John Cooper Clarke

Thursday evening, 31st October 2013. We were at Scunthorpe when the codeine kicked in. But pulling off the M18 and sweeping into the neon subtopian sprawl, through the usual sentries of traffic lights and the ubiquitous bland utilitarian landscaping amongst light industrial sheds, we could have been anywhere. The darkness making the sense of dislocation even more pronounced. There was Tescos (obviously), Toys R Us, KFC, McEtc McEtc. The only things that differentiate between the different parts of the country these days are our accents (where the neo-urban patois hasn’t taken over, innit?) and mortality winners and losers in the NHS treatment lottery. Otherwise everywhere is the same. No more architectural or cultural differences. Cancer and dropped aitches are all we have left to mark out our topographical differences. And proudly so. You’re dying of ball cancer and can’t pronounce ‘there’ without it sounding like ‘dare’… You must be from Sheffield… It’s a dead giveaway. So to speak.

To allow them… (or ‘it’…? Is Tesco a sentient entity like some sci-fi conglomeration of souls?)… to allow Tesco their due, they at least try to give each store its own individuality by putting all the items in a different aisle at each branch. The cynical, conspiracy obsessed, might carp that it also entices disorientated impulse buyers, in a way reminiscent of labyrinthine Las Vegas casino architecture, so that the suddenly befuddled shopper ends up lobbing shiny nothings into their trolley as they search desperately for milk. It’s like the horror film, The Man Who Haunted Himself, with Roger Moore, where everything is familiar yet strange. ‘But I’m Pelham!’ I don’t give a shit who you are. Just tell me where the bloody Uncle Ben’s rice is! But other than that each is belligerently the same as any other. It’s architectural Mogadon. A landscape chemical cosh to soothe the individuality that disfigures us all. To make us feel like we’re all getting a piece if the action. The South might have better schools and they’re not all dying of rickets, but at least the shops look all the same. Can’t they give one of the fuckers a thatched roof or put a mullioned window on the Bureau de change? I’ve been to the Tesco in Ryde on the Isle of Wight and the one in Perth up in bonnie Scotland. They are exactly the same, apart from the hospice sellers touting for different ailments in different accents by the automatic doors, jostling with the bloke from the AA.

The Plowright Theatre to where I was headed is located curiously alongside the Magistrates Court, Police Station and Fire House. And nothing else. Gold Taps in the Gents give it a touch of the West End. Myself and Bernard Docherty are in town to see John Cooper Clarke. Cooper Clarke… How do you pronounce his name? Is it double barrelled or is Cooper his middle name in a way similar to Taylor in Samuel Taylor Coleridge? Anyway, however you slice it, John is a professional malcontent. It is – despite the obligatory persecution complex – a privileged position. We have a few of them doing the culture circuit. Mancunians and Scousers seem to have a surfeit. And in many ways, Clarke is St John the Baptist to Ian Brown’s messianic indie saviour. Or Johnny Marr. Or Lee Mavers. Or Mick Head. Or Noel Gallagher… Or… [FILL THIS SPACE WITH YOUR OWN NORTHERN INDIE ICON]. He wears the same post-Coronation Street Northern chic as Morrissey. I can imagine him – and Stephen Patrick Morrissey – nursing a Sweet Sherry with Emily Bishop in the Rover’s Return, and reciting a Haiku about Len Fairclough being wrongly accused of fingering a pre-teen at the local swimming baths (Victorian, beautiful brown and white tiles – gorgeously evoked with a simple juxtaposition of everyday images such as a floating verruca patch and the stench of Chlorine). A combination of Alan Bennett, Simon Armitage and Elsie Tanner. Which makes JCC’s association with Nico from The Velvet Underground all the more natural. Though how she ended up in Salford is another matter.

There is a sense that JCC – like Ian Brown – is living inside his own legend. Preciously conscious of being lauded like the Queen Mum of performance poetry and Indie thought respectively. He’s obviously proud of his Sopranos connection (his poem ‘Chicken Town’ was featured in the final series – I think they should have chosen ‘Twat’, which is far more lyrical). Why shouldn’t he be? But there’s something which jars. And to some extent there’s an attitude that sails close to tipping the skinny rhymer into the dangerous waters of cultural poseur. Though at least he isn’t designing his own Adidas trainers. Yet.

JCC’s cultivated appearance and mannerisms create something that is a cross between an anorexic Lily Savage and Wayne from Auf Wiedersehen Pet, with the profile of Ronnie Wood (sharing Ronnie’s same expression of cheery confusion when something doesn’t go according to plan). Initially it’s like an aging Bob Dylan tribute has taken to the stage.  A sixty-odd year old version of Dylan but with the suit and back-combed hair like Bob on the cover of 1966’s Blonde on Blonde or the same look with permanent sunglasses, during the 1965 UK tour – at one point JCC’s Ray Bans dropped off, it was like
that first sight of Davros when he’d been stripped of his metal carapace.
What we get is a cross between performance poet, stand-up comedian and raconteur. JCC’s delivery of his poetry is similar to a horse race commentator; the words machine-gunned out, the prosody punched into the crowd, the poem tearing to a finish. Then there’s the some banter between the set pieces – conversational and indiscrete – like you’re chatting to him in the Black Lion on Chapel Street in Salford over a pint of Marble Real Ale. Pam Ayres was referenced (funnily, but not unkindly) – Pam a stalwart of 1970s TV and a rare exception from those days not to come under the branches of Operation Yewtree – no women so far have been happy to assist the police all they can and help with enquiries. Though it’s only a matter of time before some middle aged boy scout claims he was fingered by I£££ S£ C££££. Coincidently, Pam was appearing live that same evening in Shanklin on the Isle of Wight. I get the feeling – rightly or wrongly – that she probably didn’t say ‘cunt’ as many times. (NB. I find it peculiar how middle-class, culture-vulture audience – which is what was largely out tonight – embrace the word ‘cunt’ in a way they never do when it appears in general day to day conversation).

He was supported by Mike Garry (who looks like Robbie Savage and sounds like Shaun Ryder, and drops names like Shaun used to drop acid – despite which I thoroughly appreciated his work) and Luke Wright (Mondeo Man – recommended). I enjoyed the night. I came away richer for it. My thought process prompted, the internal rhythms given a shake as I trekked back home through the yellow and black night. Which is what a good gig should be about.