Tuesday, May 04, 2010

John Cooper Clarke, Barfly Camden

John Cooper Clarke, variously called the Bard of Salford, the Salford Poet Laureate, the Salford Bob Dylan, well you get the idea, he's a poet from Salford. The rhyming ranter, who seems to have had more comebacks than a gay porno star who won't do facials, hasn't exactly been fastidious in mopping up the residue of his unlikely punk-era success - a long heroin addiction, followed by domestic bliss in Colchester, seems to have kept him absorbed. Chickentown appearing at the end of an episode of the Sopranos hasn't hurt though, and despite not having released an album since 1982, he's kept up performing sporadically, enough to stay honed and keep him writing new poems.

Late on stage ('old punks never die, they just keep you waiting until you wish they had'), looking much the same as ever, with a few extra wrinkles, he soon settled into an act that was as heavy on the raconteur as on the poetry. I tell you what, you couldn't think of a better man to do a best man speech, he spins more yarns than a medieval dressmaker, and crams a heap of jokes in as well. It seems like his greatest feat wasn't getting poetry into punk gigs as much as sneaking a whole working men's club cabaret act in. Working men's clubs was where he was started out, when punk was still a globule of spit in Malcolm McLaren's eye. He mentioned the downbeat introductions he used to get: "Here he is all the way from Salford, he's not my cup of tea but you might like him, John Cooper Clarke." There are an awful lot of gags packed into his show. And an awful lot of them, it should be said, are not strictly speaking his. When I mentioned this afterwards a friend told me I was a joke nerd, which is true. It also didn't help that I'd listened to a fair few of his recordings and read some recent interviews, so I'd heard or read too many of his own jokes for my own good. So maybe it's more my problem than his.

The poems remain the blistering tour de forces/tours de force they ever were. He ran through some of the old favourites at a pelt, as if he was trying to finish them before a train pulled out the station. Seems like he's always done this - compare these two versions of Twat. He also blitzed classics like I Don't Ever Want To Go To Burnley (with possibly the greatest opening line in the history of poetry), Chickentown and Hanging Gardens of Basildon. Maybe he's read them too often, maybe he was trying to make up time; I don't know, personally I could have handled him taking a bit longer. He was more stately when he read the newer ones, including the heartfelt I've Fallen In Love With My Wife and an unfinished one about the b-movie Attack of the 50ft Women. This led him into a digression about Helvetica Light - he turns out to be a typography nerd, another feature we share, along with old jokes and world-class poetry - and how he always reads it as Attack of the Soft Woman. He mentioned his Jewish-Irish background and how common it is in Salford - "Everyone goes to confession but we take a lawyer with us."

When I watched a few youtube videoes the other day it was like he'd set about me - I went for a walk and found that I was thinking entirely in Mancunian-accented rhymes - and it was easy to see how he'd fitted in so well with the punk movement. He reminded me of when I first read The Boy Looked At Johnny, sharp, direct, aggressive brilliance, and made me want to take a razor to my writing, cut out the pretensions, and speak with a clear, unsullied voice. Nowadays I'd say he's a bit more comfortable and relaxed, maybe he lacks a bit of the acrid, angry stringency that electrifies the old recordings, but what the hell, he's a 62-year-old legend, with great comic timing, and great comic rhyming. On the other hand, I'm not called criticalbill for nothing.

As for my ongoing plan to record all spoken word gigs I go to, I took both my flaky voice recorder and my ipod; the voice recorder worked perfectly, for the first time in donkey's years, but I took it out of my pocket to check it 10 mins in, and knocked it onto pause. They can’t find a good word for you, but I can... TWAT. The ipod also worked perfectly, but the 70-minute file it created seems to have driven it into a black hole of technological incorrigability. The upshot being I don't have a recording. The 10 minutes I do have is just enough to make me really wish I'd not fucked it up. Maybe next time I'll learn shorthand.

Bonus youtube feature: Ten Years In An Open-Necked Shirt

PPS: Incidentally, with his intricate, fiery rhymes, there is a case, if it wasn't for the geographical incongruity, for JCC to be considered a major forerunner of rap. Twat, for example, with its succession of cold-ass one liners, is one of the greatest diss records ever recorded. And Beasley Street gives you ghetto rhymes, albeit of Salford slums, but he's keeping it real alright.