NME July 7th, 1979
Britain’s best dressed poet by Charles Shaar Murray
John Cooper Clarke is telling a joke. “There are these three fellers, see, all lined up to apply to join the Foreign Legion. The third one is the actual geezer we are concerned with on this occasion, though. Anyway, the first one goes up to the recruitin’ sergeant. who asks him, ‘Why do you want to join the Foreign Legion then?’
“‘E says ‘I’ve just been ‘urt in love and I can’t bear to even look at another woman’.
“‘Oh well,’ says the sergeant, ‘you certainly won’t get to see a lot of women here. Go over there and collect your ammunition’.
“Then it’s the second one’s turn and ‘e goes to the sergeant and the sergeant asks ‘im why ‘e wants to join the Foreign Legion. ‘Well,’ says the second bloke, ‘I just fancy the idea of killin’ people’.
“‘Well, you’ll be onto a good thing ‘ere,’ says the sergeant, ‘we kill quite a lot of people fairly regularly as it ‘appens. Nip over there and collect yer ammunition’.
“‘Finally, our ‘ero gets ‘is turn and the sergeant asks ‘im what ‘is motivations are for chusing this particular mode of employment an’ ‘e says, ‘I ‘ate Arabs’.
“‘Well you’re in luck then,’ says the sergeant, ‘I was just telling this other feller ‘ere that we get to kill loads of geezers ‘ere in the Foreign Legion an’ it just so ‘appens that most of ’em are Arabs. Go over there an’ pick up yer ammunition’.
“So they’re wawkin’ through the fortress like, and suddenly this lookout up on a tower yells ‘The Arabs are attacking! The Arabs are attacking!’. Our ‘ero swings up his gun and ‘e shoots the lookout dead. The sergeant grabs our young friend by the throat and screams, ‘What the bloody ‘ell did you do that for?’.
“So ‘e looks the sergeant straight in the eye an’ says ‘If there’s one thing I ‘ate more than an Arab, it’s a grasser.”
John Cooper Clarke is bounding on stage at Manchester Free Trade Hall, a cavernous building steeped in musty Victorian municipality, a room dusted with hard work and religion. It’s is Manchester’s principal venue, a hall which has played host to the likes of 10cc and Black Sabbath and David Bowie in its time, and now the headlining attraction is a man whose job it is to stand on stages with nothing but a microphone, a jug of vodka and orange juice and two plastic carrier bags stuffed with notebooks and scrawled sheets of paper.
He is not a singer, though he has been known to declaim in different keys when the occasion demands it. He is not a rock musician by trade, though he has been one in the past and owns a Fender Telecaster (which he intends to chip in for a Stratocaster at some unspecified date) and holds a Musicians’ card which lists his instrument as ‘drone guitar’.
He operates in a nebulous territory bounded by four corners: the points of his compass are poet, comic, musician and author. You could say he is an entertainer, and certainly none of the people filling between half and three-quarters of the Free Trade Hall seating would gainsay you. Laugh? Thought they’d wet themselves.
Hometown tonight! A lifetime’s worth of dues and time to pay off. Tonight Johnny Clarke, local character made good and gone national, takes his nationwide tour to the biggest venue in his old turf. From the interval spots at years of folk and jazz and pub and punk gigs to the main attraction at the Free Trade Hall: success, success, success (does it matter?). There’re a regiment of friends and acquaintances on the guest list and a journalist and photographer in tow to record the occasion. Three says later, a squib will appear in the rumours and speculation section of a London-based rock paper not renowned for encouraging either its staff or readers to develop any discernible capacity for thinking in the abstract: a paragraph to the effect that the local hero returned from London to bomb on his own turf. They didn’t know (or care) that Johnny Clarke still lives in Salford in a flat above a chemist’s shop “with an aroma of strange and wonderful pharmaceutical concoctions on the stairs”…
John Cooper Clarke is being asked how local tradespeople react to his newfound status as a celeb: “Me greengrocer sells me rotten spuds. ‘E thinks I can afford it.”
John Cooper Clarke is late on stage tonight in Manchester. He had arrived at the stage door in a cloud of well-wishers who had ambushed him in the streets as he stalked from where his manager’s car was parked outside the journalist’s hotel just after the first of his two support bands had left the stage. Once ensconced in his dressing room, attacking the vodka and picking incredulously at a display of salads and cold meats, he had discovered that a vital carrier bag full of stuff had been left in Didsbury, where his manager/producer/bass player/chauffeur Martin Hannett a/k/a Martin Zero maintains a desirable residence. A cab was dispatched to collect and deliver the bag – how many rock gigs have been shoved onto the back burner while a fast car noses dark streets to Pick Up Something In A Bag For The Band? – while, onstage, Joy Division ram dark slabs of organised noise at the audience while a scarecrow singer moves like James Brown in hell.
Acidrock a decade or so on. It is whispered that acid enjoys considerable allegiance from a lot of the young postpunks in Manchester. As the bassist triggers a synthesiser and a skin breaks on the snare drum and the band’s sound begins to resemble Awful Things carved out of smooth black marble, who could argue?
John Cooper Clarke is vibing up. He goes to the toilet a lot and returns with his hair more conscientiously erect than before. It is parted at the side like a black lace curtain to reveal an ear peering surreptitiously at the world. A tiny crucifix hangs where the coke spoon used to be. Heed why, “I gave up coke for Christ,” he offers. Strands of grey are beginning to appear in his hair. He has a slight cast in one eye.
John Cooper Clarke appears in a cold oval of light stage centre. The effect is comic. The stage has been built for choirs and brass bands, political meetings and rock shows, and across the vast acreage stalks a skinny streak like some elongated insect on its hind legs, carrier bags stuffed with plunder, a mutant centipede who’s just looted 1966. The only non-vocal sounds to be heard are the rhythmical splatsplatsplat of his spearmint gum and the shuffle of his olive-green Chuck Taylor basketball shoes on the boards.
He pulls the top section of the microphone stand to the horizontal, sight along it, mows down the audience with hi-octane verbiage like he owns the world’s first automatic-fire blowgun. A Ramones approach to poetry. Wham bam up an’ at ’em Sam! 1-2-3-4!
‘Ere ‘e cums naow!
Clarkie’s on=stage declaiming voice resembles that of an auctioneer with a grudge against the world and a sneer as permanently attached as a scar. He sprays the audience with words and saliva, revving up while he chews his gum right into the mike and runs on the spot like the Health Fanatic himself, heart, lungs and brain working overtime and getting paid off in adrenalin. His offstage conversational voice is slow and muted, words rolled round mouth and cortex, savoured for resonances and ambiguities and then allowed to drip from his nose and run down his shirtfront.
His vowels are in uproar. The ‘e’, ‘a’ and ‘i’ sounds slash like razor-edged Frisbees; the ‘o’ and ‘u’ sounds boom and reverberate like someone yelling down a corrugated-iron tunnel. He plays his accent like a virtuoso, moves like a shadowboxer, bopping and dodging and weaving to avoid blows, punching with his mouth, leading with his nose, a voice-triggered pneumatic drill buzzing into your brain.
John Cooper Clarke is asking someone if he goes too fast on stage. “I s’pose I do, really. It’s embarrassing to think about so I get me ‘ead down and rush. I’m used to werkin’ in clubs and not in sit-down places and you have to assume that the audience has a short attention span. That’s not to underestimate ’em or say they’re stupid ‘cuz when I’m in clubs I ‘ave a short attention span too…”
Running on the spot,ticktockticktock. Ruffle through the carrier bag, find the notebook, hit the vodka and give us another one just like the other one, do. He has three repertoires which overlap briefly: a stage repertoire, a studio repertoire and a load of other stuff: crime novels, a semi-fictional autobiography entitled Ten Years In An Open-Neck Shirt which is slated for publication sometime soon. The stage repertoire is hi-impact, rhythmical, packed with dense twisting internal rhymes, compressed, compact imagery, elbows to the rib, kicks to ankle. satire, scatology, painless social critique, honed and polished.
John Cooper Clarke is living on his wit.
Nonstop. Rapido rapido.Don’t let ’em get bored fer chrissake. Poems, jokes and banter jostle like compartments on an InterCity 125; epigrams and sardonic couplets, metaphors juxtaposed like sleeping partners in an arranged marriage flash by like telegraph poles, two images together make a third thing, bigger and different.
Detractors claim it’s doggerel (“his imagery is terribly gauche, darling, and what he’s doing is so old-fashioned”) or accuse him of being an intellectual Jasper carrot or – worst of all – of not being rock and roll. Ask him if he thinks it’s rock and roll and he laughs helplessly and says no.
John Cooper Clarke is being asked to define rock and roll and his relationship to same.
“Electric guitars, bass and drums … not much goin’ on across the beat. My relationship with rock and roll is like Lenny Bruce’s with modern jazz – I like the clothes and attitude.” He remembers groups in which he used to perform, operating guitar rather than microphone, but writing the words, one in which “we had two riffs: Bo Diddley an’ “Igh ‘Eel Sneekers’. We could do ’em at two speeds, fast an’ slow, which gave us four options.”
He recalls The Vendettas: “Me cousin Sid was the singer, because they told me I sounded too nasal. Sid ‘ad a sort of raspy quality to ‘is voice, an’ ‘e sounded somewhat redolent of ‘Owlin’ Wolf. Nowadays everybody’s got an electric guitar – people have bloody guitars cummin’ outer their ears – but then there weren’t that many people playin’. The lead guitarist got engaged an’ I was stuck with all these lyrics …”
Clarke vaguely recalls that there was one “about a man who sold ‘ats”, but none survive to the present day. He is deliberately vague about dates, and particularly vague about the age of some of his material. Gabby Mancunians recall him performing some of his current stuff several years ago, but ask him when The Vendettas were performing and he’ll just say, “the ’60s”. Push him a bit and he elucidates: “the late ’60s.”
So whatchareckon to the Rock Biz then John?
Shrugs. “Water off a duck’s back, reely.”
But it is your new home now, innit?
“I ‘aven’t moved in yet. I been round to put up some wallpaper, but I ‘aven’t moved in.”
There’s methedrine his madness. John Cooper Clarke is cranked up really high as he slams through ‘Twat’, a stream of sustained invective and distilled hate. The effect is somewhat akin to having someone piss on your shoes for five minutes. “Lahk a dose of scayyybiz ai’ve got yewoondermaskin/yew maike-lahfa feehrytail GRI-IH-IH-IH_IMMM!” He attacks as only the defenceless can: the only craft more vulnerable is that of the improvising comedian and Clarke knows it, which is why he eschews onstage improvisation.
“Y’mean like stream-of-consciousness … or unconsciousness? Naw, it could turn out to be reely borin’. I’d rather werk on the stuff at ‘ome. Besides, if you improvise in public you tend to reveal rather a lot, and I’m not particularly fond of barin’ me soul.”
“Well, I read rather too much Mickey Spillane.”
Squelchsquelchsquelch goes the gum.
Still, Clarkie’s got one in the book that has ‘Twat’ beat all hollow for sheer vituperative power. Like John Lydon, Elvis Costello, Bob Geldof and many others both more and less eminent in and out of rock. JCC is a sufferer from what we doctors generally refer to as A Catholic Education, and ‘Limbo’,
which can be found on the ‘Walking Back To Happiness’ live album, is the case history.
“The school was ruun by nuns. The ‘ead one was about 90. She used to wear these black Wulewerth’s plimsolls and you’d only ‘ear ‘er cummin’ because she ‘ad this pair ‘a scissors on a long string tied around ‘er waist … to break the embarrassin’ silences. You’d ‘ear this terrifyin’ scraaaapin’ sound an’ you’d knaw she was sumwhere nearby. WE never found out what she used them for.
“Me dad was in the Communist Party. I went to school at the insistence of ‘is sisters – I blame it all on my antie, actually. I was like ‘is ‘ostage to ‘eaven: lemme in or the kid gets it.”
So it as Catholicism at school and Communism at home?
“Naw, not reely. ‘E didn’t push it nearly as ‘ard as they did.”
John Cooper Clarke is knackered. He’s in the living room of Hannett Towers in Didsbury, slumped out by the gas fire in a room painted like a block of Neapolitan icecream and filled with records, tapes, electronic gear and wellworn furniture. Martin ‘Zero’ Hannett is playing through a Phil Spector tape and Clarke is musing sleepily on the need to change his name on account of the ‘John Cooper Clarke’ moniker having been already nailed down by an already-registered member of Equity.
“What’s this other John Cooper Clarke like? I dunno, I ‘aven’t checked him out yet. I could change me name to a T.V. Lounge, reckon, or Richie Valence. Can you ‘ave dead people? Buddy ‘Olly. Winston Churchill …”
The JCC tour of the UK doesn’t exactly carry that marauding-army-of-rock-and-roll gypsys-come-for-our-daughters-and-your-money vibe. It’s more a three-people-in-an-estate-car sortathingy: Clarke, Hannett and the latter’s girlfriend Sue. hannett wears Oxfam-shop, postpunk threads, shades, no socks and long curly Ian Hunter hair. He describes his multifarious functions by pointing to his spindly ward and announcing “I’m his mother”. He vibes with Clarke, fights a losing battle against the Punk Poet’s peerless propensity for Losing Things (those precious carrier bags, for example, and the olive-green sneakers that went AWOL the following night in Newcastle, never to return. Hannett supervises the wordslinger’s career progress, writes, arranges and produces all his music, plays bass in The Invisible Girls, Clarke’s studio band, which is slowly evolving into a stage band for future use. He also makes toast: the power behind the throne.
He’s even diversified by producing legendary fun people Magazine for their next single. His conversations with Clarke are cryptic, semi-coded-semi-clear and hilarious to the participants. Clarke shacks on Hannetts couch hen – for any reason – he can’t make it back to the flat over the chemists’ in Salford. But Hannett is El Zonko – almost – as he occupies the couch for easy access to the tape deck. That leaves the cushions for Clarke. The shades are off and the slur is more pronounced. He begins to doze off, mumbles in his sleep, then wakes himself up.
His albums haven’t been released in the States, but they might be. CBS’ New York office is manifestly confused by the product they keep getting from London, as was aptly demonstrated by the sizzling acumen with which they assessed the first Clash album. Still, come hell or high water, America is getting the JCC experience, maybe in August.
“I’d like to do New York solo,” Clarke murmurs. “I believe a meaningful tour of key launderettes is bein’ seeriously mooooted.” He pronounces it “muted” and the ambiguity is pleasing. On first hearing ‘I Wanna Be Nice’ from the ‘Disguise In Love’ album, it was difficult for southern-jessie ears to discern whether Clarke was saying “Better look elsewhere” or “better luck elsewhere” until, by a process of rigorous analysis, it was determined that if it had been the former it would have come out as ‘better luke elsewhere.’ Ambiguities of Pinteresque proportions abound.
A discussion had been taking place in which Clarke had opined he felt more sympathy for Carl Jung than Sigmund Freud (two singer-song-writers currently signed respectively to Warners and Arista) because “I’d rather not believe that everything can be reduced to sex” when it was idly raised that a considerable amount of Pinter’s dialogue resembled the recorded conversations of schizophrenics.
Clarke is a devotee of Pinter’s work, and quotes from it extensively. (He also has large chunks of the work of Damon Runyon committed to memory, and Runyon’s prose sounds extraordinarily comfortable when rendered in Clarke’s lugubrious, sardonic Salford tones). He begins to enthuse about Pinter’s No Mans Land.
“It’s basically about this poet called Spune who finds ‘is way into this rich old geezer’s ‘ouse. This rich old geezer’s got these two incredibly sinister bodyguards, real psychos in their way. This geezer was the last person you’d expect to ‘ave two psycho bodyguards: ‘e was all doddery with a horrible propensity for fallin’ over. Everybody’s drinkin’ all the time. Then this geezer called Foster, who’s the more sinister of the two bodyguards because ‘e’s more affable, comes in an’ ‘e says ‘Pheeeeeeeew, what a day. Taxi drivers ‘ate me. They ‘ate me. What you drinkin’?’
“Then Spune tells Foster about this paintin’ which he was goin’ to do but ‘ad never got around to actually doin’ an’ ‘e says ‘I was sat outside this café by this river where a man ‘ad caught a fish. Three children were lookin’ at the talkin’ among themselves about what kind of fish it was. A travellin’ salesman walks in and there’s a guy leanin’ against the bar whistlin’. I was going to call it “The Whistler”. Would you ‘ave understood why I’d’ve called it “The Whistler”?’
“Andy Foster says, ‘Well I may not have understood it, but I would’ve been grateful for it. A good work of art tends to move me. I’m not a prat y’know’. “You should read that. You can read it an hour, and then you’ll read it again and again. I try and see as much of his stuff as I can, especially on TV. It adapts so well to TV. His basic premise – well not ‘is basic premise, but one of ’em – is that every sentence has at least 24 meanings. Any sentence that anyone can write can immediately be taken in any one of 24 ways.
“It’s a very sound approach. All ‘is plays have dead realistic dialogue where sumbody says sumthing and the other person isn’t listening properly or doesn’t hear it right and comes back with a really incongruous answer, and so on.”
Ever written plays yourself?
“No, but I’d like to.”
“No, but there’s only one sort of part I could play. I’d always be typecast.” He pauses a beat, awaits the raised eyebrow and when it comes, he smirks and drawls, “Juuuuuuveniles”.
Up on stage at the Free Trade Hall, Clarke’s breath comes in short pants and then goes home to change.
“AhcantgobakterSALfordthecoppersgotmemaaaaaaktenter-tha-daraaaagonexitJohnnyClaaakeTA!” and he’s off, carrier bags in one hand, glass in the other, slipping and sliding on the polished boards. The Amazing Talking Man! He’s mowed ’em down, kept them ‘angin’ on is every WERDlike for overanower, made ’em laugh, made ’em think (maybe), hit ’em in sore spots, tickled ’em in sensitive ones. For his first encore, he gives them ‘Beasley Street’, a massive epic delivered at dead march pace, bleak, grim and evocative, not entirely devoid of humour but definitely short on the cheap, easy laughs that he’s been accused of perpetually seeking, not revved-up cranked-high heads-down entertainment but an inkling of what lies behnd the jokey facade, a taste of the kind of material that Clarke had kept up his sleeve while doling out the tasty hors d’oeuvres that cinched his rep.
And he has ’em. Cold. It’s the payoff for all the failures, all the brush-offs, all the dismissals, all the years as a printers assistant or a night watchman or an assistant to a man whose job it was to photograph wounds for an insurance company, all the years on the Nat King Cole, all the times he dodged bottles and glasses and veg and other sundry missiles or been booed and roared off stages . . .
When did people stop throwing things at you, John?
“When I started getting in’t music press. That should give you sdome sort of idea of your readership! I did Glasgow Apollo with Be Bop Deluxe . . . it’s the biggest venue on the circuit int it, Glasgow Apollo. It ‘olds 3800 people and they all hated me. They all started to shout the moment I came on. I didne’t get a werd out. They got a 50-foot-‘igh stage so you got more in common with the people in the balcony than the wuns in the stalls. I just sttod there for about four minutes and looked at them. Imagine that: 4000 people all loathing me at once. It was one of the most muving experiences of my life. I was muved very efficiently. I just said, ‘Let’s call it a draw’. I come in by the frunt daw an’ went straight out by the back.
“I’d give anything to be able to relive that.”
John Cooper Clarke is asking a question.
“This is a thing I always ask people: if you ‘ad to make luve to an animal, what would it be? Something out of the human realm of existence. Not larger than an elephant and not smaller than a guinea-pig. As sensuous or as ridiculous as you like, though I reckon that people who would do it with a guinea-pig are basically sadistic people.
“Pandas eat a lot of fruit, and they’d be extremely comfortable . . . if you ‘ad to, but in my more dynamic mudes, I would like to fook a giyant sea bird that upon climax would drop me into a placid ocean where I would immediately be digested by a huge translucent fish and then deposited upon a desert island paradise . . . unscathed.
“A surprising number of people get flustered and refuse to answer at all.”
What method of psychological analysis does Clarke use to codify and interpret the answers he does get?
“Well, it’s really pretty basic. Anyone who’d fook a guinea-pig is definitely not to be trusted.”
John Cooper Clarke is asleep now, head thrown back to the ceiling. Random images are floating up from his brain, a brain crammed with Pinter and Lou Reed and Dylan and Magritte and Coronation Street and Burroughs and Warhol and Runyon and Italian futurist poets and Man Ray and Spillane and uncounted made-for-TV horror films and Chandler and Len Deighton and Brion Gysin: all the stuff that boils up like bubbles of marsh gas from the plastic carrier bag full of diamonds and trash that does duty as his cerebral cortex, the source point for the automatic writing with which he’s currently experimenting.
Head thrown back like the corpse he’d like to play in movies, a series of cameo roles in which he floats face down in rivers, falls off balconies and tumbles out of closets at detectives’ feet, always billed “and featuring John Cooper Clarke as himself” . . . he’s sprawledoutflatonnisbackJACK!
But the motormouth keeps on going, far below the discernibility threshold. He regains consciousness long enough to retail an anecdote about someone who always speaks French in his sleep before he’s away again, curled up by the gas fire.
Hush, hush, whisper who dares. John Cooper Clarke is saying his prayers.