John Cooper Clarke
27th November 2013
The ever popular spoken word maestro John Cooper Clarke, affectionately known as the Bard of Salford, came to the Roman town of Bath last week. Nyika Suttie reports back.
“I’ll never do another gig like this” said a strikingly thin John Cooper Clarke, known as the bard of Salford and who once described his label as the “punk poet” as a millstone around his neck.
He was right too, for we were treated to an anarchic performance of singing, microphone stand wielding and, eventually, poetry. Whilst a cold may have rendered him slightly delirious, Clarke still managed to entertain the audience in the way only he can.
But first came Mike Garry, an endearing Mancunian poet who arrived on stage in a coat and scarf. “I’m only wearing the coat because I’m shy” he said, before launching into a fast talking poem about not thinking about things he doesn’t want to think about. Garry paints vivid pictures of the real and happening underside of Manchester, although he has the warmth and humour to keep the audience happy. He proclaims himself a “fan of the dark” and indeed it is the darkness in the poems which take you by surprise. The daughter involved in a coach crash, the girl outside the embassy club pleading for a penny for her guy are seen clearly in your mind’s eye as he draws you into his world.
Bez (of The Happy Mondays, obviously) once told Garry he likes the way he talks and sings at the same time, and this has an almost hypnotic effect. Often he walked away from the microphone, to remove his scarf, and then his coat, still reciting lines of poetry, a mixture of a loud voice and acoustics carrying it to the audience. The anecdotes between the poems tied the set together, and often set you up to really feel the depth of the poem he then performs.
A highlight of the set was “St. Anthony”, an ode to the late, great Tony Wilson, which has recently been set to an orchestra by a guy who has worked with Elbow and Daughter to great reviews. It’s a poem that captures not only Wilson’s legacy, but his Manchester as well, and it’s really rather beautiful. As is Garry’s final poem, “What My Ma Taught Me”, a poem written for his late mother. “Let’s not get heavy” he says beforehand “I don’t want anyone crying”. Humour was added throughout the set by his very own “product placement”, with books and CDs dotted all around the stage. Mike Garry is a fantastic poet, and if you’ve never heard of him before you’re in for a treat.
After a short interval Johnny Green, the MC, came to the stage and introduced us to the main event: John Cooper Clarke himself.
Skinny as a rake, with his trademark bird’s nest hair and dark glasses, Clarke is instantly recognisable, wobbling around the stage and swigging his gin and tonic before spitting it on the floor. “Frozen bronchitis, that. Don’t touch it” he intoned, making sure that we were aware that he was “very ill”. He began by telling us that he’d arrived late and hadn’t been able to put the guest list on the door, a lengthy preamble which lead into his first poem which was, funnily enough, The Guest List. This was to be the first of many a long, rambling anecdote throughout the night, but the audience didn’t mind, this was Johnny Clarke after all.
Clarke had a real way of teasing the audience, telling us he was going to do a poem before launching into a long and rambling anecdote which would, without fail, have the audience shaking with laughter. Before a newer poem, “Get Back On The Drugs You Fat Fuck”, we were treated to a rather unpolitically correct anecdote about being an inspiration to those with eating disorders, and from there the night only got more surreal.
“Beasley Street” he announced, before talking about something entirely unrelated. A little while later he asked his attentive listeners “Have I done Beasley Street yet?”, and finally launched into the poem, delivering it in his trademark style. This question was repeated rather a lot of times during the night, and at points it was hard to work out whether he really did know whether he’d done Beasley Street or not. The poem was, however, accompanied by its modern counterpart “Beasley Boulevard”. “It’s got the same tune, if you can remember the tune” he says, and sure enough it does.
Tunes were rather a feature of the night. A woman delivered a note to the stage and was asked her name. “Joella” she replied. “Joanna?” said John and began crooning her name, picking up the microphone stand and waving it dangerously over his shoulder. We had quite a few more of these performances over the course of the set, including a number by Eddie and the Hot Rods, prompting a heckler to shout “Do some poems!” Usually I wouldn’t like a heckler, but it did serve to shake Clarke from his reverie.
Clarke has influenced artists old and new, and he seemed proud of his part in Plan B’s film Ill Manors, although he didn’t recommend seeing it more than once. He also talked of his work with Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys, and ended with “I Wanna Be Yours”. Other highlights included “Twat”, “Things Are Gonna Get Worse” and, of course, “Evidently Chickentown”.
This is the thing with JCC, you never know what you’re going to get. Even those of us more familiar with his laissez-faire performance style were not expecting the gig to be half as bizarre as it was. But it was fun. The audience enjoyed it, Clarke enjoyed it (despite being so very close to death) and everyone was satisfied, if more than a little lost for words. He wasn’t on top form, no, but he was on a form of his own. He’s John Cooper Clarke, of course he was.