“That cock-sucking piece of shit, Tony Soprano’s cousin… I can’t even say his name…murdered Billy and what did I do about it? … Leotardo. That’s my fuckin’ legacy … No more, Butchie. No more of this.”
Cue: opening bars of John Cooper Clarke’s Evidently Chickentown (1980), which the performance poet co-wrote with fellow punks, Steve Hopkins and Martin Hannett, who was Tony Wilson’s business partner in Factory Records and one-time producer of Joy Division.
For Soprano fans, Evidently Chickentown is a tune that’s become as associated with HBO’s successful series (Stage 5’s final episode) as Stealers Wheel’s Stuck in the Middle with You is to Reservoir Dogs. And for similar reasons only Chickentown secretes less dark humour than real foreboding and unease…
“The fucking cops are fucking keen to fucking keep it fucking clean…”
“Hello, angel,” says ‘bard of Salford’, John Cooper Clarke in unmistakeably gravelly tones when I introduce myself. “Are we on?”
It’s not radio, I tell him. And I’m not recording him – I’m writing for a website that loves all things social and cultural and interesting in the city.
He nasals his intrigue into a half, nicely surprised “Ur. Narce.” Then I tell him that SevenStreets is advertising-free and run by ‘three blokes’, which seems to particularly resonate. “Uuur. Naaarce.”
So straight to the chase. How does it feel to have The Sopranos use your track, especially now it’s become so iconic?
“Even to be involved in The Sopranos in such a small way is very gratifying. I say ‘thanks very much for that’ – it’s the best programme, after The Simpsons,” says John, perfectly seriously. “It’s TV’s finest hour and I’ve had loads of publicity from it; everything’s publicity these days isn’t it?”
John Cooper Clarke is one of those performers who’s known for being an integral part of a seminal scene – a head about town with something to say. And people listen. He has a certain original punk look, even now aged 60-something.
He’s linked to bands like The Sex Pistols, Joy Division, Buzzcocks; to people like Velvet Underground’s – and Andy Warhol’s darling – Nico and to his home city of Manchester, when Tony Wilson was manufacturing Factory Records. And he’s a wordsmith who ‘reads stuff out aloud to people’ and has a catalogue of work starting with Où est la Maison de Fromage? in 1978.
“I never felt part of any particular wave or ‘new thing’, more part of a tradition,” he says. “What I do is pretty old-school; the subject matter is old and it can be taken right back to the 19th century and beyond.
“And the punk thing was very lyric-orientated especially Johnny’s (Rotten) and Joe Strummer’s and Mick Jones’ lyrics – they were contemporary, clever and knowing.
“I love poetry in general, but it needs a musicality and if poetry can’t be read aloud it’s shit.”
I Wanna Be Yours is one of his poems that people love to read aloud, having entered the mainstream psyche as a firm wedding-reading favourite.
He misses Tony Wilson, he says, and credits him with almost single-handedly rebuilding the quarter of Manchester that he calls an ‘art ghetto – a dark end of town before Factory Records and the Hacienda.’
“I miss him being around for sure; we’re poorer for not having him in the world. Who’s around like him, these days? Especially now John Peel’s gone. Chris Blackwell of Island Records puts his money and faith in music for sure. But who else?
“Tony was never blasé about music. He was a real fan. Even two weeks before he went to hospital, he told me to go and see Enter Shikari – he was still thinking about new talent!”
John reckons Tony Wilson would have been ‘brilliant on X-Factor’ but doesn’t linger, drawing suddenly on literary comparisons between Simon Cowell and Machiavelli.
“Lend a man your horse and he’ll steal your wife,” quoth the punk poet.
“People say not to be so heartless but these are young people and Simon’s only trying to prepare them. It’s kind of Machiavellian; Machiavelli is coming from a charming place, trying to avoid heart ache and that’s what Simon Cowell’s doing. I don’t think he’s a paradigm of virtue but he’s doing his best!”
Cooper Clarke’s mum was a good poet too, who came to writing creatively late in life despite being an avid reader who ‘always had three or four books out from the library.’
“But I wrote poetry before she did,” he says lovingly. “She probably thought: ‘If he can do it, how difficult can it be?!’ She had a style of John Betjeman – a great eye for detail and good with rhymes. She was terrific.”
In 1982, John appeared in British cult film Urgh! A Music War with his track Health Fanatic. It also featured seminal punk and post-punk bands such as The Cramps, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Police and Steel Pulse. He’s never seen it.
“Anyway, I hate seeing myself on film and I hate close-ups. And with all this HD stuff, I’d look like an old git; you’d need Vaseline on the lens.”
I reel off some of the artists from the film and he’s genuinely surprised to hear who’s on it.
“I knew Steel Pulse really well – those dudes were terrific, fabulous men. Handsforth Revolution was a big album. Rotten [Johnny] was a massive fan and he used to always wear their promo badges for photo shoots.”
Talking of which, John recently ran into Paul Cook (Sex Pistols drummer) in Holland “which was nice.”
“He [Paul] is playing with Edwyn Collins who’s an amazing, very talented man. He’s had to put himself back together again after a massive stroke and what a terrific job he’s done. Terrific singer and terrific band.”
But he’s not the only person he’s run into recently and John’s got a rather famous new best friend who played Toothpick (Mr Blonde) in Reservoir Dogs.
“I was at this cultural event, which put on gigs in The Hague and Antwerp and another guy reading his poetry was the actor, Michael Madsen. Yeah, yeah he’s my new best mate,” he says with a specially delivered twist of JCC irony.
“You’ve got this real-life tough guy but his poetry is sensitive stuff, deeply rooted in traditional hard-boiled beat poetry. Not really a job for a bloke-bloke! We got on like a bleeding house on fire.”
Cooper Clarke’s influences are as wide as they are unlikely – as you’d somehow want them to be. But it’s interesting that the one he recalls with most fondness is the American comedian, Bob Hope whom he saw when he was a child.
“When I was about 12, I went to see Bob Hope who I knew from his movies, I wasn’t prepared for the one-man one-mic show but it had a massive effect on me – how one man can be so funny yet not smile or make himself laugh?
“I was also a big fan of Ella Fitzgerald, Sergeant Bilko and Mr Ed,” says John breaking into song: “A horse is a horse of course, of course…”
Most recently, accolades have arrived in the form of invitations to duet on poems such as Last Resort at a Reverend and the Makers London gig and, three years ago, the Arctic Monkeys reprinted Out of Control on their Fluorescent Adolescent single.
“I’m always getting offers and I’m very touched but I don’t know what I can offer these fantastic people,” John demurs, and quickly pings: “But if it catapulted me to great stardom and wealth, don’t rule it out,” before laughing his gruff, smokey laugh.
I tell him about a strange coincidence; that moments before my interview with him is confirmed I receive a lovely Vivienne Westwood present and he’s audibly caught in nostalgia.
“Oh Vivienne!” John says, like I’ve just reminded him of a long-lost punk love.
“I love Vivienne’s stuff – one of the greatest designers. Sadly, it’s damage limitation for me these days – I wear what I can get away with! I’m more conservative, same sort of clothes perhaps: narrow trousers, the hair – smart clobber, you know?
“Ah, the last time I saw Vivienne was at Malcolm’s [McLaren] funeral,” he says quite wistfully, but then adds “I don’t get out much!”
This, of course, is a fib because he’s on a UK tour right now and earlier this year, he also appeared in a British film (as himself) directed and produced by rapper Plan B called Ill Manors.
“I’m performing this new number called Pity the Plight of Young Fellows – it’s about the view of young people from a jaundiced old twat’s point of view. It’s the film, not me. No, I lead a charmed life – there’s never any animosity to me. I have faith – I’m a vestige of hope!”
John Cooper Clarke
Liverpool O2 Academy 2
Saturday 11 December
Image by TimDuncan, via Flickr