This RECORDING is now Everywhere (Anchor/Spotify/iTunes and more):
Presented by Kirsty Allison, edited by Sebastian Bowden
Please support by purchasing something from Cold Lips, or subscribing to short stories from https://kirstyallison.substack.com
The podcast is the original recording of Cold Lips’ editor Kirsty Allison meeting Dr John Cooper Clarke for the first time, prior to him headlining the infamous party at Courtyard Theatre, flyer designed by Luke McLean, of the Kill Me Now Gallery, Margate.
First published, Cold Lips 02, 2017
The good Doctor John Cooper Clarke is supposedly in a cab from his hometown of Colchester to the Union Club in London’s Soho. The king of the poets, whose spider-legs and shades have railed the storms of popular eons, through his ability to tell a tale. I wait alone, the creative director of this issue, Jason McGlade generously suggested I take the photos, so tracking down the cab driver once he’s an hour late, only to discover he’s turned around already – I go look down Greek Street, and who falls through the door but the sylph-like serpent of the stage, the punk with more fans than a fandango convention… (A friend later tells me I’ve hung out with John before, but that was the 90s, this is now.)
‘What time is it?’ he asks, as I ask him whether he’d like to approach the bronze bar. ’5 o’clock…’ We sneak in a pair of dirty martinis, and slip onto the balcony to smoke, and knowing there’s a dance of butterflies in place, we press record. This is a man who went out with Nico, one of the coolest women of the 20th century. He does a good impression of her. But the junky years are rarely the easiest of anyone’s life, but if you survive them, and the scars, you’re doing pretty good against the gods of statistics.
We open on mutuals, the beautiful Nina Antonia who introduced us, and wrote the online preview story with John Cooper Clarke for Cold Lips [where you’ll also find the extended podcast and full transcription of this discussion].
JCC: I just finished reading Jonesey’s book.[Steve Jones, of the Sex Pistols’ biog.] It’s like having him in your house. I like them sort of books. In fact I’m doing one of those with my wife. I read a couple of biographies lately, or semi-auto-biographies, I guess they’re called, the most well known would be Life by Keith [Richards]. You can tell when it’s been written and when it’s been transcribed from a conversation. Because anybody who can write exactly as they speak, is a genius.
KA: That’s what you have to capture, interviewing people…
JCC: That’s right. If Keef had written it himself, it would have been a much more reflective exercise. He would have been on his best behaviour, Sunday best language, but when you use an intermediary you get the way they actually speak, it comes across. The other one is My Way by Paul Anka which is sensational, you know, he’s got that way of speaking. That kind of Rat Pack, outdated hip language[…]. Shawn Levy’s book on the Rat Pack, he was first in there when Sinatra died and he’s done a similar thing with post-war Italy, Dolce Vita, with Cinecitta, and the more Hollywood end of it because they were growing tired of all of that kind of Bicycle Thieves, gritty socialist stuff…
JCC: All those guys Fellini, Francesco Rosi, Visconti…
KA: So you’re writing your own?
JCC: Well, yeah, the early part of my life, I’m doing it with the Missus. I see her more than anybody else. If I did it myself, I would be a perfectionist about it, I’d be writing it with the idea of the public sitting on my shoulder expecting it to be kind of poetic, and that would take centuries. *laughs* […] I got a lot of years to cover, and not many years left.
KA: *laughs uncomfortably*
JCC: It’s a kind of a sliding scale. It’d be a good thing when I’m finished it, I’ve got a lot of really great stories.
KA: I bet. Nico! […]
JCC: Yeah, well, we had a place in Brixton.
KA: I’m in Brixton at the moment.
JCC: Effra Road. […] We had the same manager for a while[…]
KA: Hmmm, when did you get a manager?
JCC: I’ve always had a manager.*laughs* That’s half the bleeding trouble! … I don’t actually have somebody who’s like planning my entire life trajectory.
KA: You don’t ever have that…
JCC: But I’ve always had managers. You’ve got to have a manager, ain’t you, if you’re a professional. Same as you’ve got to move to London. You know when I was chasing notoriety, you know, in my early days of my poetic career, it was just certain things that you had to do if you didn’t just want to remain like a local eccentric. And that was go to London and get a manager. Not necessarily in that order, you know what I mean? It was just something you had to do, there was none of this sort of local thing about? Like Manchester. The Mersey Sound. That sort of thing happens once every twenty-five years. You know, like I’ve always been mistrustful to be perceived as part of a particular provincial scene. You know? Good though it might be, not having a go at the Happy Mondays.
[Somehow the conversation demises into one of drugs…]
JCC: I’ve had that, yeah, pure THC. I had to go to bed in the afternoon after about a pinhead of it.
KA: I’m such as lightweight.
JCC: Nothing anybody said made any sense. I just pretended to be ill. *laughs* Until it wore off. I was kind of ill, I wasn’t lying. You know what I mean? It’s only marijuana… all I do now really.
JCC: How about you?
KA: I’ve been quite good, yeah.
JCC: It’s been 23 years…
KA: Well done, I did seven years, totally clean.
JCC: Really? Never done that in my life. There’s only seven years I’ve never been on drugs for my entire life.
KA: And they were the first seven?
JCC: I had TB when I was a kid, so was on morphine for years.
KA: So you had the taste…
JCC: When I came across it, recreationally, for non-therapeutic use, it was a very familiar thing. I’ve never really taken drugs for kicks. Opiates aren’t really like a hallucinogenic…
KA: See I did, I grew under the shadow of acid house, so I used drugs as a point of counterculture to belong to something else…
JCC: Funny how people fall into it one way or another, isn’t it? […]
JCC: I’m a great believer in democracy, but not when it comes to drugs and nuclear weapons.
KA: Well, they go hand in hand, those things.
JCC: What? Do they?
KA: Yeah, yeah!
JCC: What? Like what have they got in common?
JCC: That’s an interesting thought. I hope nobody on drugs is anywhere near that red button, that’s all I can say. You want a level headed guy with a sober world view.
KA: I think a little bit of narcolepsy on Trump would go a treat.
JCC: So they go hand in hand do they?
KA: Yeah, population gets controlled, wars get won, it’s how Afghanistan is obliterated.
JCC: Yeah. […] We probably wouldn’t have won the last war without the use of Benzedrine in everybody’s kit bag.
KA: Do you regret it?
JCC: I took a lot of uppers when I was a mod in teenage years. I don’t even think they were even illegal. Everyone’s mum was using them for dieting…
KA: Or hoovering…
JCC: It wasn’t seen as drugs: it was pep pills; so if you’d have called us drug addicts, we’d have been horrified…
You know some people are better off having a couple of pints and a game of darts but that’s not happening…
KA: Not if you’ve been bought up on sister morphine. Not gonna rock it, is it? The spectrum, then, the beautiful spectrum of our planet, with all these beautiful plants around us…
JCC: Do I regret it? It’s an interesting question. I think I do, without a doubt. I can’t see any good in it, now I’ve got 23 years of sobriety and now I can look at it… yeah I do regret it.
KA: And what do you regret? That you haven’t done more work in that period, or…?
JCC: Well, I’m very happy now.
KA: Yeah, okay.
JCC: Well, you can’t really rewrite history, can you? Whatever.
JCC: But Christ, no, it is a bit of Pandora’s box, innit?
KA: Yeah, well is that because it’s totally illegal? If the culture was different…
JCC: I think it takes a toll on your personality after a while, and quitting, it takes a while after that as well. I mean I’m still not like anybody else because of that. I’m not like anybody I know. I guess cos of that. I can’t fill in forms. Or anything that adults do.
KA: Can you open letters?
JCC: I couldn’t at one time when I was in trouble with the Inland Revenue. For most of my life I’ve been ducking and diving, and avoiding people and living the life of a criminal. For a person who’s never really been a trouble maker… So I’m unequivocal about it, you’re better off not doing it. And I don’t subscribe to that thing that anybody can do it and not like it. Anybody would like that shit. When it comes to opiates, there ain’t a man alive who wouldn’t go for that shit. My message, don’t even do it once. Don’t open that fucking door. *laughs* I’m nearly 70 fucking years old and I never had an insurance policy, I never bought a house, I’ve lived without trace. The only thing people know about me is that I write poetry, amusing scribbler that got lucky, that’s all you’ve got to know about me.[…]
KA: How old’s your daughter?
JCC: The word iconic is used a lot, but for me it applies only to visual arts…
KA: I dunno…
JCC: Iconic fucking radio shows. The clue is in the fucking title…
KA: But you’ve got an iconic thing going on as well.
JCC: Yeah, but it’s to do with my look.
KA: Yeah, which you own. So I think it does translate…
JCC: Yeah, but somebody that’s only known on the radio can’t be iconic. […] People are always saying ‘literally’ and they mean figuratively. Literally doesn’t mean literally anymore. Cause what defines a meaning of a word is how it is used. Language ain’t hard and fast, even in the Oxford dictionary. So ‘literally’ now, if you look in the Oxford English Dictionary, it no longer means the absolute fact. This is the conversation: He treated her like shit, literally. What? He flushed her down the lavatory? I mean no, surely, figuratively? In this case.
KA: It’s right.
JCC: It’s an organic thing, really. The Oxford English Dictionary is a democratic organ of language. So it has to precise, and the way it’s commonly used, because otherwise not everyone would want to learn it.
KA: Are you pedantic?
JCC: I’ve got a streak of it, yeah. A little streak.
KA: Are you quite precise in the way the use words? What is it, on public transport? ’Please let the customers on board?’ The consumers? What is it? The passengers?
JCC: Clients? Customers not passengers. That means they’ve chosen that term because it doesn’t imply you’re going anywhere.
KA: It negates responsibility.
JCC: All it means is money has changed hands. Nothing needs to arrive. A client…
KA: There’s no responsibility for the providers of the service…
JCC: …to get you there…
KA: Nothing to do with us…
JCC: At the time you would want to arrive…
KA: …logistics, love.
JCC: Customer, client. Quite right, it’s an abnegation of responsibility.
KA: And there’s just so much rhetoric in contemporary society.
JCC: I couldn’t agree more. That’s why you’ve got to be a little bit pedantic, or you’d just be at the mercy of these creeps.
KA: Have you considered yourself a singer more than a poet?
JCC: Well the worst thing I ever did was get a tape recorder when I was about twelve years old, for Christmas in about 1962. I was either gonna get a record player or a tape recorder. So I got this old Philip’s reel to reel, so I bugged the room. Now up until then, I considered myself a pretty good singer, thought I could carry a tune, and all my favourite artists had been singers, artists and film stars, my go to people. I love singing, favourite instrument, the human voice, without a doubt. Elvis…all the popular singers. So I always figured, you know I had been listening to Sinatra since I was this big, you know, I would sing old songs, the great American songbook and I had a big idea of myself as vocal stylist […] I thought I’ll do what everybody does and bug the room. So I left the microphone in a central place, left everyone to it. And then I played it back, and I listened back, and I was the saddest motherfucker on the block, getting that tape recorder. It ruined me, didn’t open my mouth in song for about 20 years…
KA: It ruined you.
JCC: And now later on in life I think my voice sounds better than it ever was, even speaking, I listen back to my old records and I’m like, fucking hell […]It’s coming from a different part of my body entirely, but back then, nasal…nobody’s more surprised than me…
Waitress: Dirty martini?
KA: Filthy martinis, please. Thank you.
KA: So when you’re doing poetry and when you’re doing singing, what’s the difference?
JCC: Ah well that’s a massive difference. It ain’t my lyrics, it’s the other end of the universe… I think for the same reason I can’t write songs, you know.
KA: Have you not tried doing songs?
JCC: Writing songs? For me, it’s the other end of the universe, you know. Cheers.
JCC: When you write a poem, you write it in, the musicality. I think poetry should always be heard. That is the way you receive poetry. I’m with Michael Gove, learn it off by heart, speak it aloud, it’s a musical medium, poetry I think. It’s music made out of language instead of instruments.
KA: What, like Burns and stuff like that?
JCC: Well, you know you picked the wrong guy there though. You know I got a bug up my ass. I’ve got a good reason: Burns Night is my birthday. So I’m overshadowed every year by that tax-collecting, philandering, Caledonian motherfucker. You know, to the point where I’m going to have to change my birthday.
KA: *laughs* […] Yeah you’ve got to do it.
JCC: *talking over* Yeah, I’ve got to do it. Pretty quick, actually.
KA: Let’s do it. When should we do it for?
JCC: The twenty third, maybe. Yeah the twenty third of January…
KA: Okay. You keep your star sign…
JCC: That still makes me an Aquarius, right?
JCC: I don’t know about the stars, much.
KA: Ah, yeah, you can’t believe in anything too much.
JCC: But I got used to being an Aquarius…
[…We talk about other poets – Tim Wells, a good dresser, Salena Godden, a good act, Luke Wright and Mike Gary, Claire Ferguson-Walker, Greta Bellamacina, I’d like her…]
KA: But none as good as you, right?
JCC: Oh, I’m number one. A number one. Numero uno. Unero numo. You’ve got to think you’re top dog, otherwise you couldn’t do it, right? I speak to you now as another poet, you probably feel the same as me.
KA: Now, I do, I do… but it took me 20 years to get to that point.
JCC: […] Poetry, it’s never gonna go mass, is it? I mean the nearest thing to mass poetry is rap, really, isn’t it?
KA: Yeah, Kate Tempest, she’s done alright. […]
JCC: […] That word poet is thrown around a lot around songwriters, Cole Porter, but all art aspires to poetry, I understand that, y’know, Ernest Hemingway said years ago, all sport aspires to boxing, well I would paraphrase that and say all art aspires to poetry. If you see a painting you like, that has a haunting quality that makes you go and look at it your whole life, you’d say it has a poetic quality, if you hear a piece of music that stirs your spiritual emotions, what do you say? It has a poetry. So poetry is the yardstick of all arts as boxing is the yardstick of all sport. That term poet is thrown around a lot in terms of songwriters, and I remember reading the sleeve notes of Highway 61 Revisited by Boy Dylan when he said Smokey Robinson was the greatest living poet, and all those hippies thought he was being flip, he was taking the piss, is he fuck! Listen to any Smokey Robinson song and it has a poetic quality, it rhymes by accident, he keeps a train of thought throughout and it rhymes and falls by accident, from the beginning to the end of the song, that is poetry, and more than any that applies to Chuck Berry. If you take any Chuck Berry song and you read them aloud you’re singing the song…Every syllable is a note, just like James Brown, like every instrument is a drum.
KA: Do you like Little Richard, I used to speak to him at the bungalow in Chateau Marmont…
JCC: I love him. I’ve met him, that’s what I mean, someone up there likes me, y’know, I’ve met all my idols, apart from Elvis and Frank…
KA: Bit late for that…[…]
JCC: I didn’t get into Jimi Hendrix because I wasn’t wearing a tie.
KA: Jimi would have hated that. All the audience in ties.
JCC: Dress codes at the New Century Hall in 1966, I probably had a nice pair of Staypress slacks! I’ve never been a hippie, but I used to actually wear a tie, I’ll go casual, like a black polo neck, something beatnik-y, I thought.
KA: Dress is very important
JCC: Dress is so important it stopped me from seeing Jimi Hendrix.