The Bard of Salford

“I lean towards the nineteenth century poets,” says John Cooper Clarke, who also happens to dress like them. “Percy Shelley, all them. I want an all-female audience, y’know.”

What, Shelley used to read live?

“Oh yeah, yeah, he used to do gigs. When he wasn’t ‘anging around graveyards, or trying to drown himself.”

On stage, John Cooper Clarke is a mass of hair and suit and shades with a million mile an hour mouth. Offstage, and to be specific, in his hotel room at the Cosmopolitan Inn, Bondi, he’s an even bigger mass of hair, suit and shades. His mouth doesn’t move as quickly, but he can still be very funny.

Other favourite poets? Baudelaire, yup, and Coleridge. “In fact,” says Clarke, in his unmistakable Manchester drawl, “When I first started in this business, I was thinking of calling myself John Kubla Khan.”

Popular poets are a rare commodity in the machine age, but then John Cooper Clarke is very much a machine-age poet. He reads ’em fast, a veritable torrent of words and images punctuated only by gasps for air. You have to strain to catch them all—a valuable asset in holding an audience’s attention, and one that a new generation of punk/skinhead poets in the UK have adopted with alacrity. For example:

“Seething Wells, ‘e’s from Leeds. ‘E’s a skin ‘ead. He does poems about … beer. Attila the Stockbroker, ‘e’s from Harlow New Town. ‘E’s alright, but ‘e’s a bit of an obvious Trotskyist. He wears ‘is political heart on ‘is sleeve.”

As well as the new poets, who like Clarke, perform in rock pubs, the ‘established’ poetry scene has sought JCC’s patronage. British poet Michael Horovitz organised an event called the Poetry Olympics last year, which saw new and established poets sharing a bill at Westminster Abbey. “That’s where the Queen gets married, y’know.” It was a success, says Clarke, in as much as the established poets are working and making a living again.

Cooper Clarke’s favourite new English poet is Lynton Kwesi Johnson, a young black whose poetry, like JCC’s, is strongly laced with social comment and reality. The two poets did a British tour together, the best tour he’s ever done, according to Clarke.

“We complemented each other perfectly, cos he’s a slow, intense, moody reader and I’m, y’know, fast.”

Cooper Clarke came to Australia with fellow Manchunians, New Order, some of whom have played on the Bard of Salford’s albums. In fact, Cooper Clarke often supported Joy Division, before singer Ian Curtis committed suicide and the remainder of the band became New Order. Cooper Clarke sees the two acts as complementing each other, but adds wryly that he can be as depressing as them if he wants.

The tour has been an undoubted success for JCC, large crowds everywhere responding enthusiastically to his word skill and performance. In fact, in Perth he did his longest set ever, one and a half hours, because the crowd wouldn’t let him go.

Clarke confesses he’s going through an indolent period at present, but isn’t too worried as his muse is an erratic one. One plan he has is to rent an office and write poetry 9 to 5.

“I’m a great believer in routine,” he states seriously. “It puts you in the frame of mind where you recognise inspiration when it happens. I respond very well to deadlines.”

Another (half serious?) project is a recording of Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’. “That’s a real long one that. A double album. Or even a boxed set!” he laughs.


First published in Roadrunner, January 1983.
Photo By: Damien Ledwich

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