John Cooper Clarke has been recognized for over 40 years for his one-of-a-kind and unusual skill. The British native, nicknamed “the People’s Poet” and “the Doctor”, is relatively unknown in North America, however
He is known for his humorous, articulate and witty poetic performances. In the late 1970s, Clarke became a local celebrity in the punk world appearing with bands like Joy Division and Buzzcocks at venues like the Electric Circus.
He had a strong connection with his admirers that kept him going through a decade of difficult creativity. In the 1980s, he became addicted to heroin, which he refers to as a “bout of idleness”.
Since the ’90s, his life of sobriety has been revered from all corners of pop culture. The artist Plan B and Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys have both pointed to him as a major influence.
His song “Evidently Chickentown” was featured in an iconic final scene in The Sopranos.
The most telling instance of his success, however, was when one of his poems was put on the curriculum for the General Certificate of Secondary Education exam in the United Kingdom.
He expressed great honor upon learning his work was being “shoved down the throats of unwilling pupils across the country.”
At the age of seventy-one, Clarke is an affable and modest person who is always keen to learn and converse about anything with anyone. Perhaps this is his way of staying connected to the public and to be aware of their feelings.
In March of 2019, I had the opportunity to drive him and Mike Garry from JFK Airport to the Ludlow Hotel in the Lower East Side. They were on a tour to promote Clarke’s new book, The Luckiest Guy Alive, and they were set to perform at Joe’s Pub.
The following day, I was fortunate enough to spend an hour talking with him in the lobby bar.
We discussed a variety of topics, from the differences between Elvis and Sinatra, to the enigmas of poetry and artistry, to the various ways in which music has been shared throughout the years. His memoir, I Wanna Be Yours, was released in October.
— Pierre Deliso stated that the importance of listening to customers and their feedback can not be overstated. It is vital to take into account their desires and needs in order to meet their expectations and create a successful product.
A portrait of a believer captured in August of 2020 is displayed in the image below.
THE BELIEVER: The other evening, you highlighted the contrast between Elvis and Frank Sinatra, and that they exist in flawless antithesis.
JOHN COOPER CLARKE: Yes, these two items are the two essential components in my life. Clearly.
BLVR: Who do you feel has the closest relationship with you?
JCC: As I grow older, I find myself increasingly drawn to Sinatra’s music. His songs capture the emotions of a mature world. They reflect a kind of wisdom and perception. He certainly has the intelligence of a wise man.
BLVR: Would you say that Elvis is a representation of youth?
JCC: Elvis has a unique power over heterosexual males. He takes what nature has bestowed, and raises it to a higher level. His artistry is his own invention. He was fortunate to have the best manager in rock and roll, Colonel Parker, and he loved performing live, being the dynamic and energetic person he was.
Even now, it’s a source of sadness that he never got to Scotland. [ Laughter ]
[He never made it to England.] On his way back from his deployment in Germany, he had to change flights in Glasgow Prestwick Airport, which is a source of great regret.
Still, it was the Colonel who said to Elvis, “No, we’ll set you up in Vegas, and the whole world will come to you. You don’t have to fly away from America anymore, son.
You’ve done your time away from your home country and now this is where you belong.” As a result of this, he became the king of America and, by extension, the world in the twentieth century.
It’s hard to imagine a world without Elvis; even with my good imagination, I could not conceive a reality without him.
When I was a child, the adult poetry of the Great American Songbook stayed with me. It took me until adulthood to understand this form of poetry; all I could do as a kid was remember the words.
Through the voices of Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Patti Page, and others before Elvis, I saw America for what it was – the most modern country in the world. I’ve always been a fan of those classic songs – Mercer, Styne, Cahn, Kern, and others. I’m still discovering the true meaning of their lyrics.
Although Elvis could sing these songs, he couldn’t rock them like Frank could. However, he was the greatest singer of all time and could’ve been an Enrico Caruso.
BLVR: Could you tell me why you have such a passion for American music and culture? Why did you decide to focus on that instead of English music?
JCC: English popular music was a mere imitation of American popular music, so why not go for the original? Before Elvis, before rock and roll, there were cover artists such as Ronnie Hilton and Dickie Valentine.
Even though they were good singers, they were trying to mimic the Americans.
That’s why I thought it would be better to get the real deal. The reason why the Beatles were so successful is because they had an American sound and they were in a port city with a bustling merchant trade.
That’s how the northern soul movement got started, as people would get these records in the ballast of ships, such as Jackie Wilson.
BLVR: Was that something you encountered in your childhood?
JCC: Ever since I can recall, Black music was immensely popular in Manchester. Before the soul music of the ’60s, jazz and blues had been widely prevalent.
Every year, Chris Barber, who ran a Dixieland jazz band, would arrange a Chicago blues package tour and bring along stars such as Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters, as well as some of the remaining country-blues legends like Son House and Bukka White.
Moreover, the Beatles were around at the time, but it was after the Stones that the music really started to take off.
The Beatles had the advantage of being able to get their hands on obscure records from failed R&B singers from places like Ohio.
whereas most of the R&B that came to England came from LA, and were usually from the Atlantic label, which was the major distributor of what was then known as rhythm and blues.
BLVR: Are there any current artists that you’re really enthusiastic about?
JCC: I appreciate Jack White and his modern music. Additionally, there is a genre referred to as Americana which was a breath of fresh air for England following the acid house trend.
I was a fan of the Blasters and Steve Earle in particular; his song “Guitar Town” was one of my favorites. Additionally, I have a fondness for country music due to my admiration for Elvis and his incorporation of it in his work. I am particularly drawn to the treble sound of country tunes and the accompanying twang. Lee Hazlewood is a great example of the LA-based country flavor which I enjoy.
I have a deep appreciation for the United States. It is amazing the way American music doesn’t confine itself to one genre, but rather borrows from a variety of sources to create something unique.
Last night I was watching Deadwood, and the soundtrack featured a combination of country, bluegrass, and country-blues.
It was a great example of how incidental music can be employed to set the mood of a scene, even when the piece itself doesn’t necessarily fit with the period in which the movie is set.
BLVR: You once went on tour in the ’80s with Linton Kwesi Johnson, correct?
JCC: At the time, we were the most sought-after event in the area. There were no other poets in the vicinity and, if there were, they were unknown.
Did you find yourself drawn to reggae music as an outcome?
JCC: I was already a big fan of reggae music.
During the 1970s, there weren’t many concerts I went to, but reggae was the only fresh sound that had a real groove to it.
Living near Moss Side in Manchester, there were a lot of singers that put on shows in the area, such as Roy Shirley, Bill Lovelady, Desmond Dekker, Freddie McGregor, Dennis Alcapone, Dennis Brown, and many other Lovers Rock performers.
As a result, I really love reggae. If you pay attention, every single Fats Domino song is a ska record. This isn’t coincidental, as the radio stations in Jamaica during the 50s and 60s were the stations in New Orleans and Florida, so they had a decent reception of them.
Listening to Fats Domino’s music reveals a bouncha-bouncha-bouncha-bouncha pattern, isn’t it? He’s the one who created ska, no doubt. I’m a big fan of Fats Domino. Many of the people I enjoy in England are very American-style, such as Van Morrison.
BLVR: Is there a certain venue that you particularly enjoy performing in?
JCC: I’m really fond of New York and the opportunities it gives me to perform. What I do is a very American style of poetry. It’s sort of a beatnik style, which is something I’m particularly drawn to.
It’s probably down to my age; when I was younger, it was the hip, cool thing to do. If I wanted to make poetry popular, the beatniks were a great option.
BLVR: Even now, people remain captivated by them.
JCC: Certainly, yes. Every few years, I find myself getting the same infection again.
BLVR: You once expressed that you do not view writing poetry as a way of releasing emotions.
BLVR: What comes first, the music or the poetry? How does the process of writing begin?
JCC: To write the poem “Beasley Street”, I began with the last line, which I took from the movie 42nd Street. The big production number in the film ends with “Naughty, gaudy, bawdy, sporty Forty-Second Street” and this line inspired me to write about a mythical street.
I thought of words which rhymed with ‘sleazy’ and ‘cheesy’ and words that almost rhymed with ‘uneasy’, ‘greasy’ and ‘queasy’ and the result was ‘Beasley’. After that, I worked my way up to the line I had first thought of.
When writing for a living, it is not always a case of inspiration hitting like Saint Paul – it is often more like Tin Pan Alley, with the intention of writing what people will enjoy. I don’t have a message or attempt to convey any advice, but rather to stay away from narrow political issues.
BLVR: Is the purpose of this for enjoyment?
JCC: Absolutely. I am strongly opposed to any attempt to sneak in a hidden agenda. I won’t do it to others, since I don’t want it done to me. What I do is part of the entertainment industry – it’s art! [ Laughs ]
BLVR: Have you always composed in that fashion?
When I first began writing poetry, I never wanted to be fully understood. I felt that having some form of an enigma was the only thing that a poet could really have.
I did not want people to read my work and then just move on–I wanted to have something that would bring them back for years, even decades, to come.
That is why I write in rhyme–it is something that people can learn by heart and it has a rhythm that is easier to remember.
When I first started, this was thought of as quite a dated technique; many people were trying to be the next T.S. Eliot and quoting his work. However, I feel that the important thing is to tell the story–not to focus on the aesthetics of it.
Person A: Yes, indeed.
JCC: I aim to make it simple for folks to commit things to memory, as that is how poetry is most successful. It can even happen to me! Sometimes, I will be taken by surprise and find that a line I had not considered before is actually quite remarkable.
This is where the creative process can be truly inspirational.
BLVR: Could they potentially be the best of all?
JCC: Absolutely, I’m able to pay attention to detail. My personality is quite attentive, which I understand is a trait shared by many poets.
It can take a huge amount of effort to create a few lines, but other times it can come together quickly. What’s most important is to stay determined and devote a certain amount of time to writing.
BLVR: Is there a need for you to be organized and adhere to a plan?
JCC: Definitely. Being routine-oriented is a huge part of my life. I’m sort of obsessive about it. [Chuckling] But I’m not playing the victim here! I’m like an ant-washer; I’ve got it all.
[Laughs] Not even touching a doorknob without a handkerchief in my hand – which I share with the late Francis Albert Sinatra.
Q: Is that true?
JCC: He was definitely the type who was a bit obsessive. You need to be that way for sure.
BLVR: It seems that your extended writing career implies that you have had to maintain some sort of discipline throughout your writing. Do you think that avoiding getting stuck in a particular style of writing has been key to your success and relevance?
JCC: Certainly. I’m creating content for the general populace, but there are certain elements of the procedure that I consciously choose to remain unaware of.
BLVR: You need to let it be and accept the situation?
JCC: Bill Withers had it right when he declared that “The process of writing songs is like a kind of sorcery which I don’t want to meddle in.”
PJ, his manager, interjected, commanding that the books be taken to the gig.
JCC: Attending the venue before the show is something I abhor. It’s quite miserable.
BLVR: What is the reason for that?
JCC: All day the heating has been switched off, making the place feel icy and the odor of puke or cleaning agent hangs in the air. It’s a horrid sight. One of my verses kick off with “Like a nightclub in the mornin’, you’re the bitter end.” It really encapsulates the mood, along with all its accompanying feelings.
Do you consider poets, artists, and authors as pilferers in some way?
JCC: I’m the king of thievery! [ Boisterous laugh ] Guilty as charged. No doubt about it. I often joke to people, “Don’t show me your poetry – if I like it, I’m likely to take it, so if you value your work, don’t share it with me.”
BLVR: From whom do you believe you have taken the most?
A good inquiry was posed. My answer is that I borrow from any source that is visible. For example, from a commercial on TV. Most people recognize it but do not give it much thought since it is part of the disposable consumer society.
All the discarded material of the masses is my source of inspiration. They may be aware of it, but it’s my job to stay up to date. I use the public in a harmless manner for their own benefit. [Laughs]
BLVR: You work in the service of the public.
JCC: Absolutely, I’ll take the public servant job! [ Laughs ]. To be honest, I take inspiration from everywhere. For example, many people aren’t familiar with the Great American Songbook, and I often borrow from it.
To illustrate, “The Luckiest Guy Alive” is a great example. [ Flipping through the book ] I’ll admit it’s stealing, but I’ve made sure to cover it up. It starts with…
When I’m on the golf course, my score is below the expected amount.
At the boating association, they refer to me as the Commissar.
A personalized tankard occupying a place of honor in the bar
I’m feeling incredibly fortunate to be alive.
Awaiting the difficulty that is soon to come
This poem and the song it is based on share the same lines, and it is called “I Can’t Get Started.”
The best rendition was by Bunny Berigan, however it has been covered by many others, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Frank. This song is very reflective of the time in which it was composed, as it alludes to the Spanish Civil War without being overly direct. The lyrics go [ singing ]:
I’ve been around the world on a plane,
changed the course of history in Spain.
I know the frigid North Pole quite well
but I’m still unable to make it with you.
On the golf course I’m quite a star.
Metro-Goldwyn even offered me a part.
Nevertheless, I’m still blue
since I can’t get things going with you.
BLVR: It has a pleasant, swinging rhythm.
JCC: Yeah, the song is really great. So, the line “on the fairway I’m under par” has to do with this guy who can’t get going with a certain girl. For me, I’m talking about an innate pessimism.
You can’t pursue happiness; it’s the one target that you can’t aim for. You can only enjoy it for as long as it lasts, until you start to worry about how long it will stay with you. Then it’s gone.
That’s why the line “I’m the luckiest guy alive…just waiting for the trouble to arrive” is present in the song. It’s an innately pessimistic piece, but it shows the fact that it’s impossible to sustain happiness due to the getting and keeping of it. Do you understand?
BLVR: Agreed. After realizing that you are one of the most fortunate individuals, don’t you just–
JCC: Taking a chance!
Person A: Absolutely!
JCC: I understand your argument. Taking a risk… Yes, I’m taking a risk. But I feel this title could be a refreshing change from the negative memoirs that are so widespread in the publishing world. Reports of suffering. I thought it would be a positive contrast: here’s a man who is the most fortunate, show me I’m wrong! [ Laughs ] It’s a strong declaration, isn’t it? I even tried it out during my last trip to the U.S. I used to ask people,
“Would you buy a book called The Luckiest Guy Alive?” and every single person said yes.
BLVR: They would like to have the information.
JCC: Affirmative, indeed.
BLVR: What is happening there beneath him?
JCC: [ Laughs ]Yeah. What kind of wisdom has he shared? It looks to have that self-improvement air to it. When I say “self-improvement,” I’m not implying “help yourself.” You still need to pay for it. [ Laughter explodes ]
BLVR: How many volumes of poetry have you created?
JCC: My first one was thirty years ago, Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt; this is my second.
PJ [manager]: Approximately three and a half decades ago.
JCC: The number is thirty-five.
BLVR: What made you choose to compile this?
JCC: I had a bunch of new material and I’m proud of it. I’ve been performing those for the past eight years. It’s an exceptional collection. Can I suggest you watch Deadwood? It’s a great show.
BLVR: Not yet, I haven’t.
JCC: Utterly amazing. I devoted an entire day to it, even though it was pouring outside. It was just perfect. Wow, what an incredible show.
BLVR: What is the subject matter?
JCC: During the time of Wild Bill Hickok, the settlement of Deadwood in Dakota (not California) was at its peak due to the Gold Rush.
BLVR: Right then. Have you ever experienced journeying to the Midwestern part of the United States?
JCC: Absolutely. I’m planning to do that with my wife. We plan to get a train to Memphis and explore three different towns.
We are going to book a nice hotel so that we can leisurely explore each town, and then get back on the train to finish our journey at Graceland. My wife has been to many places, such as Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Florida.
BLVR: That place is like a different world.
JCC: It’s not enough to say you love America if you’ve only been to the coasts. Springsteen has got it right, being loved in Colorado.
This got me thinking about why bands would go to England when they can play to massive crowds like the Dave Matthews Band did at Red Rocks.
There were millions of people there and they were great. It made me wonder why they would bother going to England when they can get such an audience back home.
JCC: I find them marvellous. Unfortuntely, they are not too widely known in England. To be honest, they have had a few concerts there, but many people are unaware of them. The reason being they rarely make the journey over here. They are quite a large group, after all.
BLVR: I comprehend your perspective. If you can demonstrate your abilities in the US, then that is essentially all that matters, correct?
JCC: That’s right! Why bother visiting somewhere else when the Colonel is around? I can’t help but enjoy an exchange of words! The Colonel was wise to have Elvis perform in Las Vegas.
Someone with understanding would eventually go there to watch Elvis. He is in Las Vegas, just like the Queen of England is in Buckingham Palace. Elvis is the king of the world, and his home is in Vegas.
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