Just Another Ex-Gravedigger Poet Into Dada and The TV.:
One Tuesday in the office I was heard to remark
That I’d like to write about John Cooper Clarke
“Okay” Alan Lewis said to me
“But only if you do it in poetry”
Well I jumped at the chance coz I thought I could crib
From the poetic meisterwork of E. J. Thribb (17)
Only trouble was it was easy to see
Thribb didn’t use enough imagery
So I dug out my discs by the manchester chap
(Only two singles if you want to be exact)
And listened and listened to inwardly digest
And went off to find him, now read the rest…
Found him washing his hands in a CBS bog
He was chewing a chihuahua and embarassing the frogs
He was using the toilet as a private synagogue
Kept me waiting an hour — he said it was fog
So I smashed him in the face and he fell to the floor
In this shirt he bought in Rhyl in 1964
Without further ado he said he’d show me the door
I said “I saw on the way in,” who could ask for more?
(Not us, get on with the article – Ed) (Thank Christ for That –GB)
Saw this skinny guy in a polka-dot shirt and sunglasses being pursued by a squad of chinese waiters through Soho. He dodged into my doorway, grabbed me by the shoulders and garbled “Can’t go back to Salford, the cops have got me marked.” That was it. Re-enter the waiters, exit Johnny Clarke, known nationally as ‘the punk poet,’ a nervous lean streak from Salford who’s found fame via the new wave but has been going much much longer, is not your usual media image scribe content with sedate Book Club renderings of polite heady verse for polite heady people. 28 years old and thoroughly working class, his poems are vividly forceful surrealistic diatribes steeped in pop culture, libertarianism and music hall comedy, and spelt out in harh Mancunian tones.
In a CBS office and later at a typical ‘grease, grease or grease’ caff (‘Hot dogs direct from Crufts done in diesel oil’) Clarkey came clean about his wretched past.
“Poetry’s a thing I’ve always done but I’ve not always made a living out of it. I worked on the docks as a fire-watcher, and a few extra-legal occupations, was a window cleaner, a grave-digger – they said ‘You haven’t any objections to working with spades have you?’ I said no, not at all. ‘Right’ they said, ‘Get Digging.’ I’m a dosser again now, but I’m not on the dole… I signed off the Nat King Cole when I came down here.
“I was doing similar poetry before punk, but punk’s opened up more exciting gigs. Jazz clubs and pubs are alright, but they’re not so much of an event as new wave gigs. It was more or less reading while people are eating chips.
“I’ve written loads of stuff but the stuff I perform at gigs tends to be be a certain type which isn’t always the kind of poem that I write, but I’m only really interested in poems that get an immediate response. That’s what I’m interested in doing on stage, as opposed to the kind of more esoteric stuff.
“Poems that have built up a large working class audience even if the ‘immediate response’ isn’t favorable…
“I’ve got the largest collection of broken glasses in Britain. They’re all mounted on little plaques at home, ‘Lyceum, March,’ ‘Vortex, December.'”
Ed Banger suffered the same fate at the Lyceum, and I suspect Jilted John would have done four months ago (the blind injustice of it all). Talking of suffering, was the ‘B’ side of the new single ‘Kung Fu International’ where our hero is set upon by an embryonic Bruce Lee outside a Chinkie take-away based on real life?
“Oh aye, yeah, I got jumped in Wally Range. It was half a dozen blokes, they gave us a severe pasting then discovered I was the wrong geezer.”
‘Kung Fu International’ is more representative of the stage Clarke, stripped of musical backing. The ‘A’ side ‘Post War Glamour Girl’ is recited over a disco backing which wasn’t favourably received by the critics… “Yeah, it’s completely different to what I’ve been doing, but all this ‘signs to a record company, they make him go disco’ stuff, it wasn’t like that at all. CBS didn’t have anything to do with the production of the single or the lp, it’s all my fault.”
The album, tentatively titled ‘Bins And Hooters’ is due out in October and “A lot of it is like the single as opposed to the ‘Innocents’ EP which was pretty doomy. It’s been mixed for daytime listening. There’s ‘Reader’s Wives,’ Valley of the Lost Women,’ ‘Tracksuit,’ ‘Health Fanatic,’ ‘I Married A Monster From Outer Space,’ ‘I Was A Teenage Werewolf – Or Was I,’ oh, and a couple of live tracks too, ‘Salome Maloney’, and a live version of ‘Psycle Sluts.’”
Do you ever use a backing band live?
“Well I did one a half gigs with the Curious Yellows, but not usually. I think I’d like to do some gigs with a group, say maybe two distinctly different sets.”
How about talking about some of the poems, like ‘I Married A Monster’ which which is usually interpreted as anti-racist.
“Yeah, that’s the kind of theme that runs through it. I don’t like to put one sort of meaning on anything, not even on poems that are as one-dimesional as that. But yeah, that’s the apparant theme that runs through that one, racialism, extending to intergalactic regions. Racist attitudes in the space age are really anachronistic aren’t they. You’re exploring other planets and people still can’t get on with somebody in Africa…
‘Action Man’ is about the link between impotence and the need for violence, probably. ‘Cos Action Man, as you know, has got all the equipment except genitalia. Quite meticulously completed by craftsmen.”
How about ‘Post War Glamour Girl’?
“That’s sort of a mongrel. I hate talking about poems, specially that one, which is sort of loosely hinged on the glamour theme – the way women are pictured as opposed to the way they actually are, and the way men are supposed to react to pictures of women in certain scenarios, the tiger rug and the telephone. I’ve got this pack of nude playing cards on me that I got from a joke shop that were sort of knocked up in the 50’s and the 50’s idea of what is glamorous is completely different to today’s.
“Health Fanatic’ is my latest poem, it’s about the health trend, the sort of people who run at the sides of roads in the vain belief that they’re getting healthy when in actual fact they’re breathing in eighty times more lead than anyone else. Deep breaths with their mouths open, and all this diesel going down their throats. They’ll probably joss it next year. If they took it easy, that’d have probably been alright…”
I remember when we were about 13 we used to buy health magazines…. “Oh aye, ‘Health & Efficiency’ ‘H & E.’ At one time it was the only magazine you could ever get to see pubic hair in. It’s kinda taking advantage of the nudists, magazines like that. It’s a bit like exploiting children in a way… I’ve written a lot about pornography, it’s a bit of an obsession really.”
Bred of a misspent youth perched over Men Only?
“Yeah, but not only that sort of pornography, soft porn gets me an’ all. Asexual pornography. I think it’s very strange, asexual pornography. It’s like a daft thing to want to do. I think the last thing pornography should do is make sex appear like it isn’t dirty. I think it’ll make people impotent, that attitude, eventually. Like Woody Allen says, ‘sex is only dirty if you’re doing it right’.
Woody Allen meets Lenny Bruce, Ian Dury and British-hipster-comedian-who-makes-it-in-the-States and Lord Buckley are all in the name-checking that constitutes J.C.C’s list of acknowledged influences, along with Mickey Spillane, pop music, pulp sci-fi, television, movies, Dada, and anarchism. What about other poets?
“The first poetry I ever read and was actually excited by was the futurists. Poets like D’Annunzio and Marinetti. Actually they were fascist poets as it happens, they later aligned with Mussolini, but I’m not into that part of it. They were the first poets who used hard imagery, lots of it, spread it all over. Of the surrealists, I love the painters. I like René Magritte especially and Dorothea Tanning as well, and Leonor Fini. I like Dali…’
Shame he’s a fascist… “He’s sort of apolitical, him. But he used to do stuff for Franco and his family. I just don’t think he’s at all interested in that sort of aspect of it, he’d probably say he was apolitical. Well he wouldn’t say that, he’d say something that’d really baffle you. But I think he’s coming from an aploitical direction which is something I’m cynical of. I think an apolitical stance is a political stance. Me, I’m bigotted, I’m biased. There are whole sections of the population that I just put in a bag and say ‘He was bound to say that, he’s right.’
“I see myself as having left-wing attitudes, also libertarian attitudes. But I’m not overtly into politics at all. I’m really suspicious of slogans, they’re like adverts, they make people act without thinking.”
There was a whole link up with surrealism and Trotskyism in the twenties wasn’t there? (Do what? — Street Ed)
“Andre Breton was a personal friend of Leon Trotsky, and Trotsky himself was very interested in the art of the time. Well of course when it went off in Russia, Dada happened at almost exactly the same time. Tristran Tzara, the fellow who sort of invented Dada poetry was writing in Geneva just as Lenin was leaving there for Russia. And with Trotsky, he wasn’t just a propagandist, his work is creative writing in its own right.”
Truly, which is why it’s surprising that most ‘orthodox Trotskyists’ are a pain in the harris. But if this conversation’s baffling you and the nearest you’ve got to surrealism is Monty Python’s or your own dreams, get hold of Bomb Culture by Jeff Nuttall, probably the best intro to rebel culture around (Che and Jimmy Dean are part of the same teen dream after all). Nuttall quotes a US surrealist group who defined rebel poetry and, incidentally, Johnny Clarke as “breathing like a machine gun, exterminating the blind flags of immediately reality…”
Heavy stuff, maan. But Clarkey isn’t really, he’s much more accessible, not the sort of ‘artist’ the middle class will easily stuff into Southbank museums-come-mausoleums. Incidentally that Cooper Clarke bit sounds pretty aristocratic…
“NO, it’s not hyphenated. Cooper’s like Charlie or Harry, just me middle name. I adopted the Cooper because at one time there was this other geezer called John Clarke going round reading poetry at the same time. Talking of names, I was interviewed by this geezer in Plymouth once called Robin Bastard. That was his real name. He was a rich kid, his dad owns most of Plymouth, Lord Bastard, that’s a great name for an aristocrat that, innit. You can tell he didn’t get his money the hard way.”
We’re in the cafe now, chewing the grease, with John coming out with outrageous sayings like “Jonathan King ought to be strangled in his bed alongside the Royal Family.” How true. “This is the sort of thing that influences me,” he says, clutching the menu, “things that read from top to bottom. Look at that, ‘Steak and Kidney pud and two veg, 70p’ — what a dynamite one-liner.”
What’s that album title mean again? I asked in a desperate attempt to bring him back to here and now.
“What, bins, that’s slang for glasses, binoculars, don’t you use it down here?”
Well, I haven’t heard it. London slang changes all the time, back slang’s virtually dead, and rhyming slang’s more a collection of hangovers, barnet, berk, on yer jack, take a butchers…
“I find rhyming slang’s used more in Manchester than it is here. It’s always been big ‘cos you can make your own up, like Mather and Platt which is a large engineering firm in Manchester, it means twat. There’s bottle of acker, Acker Bilk, milk…”
Fancy a pig’s ear?
“That seems like a good idea…”
Clarkey, Tom Waits and Billy Connolly… and why not?