Dr John Cooper Clarke – ‘The Bard of Salford’
Launching Worthing’s World of Words Festival at the Connaught Theatre in spring
I’m living in Yorkshire. It’s the heady days of the late 1970s/early 80s; punk’s anarchic zenith has come and is waning; my hippie hair and beard have long been removed, I’ve recently been unlucky in love and still lies my rebellious spirit.
It was at this point, slightly late in the day, that I first encountered the rhythmic, avant-garde poetry of John Cooper Clarke; a mixture of punk’s adversarial attitude, a streetwise eloquence and razor sharp wit. Despite the broad Lancashire accent, I was mesmerised by what I heard. Back then he seemed to me like a northern working class version of John Betjeman and, somehow, he still does to this day.
At that time he was approaching a high point in his career. The albums he made, backed musically by the innovative band The Invisible Girls, are today considered classics, and one track, ‘Beasley Street’, a no-holds-barred lament for society’s impoverished underclass, is arguably Clarke’s magnum opus.
“Where the action isn’t/ That’s where it is/ State your position/ Vacancies exist/ In an X-certificate exercise/ Ex-servicemen excrete/ Keith Joseph smiles and a baby dies/ In a box on Beasley Street.”
To my dismay, like many a creative soul, Clarke gradually succumbed to an addiction to heroin and for many years, despite still being creative, he went off my and many others’ radar. But after the millennium, following his conquering of his drug habit, a rather bizarre mixture of events occurred; some of his work was included in the GCSE syllabus, he met up and worked with the Artic Monkeys, he collaborated on a film with Plan B and his track ‘Evidently Chicken-town’ was used as the music for the end credits of the seventy-ninth episode of the TV colossus ‘The Sopranos’. Then, in 2012, he was made the subject of a BBC documentary entitled ‘Evidently John Cooper Clarke’ during which many of his famous fans came out of the woodwork to heap praise on him. Bill Bailey, Billy Bragg, Stewart Lee, Craig Charles, Steve Coogan and many others all waxed lyrical about the man’s genius. The renaissance of ‘The Bard of Salford’ was now in full swing and in 2013 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of arts by the University of Salford in “acknowledgement of a career which has spanned five decades, bringing poetry to non-traditional audiences and influencing musicians and comedians”. So he became Dr John Cooper Clarke, a title he seems to relish yet gently satirise at the same time.
Which brings us to 2015 and the National Trust came calling, asking the good Doctor to help them celebrate 50 years of caring for the coast. So he wrote the poem ‘Ode to the Coast’, inspired by over 11,000 contributions from people about their coastal memories. You may have seen it on the National Trust’s TV advert or on their website.
“A big fat sky and a thousand shrieks/ The tide arrives and the timber creaks/ A world away from the working week/ Où est la vie nautique?/ That’s where the sea comes in…”
I had the pleasure to interview the man himself in December. His doctorate doesn’t seem to have gone to his head, quite the contrary, I found him very friendly, down to earth, laid back and quite cheerful. In fact he was quite charming, making a point of thanking me for taking the time to interview him and for promoting his gig in Worthing which he seemed excited to be doing. Very refreshing. He was, to quote a phrase from Beasley Street, ‘nothing lah-di-dah.’
I was curious about his very early influences. Did he read widely when young? What about his schooling?
“I read a lot as a child; I was ill when young with tuberculosis and had quite a bit of time off school. I read everything. Also, when back at school, we had a great English teacher called John Malone and he encouraged the class to get into poetry. We had a compendium of poetry, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, featuring mostly dead poets. We’d have competitions; they were hot – each of us trying to outdo the other with million dollar words. He inspired a love for poetry.”
I was curious about what poets specifically he’d read back then that influenced him?
“The usual suspects,” he replies, “Betjeman, Tennyson, Shelley, Newbolt, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stephenson etc.”
I didn’t really need to prod more about his early influences, it was obvious that he was very well read, probably even more so than many literary commentators of today. During our chat I discovered we both admired the songwriting of Jimmy Webb. I had come across a rumour that he had recorded a version of Webb’s seven minute masterpiece ‘MacArthur Park’ with ex-Strangler’s front man Hugh Cornwell and Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson. How did that come about?
“Hugh is recording an album of covers and he asked me to be part of that; I put in my two bob’s worth. I’m a great admirer of Jimmy Webb and I was a big fan of the Stranglers, along with Patti Smith and The Ramones. Back in the day I’d no idea they were British, I thought they were from America!”
The song has some pretty high notes, I know from first-hand experience. As I’d never heard him sing I asked if he recited the lyrics as a poem or sang them? Dr Clark put me straight, politely rebuking my accidentally implied suspicion of his dulcet tones:
“Of course it was originally sung by the actor Richard Harris. It’s a difficult song to sing well, but I can carry a tune!”
He didn’t have any idea when the CD would be released, telling me to ask Hugh. I had been excited to hear of the collaboration and was now doubly so; can’t wait to hear him singing such an iconic, dramatic song in that Lancastrian drawl!
We moved on to his recent collaboration with the National Trust. Was he a fan of the coast himself?
“I have a great affinity with the coast. When I was young and ill I was sent to Rhyl in North Wales to recuperate; sea air and all that. It was a beautiful place then, it’s more rundown now. I was alone and was there out of season and when it was coming into season. It was a unique experience. Lots of fresh air. I went out walking and mooching about from 10am to 5pm all over the place. I made my own entertainment and got on first name terms with the fairground oppos. So yes, I love the coast. I don’t go hiking or fishing or things like that and when I think of a holiday I think of the coast. I don’t understand the idea of taking a holiday… (here he pauses for a short moment and emphasises the next word with a slightly sardonic feel coupled with his full Lancastrian nasal twang) …inland!”
Dr John Cooper Clarke is a now a somewhat ubiquitous presence on our TVs, is a DJ on BBC Radio 6 music, performs around the country regularly and is close to becoming a national icon, if he isn’t already. Kudos to him for conquering his demons and persisting at his craft for so long, despite all. There’s a lesson in there somewhere. He’s well into his sixties now and seems to be revelling in his new-found fame while also not taking it too seriously. The man who is credited with having brought poetry back to the ‘common people’ is alive and well and I’m as pleased as punch that his creativity is still in bloom and that at last his talent is being so broadly recognised.
John Cooper Clarke is appearing at The Connaught Theatre, Worthing on Thursday 14th April and the event is an apt launch for Worthing’s World of Words Festival, which will then run from 28th May to 12th June.