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Reborn poet's society

JOHN Cooper Clarke is on top form.

WORK IN PROGRESS: John Cooper Clarke in relective mood and in performing mode, below. He can now count Alex Gardner and Ben Drew among his fans.
WORK IN PROGRESS: John Cooper Clarke in relective mood and in performing mode, below. He can now count Alex Gardner and Ben Drew among his fans.

"Every masterpiece sits on top of a pile of crap," he says in his wonderfully smoked Salford drawl. "But the ratio is getting better. Obviously I'm developing a bit of a knack for it."

He's joking and he's not. Britain's punk poet laureate has been doing his inimitable thing, off and on, for four decades, so one presumes he long ago developed a knack for making the magic happen. Yet Clarke has certainly shifted gears in recent years, enjoying a creative purple patch which has coincided with a remarkable resurgence in popularity. Feted by the likes of Arctic Monkeys and Plan B, filling venues across the land, appearing in The Sopranos and even taking his rightful place alongside "respectable poets" – his words, not mine –on the GCSE syllabus, at 63 Clarke is on the mother of all rolls.

"This is definitely a peak, more than so when I first started out actually," he says. "Most importantly with regards to volume of output, because I'm writing all the time. The recognition is lovely, too. Someone was just remarking to me that there is no typical Johnny Clarke fan – it's all ages, all types of people, and you can't really ask for more than that."

The former lab technician may be a spiritual child of Manchester's folk clubs, but it was punk which offered him a cult following as a irreverent performance poet. Back in those days Clarke toured with Elvis Costello, Buzzcocks and The Fall, made albums with Joy Division producer Martin Hannett, lived with Nico and became the go-to guy for witty, scabrous speedfreak ruminations on the state of the nation and much else besides. Landmark poems such as Beasley Street and Evidently Chickentown infused withering social realism with a kind of dark, magic-realist romance. They still form the backbone of his set today, although he points out that "I don't regard any of these poems as finished. They're abandoned. Also, they evolve when you read them live every night. As soon as I have them committed to memory, Michael Gove style, I start extemporising and riffing on them."

Clarke's momentum was comprehensively derailed in the 1980s and 1990s, when heroin addiction calcified both the inclination and ability to compose. "I certainly didn't write at all for a decade or more when I was addicted to opiate drugs," he says. "There was always something more important to do. Maybe I wrote a line here and there that never got developed. Now I don't let anything slip through my fingers – I'm always scribbling, though I still don't really know where these things come from. Poetry might be the most accessible of art forms and the most intuitive. Knowing when to walk away from a poem is a good skill."

He attributes his renaissance to several factors, not least getting clean around the same time that his poems were added to the GCSE syllabus. That act of patronage "introduced me to a new age-related catchment area doing my stuff at school, so now I have a generation of young fans."

One of them is Arctic Monkeys' singer Alex Turner, who first heard Clarke's I Wanna Be Yours in his Sheffield school room. Later, the band printed another poem, Out of Control Fairground, inside their Fluorescent Adolescent single, while Turner has "dropped my name all over the world in interviews". Clarke also counts Ben Drew, aka singer/rapper/actor Plan B, among his admirers, and was recently given a small role in Drew's movie iLL Manors. "I'm not in it for long, but every review I've read has mentioned my comparatively inconsiderable part," he says. "I wrote a special piece for it and it always gets a mention disproportionate to the length of time I'm in the movie. I'm grateful for that. These are two high-profile pop artists and they're always dropping my name into conversations."

A growing aura of alternative national treasure clings to Clarke these days. He happily concedes that I Wanna Be Yours "is to modern weddings what Eric Idle's Always Look on the Bright Side of Life is to modern funerals. It's indispensable. I wish I had a quid for every guy who came up to me and said, We played that at our wedding, or, Our best man recited it. I got invited to recite it at a rich person's wedding last year, actually, for a huge amount of money. Happy to be of service!"

Clean for years, Clarke now lives in Essex with his wife Evie and their daughter. The wild mop of hair isn't quite as gravity-defying as it once was, but his stooped, skeletal hipster look – imagine Bob Dylan circa 1965 dragged through a hedge – remains instantly identifiable. His act hasn't changed much either. Clarke is still happiest "declaiming my stuff in the public sphere. I don't just write for myself or the page, I write with an audience in mind. It's all very seat-of-the-pants. You know whether it's a success or not by how it goes down on stage."

It sounds a bit nerve-wracking, frankly. "It's not nerve-wracking, but it's not fun. It's a job, but a fun job. I don't want to start coming out with things like The Serious Business of Being Funny. Heaven forfend. But I'm a professional."

Clarke has finished a book of entirely new work which he hopes will be published either late this year or early next. His 1981 anthology Ten Years in an Open-Necked Shirt and Other Poems, is also being reissued. In the immediate future, he brings his skyscraping barnet and his plastic bag full of words old and new to Glasgow this weekend. "Playing live has always been the favourite part of my career." He pauses. "I'm trying to look for a better word than that. It's a dangerous word, that. Career."

John Cooper Clarke plays the Arches, Glasgow, tomorrow

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