Last Saturday I drove to Oxford and back, from here in West London, to see legendary punk-poet John Cooper Clarke. He played at the O2 Academy on Cowley Road. I travelled with a couple of friends and my 13-year-old son, none of whom had seen him on stage before. I first saw him perform in November 1977, over 40 years ago, and have seen him 25 or 30 times since then. I would happily see another 25 or 30 shows by Dr Clarke (one of the many names he answers to these days), and hope that we both live long enough for this to happen.
Last November I drafted several hundred words about Dr Clarke as the 40th anniversary of that first show approached. I didn’t finalize them, and wanted to see another live show before doing so. He’s not scheduled to play London in the near future, so a trip up the M40 was called for. As usual, when watching an artist I have seen many times before, my mind went back over previous performances and venues.
That November 1977 show, the first time I saw him, was at the Nashville Rooms in West Kensington, on the same bill as a band called Burlesque. In the years that followed I saw him often enough to be able to quote whole verses from his poems from memory, aided by one of his appearances on the Old Grey Whistle Test. (Or did he only appear on the show once?) We didn’t have a VCR in those days but I recorded “Beasley Street” onto a cassette, holding the in-built microphone of our radio-cassette recorder up close to the TV speaker. Until the 1980s that buzzy, hissing recording was the only way I could hear his words, apart from at live shows.
One of his many notable appearances in those years was at the Roundhouse in April 1978. Top of the bill were the excellent British reggae band Steel Pulse (the Handsworth Revolutionaries). I was privileged to be there. The rest of the bill consisted of John Cooper Clarke, Wreckless Eric, and The Police, in that order I think. It’s possible that Wreckless Eric was second on the bill, and Dr Clarke was third but either way The Police were definitely fourth, the first act to play that night.
Although I love lists and list-making I have no definitive record of all the live acts I have seen. I did, until sometime in 1978, but by the autumn of that year I didn’t even know the names of all the bands I’d seen. I recall going to the Kensington for the first time to see The Young Bucks. They were replaced at the last minute. I never did see them, and nor did I find out the name of the band that played instead. Acts like John Cooper Clarke, Patrik Fitzgerald (“Safety Pin Stuck in my Heart”) and, later, John Hegley would appear on many bills and I have no note of them. That’s why I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen Dr Clarke perform. It was maybe 6 or 7 times between 1977 and 1980 and then there was a big gap up to 1994.
In the intervening years there was a documentary about him, “10 years in an open-necked shirt”, and a book of his poems with the same title. I saw the documentary a few times, paired with a re-release of the DA Pennebaker documentary about Bob Dylan’s 1965 UK tour, “Don’t Look Back”, and bought the book. I also acquired, on vinyl, an album from a Poetry Olympics event which featured a few poems from Dr Clarke.
And that was it until 1994, the year that he appeared at Bunjies the legendary (sorry, that word again) and long-gone folk club and coffee shop near Leicester Square. Unlike the earlier shows I had seen, his act was more stand-up than poetry. He even told a joke about golf. I turned up during the first act and didn’t know who he was until he played “Lewisham”, or maybe it was “Safety Pin Stuck in my Heart”: Patrik Fitzgerald himself, from the old days. He was not as skinny as he used to be. The same cannot be said of John Cooper Clarke, who appears to be the same shape, and is clothed in the same way, as he was 40 years ago. He now jokes that he has put on weight since giving up the hard drugs that kept him out of public view for most of the 1980s. In recent years his set has included a routine about not being able to go back to his hometown of Salford because the locals shout at him for being fat. The routine builds up to a poem called “Get back on the drugs, you fat fuck”.
After that 1994 Bunjies gig there was another four-year gap before a show at The Weaver’s Arms, near Newington Green. It was the longest set I had ever seen him play, and possibly the best. I had dug out my 16-year-old copy of his book of poems but forgot to bring it to the show. I chatted to him afterwards and told him about it. He said, “It’s quite valuable that, you know, people are paying up to twenty quid for a copy”. “And if you signed it?” I asked. “It’d be worth about [slight pause] a tenner,” he joked.
In the early years of this century I saw him at the 100 Club and gave him a CD of some recordings I had made with a short-lived band. I also saw him at some Poetry Olympics shows, including one a few months after that 100 Club gig. He recognized me and told me that he hadn’t heard any of the tunes. “I don’t have a CD player, mate,” he said. (He also, famously, doesn’t have a computer.) I told him that I didn’t want feedback. It was enough to know that he had some of my tunes in his possession, even if he never heard them.
And, in the following 15 years or more, I have continued to see most of the gigs he has played in London, at venues as diverse as the London Palladium , the Scala and the O2 Academy in Islington, where he played with The Fall. Rest in peace, Mark E Smith: he was smart enough to book John Cooper Clarke on the gigs that he was promoting himself in the middle years of the last decade.
I clearly recall two shows that I missed: The Barfly, Camden in May 2010 and the Shepherds Bush Empire in March 2014. I had a ticket for the former, but by the time I arrived at the venue (as quickly as possible from Iggy and the Stooges playing “Raw Power” in Hammersmith, which was mentioned in this piece) it was all over. And the Shepherds Bush Empire gig, which sold out I’m glad to say, clashed with a previous engagement.
For many years I would record all his media appearances – on programmes like “Have I Got News for You”, Mark Radcliffe’s Radio 2 show, or his own BBC 6Music show on a Sunday afternoon. These appearances have, happily, become so regular that I no longer feel the need to commit them to some form of digital recording. In the last few weeks alone he has appeared on three shows which we caught without knowing in advance that he was on (“8 out of 10 cats does Countdown”, “Pointless Celebrities” and “Would I lie to you?”).
Last Saturday’s show was a cracker. There was a higher proportion of new material than I am used to, maybe a quarter of the set. If the entire set had consisted of jokes and poems that I had heard before I would still have been happy. Although the Academy Oxford is not a large venue we were sat further back than I have ever been for a Clarke gig. Even at the London Palladium my wife and I were in the second row.
I regard myself as fortunate to have seen this great performer so many times over the last 40 years. He is still gigging regularly. Catch him whenever you can, as often as you can.