Interview - Shooting from the hip with John Cooper Clarke

John Cooper-Clarke.'From internet do not use large.
John Cooper-Clarke.'From internet do not use large.

Interview by Gig Scene Editor Graham Chalmers

If Mancunians are famed for a self-mythologising lacking in talented folk from Yorkshire, John Cooper Clarke is a master of the art.

“The smartest move I ever did was joining a poetry tour of schools about eight years ago with the likes of Simon Armitage and Carol Ann Duffy,” he tells me. “Having my worked rammed down the throats of reluctant schoolchildren brought me a whole new generation of fans.”

Even with what I take to be his partner talking in the background occasionally and the sounds of classic 60s Stax floating down the phone, it’s impossible not to hear every single word the witty ‘Bard of Salford’ is saying.

The brilliant wordsmith spits out the answers to my questions in the same pithy, rolling drawl he delivers his poetry on stage.

“Punk wasn’t something new. It was a return to rock n roll’s core values. It was prog that was new. Punk gave a chance to giants of rock n roll like Mick Green of The Pirates and Wilko Johnson of Dr Feelgood.”

Still dressed in his trademark black hair, black shades, black jacket and black trousers more than a quarter of a century after he first came to fame as a “punk poet”, this 64-year-old orator of the street has never been bigger.

His famous fans such as Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys and Plan B have helped spur a revival in his fortunes which in turn seems to have sparked the return of his creative powers.

“I never really quit poetry but I’m writing now more than at any point in my life. There will be lots of new stuff on the tour.”

Such has been his resurgence that Clarke has recently appeared in major movies, Anton Corbin’s Control and Plan B’s Ill Manors.

When I last saw him in the late 90s, Clarke was playing small venues like Harrogate’s Blues Bar.

In a few weeks’ time his travels will see him arrive at the Grand Opera House in York.

Despite being influenced by original Beat writers such as Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac, Clarke says he has resisted the temptation to watch the recently movie based on the latter’s On The Road.

“I still love the Beatniks but I haven’t seen the film. The characters never look right on screen, they all look exfoliated. There’s too many skin products. I hated that Johnny Cash film Walk The Line with Joaquin Phoenix. The real Johnny Cash’s skin was pock-marked. Cash didn’t look like you could push him around. You could push Joaquin Phoenix around from today to next Tuesday.”

One of JCC’S greatest ever works from his golden era of the early 80s, the socially-conscious Beasley Street, was featured in an episode of The Sopranos but Clarke himself likes to bite the era that fed him.

Despite working with legendary Joy Division producer Martin Hannett, Pete Shelley of The Buzzcocks and Bill Nelson of Be Bop Deluxe amongst others, he now feels putting musical backing to his words was, well, a mistake.

“When I signed to Epic Records, I took the advice of putting poetry to music. Words and music can be successfully merged - but when they are it’s called a song.

“I feel like I’m holding myself back when I use music. My words are better off without accompaniment. Good poetry has its own musicality.”

His rapid-fire style of writing hasn’t changed over the years and neither has his Blonde on Blonde era Bob Dylan dress sense and hairstyle.

Dylan? Did I say Dylan, he asks me.

“I’ve never tried to look like Bob Dylan; you would just end up looking second best. I’ve been dressing the same way since 1964. It’s not that I was trying to look good, just less bad. Very few things suit me.”

So JCC has never really changed but neither has he gone stale.

And he still delivers the goods. Just listen.

“There will be something for everyone on this tour - as long as everyone likes poetry. Everyone leaves the auditorium with a smile on their face at my shows. That’s a solid gold promise to you.”

John Cooper Clarke appears at Grand Opera House, York on Saturday, June 1 with guests including John Shuttleworth and Simon Day.

For tickets, telephone the box office on 0844 8717642 or visit www.ticketmaster.co.uk