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Changes: Dr. John Cooper Clarke

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John [00:00:00] Happy Saint Valentine's, everybody. Directly from my heart to you.

Annie [00:00:10] Hello and welcome to Changes, I'm Annie Macmanus. You just heard the voice of the iconic punk poet also known as the Bard of Salford, John Cooper Clarke. John started performing his witty poetry amidst the punk scene of the 1970s, sharing stages with musicians such as the Sex Pistols, the Buzzcocks and The Clash. His trademark look of big hair and drainpipe trousers, along with his instantly recognisable, witty, Mancunian delivery have made him one of Britain's most famous poets. His most renowned poem, I Want To Be Yours, has ended up on the UK curriculum, is often a favourite at weddings and was famously used by the Arctic Monkeys on their song of the same name from the Am album. With that in mind, we thought we would get him on for an alternative Valentine's week episode. It's a pleasure to welcome to Changes today, John Cooper Clarke.

John [00:01:03] Hello, Annie.

Annie [00:01:04] It's great to have you here. Thanks for your time.

John [00:01:06] My pleasure.

Annie [00:01:08] How are you with change in general?

John [00:01:10] Not good. You know, I like every day to be exactly like the one that went before if that was a good day. So I'm a bit of a routine freak laughs.

Annie [00:01:24] Is that new? Or has that always been that way?

John [00:01:26] Oh no, I think it's a quality I've always kind of err, had.

Annie [00:01:33] If I ask you the question 'where do poems come from?', what would you say?

John [00:01:38] That's a very intelligent question, and if I knew where poetry came from I'd go there more often both laugh. No, I think the manufacture of poetry requires a kind of magic that can only come about through graft and kind of- a kind of monomania. A fixatory personality, I think, is a great help to any poet. That, plus idleness. It begins as the plaything of an idle hour, and then if you're like me it gets out of hand both laugh. I don't think it's entirely true that nobody likes poetry. I'm sure everybody gives it a go, the feast of Saint Valentine, for instance. Birthdays. Christenings. Engagements. All of course call forth, you know, the rhyming skills. Put it this way, Clinton cards ain't going out of business Annie laughs. Poetry itself couldn't be more accessible is what I'm saying. Everybody gives it a go. But like I say with me it sort of got out of hand and turned into to my actual job laughs.

Annie [00:02:49] What is it about you, John Cooper Clarke, that made you that person that stuck to it and committed to it?

John [00:02:56] Where I think I am a slightly kind of nerdy, flaky kind of person, you know, I was err, quite unhealthy as a kid. The sedentary life was really- became my MO laughs.  

Annie [00:03:14] Yeah laughs.

John [00:03:15] In a way.

Annie [00:03:15] Well, that was one of your answers for your childhood change, so when we asked you what your biggest childhood change was, you said recovering from TB.

John [00:03:22] Yeah, that's right. Yeah.

Annie [00:03:24] How old were you?

John [00:03:25] Oh, school age, you know, when- but that was the great thing about it, took me out of school which I hated every minute of. So it was great, sort of err, you know, I was more or less encouraged to be out in the fresh air. Yeah. So that meant, you know, I had to- I didn't have any friends in -- . So I guess I kind of cultivated an inner life, as they say. But I've never wr- having said that, I sound like, you know, that I write poetry for some cathartic purpose but I wouldn't want you to run away with that idea. You know, early on, when I found out I was good at it, you know, I wrote it with a view to err, recite it in public for a living. So I've never seen it as a way of dealing with anything laughs.

Annie [00:04:14] Yeah, yeah. It must do that, though. Unconsciously it must. Even the act of writing it must, must do something for you.

John [00:04:19] Yeah hesitates, well, it's- like I say, it's graft. I mean, you know, what's inspiration? Is just an aimless electrical charge. Wouldn't stand up in a court of reality.

Annie [00:04:31] You also cited as a big childhood change, John, was the acquisition of a bicycle.

John [00:04:36] Yeah that was a- that was a big thing. A very positive thing obviously, it got me out of the house, bit of exercise but, you know, relaxing at the same time. And in no time at all I was, I was on the main road. I was a bad kid.

Annie [00:04:52] Were you a bad kid?

John [00:04:53] Well, you know, errr... no worse than anybody else. I was kind of cheeky, but I wasn't evil. Up to that point at 11, 12 years old, I'd been a bookie's runner. Everybody I knew, you know, used to have odd jobs for money, you know, at school. Paper rounds, this that and the other. But mine was a bookie's runner thanks to my dad, he got me this job as a bookie's runner in the days when it was illegal, and they used to hire like err, kids who were too young to be seriously prosecuted to take the bets to the illegal book keeper. So I had this really lucrative job. If anybody ca- if anybody's horse came up it was er- it was the done thing that they should kind of tr-, you know, financial --. I used to operate out of several barbershops and even 3 or 4 pubs. So I was Annie laughs kind of introduced the sort of lowlife world of degenerate gamblers, you know, at a very early age. But it never got out of hand because, I think because at an early age I saw where it could lead, you know, but it was also- it was very lucrative, I was- I was incredibly rich for a kid of my age, but I didn't know what to spend it on.

Annie [00:06:12] So did you spend it on the bike or was that already bought by then?

John [00:06:15] A lot of it- yeah I bought the bike outright with it.

Annie [00:06:18] Yeah, nice.

John [00:06:20] 4 pound 50.

Annie [00:06:21] And John, can I ask you about Salford like how did it shape you, how'd it leave its mark on you?

John [00:06:26] It was a good place to live, you know, I didn't really live in Coronation Street kind of Salford, we always lived in apartments when I was a kid and on a main road above a chemist, you know and it- you could walk into the centre of Manchester within 12 minutes from where I lived so, it was a kind of inner city existence. I loved it while I lived there, I really did, I was always a bit squeamish about the countryside. You know, when we went on holiday I was- to be honest, I was glad to get back home both laugh. You know, but it was laughs it was real kind of squalid back then though, you know, bomb craters and heavy industry, you know, bad air laughs but we made our own entertainment.

Annie [00:07:16] So why did you want to leave?

John [00:07:18] I think I always wanted to get out because err, this is before the Beatles really, you know when it was unthinkable that you could ever make it in literature or music if you didn't move to London, frankly, so I just always had that on my horizon, you know, moving to London where the business is.

[00:07:45] Short musical interlude

Annie [00:07:55] If we go onto the biggest change of your adult life, can you remember what you said for that?

John [00:08:00] The biggest change in my adult life would have been going professional poetry wise after years of thankless endeavour upon the shop floor!

Annie [00:08:11] Laughs which shop are we talkin'?

John [00:08:12] I was sort of part of a window cleaning round laughs at one point. Apprentice motor mechanic, I worked in the rag trade as a cutter and then I was a compositor- I was an apprentice printer.

Annie [00:08:26] Were are you writing poetry at this time? Where you performing poetry at this time when you were working in the printers? And where are you telling anyone about it?

John [00:08:33] No, I didn't tell anybody because, you know, it was- the piss taking would have got even worse than it already was laughs. No, that's part of the c- you know, one rips the piss out of each other in an industrial setting, but that would have been a step too far- that's what I thought at the time anyway. Maybe I was wrong, like I say, everybody gives it a go, who knows? But it wasn't something that you'd err, you know, you'd kind of shout about until you were making a living out of it and then it was, you know, manifest destiny. So kind of took it into the nightclubs of Manchester just before punk and err, I was working in these nightclubs that featured popular singers from years gone by who peaked, you know, a long time ago but they had been big hitters, you know, household names.

Annie [00:09:26] Can we talk about you travelling the world? You know, you say you circumnavigated the globe ten times over - you're getting paid to do poems, it must have felt amazing. Then coming with that is fame. What are your memories, I suppose, of that time in terms of growing famous, becoming known?

John [00:09:42] Yeah. Well, that was amazing. Especially the first time I went to the United States, that was sensational because obviously I always envisaged doing that one, you know, I did the- my first gig in New York, for instance, was very, very discouraging. That's another thing, I'm, you know, I'm not by nature a very tenacious person, you know, and err, but the two places where I'm glad I kind of persisted are Glasgow and New York, both of which my first shows in both those towns were terrible. But I didn't go home, you know, I wouldn't leave it alone. And I made them have it at a later date, and I'm so happy that I did that. It could so easily have turned out differently because as I say, I'm not by nature a tenacious kind of person.

Annie [00:10:35] I mean, the absolute nerves it must take to walk out on a stage with no- no band initially, just you and a microphone and be reciting poetry to people who've come to see music most of the time, or a lot of the time, to have to push through the conversations and be heard. That must have been terrifying!

John [00:10:59] Well, it's err, it's not given to everybody but, you know, I guess there's a part of me that sort of err, you know, there's a showbiz part of me that, you know, what do they say? They say if you're in, you know, if you're in show business or to the extent that I am, even, you know, you haven't got something extra, you got something missing Annie laughs and that missing thing is I don't know errr, a healthy degree of self-doubt perhaps Annie laughs. So I've never really been a shrinking violet about it laughs.

Annie [00:11:32] Yeah laughs.

John [00:11:32] And it's the only- because I had to get over it because it was the only way I could get any kind of public. You know, they weren't publishing poets through any great degree back then.

Annie [00:11:45] Yeah.

John [00:11:46] And anyway, the best way to appreciate poetry is to hear it rather than read it anyway.

Annie [00:11:52] And did you enjoy the fame?

John [00:11:53] Yeah, sure, yeah but I don't think anybody really, really knows what it is. It quickly got be a pain in the ar- but I don't think anybody has the imagination to be prepared for it. I mean, it's against nature, isn't it?

Annie [00:12:08] Yeah.

John [00:12:08] People are not supposed to have an opinion about you before you've even met them.

Annie [00:12:13] Yeah.

John [00:12:14] So it's a unique position that I don't think anybody's prepared for.

Annie [00:12:21] You spent a lot of the 1980s in, in, in drug addiction. You described it in an interview as a tedious and narrow life.

John [00:12:30] Well, it is, isn't it?

Annie [00:12:31] When you were- when you were on heroin, yeah? And why is that? Like, what is it about that life that makes it so-

John [00:12:38] You're completely controlled by something, you know, it takes any kind of, you know, I'm not the most erm, spontaneous person in the world at the best of times but because it becomes out of the question with that shit. You know, what you do next Wednesday? Oooo I'll tell you on Tuesday night.

Annie [00:12:58] Right.

John [00:12:58] Laughs It's as good as it gets isn't it? No it's chaotic. I mean, that is the thing isn't it, it's out of your control, it's chaotic, some people mistake chaos for excitement. You know, chaos is tedious. You know, an ordered life is really what you're after. Jokingly I should never have opened that door.

Annie [00:13:25] Really, is there regret there?

John [00:13:27] Absolutely, course, of course!

Annie [00:13:29] Yeah.

John [00:13:30] It doesn't stalk my every waking- I don't walk the streets in torment.

Annie [00:13:36] Did you find that addiction changed you as a writer?

John [00:13:42] Yeah, I stopped writing laughs there was always something better to do than write a poem. So no, I didn't write anything for err, you know, 20 years or 15 years or 10- I don't know how long it was.

Annie [00:13:57] Did you ever go through doubt about your decision to be a poet? Like, did you ever doubt yourself in all of that time?

John [00:14:04] No, no, not really, I couldn't- I couldn't do any- it's the only thing I'm any good at. And I was never- I never stopped writing it just wasn't like, suitable for public declamation I suppose.

Annie [00:14:17] Oh, okay, okay.

John [00:14:18] Just a different kind of stuff.

Annie [00:14:19] I mean, you had this amazing period of, I don't maybe 5 or 6 years. I think it started in 2007, when your song Evidently --- came on the penultimate series of Sopranos, and then you had Plan B putting you on his album and his film, and then you had obviously the Am moment with Arctic Monkeys and I Want To Be Yours. What was it like to see your work kind of used in these ways?

John [00:14:43] Fantastic! As Elvis once said, ambition is a dream with a V8 engine Annie laughs that felt -- at the time when all that was happening there, and especially the Arctic Monkeys doing err, utilising my lyrics on I Want To Be Yours, which has led to how many? Over a billion hits worldwide on Spotify.

Annie [00:15:11] Yep.

John [00:15:12] Blimey. I'm glad I wrote that one.

Annie [00:15:14] I bet you are.

John [00:15:15] Both laugh yeah, it's the wedding favourite of the 21st century as well.

Annie [00:15:21] This episode is going out on Valentine's week.

John [00:15:24] Oh, wicked. Oh, happy Valentine's Day everybody.

Annie [00:15:29] How do you feel about Valentine's Day? Are you- are you up for it?

John [00:15:32] Oh, absolutely. There's not enough romance in the world.

Annie [00:15:35] Are you a romantic guy?

John [00:15:37] To a sadistic degree.

Annie [00:15:39] Really?

John [00:15:41] Laughs yeah. Yeah, I love Saint Valentine's Day, of course, yeah. I write my wife a- ooo I shouldn't have said that. Mystery man init. Crickey don't print that.

Annie [00:15:52] Laughs what so you never print your name?

John [00:15:54] No, no Annie laughing I think she knows my style by now. Yeah a do- yeah a dozen roses and la rhyme.

Annie [00:16:03] I wanted your views on romance and that kind of err, like enforced romance that is thrust upon us by society sometimes when it's commercialised in that way and, you know, everyone's-

John [00:16:14] Well, that's the best kind.

Annie [00:16:15] You like that?

John [00:16:16] Yeah, I like that kind of thing. Yeah, I like the commodification of err, romance yeah. It's part of pop music's strongest card.

Annie [00:16:27] Yeah. You mentioned your wife Evie... err I think, and please correct me if I'm wrong, you met her in the late 80s. What was it about her that you fell for?

John [00:16:36] Well, her looks and err, is always the first thing init.

Annie [00:16:42] And what did she look like?

John [00:16:43] Oh, terrific, yeah. And being French, you know, it's kind of- it kind of links up. She always reminded me of the late Jane Birkin.

Annie [00:16:53] Wow.

John [00:16:53] At that time.

Annie [00:16:54] What, beyond the looks?

John [00:16:55] Oh, she's the sweetest personality I-, after  my parents the sweetest woman, you know laughs, after my mum, the sweetest woman I ever met.

Annie [00:17:06] And then you had a daughter with Evie, Stella, what surprised you about becoming a parent, if anything?

John [00:17:14] It was a surprise. I was very, very late in the day for me. Fantastic though, like all my friends had em real young and they were all like, oooo don't have children, you know, a disgruntled dad by the time they were 36 years old, so I thought that must be a- you know, nobody's got a good word for it. So if I had of known how much fun it is, you know, like I say I would have another 17 Annie laughs. Well, they wouldn't have all been like Stella. You know, no a sweet kid, it's great, a lot- you know, fantastic.

[00:17:52] Short musical interlude

Annie [00:18:02] John, what would be the change that you'd still like to make or see in the world?

John [00:18:08] Ahh, the return of mass literacy, liberty, romance and the habit of gentleness.

Annie [00:18:14] I mean, that is a beautiful, beautiful utopia right there.

John [00:18:18] It's very backward. It's very kind of- quite- in essence, quite romantic.

Annie [00:18:24] It is, yeah.

John [00:18:24] It's err, quite natural in a person of my years. There's a great deal of melancholy and loss in those choices.

Annie [00:18:34] Yeah. The habit of gentleness especially, why that?

John [00:18:38] I think it was the first casualty. I could blame it on computers but what do I know? What do I know about it? I don't- I don't know, it was the first casualty of something! The habit of gentleness.

Annie [00:18:52] And err, mass literacy.

John [00:18:56] Mmm, I don't know whether to believe the scare stories are not, you know, thank God almigh- I don't have to think about schools and education anymore. I can't beli- my daughter, she, she up to a point she really liked going to school. I was never like that at any point.

Annie [00:19:12] Yeah. You didn't like it, it didn't suit ya?

John [00:19:14] No, I hated it, eughh I really did, but you know having said that, you know, I'm glad they err, rendered me a, you know, literate. So I got a great deal to thank the education system for but, you know, I was certainly quite the ingrate at the time.

Annie [00:19:33] Getting back to romance and the fact that this is coming out on Valentine's week, can I ask you some questions in a kind of agony uncle way where I ask you some situations that I would like to get your take on?

John [00:19:48] Sure, why not?

Annie [00:19:50] So let's say someone's listening who is in a relationship and they want to make it a long lasting relationship, what would you say is the secret to kind of that longevity in a romantic relationship?

John [00:20:06] Humms in curiosity maintaining a- I ought to know because I, you know, I've-

Annie [00:20:08] Well you're in a lovely long one.

John [00:20:10] Done exactly that. I've done exactly that but again I think it involves some kind of magic that I don't want to interfere with. Do as you're told! Annie laughs that's good advice for the guys out there, just- just do as you're told.

Annie [00:20:31] Laughing okay, love that John laughs. What about if someone is listening who fancies someone but's too scared to make a move?

John [00:20:38] Employ the err, the services of a go between.

Annie [00:20:45] Right.

John [00:20:46] Who would err, talk up your best qualities to this woman yeah laughs and await the outcome.

Annie [00:20:59] Yeah. It's a bit like- it's a bit playgroundy that one init. Overtalking It's like deep voice my mate fancies you!

John [00:21:05] Alternatively, play em like a fish! Both laugh.

Annie [00:21:13] Okay.

John [00:21:14] One of the two.

Annie [00:21:16] There's two great options. If someone is listening right now and they're heartbroken, they've just had their heart broken, they've been dumped from a great height, what would you say to them?

John [00:21:27] Next time, it won't be this bad. You'll never have your heart broken like that again.

Annie [00:21:36] It's true. The first time is the worst time.

John [00:21:39] First time's the worst time, init. Nobody will ever break your heart like that again.

Annie [00:21:43] No. Have you ever had your heart broken like that?

John [00:21:46] Oh I- yeah, yeah.

Annie [00:21:48] Can you remember it?

John [00:21:50] Yeah. We drifted apart in the harsh winter of Salford, yeah. It's in the book, Sheila.

Annie [00:21:58] Sheila, that's a great name.

John [00:21:59] I left home for her.

Annie [00:22:00] You left a home for her?!

John [00:22:01] Yeah, yeah, yeah. We got a place on Camp Street because it was a low rent sort of ghetto full of, you know, art students and hookers and what have you. Malcontents of one kind or another, but it was freezing so we kind of started going home to our respective parents at teatime both laugh.

Annie [00:22:26] Just to stand next to the Superser for a bit, yeah? Laughs.

John [00:22:29] Until finally none of us could countenance going back to this freezing apartment on Camp Street. So we kind of err- for the good of our respective health, we split up. Quite undramatically but it was heartbreaking nevertheless.

Annie [00:22:45] I bet it.

John [00:22:46] It never happens it mutually, you know, and she went off the boil before I did.

Annie [00:22:52] Yeah. Do you think it's important to have your heart broken?

John [00:22:57] At an early age? Yeah, get it out the way. But after that- I'm not saying you never- it's never going to happen again, but I ain't going to you know.

Annie [00:23:05] Oh, yeah. It's never going to happen so intensely, right? Like the pain.

John [00:23:10] It's not heartbreak it's a hairline fracture from then on in laughs.

Annie [00:23:16] Yeah, yeah. Would you consider err, reading out I Want To Be Yours?

John [00:23:20] No problem.

Annie [00:23:21] Your most romantic poem, for our lovely listeners.

John [00:23:24] It would be churlish to refuse.

Annie [00:23:27] Go for it.

John [00:23:28] Okay, this is the wedding favour of the 21st century, I Want to Be Yours, also the title of my memoir on sale at all good stockists. I Want To Be Yours by Doctor John Cooper Clarke. Let me be your vacuum cleaner breathing in your dust. Let me be your Morris Marina, I will never rust. If you like your coffee hot, let me be your coffee pot. You call the shots. I want to be yours. Let me be your raincoat for those frequent rainy days. Let me be that dreamboat when you want to sail away. Let me be your teddy bear, take me with you anywhere. I don't care I want to be yours. Let me be your electric metre, I will never run out. Let me be the electric heater you get pneumonia without. Let me be that setting lotion that grips your skull with deep devotion. Deep as the deep Atlantic Ocean, that's how deep is my devotion. Deep, deep deep, deep, d-deep, deep. I don't want to be hers, I want to be yours. Happy Saint Valentine's everybody, directly from my heart to you!  

Annie [00:24:34] Wooo! Yeahhh! Incredible. Thank you so much, John.

John [00:24:35] Pleasure.

Annie [00:24:36] Now John, your book What is out now. It looks absolutely beautiful and you're going to be going on tour as well from the 5th of March, you know, reciting this poetry and more obviously. There are tickets available by the way so if anyone is listening who wants to go and see John in action, do that, please do that. Have you noticed a change in your audience?

John [00:24:59] Ah no. Every kind of people, every kind of people is my audience. I'm so happy to say that, you know, really, you know, all ages, all kinds of people. Unbelievable, you know, what a bit of TV will get you Annie laughs. Amazing. I mean a cab- a cab driver- I was stood outside the hotel in, in err, South Kensington a few weeks ago and a guy- you know, he was carrying a fare, he screeched to a halt, jumped out and said, John Cooper Clarke, my favourite poet, shook me by the hand, got back in the car.

Annie [00:25:32] Wow. Wooow.

John [00:25:35] Got back in the car. People would have been surpri- I mean, not long ago people would have been quite surprised that a London cabbie would have a favourite poet, at all. So, you can't buy that kind of validation and I'm very happy to say this, you know, every kind of people.

Annie [00:25:55] Love that. Thank you so much, John, for taking the time today to speak to us and it was such a pleasure to have that time with you. Thank you.

John [00:26:03] Pleasure was mine, Annie. Thank you very much.

Annie [00:26:08] If you enjoy Changes, please do rate, review and subscribe to the podcast. Share it with your friends and family, go on social media, tell everyone about it, tag me Annie Macmanus, I always love to see how you react to these episodes and it's just so helpful to be seen and to be shared by you lot, so thank you so much if you do. There's a whole catalogue of episodes to listen to, if you have missed any at all go back and check 'em out and we'll be back next week. Changes is produced by Louise Mason with assistant production from Anna de Wolff Evans. See you next time!