When Northern Soul speaks to John Cooper Clarke about his new autobiography and sings its praises to the skies, he’s right in the middle of recording the audiobook version and seems to appreciate the plaudits.
“I tell you, it means a lot, because I’ve just read it four times in quick succession and I’m too close to it now. All I see are the grammatical errors and inelegant sentences, do you know what I mean? But it’s too late now, it’s nailed down, and it’s got to stay nailed the fuck down.”
Trust us on this, Dr Clarke doth protest too much. The book in question, I Wanna Be Yours, is every bit as good as you might hope. He’s had a fascinating life and, needless to say, has the knack for telling his story. Vivid, engrossing and hugely funny, it’s one of the very few things 2020 has delivered which hasn’t been a disappointment.
Over the years, Cooper Clarke has had many offers to write his memoirs. “It’s one of those things that people keep saying, like, ‘you should come to our place, you’ll get loads of material there’. I always think one day I’m gonna take them up on it and show up to their place with a notebook. But it’s the same as that, ‘oh, you’ve got a few stories, you should write a book’. As it happens, the epidemic played into my hands. Normally, I would be out on the road all the time…I should have been out plugging my book of poems [The Luckiest Guy Alive, published by Picador in 2018], doing gigs and shit. But as that part of it’s gone, it was the ideal time. What else would I have been doing? Yeah, somebody up there likes me. And in the Autumn of your years, y’know, how long am I going to be around?”
In fact, he started work on the book pre-COVID, but progress had been slow. “I’d have to keep breaking it up to go out on the road and do a few shows and then come back and take it up. But this way’s been great. It’s been written in real time, almost.”
Cooper Clarke is a great admirer of rock memoirs such as Steve Jones’s Lonely Boy, Paul Anka’s My Way and, in particular, Keith Richards’ Life; books in which the subject’s distinctive voice is fore-fronted.
“You could be the greatest writer in the world, but nobody writes the way they speak,” he says. “You’d have to be a genius or a person with some kind of kooky split personality to be able to do that. You’re always on your best behaviour when you’ve got a pen in your hand. It’s like another version of the telephone voice, isn’t it? And you’re always gonna write yourself in as the hero of the piece whereas if you’re delineating a chain of events to another person, it sort of cuts that all out. There’s no hiding place and it becomes immediately interesting. When a memoir has the voice of the person who’s recounting all this, I think the connection is all that more intimate and enjoyable. Reading Keith’s Life, it’s like having him in your house.”
To that end, Clarke worked on his book with Picador editor Rose Davidson who questioned him about certain periods, incidents and topics, with his answers being recorded, transcribed, edited and shaped. “It’s a sort of Q&A, but without the Q. I don’t know how else I could have done it. The way that I write poetry, it’s all very old school, pen and paper, no keyboard, no electronics involved. If I’d have set about writing my memoir in that fashion, I don’t think that I would have had enough years left.”
There’s certainly no shortage of detail in I Wanna Be Yours, but is that the result of research digging up the past or off-the-peg total recall?
“No, it’s not research, it’s total recall, absolutely, yeah. I suppose, since I decided to become a professional poet, I’ve always been very observant of things. I think it comes from being sick when I was a kid. You’re not really a participant, so you sort of develop your powers of perception and observation. These things would come in handy later in life for me. Yes, I’m very good at that. I’m very rarely bored, do you know what I mean? I can apply my imagination to the most banal situations.”
He continues: “There’s a great writer today who speaks to me on this level – Jonathan Meades. I love his stuff. He wrote a terrific book called Museum Without Walls and the subheading is ‘There is no such thing as a boring place’. It’s absolutely right. If I’m in a traffic jam, for instance, I would prefer it to be in the suburbs rather than the open countryside. I could sit there for the rest of my life in that traffic jam.”
The book charts Cooper Clarke’s progress from growing up in post-war Higher Broughton as a wannabe ‘urban commercial poet’, through to being enshrined as a full-on national treasure in recent years (it even reveals why he’s only been to Wythenshawe once) Along the way it gives lie to the lazy notion that he was a ‘punk poet’. In fact, he was performing around Manchester from the late-60s onwards.
“Yeah, I did the clubs in Manchester way before punk. In fact, luckily, that’s what put me in the right uniform. I was trying to make it as a slick nightclub entertainer with the two-piece Italian suit and the short hair, and there’s everybody else in a seed package with flowing locks, y’know, including your uncle Bert. So really, my look was anachronistic, even in the adult world of cabaret. Especially there, actually. Then punk rock came along and rejuvenated the sharp silhouette kind of look and I was back in business.”
During the 70s, he found himself part of the rough and ready live cabaret circuit where creative boundaries were often surprisingly flexible. Music could cross-pollinate with comedy and poetry might blend into performance, a trait you can still see in Clarke’s work today.
“It’s working in the cabaret joints that brought that about,” he says. “The main thing is that most of the audience weren’t particularly interested in poetry. I made them have it and learned a few things. It was great during that. People go on now about how it must have been terrifying doing those punk shows, but your worst enemy in this game is indifference, people just talking to each other and not taking a blind bit of notice. The buzz of conversation soon becomes more than you can bear.
“It’s a terrible thing, indifference. With punk, at least it wasn’t an indifferent situation. You would never get that. The animosity, ‘fuck off’ and bottles flying about, that didn’t last for very long, to be honest. If it did, I wouldn’t have been in the business. I’m not a fucking commando.”
Punk was certainly a peak period of fame for Dr Clarke. By the turn of the millennium, though, his career was at a low ebb, but he was discovered by a whole new audience when his poetry found its way on to the English GCSE syllabus and the final episode of The Sopranos while the Arctic Monkeys were singing his praises. In an alternate universe where that revival didn’t come about, where might his career be at now? “Well, I imagine it would have stayed where it was, being without representation and just taking whatever was offered that came through the letterbox, a hand-to-mouth sort of feral existence. In fact, it was a lot of things at once.
“I’ve got lot to thank my long-time manager Phil Jones for in ramping up my profile. I mean, put it this way, he’s the guy that got me on at Sunday night at the London Palladium. Maybe not so much today, but until quite recently, ‘Sunday night at the London Palladium’ was synonymous with success in the show business world. For people of my age, it’s just the fulfilment of all your dreams. My old fella, my dad, who was never encouraging in my pursuit of a poetic career, I can hear him saying with a heavy note of sarcasm, ‘Oh, yeah, where are you gonna read this poetry, then – Sunday night at the London Palladium?’. It’d be great if he was still around, so that I could say to him ‘I told you so’.”
Looking at the finished book, then, is Cooper Clarke happy with it? Is it a project he’s glad he got involved in?
“Oh, absolutely. I am too close to it and I did say rather churlishly that all I’m seeing now is inelegant sentences and grammar errors, but it’s turned out real good. I’m appreciative of all the help I’ve had in making a story out of it. I think without an editor I couldn’t have got that trajectory right. I’d have been hopping all over the place.
“Memories don’t work in a line, do they? They crop up unannounced any time of the day or night, memories. Something totally devoid of any connection will remind you of something else. That’s the way the memory works.”
One great strength of the book is that, even if you don’t listen to the audiobook, you’re absolutely guaranteed to hear Cooper Clarke’s voice in your head as you read it. At this, he gives a distinctive throaty chuckle: “You wouldn’t be the first person to say that. Hehehehe.”
Main image: John Cooper Clarke (c) Paul Wolfgang Webster.
John Cooper Clarke’s memoir I Wanna Be Yours is available now from Picador as a hardback, audiobook and e-book.