One of the cultural delights of 2012 is the return to performing and writing of John Cooper Clarke. “The Poet Laureate of Punk”, “The Bard of Salford”, “Johnny Clarke, the name behind the hairstyle” has been one of the funniest and most accurate social commentators for longer than any of us care to remember. A BBC film not only covered the 35 years of his career but showed John to be on fine form. For too long fans, of which I am one, had to be satisfied with irregular media appearances and the odd “Sugar Puffs” commercial. We knew he still had it but new poems were too few and too far between. John rejects the idea that he is a “national treasure”, he is particular about the company he keeps. This tag has been devalued as it is bestowed on others less worthy, for durability rather than talent. If he doesn’t want to be one that’s OK. As the clip shows his individual brand of stand-up poetry, often imitated, never bettered, still has bite and is still funny. I, for one, am looking forward to new poems and more sardonic attitude from the man.
I first saw JCC at a festival in the early 80s. His style and fashion were taken from “Don’t Look Back” Dylan, the rapid fire delivery of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in a flat Salford drawl. We were similarly accelerated at the time and enjoyed every alliterative burst of acerbity. His performances were sporadic in the next decade as Johnny was in the basement mixing up his medicine. We attended every one we could. He only lived round the corner from us (with Nico, for Jah’s sake) so we were lucky that he did not have travel too far to these gigs. It was always good to see him standing upright for an hour. The poems were the same one’s as he always did but you would not go to see William Wordsworth and not expect a greatest hits set. One thing about John’s gigs was that you would always get some good stories and a couple of proper good jokes. “Hold this camel’s head” is the punchline of a memorable one.
My oldest nephew was preparing for auditions at drama colleges. I gave him my copy of JCC’s “Ten Years In An Open Necked Shirt” and recommended he performed one of the poems as an audition piece. Joel was a big (6′ 6″) Northern guy, I thought that his presence would be complimented by the directness and wit of any of the poems. I had once seen a drama student deliver a Cooper Clarke poem in a cultivated Home Counties accent. I may be accused of inverted snobbery but this was just so wrong. It was only my Englishman’s aversion to causing a scene which prevented me jumping to my feet and shouting “Stop this abomination now !”. I knew that my nephew could do the poem justice.
Joel was accepted at drama college. Ten years later he married his lovely wife Natasha and “I Wanna Be Yours” was read as part of the ceremony. Man, that was a lovely moment.
John Cooper Clarke’s poems are now included in the GCSE syllabus in British schools (though if the odious Education Minister, Michael Gove, finds out this might change). I, and many people I know, are able to quote more lines from his work than those of any other poet. I am sure that John knows this but he is not really concerned about his place in English literature. We can make the argument for his contribution but there really is no need. If you know his work then you love it. If you don’t then go to http://www.cyberspike.com/clarke/poemlist.html where you will find something to delight you. Me…I am loving the new poems. “Thing Are Gonna Get Worse”, about getting old (a bungalow smelling of piss and biscuits !) is as good as the early work, the same perspective on different times. I look forward to anything the man produces in this long awaited burst of creativity.
I have to close with this clip. Like any right thinking person I was spellbound as “The Sopranos” re-defined the mobster myth for the 21st century. I was snarfing down the final series on DVD having deliberately avoided anyone who or anything which may spoil the ending for me. When the unmistakable drumbeat of Martin Hannett and the Invisible Girls’ opening to “Evidently Chickentown” marked the ending of an episode I was amazed. Quite how “the bloody weed is bloody turf, the bloody speed is bloody “Surf”” translates to New Jersey I am not sure. The bleakness of John Cooper Clarke’s poem about a shitty 70s British town perfectly matched the twisted and compromised (a)morality of the protagonists. To hear this poetry included in such an iconic piece of pop culture seemed to me to be a proper appreciation of work that has been under appreciated for too long. JCC and “The Sopranos”, now that makes me smile.