John Cooper Clarke: In my own words

As John Cooper Clarke prepares for his Irish tour, he talks music, mad gigs, top fashion tips, and giving up heroin

First album I ever bought

It was bought for me. I asked for it for my birthday. It was the first Elvis album on RCA. It was fantastic.

Best gig I ever attended

There’s a few candidates for this but it has to be the first show I went to — the Everly Brothers, 1958. It was at either The Apollo or Palace Theatre in Manchester. They were sensational. Mass outbreaks of female weeping. That’s what they did best — they made girls cry with their angelic harmonies and melancholic tales of teenage heartbreak.

Maddest gig I ever played

The Glasgow Apollo the first time I played it in 1978. It was the early days of punk and I was seen very much as being a punk rocker, but the group I was playing support act to on the tour was Be-Bop Deluxe who, whatever you think of them, were not punks. I was very grateful of the opportunity to play big halls so I took the chance, but I can’t say I met with 100% approval everywhere I appeared, especially Glasgow. I came up there and thought ‘I’m not going to be beaten by this’. At this stage in my career I don’t want to have any no-go areas.

It wasn’t frightening but I’ve never faced that level of unreasonable hatred. Luckily I climbed back up onto that horse. I finished up after four minutes.

“Let’s call it a draw.” Nobody died.

My favourite movie

Here’s the thing: I don’t think Citizen Kane stands more than one watch. Power corrupts. Who didn’t know that? But Rio Bravo, 1959 – if I catch it out of the corner of my eye I’ve got to watch the rest of the movie. It’s by Howard Hawks, starring John Wayne, Dean Martin, Walter Brennan, Ricky Nelson and the lovely Angie Dickinson. There’s hardly any story at all but it starts right away — the minute the opening credits finish you’re in the story. No messing about with explanatory dialogue. It’s a 99% perfect movie.

The day I finally decided to give up heroin

I was sick as a dog. I don’t know when it was. I never think about it anymore. It took years to get to that stage. I’ve no idea what made me turn the corner. I’m not the expert on it. I was part of the problem.

Feeling when I heard ‘Evidently Chickentown’ was chosen for the closing credits on an episode of The Sopranos

I was told about two weeks before it was a done deal. I was over the moon because I was a massive fan of that programme. It was tremendous. It was a very effective usage of it as well in a particularly poignant episode.

My abiding memory of Ireland

I was on tour with Dr Feelgood. I was coming off a stage and there was a chair that they were using instead of steps to get on and off the side of the stage. This was pre health and safety. There was no one there holding the chair so I fell and broke my wrist. I had to go straight from the venue to the nearest nursing convent, and the sisters plastered me up. I was asked: “What is it you do?” I said: “Well, I’m a poet, sister.” She replied: “Oh you are. Would you like to recite something?” I said:

You wouldn’t approve of my poetry, sister. It’s very rude and I wouldn’t want to befoul your ears.

I think they appreciated my reticence in this regard. They did a perfectly good job. The sister was like, “I’ve done my best with your broken wrist but where are you tomorrow night?” I was touring and going to a different town every night. I said, “Belfast.” She said: “Oh, you’ll be alright there – they’ve the best doctors in the world.” For obvious reasons. This was around 1979. I was sat in the outpatients’ department in a Belfast hospital expecting any minute some guy to come in holding his face, saying, “Can you stitch my face back on?”

What The Ramones taught me

I knew the last living Ramone. He was the last to join — Marc Bell. He played with Richard Hell and the Voidoids, but when he got the call from the brothers he jumped ship. Who could blame him? There was nothing revolutionary about them. They were a return to the core values of hard-and-fast rock’n’roll. They were sensational. Great tunes – very melodic, which you can easily forget amongst all the volume and the dirty buzz-saw guitars. They made memorable tunes with great lyrics, beautifully executed. If you don’t like The Ramones, you don’t like rock’n’roll. They’re like The Beach Boys without the sea.

My sartorial rules

If you’re going to look good at all times — which is very important if you’re in the public eye, and more important than ever because everybody in the world’s got a fucking camera — I keep it simple. It’s a lifestyle thing for me because I move around a lot. I’m a great believer in the capsule wardrobe — a wardrobe where’s there’s a limited palate of black colours. I avoid fussy patterns like checked.

Not that I don’t like them; it’s because they’re problematic in terms of living on the road and looking presentable. I would describe my style of dress as careful. I would pass on the advice I’ve had from the late James Brown: “Every time I look into the mirror I ask myself: Do I look like the kind of man somebody would pay to see?”

Advice I wish I’d been given?

Every piece of advice I’ve ever been given was rubbish. I should have done the opposite.

What’s my secret to longevity?

A haiku is 17 syllables in three lines: first line, five syllables; second line, seven syllables; third line, five syllables. Here’s my self-help haiku, which is to be found on around page 58 of my new book The Luckiest Guy Alive, which answers the question as to why I’ve lived so long: “The way to relax; Don’t lift anything heavy; And try to keep still.” Seventeen. Count ’em.

Interview by Richard Fitzpatrick

John Cooper Clarke’s The Luckiest Guy Alive tour visits Ireland, including Vicar Street, Dublin (Tues, 19 March); An Grianán Theatre, Letterkenny (Tues, 23 April); Hawk’s Well Theatre, Sligo (Fri, 26 April); and Live at St Luke’s, Cork (Sun, 28 April). johncooperclarke.com

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