Introducing the Bard of Salford: in conversation with John Cooper Clarke
“Boy in the backroom that’s my handle… living in a vacuum that’s my angle… ninety degrees in my shades… ninety degrees in my shades.” He’s a legend, says Melissa Blease. John Cooper Clarke is having none of it…
Britain’s best-loved, most recognisable and arguably most successful performance poet, John Cooper Clarke is a national institution whose word-based career spans five plus decades and takes in multiple stints as a TV and radio presenter and social and cultural commentator along the way. He’s headlined line-ups featuring seminal UK punk and post-punk bands including the Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello, The Fall and Joy Division, several of his poems are on the GCSE syllabus… and he always, always steps into the spotlight in his very own fine, contemporary dandy style, hair bouffanted to the max, rock star sunglasses firmly in place; all in all, he’s a bit of a legend, right?
“Legend? LEGEND? I’m not a bloody legend, I’m just on telly a lot!” he says, in that distinctive, deadpan Manchester ‘twang’ so closely associated with the rock’n’roll bard. “Anyway, the definition of a legend is something that may not be real, or true, and I’m a flesh and blood person.” Oh crikey; I seem to have got into an etymology tangle with a master of the art of vocabulary. “Words are my bloody job!” he cackles; “they’re supposed to be yours as well, so pull your bloody socks up!”
Clearly, this chat isn’t going to be one of those dry Q&A sessions where stock questions are responded to with stock answers that have been bandied around in hundreds and hundreds of previously published interviews. But still, there are questions that I can’t help asking, even if he’s been asked them many times before. As in: where is John talking to me from? “I’m only gonna say my home in Essex ’cos if I say exactly where, I’ll just get loads more people hammering on the door. But we’re all fans of somebody, aren’t we? And we’re all nosy parkers, if we’re honest about it!”
And I’m prepared to be very honest about my nosy parker ways… hence my next (shallow) question: I have to know what John – a man as known for his unique, trademark sartorial elegance as he is his way with words – is wearing as we chat. “Oh, I’m quite monomaniacal when it comes to my clothes,” he says. “Every day, I dress exactly like I dressed in 1965 so every few years, I look fashionable again. But how I look is important to what I do; if you’re the only person on stage, you owe it to the public to look pleasant, at least. Before he left the house, James Brown always used to look in the mirror and ask of his reflection, ‘do I look like the kind of man somebody would pay to see?’ – that’s kind of my schtick as well.” What, even when you’re doing a telephone interview? “Why let your standards slip?” he guffaws. “Right now I’m wearing a semi-structured dark blue blazer with three working cuff buttons over a candy-striped, button-down Oxford shirt from Brooks Brothers, who invented this garment – pretty casual, right? But the pale blue loafers are the thing that differentiate my look from the one I take to the stage. Flatties – I’m wearing flatties! But I can still do what I do, you know what I mean?”
Which stylishly brings us on to… why does John do what he does? “For money,” he says, without missing a beat. “Money is very important. And if you’re one of the proletariat – which I very much am – the issue of money is never far away.” But surely a career in poetry is pretty much the last career we think of if we’re focusing on cold, hard, cash? “Oh, I agree with you there,” he readily concurs. “Poetry has never been regarded as a reliable engine of wealth. And loads of people tried to put me off at every step of the way, especially my dad; y’know, ‘get your hair cut and get a proper job’. But he was just being a good dad, protecting me from what he saw as potential failure, and disappointment, and all the sadness that comes with that. And let’s face it, in most cases he would have been right. But becoming successful at what I do took me a very long time, and I’ve certainly put the hours in; I was very bullheaded about making it in showbiz world.”
But what if John hadn’t ‘made it in showbiz world’ – would he still have written poetry, even if he’d ditched the idea as a money-making career? “I most certainly would, because it’s the only bloody thing I’m any good at!” he cackles. “And also, poetry could also be called a work avoidance venture, ha ha ha! But I’ve got this theory about work, okay? To me, work is the big cut-off point between the working class and the bourgeoisie – I hate using terms like that, but a working class person is somebody who sacrifices a third of their life to do something they hate because they’ve got to do it, for one thing and one thing alone: money. So when these bourgeois professionals bandy terms like ‘job satisfaction’ around, it’s meaningless to this country’s real work force. Back in the day, dreams of making it in sport and showbiz were the twin roads out of the grindstone of the working week – oh, and a pint at the pub.”
John may have joked about work avoidance in order to hammer a larger philosophy home but in reality, his work ethic is stronger than the hairspray that keeps his bouffant in place. “I try to work in the way that I believe Nick Cave works, which is like, start at 10am every single day and don’t let yourself finish until teatime – or dinner time, in posh world,” he says. “You’ve gotta put the hours in no matter what your job is, and inspiration is for amateurs – inspiration, shminspiration! That’s what I say.”
I can remember my late dad saying, “and where are you going to read this poetry, then – Sunday night at the London Palladium?” And that’s what I did!
But surely you can’t write poetry without being inspired to write poetry – which is why so few of us do it successfully? “People who tell me they’ve never written a poem are either lying or in a very small minority!” he says; “they’ve done it, but they just haven’t stuck at it. Most people, though, probably haven’t done an oil painting, or learnt to play an instrument, or gone to RADA, because all those other art forms – painting, or music, or acting, or any other means of artistic expression – require a financial commitment, and the acquisition of tools and skills that you don’t already possess. But all poetry requires is a blank sheet of paper, and who’s going to stop you? People go on a lot these days about poetry being ‘accessible’ but it always has been accessible – in fact, it couldn’t be more so! To be a ‘successful’ poet, you’ve just gotta work hard at it, that’s all.”
And John’s hard work indemnifies again and again and again; on the very day I conducted this interview, his whimsical and uniquely moving 1982 poem I Wanna Be Yours – a poem that celebrates the polar opposite of playing hard to get (and also happens to top the world’s most popular wedding poem charts) – clocked up its one billionth stream on Spotify, thanks in part to the Arctic Monkeys’ adaptation of the poem on their 2013 album AM. Is this most recent landmark something that John is particularly proud of? “I don’t think I’m the sort of person that has pride,” he says; “I don’t necessarily understand the meaning of the word. Having said that, selling out a Sunday night gig at the London Palladium was the apex of my career professionally, and personally. I can remember my late dad saying, “and where are you going to read this poetry, then – Sunday night at the London Palladium?” And that’s what I did! I wish he’d lived to see that, and I hope he’s laughing in heaven!”
Ah, let’s go beyond that, and say that John Cooper Clarke’s dad would be very proud of his son indeed – and so say all of us. Might John perhaps concede at this point, and admit that he is indeed a legend? “Bone idle, vain, and opinionated – yes! But legend? That’s for other people who don’t understand the meaning of the word to decide!” he laughs. John Cooper Clarke: the nation has decided on your status.
John Cooper Clarke visits the Bath Forum on Friday 2 June at 7.30pm. Bath Forum, 1A Forum Buildings, Bath; bathforum.co.uk