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The Big Interview: John Cooper Clarke

The career of the bard of Salford spans five decades. From cabaret to punk, Nico to Kate Moss, Alex Turner to Paul McCartney, John Cooper Clarke has been there, rhymed that, and even survived 17 years on heroin. As he publishes his debut memoir I Wanna Be Yours, we ask: what makes him The People’s Poet?

I don’t want to be nice
I think it’s clever to swear
Better seek some sound advice
Better look elsewhere

Your face is an obvious case
You shouldn’t put it about
This is neither the time nor place
To sort these matters out

What you see is what you get
You only live twice
A friend in need is a friend in debt
I don’t want to be nice

I Don’t Want To Be Nice (1978)

John Cooper Clarke should have been here at this Colchester recording studio 45 minutes ago. By his standards, though, that’s early. According to his manager, Britain’s punk poet laureate is somewhat allergic to punctuality. 

Then the owner of the studio – where, for the past week, Cooper Clarke, 71, has been recording the audio for his first memoir, I Wanna Be Yours – chimes in. Yeah, he’s not very good with timing,” he nods. And he only lives down the road.” 

That perpetual lateness could be due to another Cooper Clark peccadillo. As he mentioned in his 2019 Desert Island Discs interview with Lauren Laverne, the bard of Salford doesn’t like to walk. Hates it, in fact. 

Lazy, or just the cheerfully idiosyncratic bearing of a versifier who has well earned the title of The People’s Poet? 

John Cooper Clarke’s poems are in GCSE English anthologies across the country. But prior to his influence on education – and the dent he’s made in contemporary pop culture – Cooper Clarke was a seminal figure of the punk movement. He initially earned his chops opening gigs for the Sex Pistols and The Clash, before becoming a support act for the likes Elvis Costello and Rockpile as punk shaded into New Wave and power pop.

Punk was a really big event for me because, when it became an international thing, I became associated with that,” he recalls. At the tail end of the 70s, it took me to countries where English wasn’t even the first language.”

In the past 20-years or so, he’s entered a third act. His 1980 poem, Evidently Chickentown, featured in a 2007 episode of Mafia crime drama The Sopranos, while Kate Moss once referred to him as the velvet voice of discontent”. He took a hip-hop turn on Plan B’s critically acclaimed 2012 album, Ill Manors, for the track Pity the Plight. A year later, he collaborated with Arctic Monkeys on 2013’s AM track I Wanna Be Yours, the band adapting his pre-existing poem of the same name into a sultry pop ballad. Frontman Alex Turner even has Cooper Clarke’s name tattooed on his arm. 

On hearing I Wanna Be Yours for the first time in school, it made my ears prick up in the classroom,” Turner told The Independent, because it was nothing like anything I’d heard… especially on this syllabus. Had I not seen him do his thing, I wouldn’t have started writing [lyrics] like that.” A year after the release of AM, at the 2014 NME Awards, Sir Paul McCartney fanboyed him. Much more recently, fast-rising Yorkshire indie band Working Men’s Club titled a track after him on last month’s stellar debut album. 

JOHN COOPER CLARKE

He’s even, officially, Doctor John Cooper Clarke, the result of him being awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Salford in 2013, an acknowledgement of a career which has spanned five decades, bringing poetry to non-traditional audiences and influencing musicians and comedians”.

His typically pithy response: Now I’m a doctor, finally my dream of opening a cosmetic surgery business can become a reality.”

All that, and he survived 17-years on heroin – much of it spent living in a Brixton, South London squat with Velvet Underground-affiliated Nico in the 1980s. In the same decade (his wilderness years”), he narrowly avoided a jail sentence after purchasing £500 worth of brown, which he’d sneakily left lying in the gutter” while being questioned by coppers.

There’s no law against having a bag of unused syringes,” he writes in I Wanna Be Yours. All they could charge me with was marijuana possession.”

There is, then, a lot of expectation surrounding the late-running John Cooper Clarke’s appointment today with THE FACE. Finally, however, he arrives, sat in the passenger seat of a small red car driven by his French wife of 30 years, Evie (they have a daughter, Stella, 26). Just one more minute, though…

Before climbing out, he adjusts his felt grey bowler hat in the rearview mirror. Eventually, a pair of thin – really thin – legs emerge from the car door, dressed in shiny Chelsea boots and black skinny jeans, followed by the rest of a thin – really thin – body encased in a black French Connection overcoat. His jet-black, crow-like barnet pokes out from under the bowler, just about touching his shoulders.

He waves goodbye to Evie through the window and turns to me.

Alright, nice to meet you!” he says, that nasal Salford accent is strong and familiar as ever (and despite 20 years’ exile in Essex). Holding out a hand studded with rings – one, with three lions etched onto it, matches the gold teeth on full display when he smiles – he gives a slight handshake and a nod of the head.

This is the performance poet par excellence, performing all the time. So what if Cooper Clarke rocks up a little late, and isn’t such a fan of walking, even from just down the road? Fair play. He’s never been one for the obvious route.

It’s in that spirit that, today, we’re peeling him out of his regulation form-fitting, all-black clobber, and gussying him up in form-fitting, all-black Celine. As he once said: I’m fashionable once every 15 years, for about three months.”

Roses are reddish
Violets are blueish
If it weren’t for Christmas
We’d all be Jewish

Get born again
Like Ronald Reagan?
No thanks
I’d rather be a pagan

Pagan

John Cooper Clarke was born in Salford in 1949. Four years after the end of the Second World War, food rationing was still in place and would last until 1954. That year, five-year-old John saw his first banana. But as he writes in his hilarious, mordant and at times filthy memoir: I had no real sense of deprivation. To be honest, I’m hard-pressed to remember much at all from that early age.”

He knew from an early age that he wanted to be a poet, though, owing in part to an inspiring English teacher, an Ernest Hemingway type”. His dad, though, wasn’t all that convinced. An electrical engineer, he thought poetry was written exclusively by hyper-educated posh folk, not working-class Mancunian lads. 

He’d never seen any evidence of anybody making a living out of reading poetry,” Cooper Clarke says now. I had a tough job convincing him. His reaction was to get a job and keep poetry as a hobby. He meant well – he just didn’t want to see me living the life of a schnorrer. So that gives you something to prove.”

Cooper Clarke duly set about trying to convince his dad of his creative credentials. After leaving school he wrote poems while working odd jobs, including as a laboratory technician at Salford Tech, and read his work in the working men’s clubs of mid-’70s Manchester.

That spirit of ornery defiance stuck. Reading I Wanna Be Yours, you’re left with the impression he’s never really suffered from self-doubt. Nonetheless, Cooper Clarke was never so cocky as to forget the four pieces of advice his dad left him.

Number one: All the vitamins you’ll ever need are in the head of a beer.’ 

Number two: Never leave a bookie’s without a smile on your face.’ 

Number three: You’ll never get food poisoning from a chip shop – what could live in that temperature?’ 

Number four: Never enter a game of cards with a man whose first name is Doc.’”

Once through the recording studio doors (today repurposed for our THE FACE photoshoot) John Cooper Clarke becomes JOHN COOPER CLARKE. In front of an audience – in this case, a small crew of people ready to dress, photograph and interview him – he’s the performance poet of rock’n’roll repute. 

After a polite hello to each person, the excitable storytelling starts. But first, he’s raging about short cuffs. Why don’t you show a bit of cuff?” he enquires of no one in particular. They look like they’ve got deformed fucking arms!”. For cuff’s sake, I reply. That makes him laugh (phew). Quickly after, he’s giving a thumbs up to rock scribe Nick Kent’s autobiography. Then, a joke. I burned 700 calories without leaving the house this morning,” he says, apropos of nothing. I burnt my bagels in the toaster.”

Every time he speaks, after every line, the room erupts with laughter. Reassuringly, Cooper Clarke is as energetic, wry, witty and irreverent as his memoir suggests. A sprightly read from start to finish, it’s packed with incident and accident – like the moment he belatedly realised, while watching a documentary with his wife on Chet Baker, that the troubled jazz legend was the mysterious American connection from whom he’d scored heroin in Amsterdam, 20 years previously. 

And then, without missing a beat, he’s back onto discussing the bowler he was fiddling with in the car a few minutes ago.

You want to know when you’re wearing a good hat?” he asks, pointing at his own headgear. Nobody laughs! People laugh at hats, don’t they? It’s almost as funny as someone falling on their ass.”

The room duly entertained and the clothes for his shoot laid out, it’s time to talk I Wanna Be Yours. I’m relying on you all to make me not look like a cunt,” he says, eyeballing the room intently.

JOHN COOPER CLARKE

You’ve lived quite the life, John, and are still very much out-and-about as an artist. So why are you publishing your memoir now?

I’m running out of time, being in the autumn of my years. Memoirs are usually written by people who’ve either retired, or on their behalf by somebody else after they’ve died. So what better time?

It’s quite packed with stories. Your early bout with tuberculosis, punks secretly doing the finest Peruvian, meeting your wife… 

If everything was in there, you wouldn’t get it through a letterbox. You could kiss the Amazon goodbye! How much more do you want to know?

You took the title from your 1982 poem I Wanna Be Yours, which I always saw as you speaking to the love of your life and wanting to be appreciated for the normal things.

That’s right. It was a sincerely-felt Valentine’s poem written at the time, reducing myself – or, rather, extending myself – to the level of a commodity for the benefit of the objects of my desire on the feast of St. Valentine’s Day. That was the plan, and I think it came out OK.

Then Alex Turner came along…

…to take a sincere love ode and convert it into a ballad. A power ballad, even.

What did you think of it?

Just wonderful, it’s brilliant. That was a big thrill for me when they did that. 

You have a lot of famous fans. Paul McCartney, Kate Moss… 

I mean, crikey. Paul McCartney! I had my photograph taken with him at the NME Awards. Could you put your arm around Paul for this picture, John?’ I couldn’t shake it off! A Beatle! He’s one of the Beatles! 

Listen now: Listen to John Cooper Clarke’s pearly words of wisdom!

As a seasoned didaskaleinophobe, I was always eager for any excuse to skip school,” Cooper Clarke writes in chapter six (“didaskaleinophobe” being a fear of school – Pub Quiz Ed.). When he was in attendance, little Johnny was often told he lacked team spirit by the teachers scribbling in his report cards.

Was he a bit of a loner?

I guess they meant I gave the school a bad name, but I couldn’t have given a fuck about giving the school a bad name,” he says now, the hatred still apparent six decades on. It already had a bad name, and that name was schooool!” he hisses, drawing out the name in lip-curdling disdain. 

There he is: anti-establishment punk, long before the concept was invented. 

For a storyteller, Cooper Clarke doesn’t half jump around. Chat about school leads into him asking the West Indian kids living down the road from him in Salford where they got their smart tailored trousers. The next, he’s recalling a John Wayne film he watched the night before our interview. 

Then we’re talking about Elvis’s killer good looks, then Robert De Niro’s 1988 comedy Midnight Run. Then we’re onto Bernard Manning, the reliably sexist, racist stand-up who began his ascent to mainstream, peak-telly popularity in the 70s and 80s in the north of England’s working men’s clubs. He gave Cooper Clarke his first break in the mid-’60s, having him read poetry at Manning’s social club, World Famous Embassy Club, in North Manchester.

With the patronage of the northwest club scene’s Mr Manchester”, Cooper Clarke could soon pick up gigs anywhere in town.

Start difficult, then things get easier – that’s the way I’ve always done things,” reflects Cooper Clarke. So I got into the world of city centre cabaret joints in Manchester, at a time when there were loads of them.”

To the poet, Manning epitomised what being a punk was all about.

If anyone fucked shit up, it was him,” declares Cooper Clarke. I’m pretty certain that in the north, he would be considered a punk hero.”

Coming from anyone else, we’d challenge that. But as this sentiment comes from an original punk, we’ll let it slide. Cooper Clarke’s anarchist credentials predate the legendary 1976 Sex Pistols gig in Manchester, the one seemingly attended by members of every future Manc band that mattered. His no-compromise polemic could make even Johnny Rotten wince. Take, for example, Twat, written in 1979:

You hear laughter breaking through, it makes you want to fart
You’re heading for a breakdown
Better pull yourself apart

Your dirty name gets passed about when something goes amiss
Your attitudes are platitudes
Just make me wanna piss

What kind of creature bore you?
Was is some kind of bat
They can’t find a good word for you
But I can…

TWAT

Twat

The shift from cabaret to punk in 1975, 76 [was because] I was wearing the right clobber,” he explains, briskly. Your dad was starting to wear flares, and people were wearing floral seed packet shirts, but the way I dressed was anachronistic. I was wearing skinny ties, tab collars, narrow lapels. I’ve stuck with that since 1965, to be honest.”

He had the punk look then and soon, unfortunately, he’d have the habit, too. Cooper Clarke would be in the grip of heroin addiction until he met his now-wife in 1987, in the same Essex house they still call home. Evie was living there in the 80s and, after the poet missed the last train home following a gig at the local arts centre, a mutual friend sorted out the ad hoc sleeping arrangement. At the time, Evie had a boyfriend: so for once I had to put the graft in,” Cooper Clarke remembers.

After that fateful night 33 years ago, he signed up to non-residential NHS rehab programmes and methadone treatment. It took a few more years before Cooper Clarke got clean. But, as he writes, after I’d met Evie, I had a very good reason to clean up”.

How does punk influence your life these days?

Good question. It comes up every 10 years. Every reunion, there are a few less of us. Without a doubt, it’s impossible to write my story without factoring in the punk rock phenomenon.

What did the fame attached to it do to your brain?

Fame fucks you up. I wasn’t at all prepared for it. It’s against nature to be known and recognised before you even arrive somewhere. It’s a very strange thing.

But you must have enjoyed it a little bit?

Yeah, I think so. Especially going around the world with people like Elvis Costello and Rockpile. Fantastic! They were a big help for me.

And presumably fame and drugs must have gone hand-in-hand back then? 

No, the fame got in the way! You’d think in that rock’n’roll world they would be quite tolerant about that sort of thing. Not then, especially with class A drugs.

It must have been tricky hiding a heroin addiction for 17 years.

I really would have been better off not doing all that shit. It’s not a party drug. It was a lousy secret, and I was quite rightly disapproved of in society-at-large.

The addiction swamped a significant chunk of Cooper Clarke’s career. While he was living with Nico in Brixton, the late singer concocted a heady, er, recipe to make the shooting-up process that bit more bearable. 

You’ll have to read the book, specifically the chapter titled Two-fifths of The Velvet Underground, to find out how he came to be shacked up with the Germanic high-priestess of alt-goth. But here’s a taste: Another of Nico’s recipes involved the use of Crabtree & Evelyn rosewater in the injection process. When you shoot up, the unbearably bitter taste of heroin enters your mouth immediately via the bloodstream, far quicker than if you’d put it on your tongue. Nico’s rosewater rendered it delicious; it was like eating Turkish Delight, full of Eastern promise.”

It took a hold of his earnings, too. A few years later, he earned big time” by appearing in a 1988 Sugar Puffs advert, with the Honey Monster playing his fluffy sidekick (or was it the other way around?). But by that time the poet was a speedball maniac”, shooting up potent mixes of heroin and cocaine. 

That’s as good as it gets,” he writes. Don’t do it. Not even once.”

Two years ago, The Observer opened up a panel of their readers – including famous fans Jarvis Cocker, Plan B and actor Christopher Eccleston – to ask Cooper Clarke everything from where he bought his trousers from (“River Island or Marks and Spencer”) to his greatest lyrical influences (“Sarah Vaughn, Doris Day…”). 

One reader asked: did he ever think he could stop using heroin? 

His reply: It can be done, clearly, but it ain’t easy.” 

JOHN COOPER CLARKE

It seems you’ve lived a life without any regrets.

To paraphrase the fabulous lyrics written by Paul Anka: regrets, I’ve had a few. But then again, not enough room to mention.

None at all?

I would have been better off not shooting junk up. But what’s the point in regrets? Blood, sweat and tears. I paid for my misdemeanours.

Thought so!

All my regrets can be rolled up into one fucking ball of regret under the umbrella title of narcotics”.

Still, you maintain dignity throughout the novel.

You know that tedious saying politicised hippies used to say in the late 60s? If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.’ Well, when it comes to narcotics, I’m definitely part of the problem.

How do you feel about being called The People’s Poet?

It’s fantastic, and very accurate as well. Punk ain’t big enough a catchment area to encapsulate my audience. I never objected to it – why should I? I jumped on that high-speed bandwagon with both eyes open. It’s a handy title. People remember it.

Suitably, Cooper Clarke ends his memoir name-dropping a few more: Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jnr. But it’s not to make way for another sordid tale. Rather, he’s really grateful for being a sold-out headliner at the London Palladium, as he was in 2018, like those luminaries of a very different age (and type) of entertainment.

Such is the enduring legacy and appeal of a man who’s lived life about 10 times over. Having spent three hours with John Cooper Clarke, I can attest that the in-real-life experience is even saucier and even badder than what you see on the page, screen or stage. It’s a bit like having your brain shaken, rattled, spun around and spat out. Proper punk.

Before he goes off to slip into something less comfortable for our shoot, he mentions the school kids up and down the country” influenced, or in some way touched, by his work over the course of his five-decade career. And Arctic Monkeys, Plan B, Moss, Macca… 

But what he’s most thrilled about are encounters with, well, the likes of you and me. Take the black cabbie who screeched to a halt outside central London’s Strand Palace Hotel last year, jumped out of the car and shouted: John Cooper Clarke! My favourite poet!”

The fact that a London cabbie has got a favourite poet… I can’t help feeling partially responsible for that,” he says, beaming. People say all the time, especially teachers, that I make poetry accessible. No art form is more accessible than poetry,” John Cooper Clarke states with a final Salfordian flourish. It’s not forbidden to anyone.”

And that’s The People’s Poet, rhyming for the masses since 1975. Or thereabouts. 

John Cooper Clarke’s memoir I Wanna Be Yours’ is published by Picador (Hardback, £20). Available from water​stones​.com


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