An Interview with John Cooper Clarke
A unique and idiosyncratic talent, John Cooper Clarke remains relatively niche in North America. Hailing from Salford, England, the man nicknamed “the People’s Poet” and “the Doctor” has, over the last forty years, honed a style of performative poetry that contains equal doses of wit, elegance, and hilarity. In the late 1970s, Clarke established himself as a local hero within the punk scene, opening for bands like Joy Division and Buzzcocks at venues like the Electric Circus. In his live performances, he cultivated a rapport with his audience strong enough to carry him through a decade-long creative drought. During the 1980s, Clarke became addicted to heroin (or, as he describes it, he fell ill to an “idleness”).
He’s been clean since the ’90s, and ever since the turn of the century, he’s received renewed reverence from all over the pop-culture landscape. Both the multi-hyphenate artist Plan B and Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys have named him as a major influence, and The Sopranos featured his track “Evidently Chickentown” in an unforgettable closing scene. Perhaps most symbolic of all, though, was the inclusion, in 2002, of one of his poems on the curriculum for the General Certificate of Secondary Education exam, which is administered in parts of the UK, to which he reacted by saying: “It’s an honor to know that my work is getting shoved down the throats of unwilling pupils across the country.”
Clarke, seventy-one, is a warm and humble character who remains curious to learn and eager to converse with just about anybody on just about any topic. Maybe that’s what drives the man: a desire to be in contact with common people so as to keep his finger on their pulse. In March 2019, I was asked to chauffeur him and his opening act, Mike Garry, from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to the Ludlow Hotel, on the Lower East Side. They were on a tour to promote Clarke’s latest poetry anthology, The Luckiest Guy Alive, and were booked for a series of performances at Joe’s Pub. The day after I dropped them off, I was blessed with an hour of Clarke’s time. In the hotel lobby bar, moments before he was set to leave for a gig, we chatted enthusiastically about topics high and varied, from the cosmic balance between Elvis and Sinatra, to the many mysteries of poetry and creativity, to the fascinating ways music has been exchanged throughout history. His new memoir, I Wanna Be Yours, was just published in October.
I. THE KING OF THE WORLD
THE BELIEVER: The other night you mentioned that there is a contrast between Elvis and Frank Sinatra and that they exist in perfect opposition.
JOHN COOPER CLARKE: Yeah, they are the twin poles of my world. Clearly.
BLVR: Whom do you think you range closest to?
JCC: Well, obviously, the older I get, the more Sinatra comes in. His are the songs of the adult world. The true feelings of the adult male right there. Sagacity. Reflectiveness. He’s a wise guy.
BLVR: And Elvis is more symbolic of youth, you would say?
JCC: Elvis is a force of nature. Elvis has harnessed the mercurial blood of every heterosexual male and has made it beautiful. Not gross, not hideous, not ugly. You know what I mean? He’s taken nature and polished it up. What he does is better than nature. It is beyond nature. It’s super-nature. Super-nature made beautiful. All of it is completely his own invention. To the point where, very early on, he got the best manager that rock and roll has ever seen: Colonel Parker. And Elvis loved to do live shows, being the mercurial and high-voltage person he was. To me, it’s a great source of pain even today that Elvis set foot on Scottish soil. [Laughter]
[He never made it to England.] When he was on his way home from serving his country in Germany, he changed planes at Glasgow Prestwick Airport. It’s a source of great consternation. But what I’m saying is, Elvis wanted to play live shows all over the world, but it took the Colonel to say: No. We’ll set you up in Vegas, and the whole world will come to you. You don’t have to get on a plane anymore, son. You don’t have to leave America anymore. You’ve done your time out of your country and now this is home. And you know, he was the king of America, ergo, the world, in the twentieth century. No doubt about it. It’s impossible to imagine a world without Elvis. I’ve got a good imagination, but I couldn’t conceive of a world where Elvis didn’t happen.
Even as a child, the adult poetry of the Great American Songbook resonated greatly with me. I guess I was a bookish kid. You know, you never understand poetry at first. It sneaks up on you thirty years later. All you can do is remember the words themselves, just remember the lyrics, and that’s the way poetry works. That’s the way the Great American Songbook works. Via Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Patti Page, people like this, pre-Elvis. I was very smitten with what I saw as, well, the most modern country in the world. America. A real moving nut. I’ve always been 100 percent American in my taste. Those songs… Johnny Mercer, Jule Styne, or people like Sammy Cahn, Jerome Kern! All those.I’m still finding out what those songs are really about. They’re great songs. But whereas Elvis could sing those songs, Frank couldn’t rock. I think Elvis could sort of get close to what Frank does because Elvis could sing anything. He could have been Enrico Caruso. He’s better than Caruso! The greatest singer that ever lived, without a doubt.
BLVR: So where do you think your interest in American music and culture came from? Why did you veer toward that as opposed to English music?
JCC: Because English popular music was just an imitation of American popular music. So why not go for the real stuff? We had cover artists like Ronnie Hilton. Pre-Elvis. Pre–rock and roll. We had cover artists like Dickie Valentine. Pruners! Ronnie Hilton, people like this. Good singers, but they were trying to be as American as possible. So why not go for the real deal? That was my take on it. I’ve always said the reason the Beatles were so popular was because they were the most American-sounding act at the time. And like a lot of the Manchester bands of the 1960s, they were in a western-facing port with a flourishing mercantile fleet. That’s how the whole northern soul thing got started, you know. People would get these records in the ballasts of ships, like Jackie Wilson and people like that.
BLVR: Did you have personal experience with that growing up?
JCC: Yeah, yeah. Black music, ever since I can remember, was massive in Manchester. Before the soul thing of the ’60s, there had been a big sense of jazz and blues. Every year there was an annual Chicago blues package organized by a guy called Chris Barber who had a Dixieland jazz band. And he would bring over packages showing people like Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker… I saw all of those guys! Muddy Waters. All of them I saw on package shows. And even some of the surviving country-blues stars. You know, Son House, Bukka White. Great, great shows. And the Beatles, well, that was around their time. Really, it started happening after the Stones. But the Beatles were the best because they had access to unheard-of records from failed R&B singers coming from places like Ohio, whereas most of the R&B that reached England came out of LA and was usually on Atlantic. That label was the big dispenser of rhythm and blues, as it was called at the time.
II. “ALL THE PEOPLE I LIKE IN ENGLAND ARE THE MOST AMERICAN.”
BLVR: Are there any contemporary artists that you’re really excited about?
JCC: I like Jack White. [Laughing]If you could call his music contemporary. But who else? There’s a thing called Americana now; it comes under the term Americana in England. It started to level out a little bit, but at first it was kind of refreshing. After the dance craze, the sort of acid house thing in England, it was just so great to hear guitars again! So I used to like people like the Blasters and—who was it that did “Guitar Town”? Earle. Steve Earle. I like Steve Earle. But I like country music as well. As I say, the older one gets, it’s a kind of natural thing. I always had a soft spot for country music because there’s a lot of country music in Elvis. He’s not entirely anything, really: he’s Elvis and that’s it. I always had that soft spot for country music on account of the treble guitar sound that was so prevalent. I’m a sucker for treble. I’m a sucker for trouble. I’m not really one of those bass heads. For me it’s all about the “meoooow,” that twang—I love that stuff. I used to like Lee Hazlewood as a songwriter. He’s an LA-based country flavor.
I love America. America is great like that. It doesn’t make any sense to be a purist; that’s what I like about American music. It co-opts folkish idioms. It puts it through a kind of flavor-lighting process where it just becomes American music. I was watching Deadwood on TV last night, and the music on the back credits was country, bluegrass, but they also used country-blues as well. It was slide guitar and things like that and it just fit so well. I think Martin Scorsese started that, using incidental music that is actually anomalous to the period in which the movie is set. When it just goes by the mood.
BLVR: I know you did a tour in the 1980s with Linton Kwesi Johnson.
JCC: Yeah, we were the hottest ticket in town then. There weren’t any other poets around then. Or if there were, nobody knew about them.
BLVR: Were you kind of pulled toward the reggae scene as a result?
JCC: I already loved reggae. I never went to any concerts at all in the ’70s, but the only new music that had a groove in any real way was reggae. And living in Manchester, close to Moss Side—a lot of those singers used to do shows. People like Roy Shirley, Bill Lovelady, Desmond Dekker, Freddie McGregor, Dennis Alcapone, Dennis Brown, and all those Lovers Rock singers. So, yeah, I love reggae music. If you think about it, every single by Fats Domino is a ska record. And it’s no accident, because the radio stations that were available in Jamaica in the 1950s and 1960s were the radio stations in New Orleans and in the state of Florida. In Jamaica, they got quite a clear signal. So if you listen to any Fats Domino record, it’s a bouncha-bouncha-bouncha-bouncha, innit? He’s the one who invented ska. No doubt about it. I love Fats Domino. All the people I like in England are the most American. I like Van Morrison, for example.
BLVR: Do you have a favorite place you’ve performed at?
JCC: Well, I love New York. I love playing in America. It means a lot to me, because what I do is sort of an American thing. That kind of declamatory beatnik shit. I think there’s a lot of that in my work, obviously because of my age. It was unavoidable. If you wanted to sell poetry with a sexy hipster vibe—and what young man doesn’t want to do it that way?—the beatniks are the go-to gang.
BLVR: To this day, people are obsessed with them.
JCC: Absolutely, yeah. I get re-infected! I get re-infected with it every few years.
III. “MORE LIKE TIN PAN ALLEY”
BLVR: You said somewhere that you don’t see writing poetry as a cathartic thing.
BLVR: So is it music first or poetry first? How does that get created?
JCC: Sometimes I get the last line and work my way backward. The poem that is perhaps taken the most seriously in my canon, if you will, is a poem called “Beasley Street.” And I got the last line first for that one. I got it from the movie 42nd Street, choreographed by Busby Berkeley in 1933 and starring Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. The big production number on it is a song called “42nd Street,” and it finishes off on the line “Naughty, gaudy, bawdy, sporty Forty-Second Street.” That’s a great way to finish a number. So I thought: I’ll write about a street, any street, some of the streets round here, you know, a mythical street. Like “Dead End Street” by the Kinks or “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan. Everybody’s done a street. So I thought I’d start there and see what rhymes with sleazy, cheesy, and what almost rhymes with uneasy, greasy, queasy, beastly—Beasley! Beasley Street. After that, I worked my way back. I knew how it was going to end, so I just had to figure out how to build my way up to it. Sometimes it’s just technique. If you do it for a living and you are a professional, it’s nothing ado with what people might think. It’s a nice romantic idea that one gets hit, like Saint Paul, by some epiphanic idea that you just can’t resist, that you simply have to commit to paper. It ain’t like that really. It’s more like Tin Pan Alley, the way I do it. I’m looking for what people will like, because that’s how I earn my living: via the approval of the public. You know what I’m saying? I don’t have a message. I don’t. I’m not trying to make people nicer. Or even have people think I care about what’s going on in the world. I like to think I studiously avoid narrow political issues. It’s never been my intention to be a conveyor of any advice! It’s not didactic, let’s say.
BLVR: So it’s for pleasure, then?
JCC: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I hate didactic. Things that are trying to smuggle in some sort of fucking agenda—I fucking hate that. I’m not going to do it to other people. I don’t like it when it’s done to me, so I ain’t doing it to other people. It’s part of the entertainment industry, what I do. Art! You know, it’s art! [Laughs]
BLVR: Did you always write that way?
JCC: No, no. I… I never wanted to be understood. When I started writing poetry, I thought the only thing a poet had going for him wassome form of mystery. The last thing you want as a poet is to be understood. Otherwise, people will just pick your book up in a shot, read it, and then they’ll put it back. It’s got to have something that brings them back again and again, maybe thirty years later, even, like it did in my case. Or, preferably, people will learn it up by heart! That’s why I write in rhyme: because people are happier to learn something up by heart if it rhymes and it has a kind of engine, a rhythm built into it. So that is very important. When I started writing in rhyme, it was the corniest thing you could have done. The poetry world was littered with wannabe T. S. Eliots who read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and never fucking forgot about it. It’s like the film directors that have seen Citizen Kane. Oh, fucking pleaaaaaase. [Chuckles] Jolly. OK, Orson, but the rest of you: stick to telling the fucking story. You know what I’m saying?
JCC: In some ways, I do make it easy, but only because I want people to learn it up by heart. That’s the way poetry works: only if you’ve got it lodged in your being. That’s where inspiration comes in. Even with me! Sometimes I’ll look at a line that I didn’t give any thought to, that I intended merely as a bridge between that good line and that good line. And sometimes my attention is drawn to those very lines that I haven’t given any thought to at all.
BLVR: And they can turn out to be the best, almost?
JCC: Yeah, and I can fix on them. But I have a very fixatory nature. I think that goes with the territory. Because sometimes it takes a very long time to write a very short poem, and then again, sometimes a very long poem will just write itself. The main thing is to keep grappling and to put in some kind of office hours.
BLVR: Do you find yourself needing to be disciplined?
JCC: Yeah, absolutely. I’m a very routine person. Routine is everything to me. I’m a bit fucking OCD about it, if anything. [Laughing] I’m not waving the victim flag! But if anybody is OCD, it’s me. I’m a fucking ant-washer; I’ve got ’em all, man. [Laughs] I won’t touch a door knob without having a handkerchief in my hand. Something I share with the late Francis Albert Sinatra.
JCC: Yeah, he was like that. You definitely have got to be a bit obsessive.
BLVR: I think your longevity speaks to that. You’ve written so much and for so long that there has to be some discipline to it, in terms of not getting stubbornly caught up in one passage, in one way of writing that ultimately renders you irrelevant. Would you agree?
JCC: Yeah, absolutely. I’m writing for the public, but there are some things about the whole process that I can’t allow myself to know.
BLVR: You’ve just got to let it be?
JCC: Bill Withers put it best. He said, “The writing of songs involves a form of magic that I don’t want to get involved with.”
IV. GRAND LARCENY
PJ [his manager]: [Interrupting] Lads, we’ve got to take these books to the gig.
JCC: I fucking hate going to the venue before the show. It’s fucking miserable.
BLVR: Why is that?
JCC: Well, they’ve had the heating off all day. It’s always freezing and it smells of last night’s puke. Or disinfectant. I don’t know which is worse. Oh, it’s a fucking miserable scene. One of my poems opens up with that, dunnit? “Like a nightclub in the mornin’, you’re the bitter end.” It’s got all that about it, and all that baggage.
BLVR: Do you think poets and artists and writers are thieves in any kind of way?
JCC: Thieves! Oh my, absolutely. I’m the biggest. I’m… grand larceny! [Boisterous laugh] I plead guilty on that one. Without a doubt. I say to people, “Don’t show me your poetry.” They think I’m being funny. “If I like it, I’m going to steal it. So if you value your work, don’t show it to me.”
BLVR: Whom do you think you’ve stolen from the most, then?
JCC: That’s a good question. I steal from all over the place. You know, right in plain sight. Like from a TV ad. People think they know it, but it’s in plain sight, so they don’t value it; they just see it as a part of the throwaway consumer society, beneath their consideration. All that stuff that the public throws away: that’s my material. They know they know it, but they don’t know why I know it. I’ve got my finger on the pulse. They don’t even know, but I’ve got my finger on their pulse. It’s a kind of benign exploitation of the public. I’m doing it for their own good. [Laughs]
BLVR: You’re a public servant.
JCC: Yeah, yeah, put me down as a public servant! [Laughs]. So, yeah, I swipe from everywhere. For example, most people don’t know the Great American Songbook, and I do steal a lot of stuff from there. For instance, “The Luckiest Guy Alive.” Here’s a piece of circus. [Flipping through the book] It’s theft, but I’ve covered my tracks here. It starts with
On the fairway I’m under par
At the boat club they call me the Commissar
With a monogrammed tankard a-hanging in the bar
I’m the luckiest guy alive….
Just waiting for the trouble to arrive
The song that gave rise to this poem has exactly the same lines, and it’s called “I Can’t Get Started.” The best version was by a guy called Bunny Berigan, but they all covered it. Ella Fitzgerald, Frank. You know this song? It’s very indicative of the age in which it was written, because it mentions the Spanish Civil War. It references it, but not in such blatant terms. It goes [singing]:
I have traveled the world in a plane,
settled revolutions in Spain.
The North Pole I have charted
but I still can’t get started with you.
On the golf course I’m under par.
Metro-Goldwyn want me to star.
Still I’m downhearted
’cause I can’t get started with you.
BLVR: It’s got that easy swing to it.
JCC: Yeah, it really has. It’s a great, great song. So there you have it: that’s where I got “on the fairway I’m under par.” Everything is going swinging, but there’s still a thorn in your side. Something missing. You know what I mean? In this case, it’s this chick that he can’t get started with. And for me, you know, it’s that kind of innate pessimism. How happiness is impossible to sustain—that’s what it’s all about. I’ve always parted company with the late Thomas Jefferson in “Life, love and the pursuit of happiness.” Because I think you can’t pursue happiness. It’s the one target you only have to aim at in order to miss. You can only really enjoy happiness for however long it lasts. The minute you start thinking, How long will this last? it’s gone. Because happiness has been replaced by anxiety at that point. The death of happiness. So there you’ve got “I’m the luckiest guy alive… / just waiting for the trouble to arrive.” If you look, the only way is down. It’s an innately pessimistic piece, but it shows the futility of trying to sustain happiness. The getting of and the keeping of happiness are actually the two components that make it impossible. You get me?
BLVR: Absolutely. But once you’ve acknowledged that you’re the luckiest guy alive, aren’t you just—
JCC: Tempting fate!
JCC: I take your point. Tempting fate… I am tempting fate. But also I thought it was a good title as an antidote to the misery memoirs that flood the publishing world on a monthly basis. The victim accounts. I thought of it as a healthy counterbalance: here’s a guy, the luckiest guy alive, prove me wrong! [Laughs] It’s a good statement, ain’t it? I road-tested it last time I was in the States, actually. I used to say, when fans came back, “Would you buy a book called The Luckiest Guy Alive?” And every one of them said they would.
BLVR: Because they would want to know.
JCC: Yeah, yeah.
BLVR: What’s he doing down there?
JCC: [Laughs]Yeah. What arcane knowledge has he imparted? It’s got that self-help vibe about it. When I say “self-help,” I don’t mean “help yourself.” You’ve still got to pay for it. [Laughs hysterically]
BLVR: How many collections of poetry have you written?
JCC: This is only my second one. The other one was thirty years ago; it was called Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt.
PJ [manager]: Try thirty-five years ago.
JCC: Thirty-five even.
BLVR: Why did you decide to put this one together?
JCC: Well, I had all this new shit. And, you know, I got more than what went into it, but these are the ones I have been doing onstage for the last eight years. It’s a good collection. I can’t recommend it enough. Have you seen Deadwood?
BLVR: No, I haven’t.
JCC: Oh, it’s sensational. I watched it all for about twelve hours yesterday. It was raining. But it couldn’t have been better. Man, that’s a great show.
BLVR: What’s it about?
JCC: The town of Deadwood at the time of Wild Bill Hickok. You know, the Gold Rush, in Dakota, though, not California.
BLVR: Oh, OK. Have you ever traveled to the Midwest?
JCC: No. I’d love to. I’m hoping to do that very soon with my wife. What we want to do is get a train to Memphis and do just three towns. Get on and off in three different towns. Book a good hotel so we’re not rushed, and then get back on the train and finish up at Graceland. My wife’s French and she’s been all over. Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida…
BLVR: It’s a different country over there.
JCC: Oh, yeah. It’s no good saying you love America and you’ve only been to the coasts. That’s not all. People forget they’re at the peril of the farm boys of Indiana.If you’re not selling records to that, you ain’t a big star. That’s where Springsteen’s got it so right. Don’t they love him in Colorado? I’ll tell you a good case in point. Why would these bands ever go to England, you know? There’s a band I caught over here the time before last whenI was in LA. I was channel-hopping and found myself back in Red Rocks, in Colorado, for this show. There must have been three million people there. It’s like a natural amphitheater in the canyons and there were people right up to the horizon, millions of people. I thought: Who is this? Who’s on? Who is this band? And they kicked in and they were great, but I didn’t recognize any of these guys. Why would I? Why would they go over to England when they can play to three million people in Colorado? And this band, they’re great. Really versatile. You’ll know ’em: the Dave Matthews Band.
BLVR: Oh yeah, of course!
JCC: I think they’re fabulous. And they’ve never heard of ’em in England! Because why would they go there? They’ve done a couple of concerts, to be fair, but a lot of people have never heard of these guys. Because they never come over here. Why get on a plane? And they’re a big outfit, aren’t they? There’s a lot of them.
BLVR: I see what you’re saying. If you can prove yourself in the United States, that’s about it, isn’t it?
JCC: Exactly! Why go… the Colonel… I love a circular conversation! The Colonel was right to install Elvis in Las Vegas. Anybody with any sense, at some point, goes out there and sees Elvis. You know where he is. He’s in Las Vegas. Just like the Queen of England is in Buckingham Palace, the king of the world, he’s in Las Vegas.