John Cooper Clarke: The Ironworks, 7/6/2015. A review.
It’s a sold out cabaret style Ironworks this evening and a diverse demographic that has turned out to listen to (Dr) John Cooper Clarke, the original ‘punk poet’, the Bard of Salford. But to get to him, we have to listen to Mike Garry first.
Mike Garry is another Mancunian performance poet of some repute. He is in all respects a quintessentially northern poet, although tonight he is geographically challenged. So to be clear, we are talking about that Northern England perspective wherein as Paul Morley succinctly puts it, ‘Northern as in the centre of the universe’. There is only one north in Garry’s life, Manchester, and it is at the centre of all he does.
About that reputation – just back from New York, you don’t get to appear on stage to collaborate with Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, New Order and Philip Glass on the basis of an introduction alone. Approached by Terry Christian who was preparing a BBC radio documentary for Hacienda legend Tony Wilson, Mike Garry wrote ‘St Anthony’. Although he had never actually had a conversation with Wilson, the poem is a stunning meditation on everything he had contributed to Manchester the ‘scene’ and the wider cultural capital. There followed a collaboration with Joe Duddell who put the poem to music; the rest as they say . . . He performed that poem this evening, and it was exquisite.
In case the audience hadn’t guessed, Garry confesses that language has always been important to him. It’s how he comes to understand the world and work things out. Second generation Irish, there was regularly a full house and in that atmosphere he was of course no stranger to performance. He spins universal themes from the centre of his particular universe, he is witty, funny, political: he likes the dark and often his words create mental images, and some of those you’d perhaps rather have not seen. Too late, that’s the power of language allied to the musicality of the human voice. His last poem was particularly powerful and image laden; even in it’s creation.
Challenged by his mother to write a eulogy he struggled with it and put it off, until that is, the morning of her funeral. That morning he went for a swim and he set himself the task to compose a line for every length he swam. ‘What Me Mam Taught Me’ and the story behind it will, I suspect, stay with me for quite a while. It was so good I’d have been content for the gig to end right there, but, enter stage left, Dr John Cooper Clarke.
The Doctorate is of course an Honorary one from of course The University of Salford in ‘acknowledgement of a career which has spanned five decades, bringing poetry to non-traditional audiences and influencing musicians and comedians’. That quite neatly sums up some key points: his longevity, his act and the resurgence in his career.
I have always been in awe of those who take to the stage with nothing but a guitar and their voice between them and the audience. But that pales into insignificance with John Cooper Clarke who first took to the stage opening for the likes of the Sex Pistols to face audiences who were prepared to assault entire bands let alone a man who is so thin he’s invisible to bats armed with only a microphone and a notebook: a poet and a man who was a self-confessed coward. It is perhaps this association with music that has resulted in him being so under-rated by the literati, you don’t expect to sit down and read his poetry.
Then, his high velocity poetry was his trademark. His act now is far more varied and nuanced. The poetry is of course still there, but shares equal billing with his talent for stand-up and his natural ability as a raconteur. He doesn’t just say funny things, he says things funny: that ensures that throughout, people are laughing, some in tears. He is (to state the flippin’ obvious), something of a sparky divergent thinker. The thread of his conversation can shift rapidly from anecdote to a one man improvised ‘play’ in the blink of an eye, you really have to stay tuned in to get the very best of this, and as far as I could tell, the audience held on to every word.
Poetically best known for his epic verse, tonight we are treated also to limericks and haiku. Once upon a time I couldn’t have got John Cooper Clarke and haiku into the same sentence, but he is a natural. Explaining the cultural background and the formal structure underpinning haiku he read a few typically surreal, humorous compositions finishing off with his finest haiku that is at one and the same time an illustration of his anxieties and the demands of the form: To-con-vey one’s mood, In sev-en-teen syll-able-s, Is ve-ry dif-fic
But for me, it is his performance poetry that elevates the man to ‘legend’ status. And I’m not disappointed in this respect. From his seminal collection of poems he performs Beezley Street (often written as Beasely) closely followed by new material that is a commentary on social mobility. Beezley Boulevard is, of course, the result of an aspirational makeover by the Llewellyn-Bowens of this world, crude and superficial at that. For a man who clearly has an appreciation for the fact that he has lived most of his life already, he offered his top three benefits of Alzheimer’s 1. You can hide your own Easter eggs. 2. You get to meet new people every day. 3. You get to hide your own Easter eggs. This sketch segued nicely into another of his more recent compositions ‘Bed Blocker Blues’, a politically astute critique of ageism and the state of the NHS.
Ten years ago he played in Inverness to about 16 people. The comparison with this-evenings sell out serves to emphasise those poems that explain his current (and most welcome) resurgence. First released in 1980 on his album ‘Snap, Crackle and Bop’, the realist, edgy poetry of Evidently Chickentown’ was a sensation when it featured at the end of the penultimate episode of The Sopranos. His other recent hit provides tonight’s encore. First published in 1982, ‘I wanna be yours’ was adapted by the Arctic Monkeys in 2013 for their ‘AM’ album. Clarke (quite proudly) shares that he is regularly told that the poem was read at a wedding or featured in a proposal.
It’s impossible to say whether John Cooper Clarke would have needed a resurgence if he hadn’t lost a decade, the music industry is after all a fickle business. He makes reference to his heroin habit. In fact at the top of the show he shares a now famous post rehab heckle; “Hey Dr Clarke, get back on drugs you fat fuck”. He may well have rid himself of his 16 year habit in 1992, but it seems reputations such as his live at least as long as his classic poems. On tonight’s evidence he seems to have lapsed on his commitment to turn for gigs at least two hours in advance. But hey, no harm done.
With only one volume of poetry published his recorded work is again attracting attention. For me it will always be about performance and his unique attributes. After you have heard him it’s impossible to read his poems without having his voice as the narrator with all the colour that brings to the page. To be sure, both performances this evening have been fantastic.
They have in common that acute observational capacity, the gift of all true poets. Their subject matter and the treatment of it is often similar: politicised, brutal, absurd, emotional, surreal observations wrapped up in a disarming wit (and in John Cooper Clarkes case an equally disarming monotone delivery). They have the ability to put unsolicited images in your head and to have you laughing at things before your inner editor kicks in to chastise you for finding some things funny that really shouldn’t be.
All of this and yet you never feel alienated or annoyed. Because these two poets pass some vital tests: they are ultimately honest and trustworthy in their observations they are reflective and they share personal experience with a universal appeal that resonate and which have the capacity to help us all understand ourselves and the world that bit better.
I think a special mention has to go to the audience tonight. They were there to listen and showed the utmost respect to the performers. The Ironworks took the decision to close the bar while John Cooper Clarke was on, and I have to applaud that. I don’t recall too much if any distraction from background chatter while Mike Garry was on, but they were taking no chances with Dr Clarke: good call.