John Cooper Clarke Live
The foul-mouthed poet of the people is streamed live into Queen's Film Theatre
It’s wrong to label performance poet John Cooper Clarke ‘a national treasure’, as he often is by a plethora of celebrity fans towards the end of enjoyable documentary Evidently… John Cooper Clarke.
His work is too scabrous, too anti-establishment to be taken to the hearts of a nation more comfortable with the cosy mediocrity of Saturday night entertainments like The X Factor. I’m sure Clarke prefers the sobriquet 'the Bard of Salford' anyway.
Showing at Queen's Film Theatre on National Poetry Day, this is a one-off live broadcast from Newcastle’s Tyneside Cinema to 13 venues around the UK by the Cinema Arts Network (CAN) in association with Click Films.
Hosted by Clarke’s tour manager Johnny Green, the event kicks off with a rare clip of Clarke performing with the late Frank Sidebottom on guitar shortly before the latter’s death in 2010, before Clarke himself is welcomed onstage.
64 years old, Clarke is a sprightly – if bone thin – figure. Dressed in his trademark skinny suit, shades and Beatle boots, his hair dyed black and backcombed, he introduces his poem ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ by claiming that 'it’s become for 21st century weddings what ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ is to humanist funerals'.
His instantly recognisable voice, a Salford sneer, is the perfect instrument for his rhyming poems, which are by turns hysterically funny, heartfelt and deeply moving. Then the two John’s retire to the green room while the rest of us around the country watch the documentary, first shown on BBC4 last year.
Packed with archive footage of Clarke performing – as well as interviews with the man himself and contributions from Steve Coogan, Jarvis Cocker, Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys and many others – the film takes us on a journey from Clarke’s childhood in Salford, a borough of Greater Manchester through four decades of life as a travelling performance poet.
Clarke started out as a nightclub entertainer in the mid-1970s, plying his trade in the (often hostile) working men’s clubs of the city before finding his audience in the emerging punk scene, supporting bands like Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, The Clash and Joy Division.
His acerbic, quick fire delivery and poetry of working class life filled with Dadaist humour and lovelorn despair struck a chord with the disenfranchised, and he was soon making records, first for local label Rabid before he was snapped up by major label CBS.
A clatter of albums followed, with poems such as ‘(I Married A) Monster from Outer Space', ‘Evidently Chickentown’ and ‘Beasley Street’ given instrumental backing by The Invisible Girls, a studio ‘super-group’ made up of various Manchester music luminaries and produced by legendary Factory producer Martin Hannett.
The film charts Clarke’s rise to fame and the celebrity interviewees say lots of nice things about him. At times, though, it veers close to hagiography, and it’s up to Clarke himself to bring some darkness to the proceedings.
He speaks about the heroin addiction, which took hold of him in the 1980s, leaving him with writer’s block which lasted for years after he finally managed to beat his habit. As he himself says: 'First it’s good, then it’s bad, then it’s hell.'
It was whilst touring that Clarke’s heroin use became an addiction. Whilst his poems were turning up on the GCSE English syllabus, Clarke was living a 'feral existence'. He still gigged and toured, but all his money was spent on drugs.
John Ross's film is at its best when showing Clarke performing. We are treated to full renditions of ‘Evidently Chickentown’ and ‘Beasley Street', the latter edited together from various performances over the years. Hearing the poems in their entirety says much more about Clarke’s poetic genius than all the talking head’s put together.
The film ends with Clarke’s re-emergence into public consciousness, helped in no small part by the use of ‘Evidently Chickentown’ in the final series of HBO’s The Sopranos. Since then he has undertaken sold-out tours and featured (as he is quick to point out in the Q&A that follows the film) on two number one album’s, Plan B’s Ill Manors and Arctic Monkey’s current chart topper AM.
The half-hour Q&A is as entertaining as the film. Clarke is a very funny man, and he answers all the questions thrown at him – from how he feels about being on the GCSE English curriculum ('I love the idea of my poetry being shoved down the reluctant throats of schoolchildren') to what hairspray he uses – with wit and panache.
He does a pretty good impression of Winston Churchill reading ‘(I Married A) Monster from Outer Space' too, and tells us, 'I’m a gifted impressionist, and I don’t mean Paul Cezanne is losing any sleep'.
We even learn a few things that the film neglects to tell us, such as the fact that Clarke's been married for almost 20 years – his French wife and he bonded over a shared love of Baudelaire – and has a daughter.
As the evening draws to a close, Clarke is asked what he thinks his legacy will be.
For once, he is stumped for an answer. He admits, 'I’m a little miffed I’ve not been asked to be poet laureate'. Having been ignored for decades by the literary establishment, it’s hard to tell if he’s joking or not. It may be wrong to call him a national treasure, but it’s right to call him John Cooper Clarke, poet.
Visit the Queen's Film Theatre website for information on upcoming screenings.