The influential English punk poet is still full of piss and vinegar after five decades
In his most famous poem, John Cooper Clarke packs 80 f-bombs into 50 lines. A sample: “The fucking train is fucking late / You fucking wait you fucking wait / You’re fucking lost and fucking found / Stuck in fucking chicken town.”
Fans of The Sopranos may recognize this work, titled Evidently Chickentown, from its prominent use in the penultimate episode of the series, although in a tamer version. Clarke first wrote the litany using “bloody” – as a Brit born in the 1940s who came of age as a 60s mod is wont do to. It was shocking enough to his original 70s audiences: the UK punks who abruptly encountered a poet opening for bands like Joy Division and the Clash in London clubs. But then, as he was walking onstage at CBGB’s in 1978 and realized the word wouldn’t mean shit to New Yorkers, he quickly switched it to something more locally colloquial.
Unsurprisingly, it fucking worked.
“‘Bloody’ is very whiny and English. It’s a low-grade swear word you can say in front of your mother and she’d go ‘tut-tut’,” Clarke explains over the line from England. “And it’s not a swear word in America. So I changed it to ‘fucking’ on the spot. The hard percussive sound was also much better. And then I thought, ‘Why didn’t I do this in the first place?’”
In that moment, Clarke dialed into a truth he had already noted in an earlier 70s piece called I Don’t Want To Be Nice: “It’s clever to swear.” And he’s only doubled down on the vulgarity through the decades, with classics like Evidently Chickentown and Twat being joined by new material sporting such titles as Get Back On Drugs You Fat Fuck or Some Cunt Used The N-Word.
“Like most people with a nice mum and dad, I was taught that only people with bad vocabulary swear,” he says. “Experience taught me differently. The most articulate people I’ve ever met swear all the time. Few seem to write it into poems though. Everybody is on their best behavior when they write poetry. They want to give a good impression of themselves.”
Today, at 69, Clarke (who bills himself as Dr. Cooper Clarke since earning an honourary degree from his hometown university of Salford), still performs regularly, his upcoming gig at Lee’s Palace part of a world tour. He may have ditched his signature “Ron Wood/Joan Jett” electric shock hairdo because it’s too much work to maintain at his age (“Believe it or not, it took a lot of trouble to look that rotten”), but he’s lost none of his piss and vinegar.
In his current act, which he performs at literary and comedy festivals as well as in clubs, he spits words with the rapid-fire delivery of an auctioneer and the physical dexterity of a virtuoso, his hour-long sets also zinging with well-oiled stand-up bits in between poems.
“Well, you can’t have any dead air,” he explains, when asked about his performance stamina. “I ain’t being paid to wear a suit!”
Clarke finds great amusement in everything, it seems. He laughs heartily at his own jokes, which can include references to The Simpsons and Wu-Tang Clan alongside Baudelaire and the Buzzcocks. And he claims his main motivation for creating new work (a long overdue collection of fresh poems comes out this fall, with an autobiography to follow in 2019) is simply to entertain himself. If there is any guiding principle, it’s not to over-think any of it.
“Poetry is a kind of magic that I don’t care to interfere with too much by analysis,” he says. “Otherwise I’ll know what I’m doing. I don’t want to know. That’s why I haven’t got a smartphone. I like to live with mysteries. I never watch programs about how they made a movie either. It’s expensive to go to the movies. Why would you pay cash money and then want to know how they faked it? If you mind your own business, it’s still magic.”
His greatest magic trick may be making a living as a poet for five decades. And while 70s punk culture appears so regularly in the mainstream that hearing Clarke pop up in places like The Sopranos can hardly even be called incongruous any more, there’s still something to celebrate in punk’s unofficial poet laureate still being on the scene.
“To be honest, I like to fit in. I do,” he says. “I’m quite a gregarious person, I move in a lot of worlds. But I do think I’m pretty mainstream culture. But I’ve been wrong about these things before!”
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