Philippa Ger­rard spoke with John Cooper Clarke, the punk poet whose time has come again

The Press and Journal (Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire) - - YOUR WEEKEND -

John Cooper Clarke lives life in ra­zor-sharp fo­cus. The first give­away is his tra­di­tional garb, un­changed from when he first got up on stage as a young poet in the 1970s.

From the pointed tip of his boots to the starched col­lar, sharp blazer and hair which looks like it just with­stood a hur­ri­cane, John cuts a recog­nis­able sil­hou­ette.

He turned 70 this year, but time has faded nei­ther his quick­wit­ted de­meanour nor pen­chant for ul­tra-skinny drain­pipe jeans.

Mod­ern ar­ti­cles claim he “shot to fame as the orig­i­nal peo­ple’s poet”, per­fectly cap­tur­ing the ethos of the punk era. But John re­mem­bers it dif­fer­ently.

“I’m more fa­mous now than I ever was in the pop punk era,” he scoffs.

His voice is a thing of won­der, deep and cracked, ev­ery slow syl­la­ble ev­i­dence of too many cig­a­rettes smoked in decades gone by.

“And that’s not me be­ing big-headed.

“Most of the time I was play­ing on bills where I wasn’t the main act and there was no guar­an­tee that peo­ple who were there to see the Sex Pis­tols would like me.”

For years he fought rau­cous au­di­ences to be heard and over time it paid off, earn­ing him the un­of­fi­cial ti­tle of Bard of Sal­ford.

“In the ’80s my pro­file dropped,” John said.

“You see, in the ’80s, if you were per­ceived to be any­thing to do with punk, then you weren’t flavour of the month any more.

“But I never stopped writ­ing and car­ried on do­ing smaller gigs.

“Po­ets are sup­posed to be un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated, you know?

“But I got a bit of in­ter­na­tional re­lief when The So­pra­nos un­ex­pect­edly fea­tured Chick­en­town (one of John’s most fa­mous record­ings).

“Oh that tick­led me, it did. I’m a huge fan of the show, you see, and they never con­tacted me in ad­vance so it was a to­tal sur­prise.”

In 2012 John was the sub­ject of a BBC Four doc­u­men­tary and in the same year fea­tured in rap­per Plan B’s fea­ture film Ill Manors and the sub­se­quent Ill Manors al­bum.

A year later, his poem I Wanna Be Yours was also adapted by rock band the Arc­tic Mon­keys for their fifth al­bum, AM.

As well as the ears of mu­sic fans, John’s punk po­etry was also in­fil­trat­ing the school syl­labus, with a se­lec­tion of his work used in the English GCSE cur­ricu­lum.

But John is con­flicted over his new-found au­di­ence.

“I’m in this unique po­si­tion where my au­di­ence are com­pletely pan-gen­er­a­tional,” he said.

“Ob­vi­ously this is thanks in a large part to the work of the Arc­tic Mon­keys and Plan B and it has en­sured me a new gen­er­a­tional wave of fans.

“In that sense, it couldn’t have gone bet­ter.”

It’s the ed­u­ca­tional side he has some trou­ble mak­ing peace with.

“A poem is not a puzzle to be solved,” he said.

“Schools are guilty of bur­den­ing po­etry with such big heavy sub­jects, then strip­ping them down bit by bit ’till the magic is gone.

“It’s one of the great­est shames that many peo­ple con­flate po­etry with war and it’s be­cause they come away from school with the idea that po­etry is all about death and de­spair.

“In re­al­ity, po­etry is a lux­ury to be en­joyed.”

And in his time as a pro­fes­sional poet John has cer­tainly en­joyed him­self, liv­ing the rock ‘n’ roll life­style which saw him bat­tle a dom­i­nat­ing heroin ad­dic­tion for many years.

But today things are bright. He has just re­leased a new book, a col­lec­tion of po­etry writ­ten over sev­eral decades called The Luck­i­est Guy Alive and is tour­ing a show which stops off in Aberdeen to­mor­row night.

“It just seems like an ac­cu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of my life at the mo­ment,” John said.

“First, there’s my do­mes­tic sit­u­a­tion, my won­der­ful wife and fam­ily.

“And then this other life where I walk out on stage ev­ery night.

“The Luck­i­est Guy Alive? I rest my case.” •John Cooper Clark is per­form­ing a se­lec­tion of his po­etry read­ings at the Tivoli Theatre in Aberdeen on Fri­day. For tick­ets, see john­coop­erclarke.com

John Cooper Clarke and his lat­est col­lec­tion

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