He’s the Bard of Salford, a punk-performance poet par excellence whose influence has trickled down from sharing stages with Joy Division to collaborating with the Arctic Monkeys. Ahead of his show on April 28th, Mike McGrath-Bryan chats about poetry, stagecraft, and the legacy of punk with Dr. John Cooper Clarke.
John Cooper Clarke is in very good form at the other end of the phone, a midweek presser interview happening on a sunny afternoon. Personable and honest, his Mancunian-accented voice resonates warmly down the line, spoken deliberately but with good humour and a wit you’d expect from a performer whose way with words and non-traditional influence led him to a legendary career, culminating in a doctorate from the University of Salford. He mulls over a line of questioning he’s been sent in advance. “We’ll talk about it like gentlemen”, he chuckles. It’s almost disarming, coming from a man of his stature.
Growing from a young boy in Manchester with the gift of a turn of phrase, to the artistic contemporary of bands like The Sex Pistols, The Buzzcocks, and Joy Division, rock ‘n’ roll mythologists might be slightly surprised that his body of work began with a very brief stint in folk clubs in his home city. It’s a dichotomy that didn’t quite sit right with him for a few reasons, and set the tone for how he’d proceed. “I give ‘em a wide berth, to be honest. Maybe once or twice. But if you grew up in 1950s England, you’ll remember that enjoyment of folk music was rigidly enforced, to counter the perceived Americanisation of popular culture, which I was in favour of. I always saw folk as some creepy, state-sanctioned f*ckin’ brainwashing technique. I’m not talking about Christy Moore, Dylan or the Pogues, more Morris dancing and that anti-American rubbish. I wanted to get into show business. I’d determined I would take it up as a profession, and the only way I knew of, really, given that there weren’t any venues, or any chance of anyone from my background getting a publishing deal right away, was to drag it into the world of showbiz!”
Poetry had scarcely been reaching non-traditional audiences up to the point of Clarke’s youth, reaching his family via Pam Ayres’ recurring spot on ITV’s postal-vote talent show Opportunity Knocks. In a world of YouTube poetry videos and shortform content, the idea of poetry topping the billing on such a television show today is nearly astounding, but for Clarke, it was what he needed to win his family over on his calling. “When I became interested in becoming a professional poet, I didn’t get much encouragement. They were only thinking of my welfare, I’m sure, but my parents pointed out that to their knowledge, no-one had ever made money out of it (laughs)… I’d mention famous modern poets like Philip Larkin, and they’d say ‘he’s a librarian’. Things like that. They were trying to be kind and discourage me from an ill-advised avenue of wealth.”
As mentioned, Clarke earned the moniker ‘The Bard of Salford’ by sharing stages with greats of the punk oeuvre across the late seventies and early eighties. While his live run and recorded work placed him firmly in that genre’s performance-art pantheon, to Clarke, it was a means of getting out and expanding his range. “Let’s deal with that moniker. After getting lumbered with that label, my first priority was to move to London. Who wants to be a local eccentric? F*ck that. The world of punk-rock provided a ticket for this, it only lasted two years, I think, but it provided an intense personal connection for the fans. For me, it got me out of Manchester and around the world, several times. It provided an opportunity for this kind of thing. It only lasted two years, and very few people were involved, but its effect on the cultural world, and in the UK, was disproportionate (chuckles). It shows you the power of mythology! It’s developed its own mythology which has intensified over time. And a general “anti-hippieness” that was so intoxicating at the time.”
A long-form poetry film is something that is just not seen anymore, much less given the opportunity to reach any sort of audience. While formulating a question on his memories, or current thoughts, of the creation of his own masterwork, ‘Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt’, he’s quick to issue a correction that’s shown up in this very parish lately via the festival rounds. “I’ll give you one – Cyrano de Bergerac, with Gerard Depardieu. Blinder! It’s got swordplay as well! ‘Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt’, I haven’t seen it in about thirty years. It hasn’t aged very well, I imagine. I watch my films once, and once only. Why suffer more?”
Salford returned the favour to its Bard in 2013 with an honorary doctorate from the University of Salford. Given his feelings on the discrepancy between literary academia and non-traditional forms nowadays, it must have been quite an experience to receive that recognition. “Why not me? At first, I thought, ‘why me?’, but then I read somewhere that Benjamin Zephaniah has sixteen doctorates from as many universities. ‘Thank you’, that was my response. Anything that entitles me to call myself Doctor, ‘thanks very much’. You don’t see him using them, though, he doesn’t call himself Doctor, and he’s entitled sixteen times over, whereas me, I won’t let people forget about it! I’m not wearing those ridiculous clothes in daylight and not call myself Doctor!”
His legacy in music continues to this day, including collaborations with the Arctic Monkeys and Reverend & the Makers, and regular live appearances reciting his own work at music venues around the world. When asked for his thoughts on the influence of his work on younger musicians, poets and performers, however, he’s happy to let that with those he’s influenced. “You’d have to ask somebody else, really, Mike. I’m glad of all the interest that I’d been shown, by Alex (Turner, Arctic Monkeys frontman) and Ben Drew, who used one of my works in the movie ‘Plan B’. I’m very grateful for this mass-media attention, obviously? What’s a poet if nobody knows about it? Without glamour and/or money? A schnorrer, a beggar (laughs). Anything that brings me closer to financial security (laughs louder).”
Clarke is playing Live at St. Luke’s on Sunday April 28th, with Mike Garry and Stephen James Smith, as part of an extended run of Irish dates he’ll have been on, including a big show at Dublin’s Vicar Street. He readily offers a message to the gig-goers, word-speakers and general culture-vultures of the Leeside city. “The last one I did in Ireland was three weeks ago in Vicar Street, which was fabulous. There’s no reason to suspect that St. Luke’s won’t be every bit as good. All I can say to the people of Cork is: ‘no pressure, but get me while I’m alive!’.”
John Cooper Clarke is playing Live at St. Luke’s on Sunday April 28th, with Mike Garry and Stephen James Smith in support. Tickets €30 on sale now via uticket.ie.