“Last time I came here,” says John Cooper Clarke, “it were 1958 and I’d come to see Bob Hope.” The Palace Theatre, one block down from where the Hacienda used to be and diagonally opposite Cornerhouse, dates back to a different age of Mancunian entertainment – all gilt, red plush and Muppet boxes, just like a proper theatre should be. Stars on the walls commemorate those who have trod its boards – from Laurel and Hardy and Sir John Gielgud to Nat King Cole and Peter Kay. I don’t know who put them up, but they are strange bedfellows. Brian Blessed is next to Norman Wisdom while George Formby’s star is alongside Noel Coward.
Someone’s clearly got an odd sense of humour, which I’m sure John Cooper Clarke would appreciate. The first time I saw him perform live in 1996, in the middle of the afternoon in a small and dingy pub at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, was among an audience that probably only ran into double figures.
It was a very long way from star billing at the Manchester Palace. That day, he shambled on stage with his trademark tinted glasses, ultra-skinny black jeans and shock of dark hair, took a very large pull at his whisky and coke, spat out the ice-cubes and declared “that’s the last time I give an eskimo a blow job”. Much of JCC’s material was brilliant but nearly all of it dated back to the punk era that made him a cult figure (and beyond, when Bernard Manning gave him an early start in performing in Working Men’s Clubs), and it was delivered by a man who’d spent very little time since then away from the influence of illegal substances. Being a living legend clearly wasn’t helping him win his struggle with everyday life.
In short, he seemed more likely to end up in an institution than become one. But since then, he’s been rehabilitated – in every sense of the word. As well as now being on the GCSE syllabus, he’s become a regular host on BBC 6music and appeared on shows like Celebrity Mastermind and – most recently – Have I Got News For You. It’s been a transition that isn’t lost on the man himself. “You probably know more about me than I know meself…” is his opening gambit.
John Cooper Clarke’s style of delivery is as haphazard as it’s always been, but these days that’s more because of his past than his present. “I can’t come back to Manchester often these days,” he says, “Because taking drugs here is compulsory.”
There’s a great amount of self-deprecation going on – he’s still as stick-thin as ever but claims to be piling on the pounds, and goes off on a tangent about being responsible for all the eating disorders in the world because women are falling over themselves to get The John Cooper Clarke Look. All of which is a preamble to an ode to the Mancunian sense of humour called Get Back On Drugs You Fat F**k… an irony lost on two female theatregoers who let rip from the Circle Balcony with a fine stream of invective and eventually have to be removed from the venue, more at the behest of the rest of the audience than the man on stage.
I’ll say this for John Cooper Clarke gigs, they’re rarely dull. The Good Doctor (honorary, from the University of Salford last year) does his best to move on but is just a little bit shaken. “Well, we, er… we done that one,” he says with a rueful smile.
So the man who claims to be a Nostalgic Amnesiac (“I prefer the past… but I don’t remember what it was like”) moves on to more familiar territory – Beasley Street, cracking tale of urban blight that it is, comes at us at a cracking pace before JCC moves on to its sequel. From urban blight to Urban Splash, the attempted refurbishment and gentrification of Beasley Boulevard parallels the new Manchester. “There’s a pub but the regulars are barred,” is a line that stands out in a tale of Hoxton fins and noodle bars. Greater Manchester, like Cooper Clarke, has cleaned up and moved on, but you sense that it might have been more fun in the old days.
If you’ve been to see the Bard of Salford before, you’ll recognise a lot of his stage patter and old-school one-liners (“If Jesus was a Jew, then why the Spanish name?”) as old friends, and you’ll be used to the bizarre conversational tangents and, erm, unconventional style of delivery. We learn that dinosaurs became extinct because they couldn’t generalise, and that there’s no Japanese translation for ‘near enough’ – the section on haikus always goes down well. Sometimes it feels like he’s just rambling on, yet at others he brings things brilliantly back to the point having put the audience in just the right frame of mind to hear the next poem, and suddenly everything makes sense.
This is a sold-out hometown gig, the faithful have gathered to see the local hero – there won’t be any complaints, although I’m sure nobody would have minded if the tangents had been a little shorter and the poem count had been upped a little. But that’s the way it is with flawed genius. When gems like Things Are Gonna Get Worse do finally arrive, you can forgive the length of the preamble about Terry Pratchett and voluntary euthanasia.
Cooper Clarke finishes with three classics – still, you feel, slightly amused at having been asked to appear on Have I Got News For You, he smiles at having enabled guest host Kirsty Young to refer to the title of the first of the three, and thus legitimately say Tw*t on national television.
“My swearbox doubles as a high-yield pension scheme,” he adds, not for the first time, before launching into Evidently Chickentown.
There are thanks for those who have inspired him like Raymond Douglas Davies of The Kinks, those who have helped put him back on the straight and narrow like Johnny Green, former tour manager with The Clash, and what feels like a genuine sense of surprise and wonderment at having featured on The Sopranos and having been involved in number one albums with Plan B and the Arctic Monkeys.
And that’s where we end up, with the poem that Alex Turner used as a basis to bring John Cooper Clarke to the attention of a new generation, introduced with a line almost as old as entertainment itself. “Here’s one for the ladies,” he says, before I Wanna Be Yours tugs at your heartstrings just like it’s always done.
There may have been many times when you’d have thought he might have beaten Bob Hope to it, but John Cooper Clarke has outlived many of his Mancunian peers – the likes of Tony Wilson, Martin Hannett and Rob Gretton – and he’s earned the right to have a star bearing his name on the wall of the Palace Theatre, Manchester. I hope that, sooner or later, he gives me an excuse to go back there and see who they’ve put next to him.
Photos of John Cooper Clarke by Chris Payne