Interview by Sam Mason-Jones
It would be fair to say that Dr John Cooper Clarke has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts in recent years. As the poet has been dragged into the a younger cultural consciousness through tributes paid by Plan B and Alex Turner, not to forget that wonderful ad for McCain chips, so too has a second wave of his fans been ushered into Clarke’s world of Chickentowns and Beasley Streets. As such the bulging crowd at his Anson Rooms show is given over as much to spectacled students as to the receding hairlines in faded Sex Pistols tshirts.
‘I’ve never been this big.’ he grins afterwards from behind an enormous glass of alcohol in the glamorous surround of the Hotel du Vin. A recent description of Cooper Clarke by TV’s own Phil Jupitus as looking like Noel Fielding’s nan is hard to dispute. Vitally trim, with an unruly black barnet that defies an immaculate suit, the poet gazes through a more personable pair of rose-tinted glasses having replaced his signature onstage wayfarers. It’s Clarke’s voice that really disarms though, a rich Lancashire brogue which finds the music in any word.
‘People associate me with the punk explosion but I wasn’t playing places as big or making as much money as I am now. This is miles better than it was in the punk days. But then I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the punk days.’
Previously trying to hack it as a cabaret performer in the mid ’70s, Clarke was nudged toward the early punk vibrations by the advice of pal Howard Devoto. The Buzzcocks man noticed the raucous potential in the poet’s work, and advised him to perform to the growing hoards of punks. ‘It’s where the money was,’ he shrugs. ‘That is why I write poetry after all, it pays the bills.’
But a couple of revelatory encounters with bands like The Clash and The Fall, as well as that Sex Pistols gig at the Free Trade Hall (which John assures me he definitely attended – Howard Devoto was also working there as a toilet cleaner that evening, apparently) engendered a slightly less cynical relationship with the movement, as he recognised an aspect important to his own work.
‘It was when I saw the Fall that I first understood punk rock. When you saw someone like the Fall it was all about the effect of language. With punk words became an important part of the song.’ he explains. ‘Back in the days of rock’n’roll lyrics were just something you could pin a guitar solo on. I realised, as a poet, I could kick on with these guys. That’s what poetry is all about, it’s music made of language- you’ve got to hear it.’
Ever the eager English student, I got all excited at the mention of the ‘P’ word and was all set to start art-wankering all over the shop. Luckily before I could launch into a thesis on the unresolved oedipal antagonism in Sylvia Plath’s work or the subtle premonitions of post-modernism within Dante’s Inferno, Dr Clarke cut me off by saying something really rather profound: ‘Art is useless. I’ve always said that, art is fucking useless. But that’s why its so great. It should be simply aesthetic. You shouldn’t know why you like it.’
He went on to dissect the relationship between art and political agenda, one that be believes unhealthy to both practices. ‘Politics ruins poetry. Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate Vladimir Mayakovsky and El Lessitzky and the abstract artists of the Russian Revolution. If you want to take it back to the days of Napoleon Bonaparte, I admire the paintings of Jaque Louis David.’ While I nodded and pretended that I knew who these people were, he put it more simply. ‘To put a piece of art in a political frame limits your technique, and I think art suffers. If you were to write a political poem both would suffer: the politics would be rendered trite and the poetry would be rendered didactic and un-enjoyable.’
Naturally a brief synopsis on modern political disillusionment follows, with Clarke finding the disarming charisma of Farage- ‘a good looking fella who likes a pint’- juxtaposed with the sterility of the other parties.
‘I don’t see any on the political parties representing anything anymore, as I’ve been saying for the past five years. I don’t know how I’m going to vote. How a person votes is the least interesting thing about them. You’ve got to enjoy life. That’s why I’m not a Green. A philosophy which suggests that people are the problem, then surely the philosophy’s the problem. I don’t care what happens to the planet if the human race dies, I care about humans. Don’t get me wrong, I like animals, I’m very anthropomorphic- but let’s get things in perspective. The Green movement is a very cowardly one. That’s why there’s so many posh people in it.’
After straying slightly too close to the realms of politics, the conversation turned, as all good conversation inevitably does, to music. Following a damning meditation on the current domination of the charts- ‘its dance music for people who can’t dance‘- he rattles through a number of his recent favourite acts. The list takes him from the riff-heavy recent material of Arctic Monkeys and Royal Blood, to the Horrors, Amy Winehouse and Adele. Also getting a favourable look-in with Dr Clarke, gloriously, are Busted.
‘I thought ‘these are fucking great’, we bought the album and there wasn’t a bad track on it.’ he gushes. ”That’s What I Go To School For’- what’s wrong with that? That’s a song, that. ‘Year 3000′, fantastic.’
Drawn by this tangent of a bit of positivity in music, he remembers how it rescued him from some pretty dark days. The ‘heroin eighties’ marked a lost decade for Clarke, who, though gigging more than ever, was dispossessed of the creative drive necessary to write new material. But salvation came from an unlikely source: the dulcet northern tones of one Steven Patrick Morrissey.
‘When I was getting off drugs somebody gave me a walkman, and it was only when I was clear of heroin that I realised that I hadn’t been listening to music. When you give up junk your emotions are right on the surface, so music becomes more important than it’s meant to be. I got a cassette of the Smiths and listened to it on repeat. Those conversational lyrics helped me out, anyone who writes a song called ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’ has to have a sense of humour. I said art was useless but it’s not is it?’
Despite the currently precarious landscape of current affairs the poet remains defiantly optimistic in the face of various world issues. The issue of Ebola for instance, gleans quite a response addressed to the worried British public: ‘Fucking Ebola. Get a grip, you’re English. You’re not going to get Ebola. This isn’t Africa. We’re not going to get Ebola in England, calm down. We didn’t get Swine Flu. All these bloody pandemics we’re getting threatened with- can I have that time back? That year you spent worrying me over something that turned out to be absolutely fuck all, can I get that back?’
While the idea of viral disease discriminating based on nationality might not stand up all that well to scrutiny, an argument we might attribute to the aforementioned glass now sitting empty, the man might have a point. In a world where fear is mongered through internet feeds and unease exacerbated on the evening news, a bit of positivity tends not to go amiss. A mention of rolling news sends the poet into a fresh rant on the subject of the Middle East, featuring more c-bombs than you can shake a Cuban heel at- but he returns to this optimistic vein with a glint somewhere beneath his suitably rose-tinted specs.
“The only way is up’, that’s my motto. You’ve got to look for a silver lining, I truly believe that. But you know, life is great. There’s a great case to be made that there has never been a better time to be alive. People live longer, they’re healthier, nobody starves in this country, and long may it continue. Yeah, life is fucking great.’