Sheffield General Cemetery is one of the most atmospheric places in the UK. It’s full of mausoleums in the Doric, Egyptian and Gothic styles. There are knotted trees, twisted footpaths and one tree whose trunk has enveloped a tombstone and part of a fence. It was up one of these trees that I first encountered John Cooper Clarke’s hairdresser.
She was perched in the branches of a particularly gnarly Yew, like some arboreal pixie about to make a nest. I must’ve spotted her up there and muttered something in surprise. I remember climbing up with her and then having a conversation. She had one of the worst stutters I’ve ever heard. Her voice would snag on a word, her mouth would open wide, and then it was like she was being sick, as if the word was stuck in her throat and she had to vomit to get it out.
I can’t remember now how the subject of John Cooper Clarke came up. I was already a fan, having acquired his first recording, an EP which came out on the Rabid record label, in 1977. It was one of the original do-it-yourself punk records. You had to write off for it. You couldn’t find it in any shop. It was only available through the post.
The EP has four tracks on it: “Suspended Sentence,” “Innocents” and “Psycle Sluts parts 1 & 2.” All of the tracks are brilliant, but Psycle Sluts is the standout number. It’s a rapid-fire piece of rhyming invective, like a machine gun has acquired language and is firing off rounds of rhetoric instead of ammunition. It’s funny, inventive, absurd, twisted, crazed, rhythmic, dangerous, set to a drum machine beat cranked up to full pelt, like a speed freak about to have a heart attack, with an occasional sinewy bass-line interspersed with electronic peeps and squeals that riddle the atmosphere like deranged birds. There’s never been anything like it, before or since.
But anyway, at some point I must’ve mentioned Clarke and my new friend’s enthusiastic response was to tell me that she knew him and she came up with his distinctive hairstyle. It was based on Bob Dylan’s haircut on the front cover of Blonde on Blonde, she said. She cut it to different lengths, some of it short, some of it long, and then sprayed it to make it stand on end.
A tight-fitting suit, about two sizes too small, a skinny tie and Beatle-boots, completed the look. He hit the poetry scene about the same time that punk was exploding into the national consciousness and became known as “the punk poet.” He toured with various bands, including the Sex Pistols, the Fall, Joy Division, Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Elvis Costello and New Order. His delivery was fast, frenetic, lines fired off at a breakneck pace so it was sometimes difficult to hear what he was saying. If punk specialized in the two-minute thrash, the punk poet specialized in the 30-second screed. He used to introduce himself on stage as “Johnny Clarke, the name behind the hairstyle."
It says a lot about him that he wanted to look like Dylan. Not that his poetry bears any resemblance. Clarke’s is provincial, Northern, unashamedly working class. He loves regional dialect and local references. He loves Anglo-Saxon words and earthy expressions. He’s never happier than when layering down the vulgarities to a rock steady beat. He loves jokes and puns and wordplay. He doesn’t sing. It’s all delivered in a deadpan, Mancunian accent, dry and sardonic. Mostly he does without the music. The words are left to fend for themselves.
And his poetry rhymes. It has verses. It’s not modernist. It’s populist. Clarke references Pam Ayres, a well-known TV poet whose long run on the talent show, Opportunity Knocks, led him to believe that he too could make a living out of the craft. He’s also very funny. There’s an interview on Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt, the 1984 Channel 4 documentary made to celebrate his life. A gum-chewing music journalist is trying to look cool. “People have got the impression that people come along to see you to get the laughs,” he says. “They think your poems are very funny. Do you see a time when the serious social content (quote, unquote) takes over from the humour?”
Clarke replies, peering over his shades, “No, I wish I could be funny all the time.”
He started a trend. Performance poetry became all the rage, and there were a number of poets who took inspiration from him and went out on the road: most notably Linton Kwesi Johnson, a Jamaican-born performer who set his work to a dub music beat (he and Clarke toured together in 1981) and Attila the Stockbroker, another punk poet with a political edge.
There were a number of albums, produced by Martin Hannett and backed by The Invisible Girls (which included the Buzzcocks’ Peter Shelley and the Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly) culminating in Zip Style Method on the Epic label in 1982. There were a few TV appearances, a minor top 40 hit—Gimmix! Play Loud, which came out in 1979—and a TV advert or two.
And then he disappeared. No one knew what had happened to him. He spent several years lost in the wilderness of a heroin-induced haze. This is probably the most extraordinary part of the John Cooper Clarke story: not that he became a heroin addict, but that he shared his life at the time with Nico of Velvet Underground fame. They were never romantically attached. They were—to use Clarke's phrase—in a “domestic partnership” brought on by their mutual addiction. But it’s still extraordinary to imagine them together: her, an ex-model and associate of Andy Warhol, a cool, serious, urbane, globe-trotting internationalist, and him, a wise-cracking Northern poet hardly known beyond the shores of the UK. Her with her heavy German accent, and him with his Salford accent, mixing it up over sugary breakfast cereals and £10 bags of heroin.
He reappeared in the 1990s, having kicked his habit, and slowly has gone on to acquire the status as a national treasure. Paul McCartney described him as one of Britain’s outstanding poets. Steve Coogan says: "I say to people, have you heard of John Cooper Clarke and if they say, yes, yeah he's an absolute genius, you just go, 'oh—OK, you've saved me a lot of time.’” The Arctic Monkeys printed the words to his poem Out of Control Fairground on the inside cover of their 2007 single Fluorescent Adolescent, and cite him as a major influence.
He gained international recognition when his track, “Evidently Chickentown,” from his 1980 LP Snap, Crackle & Bop, was used as the soundtrack over the credits of the penultimate episode of the Sopranos. Again, like his relationship with Nico, this was a startling juxtaposition: the words of the Salford poet superimposed over the life story of a fictional New Jersey mafia family.
These days Clarke is hardly ever off our screens. He’s a regular on panel shows such as 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown and Have I got News For You. In 2019 he was the guest on BBC Radio 4's long running radio series, Desert Island Discs. He said he’d been a fan for 60 years, adding that being on the show had "all the finality of a suicide note, without the actual obligation of topping yourself." There’s a documentary available online called Evidently… John Cooper Clarke, and an autobiography which came out in 2020.
In 2013, Clarke was awarded an honorary doctorate of arts by 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." In his speech he said: "Now I'm a doctor, finally my dream of opening a cosmetic surgery business can become a reality." Today he signs himself Dr. John Cooper Clarke.
There’s another minor connection to my life—aside from the fact that I met his hairdresser in a tree in 1978—and that’s that his roadie, Johnny Green, who used to work for the Clash, lives in my home town of Whitstable. There’s not that much lifting work a roadie has to do for a poet, with no equipment to carry. Green prefers the title “gentleman travelling companion.” Clarke continues to tour with his one-man show, a mix of poetry, observation, social commentary and stand-up comedy. In April 2023 he’ll be at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury.