe me.”
It’s his reluctance to discuss narcotics – “and it always, always comes up” – that mean that he will very rarely subject himself to interviews of any length. I first met him in his so-called lost years, in the mid-Eighties, when he was living in an epically depressing ménage in Salford, with a broken down Mercedes parked outside his front door. It was a time of letters left unopened, heavy curtains warding off the maddening reality of daylight and, as he would concede, anxiety and reclusiveness. I was unemployed at the time. I visited him on one occasion with a view to suggesting that I help the poet manage his career, such as it then was; an offer I never quite brought myself to make, on the grounds that this world was not one that anyone with a fleeting acquaintance with the Mental Health Act would want any part of.
It’s often asserted that he wrote nothing in his lost years; this isn’t quite true.
I recall sitting in his back kitchen while he read me new poems: outstanding work, but not the sort of thing he cared to perform live. I remember one, a kind of agonised paean to opiates, that had the line “She’s my best friend and enemy / Give me what I need.”
The definitive poem about drug addiction, Cooper Clarke told me back then, ‘”is ‘The Vampire’ by Charles Baudelaire. “You,” he quoted from memory, sitting in the half light, “who like a dagger thrust, entered my complaining soul; sweet and potent as a host of demons, came wild, beautiful… wretch infamous to whom I’m bound, like the convict to the chain, a stubborn gambler to his dice, the drunkard to his revelry. The carrion to worms… I begged the poison I abhorred. You deserve not the reward of freedom from your slavery. Fool.” “Great that, innit, that ‘Fool’?” he told me. “In the French, it’s imbécile.”
How long, I’d asked him, had he known this by heart? “From way back. Baudelaire was my hero. Him and Gérard de Nerval: the guy that wore the powder blue cape and walked a lobster on a leash. Someone asked him, ‘Why a lobster?’ And he said, ‘Because it does not bark, and it knows the secrets of the deep.’
They were great, those dudes, but Baudelaire was the baddest motherfucker on the block.”
He stayed with me occasionally in London in those years and he was not an ideal guest: getting up around 4pm, then sitting up past dawn, working through my library of low-budget horror films.
With the passage of time, I suggest, such periods of lassitude in poets, or even stand ups like Lenny Bruce, become not just pardoned but somehow regarded as magnificent. “Keats, Baudelaire, Poe,” I suggest to Cooper Clarke. “They all had this desire to exclude the world.” “Don’t forget Eddy Arnold,” he replies, referring to the country singer’s version of a song by Hank Cochran. ‘Make the world go away. And get it off my shoulders.'”
And it seems hilarious now, when you read biographies about Wordsworth striding out on the fells, whingeing on about Coleridge lying zonked out on the couch on laudanum. “Well, I’m with Coleridge there. Not with the laudanum, but The Lake District. I don’t mind looking at it through a window. Gazing at those windswept hills and imagining the unspeakable horror of actually being out there. Explorers,” he adds, “actively annoy me. Like Ranulph Fiennes. Will he only be happy when he has lost all of his fingers? Didn’t his dick almost drop off once? Why is the drug addict spat upon, and the climber of Everest revered? When two dozen paramedics have to put on high-vis tabards and possibly die in trying to rescue him? Everest. There’s only you and me have not been up there Robert, but then the night is still young.”
In the mid-Eighties he shared a flat in Brixton with the music entrepreneur Alan Wise, and Nico, former member of the Velvet Underground, and one time partner of, among others, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Alain Delon. Cooper Clarke met the Cologne-born icon in Manchester in about 1980. At that time, as he puts it, Andy Warhol’s former muse, who appears in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, “had her own gaff in Sedgley Park [North Manchester].” “They married you off in the music press, didn’t they?” “They did but she basically just moved in on me in Brixton.
She’d been in Italy. It was the undoing of us. It was the beginning of the end.” For a period of months, Cooper Clarke was also host to John Cale, meaning that, “I’m no name-dropper, but for a while I had two-fifths of the Velvet Underground living at my place.” Cale, who was ‘in his vodka period’ was, the poet recalls, ‘a lovely guy, but a bit of a handful.”
Nico and Clarke were never lovers, Alan Wise told me, over tea in his local café in Manchester. Their only shared interest, he insists, was hiding heroin from each other. In an hour long conversation, Wise emphasises the foolishness of underestimating Cooper Clarke. “Because of his accent and his appearance, and because he never went to college,” he says, “a certain kind of people make assumptions. John has a brilliant and retentive mind and an exhaustive knowledge of all kinds of culture. That could be the Ramones, or Hogarth, or Yevtushenko – who, incidentally,” he added, “really loves John’s work.”
When Nico died after falling off her bike in Ibiza, in July 1988, her Daily Telegraph obituary remarked that ‘she gave up heroin for cycling, which proved to be the more lethal recreation.’ “How,” I ask the poet, “did you hear that she’d died?” “My doctor told me. I’d seen her not long before. She was well, and recovering, and looking forward to Spain. It was just terrible.”
This period is chronicled in keyboard player James Young’s outstanding memoir, Songs They Never Play On The Radio.
Cooper Clarke rid himself of his own 16-year habit for good in 1992. Now, he makes sure that he arrives at any venue two hours early. “Over two decades on,” he says, “some kinds of reputation never leave you.”
His time in rehab is not a period he is keen to revisit. “I did,” is all he will say, “all of those things that you have to do.”
But the lost years do feed into his writing and his comedy. “Please,” he asked the audience at Shepherds Bush, “if you ever see me in a vegetative state – drooling and incontinent, having to be reminded of my own name – just leave me in peace. You see, I’ve been there before. And it’s not that bad.”
Unlike some of his fellow OAPs from the world of popular music, Cooper Clarke has understood the desperately absurd spectacle of an older artist seeking to cling to their youth. He has had the wit and the generosity to encourage protégés, such as fellow-Mancunian Mike Garry and Luke Wright, who grew up in Colchester. Wright, 31, has clearly modelled himself on Cooper Clarke, but has developed his own distinctive voice, and humour. He and Garry are usually to be found supporting the older star.
One of Clarke’s newer poems has the title ‘Bed Blocker Blues’. (“Things are gonna get worse, nurse / I’m not optimistic / I’ve got a mouth shaped like a purse, nurse / And a bungalow smelling of piss and biscuit.”)
He has always been a gifted mimic and, having been in Essex for so long, has perfected the local accent. His gentleness of manner means that, even at venues in his adopted home county, he can get away with tormenting audiences with their own vowel sounds delivered in an excruciating tone of laryngeal menace that might frighten Ray Winstone. He reserves the style for poems such as ‘Solid Gold Geezer.’ “Solid gold geezer that / From the solitaire pin through the mink cravat to the snake-eye studs on his kid suede spats / Solid gold geezer that / Lives in a solid gold flat / With a girl worth a million / Plus VAT / And a caviar-guzzling cat.”
The work, once a struggle, is flowing freely from him. He rang me one evening, a couple of years ago, and read me the first draft of what evolved into a piece called ‘It’s Rotten Here in Jail’. It included the lines: “Rotten here in jail / The communal TV has gone/ Everyone knows that one of us has got it / But we don’t know which one / And he’s too scared to turn it on.”
“The trouble with that poem,” he says, “is that I started out by painting a bleak picture for the first few verses. But then things started to buck up. A few lines later it was like I was king of the fucking nick. Prison had become like a never-ending party. So I had lines like: ‘The choice Iranian on my foil / It runs like virgin olive oil / I’m living the life of a decadent royal / It could spoil, it could spoil, it could spoil you / Rotten here in jail. / The library’s bound to fail / since the sudden departure of Jeffrey Archer / It’s rotten here in jail.'”
The poem, he says, has had to be retitled “Bi-Polar Inmate Diary”.
He closed the show at Shepherds Bush with his signature piece,
‘Evidently Chickentown’. “I prefer to do this one from a stage,” he told the audience, “because BBC bleep operators have sued for repetitive strain injury and my swear box doubles as a high yield pension fund.”
One verse of ‘Evidently Chickentown,’ in its bowdlerised, recorded form, goes: “The bloody pubs are bloody dull / The bloody clubs are bloody full / Of bloody girls and bloody guys / With bloody murder in their eyes / A bloody bloke is bloody stabbed / Waiting for a bloody cab / You bloody stay at bloody home / The bloody neighbours bloody moan / Keep the bloody racket down / This is bloody chicken town.”
When this piece was used in The Sopranos, there was a communal surge of pride among Cooper Clarke’s longstanding admirers, at the knowledge that this work by the poet could resonate as powerfully with New Jersey as it does with Moss Side.
It plays over the closing credits of ‘Stage 5’, from the final series, in which Christopher Moltisanti relapses into opiate addiction. Of all the inventive choices of music in that series, it was the least predictable and, many consider, the most brilliantly inspired. “I didn’t find out they’d chosen it,” Cooper Clarke says, “until after they’d made it. As a scene, that was the best treatment of drug addiction I have ever seen. Christopher gets back on smack and he’s sat in that same position, in the market, just nodding out.
Everybody has gone home and all the stores are shut. The sun has set. It’s obvious that a few hours have gone by, and he hasn’t moved. That terrible inertia… they captured that brilliantly.”
I don’t need to inquire whether the poet is wondering if this is how he himself might have wound up. But in Colchester, we’ve talked for more than six hours in a single session and the most life-threatening substance he has ingested has been a Glenmorangie.
Now that he’s enjoying his unforeseen Indian summer, I ask the poet, what can he find to trouble him? What could possibly go wrong? “I don’t really look forwards in that way,” he says. “All I can say is that I love what I do now. I really do. Much more than in the beginning. I’m a much mor confident person than I was. Of course you still occasionally have that voice in your head that says: ‘You are going to get rumbled; what you’re doing is just a piece of piss. The game’s up, Clarke.’ Because what I do isn’t ‘work’ as any sane person would understand the term. But now, finally…” He pauses, not wishing to appear immodest. “…I have come to understand that there is some value to what I do. I’m in a good place now.”
If you had to choose one adjective that least well described him, as a person or as an artist, it would be ‘orthodox’. Of course he does share certain qualities with other performers: things like a sharp wit, fearlessness in the spotlight, and a peculiar and restless imagination. But there is one attribute, very commonly found in lesser talents, that, you sense, John Cooper Clarke is never going to develop: an unshakeable belief in his own greatness.