Peerless punk poet John Cooper Clarke will be in Dublin and Cork over the next week. The first time he gigged in Ireland was back in "1979ish" at the Project Arts Centre. He was then at the height of his fame.
“I was ably supported by your president, Michael D Higgins,” he says. “I’ve since met Michael D at a film festival in Galway a year ago. He went to a great deal of trouble to point this out to me!.”
Clarke grew up in Salford, Manchester. The wrestler Giant Haystacks, whose parents were from Co Mayo, was in school with Clarke during the late 1950s.
“His real name was Martin Ruane. He used to steal my packed lunch on a daily basis. He was always in trouble. It was the days of corporal punishment. I remember the teacher stood on a chair in order to whack him across the hands with a strap. He was that size at school.”
Clarke had to get good at dodging trouble when he got his start in live performances around northern England’s workingmen’s clubs.
“You had to throw a few gags in. You couldn’t treat it like a serious poetry gathering. They weren’t that kind of people. They were more interested in how their football team was getting on. I used to smuggle a few poems in amongst the gags. That shaped the way I work even today. Today I go out assuming nobody likes poetry.”
During the fag end of the punk era, Joy Division used to support Clarke on the circuit. “They were the band least likely to succeed. Everybody else had a crowd around them, a visible fan base, but these guys from Macclesfield, who wore V-neck pullovers, grey flannel trousers, they were slightly out of town. They were always interesting to me because Hooky [bass player Peter Hook] had a beard. That was just a no-no in the world of punk rock. There were two rules that I knew — no beards, no flairs. And Hookie broke the cardinal rule.”
After a lifetime of breaking conventional rules — and a decade lost to heroin addiction, during which time he lived in a flat in Brixton with Nico from the Velvet Underground — Clarke is now revered by the establishment. His poems adorn England’s school syllabus. His ‘Evidently Chickentown’ tune was used on the closing credits of the penultimate episode of The Sopranos. He’s going to keep on the road, as he’s unable to envisage giving up what he does.
“I’d do it if nobody paid me. You’d have to pay me to shut up. It ain’t a career, it’s like a sickness — writing poetry.”
* John Cooper Clarke is at Vicar St, Dublin, on Saturday; and the Pavilion, Cork, on Wednesday.
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