Inchyra Arts Club, Perth
9th June 2015
I’ll get round to John Cooper Clarke – the only poet who can chew gum in strict trochees – in a minute. First I have to mention the support act. I caught Mancunian poet Mike Garry at the interval, and mentioned that I was reviewing the gig.
“Make me sound fucking fantastic!” he said.
“You make yourself sound fantastic,” said a woman, standing in the queue to have a book autographed.
Sometimes a support act is a support act, and sometimes it’s a special guest. Mike Garry could headline in his own right. As it was, tonight he complemented Johnny Clarke, and did so with brilliance, wit, sunglasses, and a pair of House-of-Bruar strides. There are enough similarities between these two poets – Manchester accents, shades, no shyness about casual obscenity and not-so-casual obscenity, eidetic memory, the capacity for delivering at rapid pace, wit. Mike says he is “obsessed with language and words”, which is just right for a librarian, and that poetry is “not about what it means, it’s about how it sounds.” In pursuit of this how-it-sounds Mike can deliver a full-on attack at the microphone, or he can whisper, or gradually move off-mic to effect a fade, or sing in a surprisingly tintinnabular falsetto for a few seconds.
“I like to share my new stuff with my mates,” he says, meaning us. “… you don’t clap there.”
His poetry is sometimes sad, but in a way that grabs your attention. It may be about the stuff he doesn’t want to think about but can’t help thinking about, about human-traffic, about ‘kids who never learned to smile’, about a girl sending a ‘xelfie’ to her boyfriend only to find he has shared it and it has gone viral. It may be celebratory, about story time in junior school with the teacher who gave him his love of language, or a eulogy to his mum composed while he swam lengths in the local baths. I loved his poem to the late Tony Wilson, framed as a prayer to St Anthony of Padua, patron saint of lost things, phrased is short breaths. here’s a snatch:
Talk to me
Talk to me
Of Gretton, God, Granada
Hooky and Hannett
And how the fighting just got harder
Hamlet, Ibsen, the IRA
Jesus, Mary and Keith Joseph
The importance of the moment
All things which may not in themselves be lost, but which have lost a perspective for Mike since Tony Wilson died and was unable to continue to give his. Look, what you get when you get Mike Garry supporting John Cooper Clarke, as he has done for the past five years of joining-at-the-hip, is two gigs for the price of one.
On comes John Cooper Clarke then, to the theme from ‘Dragnet’ – ‘derrrn ta dun-tun’ – and the evening doesn’t so much shift up a gear as phase shift, de-mode and re-mode itself. This isn’t the same John Cooper Clarke I saw in nineteen-frozen-stiff, when it was de rigeur to deliver short, sharp showers of invective, in strict punk style, the poetic equivalent of the three-chord-trick. This isn’t same get on, get down, get off act of the 1970s. It’s not even the same John Cooper Clarke in the next period, when his delivery was so rapid the words seemed to lose meaning. This is a bloke with an honorary doctorate and a history of inclusion on the GCSE syllabus. BUT… but… but it’s a bloke who can combine being a rambling raconteur with being a kind of existentialist stand-up comic delivering one-liners.
“If Jesus was Jewish, how come the Spanish name?”
“Refried beans – can’t the Mexicans get anything right first time?”
It’s also a bloke who can croon ‘Look for the Silver Lining’ in a surprisingly true and pleasant voice, interspersing it with observations about the up-side of dementia, or rattle off a verse from Sir Henry John Newbolt’s ‘Vitaï Lampada’
The sand of the desert is sodden red, –
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; –
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”
And instantly you can see where he gets it all from; ‘Hire Car’ makes sense, ‘Beasley Street’ makes sense, the gentrified follow-up ‘Beasley Boulevard’ makes sense, ‘Bed-blocker Blues’ makes perfect sense, the whole rollicking corpus of John Cooper Clarke, stanzas shutting with a repetitive bang, all makes total sense. He is completely conscious of the devices and tropes that make his style instantly recognisable, as was obvious when he introduced a recent poem of his as ‘The Title Appears at the End of Each Subsequent Verse with Monotonous Regularity’. Tonight he gave us his short poems too: his limericks, marked with bathetic final lines which were just bloody funny anyway; his two-liner about necrophilia; his collection of haiku including
to catch the moment
in seventeen syllables
is very diffic
At least that’s today’s version of it, but – hey! – it shows a marked improvement in the principle ‘mono no aware’. Look, you all know him, you all know what he does, so next time he is within striking distance of where you are, cancel your emergency dental appointment, anniversary dinner, aunt’s funeral, and go get some.
Now the interview. I was supposed to interview Dr John after the performance, but it didn’t quite turn out like that. We started off with an impromptu but deliberate double act.
Me: “May I use my Dictaphone?”
John: “No, use your finger like everyone else.”
Boy, that was satisfying! Then I derailed the whole interview before it started by mentioning that we both had the Twisted Wheel, Manchester’s legendary Soul club, in our cultural background. It turned out we had both been at the same Ben E King gig in 1968, and this dominated our conversation for a long time – “You’ve made a personal contact there,” said John, “I was there on that night.” He was surfing a wave of adrenalin. I had a list of nine questions, plus probable supplementaries, and we actually only got to tackle two of them, or maybe one-and-a-half, because the first one sent him off on an account of his life history, his school days, his poetry teacher John Malone who loved the 19c Romantic Poets and inspired a whole class of kids at an inner-city Secondary Modern school, the band he was in, how he affected an Ivy League suit and short hair in the 70s in order to project himself as the poetic version of Mort Sahl or Lenny Bruce, and how he got into the punk scene. That when I asked him if he could remember deciding to be a poet, and what was it that triggered that decision. His immediate answer was “Well I fancied this beatnik chick… I was already interested in poetry, it was really the only thing I had any flair for…” So the actual trigger for poetry-making was a carnal interest in the opposite sex. Fair enough. “And if she didn’t understand it, so much the better… she’d say blimey that must be good coz I don’t understand it, that’s a kind of beatnik code…”
About his teenage band, called The Mafia: “We’d all been to see this film called ‘Pay or Die’, starring Ernest Borgnine, and we’d all gone – oh, the fucking mafia, that’s the way to fucking live! – we were all obsessed with the mafia… and fifty years later [came the inclusion of ‘Evidently Chicken Town’ in ‘The Sporanos’]… circular, circular!… For me that was massive.”
About his McCain’s chips TV advert: “I love doing adverts… that’s really the sweetest plum, and also easy, so easy… they write the words, this is the great thing, what they do is… they get somebody to write it in my style.” That was the point at which we were all turfed out into the darkness of rural Perthshire, blinking, five hours after I had come through the doors of the excellent Inchyra Arts Club. Could have chatted for hours. Evidently a great night.
Review by Paul Thompson