Book Review: John Cooper Clarke double bill

When I was growing up I had a couple of good friends who were slightly older than me, and were fans of much of the music which came out of the punk scene. Not necessarily punk itself, more the post-punk music. One of the artists that my friends introduced me to was the punk poet, the bard of Salford, the one and only John Cooper Clarke. He Started out way before punk and is still going today, although he will forever be linked with the punks.

John has written his autobiography, I Wanna Be Yours. The book mostly covers his childhood, becoming a poet and his glory years, up to about 1990. The last 30 years are skimmed over in the final 40 pages. It is a very interesting read, although I think you do need to be a fan of his work. Interestingly his first proper paid gig was at Bernard Manning’s Embassy Club in a very rough area of Manchester. John also writes extensively about the punk scene, and how he would have liked to have appeared more often with the Sex Pistols, but you never knew if their gig was going to be cancelled until the last minute, as well as the tours he did with Elvis Costello, Joy Division (and then New Order) as well as The Fall.

Unfortunately, the overriding theme of the book is drugs. The vast quantity of heroin that John consumed, and how his whole world revolved around his next hit, and how every penny he earned went into his veins. He doesn’t come across as a very nice person and he admits as much himself.

An interesting part of the book was where JCC describes how his poems are never really finished. He improves them, edits them, adds to them or removes parts, and as such he was initially reticent about recording them, because then they are seen as the finished article.

Eventually he cleans up, gets married and they have a daughter. At the start of the century three of his poems were included on the GCSE syllabus, along with Simon Armitage, another modern day poet who I admire. It was at a low-key gig in Sheffield where he met the Arctic Monkeys, who along with the DJ Mark Radcliffe, the Elbow front man Guy Garvey and numerous other fans that John had a renaissance, culminating in appearing on Channel 4’s show 8 out of 10 cats do countdown and having Evidently Chicken Town on the Sopranos. He was also commissioned by the National Trust to create a poem about the English coast, one of the few poems by JCC that my wife likes. (I can understand how his poems are not everyone’s cup of tea).

Back in the 90’s JCC was very much not in demand, and only appeared live sporadically. I was fortunate enough to catch him in a pub on the edges of London in the mid 90’s. John was sat on a stool at the bar, sans microphone, and there can’t have been more then 25 paying punters. In the book he describes how he hadn’t written anything new for ages and how his live shows had become more stand up than poetry. Unfortunately, JCC isn’t very good at stand up. During the gig I remember wishing that he would read more of his poems as they were so good. Tens minutes of poor stand up (sitting down) followed by two minutes of utter brilliance. It was also the first time that I had heard Hire Car, one of his best. He did of course perform all of his ‘hits’; Salome Maloney, Evidently Chicken Town, I Married a Monster from Out Space, the It Man, Beezley Street, etc.

At the weekend, making the most of pre-lockdown, me and my lovely wife headed into town to Waterstones, where I purchased Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt, a collection of John’s best early poems. This book is the good stuff. I very much doubt if I will read his autobiography again, but this slim volume of poems will be devoured again and again.

Anyway, I Wanna Be Yours is for fans only, while Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt is for those interested in reading his poems. Of course, you can go on You-tube and watch the man himself reading most of his work, although I prefer to read them myself.

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