poets cornered

When MOJO asked Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner what he'd like to do for our first issue of 2007 his answer came as a surprise and a delight: interview legendary Manchester punk-poet John Cooper Clarke. Pat Gilbert pocketed his Northern phrasebiik and sat in on the summit. Portraits by Mattia Zoppellaro.

It's 1pm on a gloomy winter's day, and two figures are picking their way through the lunchtime bustle of Shoreditch, east London. Passers-by might easily mistake them for father and son, but the unassuming youth and tall, stork-like man with the wayward Dylan hair are barely acquainted. No one seems to recognise them as Alex Turner, 20-year-old singer with million-selling Sheffield indie upstarts Arctic Monkeys, and John Cooper Clarke, fiftysomething Manchester punk poet, former flatmate of Nico and co-star (with The Honey Monster) of the '80s TV ads for Sugar Puffs breakfast cereal.

The amiable Clarke, in natty Mod suit, stops at a busy junction, surveying the heavy traffic through large, purple-tinted prescription shades. "Where are we going, Alex?"
"The Griffin," explains Turner, in his thick Yorkshire brogue. "Then on to another place called the Dragon Bar."
"Ah, heraldic beasts!" chuckles Clarke, savouring each syllable in his tangy Salford drawl. "That's very MOJO, innit?"
Upstairs in The Griffin - a dilapidated, Grade Ⅱ-listed boozer with panelled Georgian ceilings and ornate gold columns - Clarke's genial monologue continues.
"Does me 'air look all right?" he enquires, peering bird-like into a small circular mirror. "I'm not meant to bother with it, am I? (Sagely) There's never been a better time for a man to go bald, in my experience, Alex. It's just a style option now. Shave it off and it looks great. As long as you avoid that Phil Silvers look of having it full round the sides... Or what about a 'Vandyke' - a rakish goatee with nothing on the cheeks?"
The room rattles with laughter, though you can see Alex's brain whirring frantically behind his grin. Not for the last time, the youthful Monkey - 37 years Clarke's junior - appears to be working hard to keep up with the Mancunian poet's quick-fire references to 17th century Flemish painters, vintage TV comedians and much else besides.
But if the two artists are divided by almost four decades of life experience, they're united by their reputations as wordsmiths par excellence. Clarke's poetry, such as his famously bleak Beasley Street, with its "smell of yesterday's cabbage, and the ghost of last year's wife", is uniquely caked in '70s working-class grot; Turner's lyrics, meanwhile, sketch wry pictures of Blair's Britain, a burlesque of all-day drinking, casual nightclub romances and drunken city-centre punch-ups. Yet both have much in common, illuminating ordinary northern life with a needle-sharp eye for detail and a keen ear for regional vernacular.
Listen to their poetry/lyrics, and they manage to turn the everyday into a dark, fascinating, filmic image of itself - grotesque and funny, but all the more real for that. It should come as no surprise, then, that both relish the '60s kitchen-sink texts of Keith Waterhouse, Shelagh Delaney and Alan Sillitoe, whose Saturday Night And Sunday Morning inspired the title of the Monkeys debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not.
"I think me and Alex do social realism - but with a tweak," offers Clarke, ordering a black coffee. "It's reality but it's cranked up a couple of gears. 'Real' reality's quite dull. It's not really that interesting, is it?"

Today's meeting between impish Arctic Monkeys and gnarly Salford bard is, in fact, the idea of the former: the singer requested to "interview" the poet for MOJO. For keen rock sleuths, the idea of a summit between the crepuscular Clarke and the famously publicity-shy Turner wasn't quite as off the wall as it sounded. Turner has cited Clarke as an influence in several early interviews, and the parallels between the Monkeys' From The Ritz To The Rubble - "Last night there two bouncers/And one of 'em's all right/The other one's the scary one/His way or no ways, totalitarian" - and the punk poet's mid-'70s jewel, Salome Maloney, are striking enough to suggest a degree of homage.
Less well known is that it was Clarke who in 2004 convinced the fledgling Arctic Monkeys that their unusual name was worth keeping. Having read JCC's I Wanna Br Yours as part of his English GCSE, Alex was surprised to spy its creator at his local Sheffield venue, the Boardwalk.
"I was pulling pints behind the bar," recalls Turner, softly. "Then I saw this bloke on stage and thought, That's who my English teacher, Mr Baker, were talking about all them years previous! John came back a couple of weeks later and we asked to meet him. Up to that point, people had said, 'Arctic Monkeys, it's a terrible name,' but John told us (Mancunian accent), 'It's brilliant, a picture of trauma. A monkey could never survive in a landscape like that.' (Laugh) So we decided to keep it."
We settle down into battered leather seats and the conversation begins. At first, it's hard to reconcile the gentle, boyish, self-contained singer ("always the quiet one", according to his band-mates) with the person who writes so vivaciously about modern teenage life; but slowly his guard will drop a little.
Clarke, meanwhile, radiates avuncular warmth, turning back questions to his interlocutor with genuine curiosity and, occasionally it seems, as a thinly disguised diversionary tactic. Born in Salford in 1949, and experiencing a life of extraordinary highs (cult fame as punk rock's favourite support act; the Sugar Puffs job) and lows (a long period battling substance abuse), he likes to retain an air of mystery. He will repeatedly remind you, "I fuckin' 'ate talking about myself..."

Alex Turner: When did you start writing poetry?

John Cooper Clarke: At school. We had a really good teacher. He took us for English, but football as well. His name was John Malone and he had a glass eye and every summer holiday he'd incur some life-threatening injury, due to rugged outdoor pursuits like water-skiing or mountain climbing. He was an Ernest Hemingway type but with an interest in 19th century Romantic poetry. He liked The Charge Of The Light Bridge, stuff like that. Did you write poetry at school?

AT: Not really. Our English and drama teacher were dead encouraging when it came to doing any creative kind of writing. It were him, actually, that made me hear your stuff for the first time. I remember he explained what you looked like, and kind of did an impression. We were like 15-year-old kids, going, "Wow".

JCC: It's still incredible to me that they did that in schools. I like the idea they're ramming it down kids' throats and making it compulsory (chuckles).

AT: What were you like at school?

JCC: I was the swot, sitting at the front. (Pause) No! I hated every bloody minute of it. But I'm grateful now. It was s Secondary Modern, I didn't get any qualifications. Not much encouragement either, to be honest. It was always "must try harder, you'll never be a poet as long as you live". Leave that to the posh blokes!

AT: What about your parents?

JCC: Working-class. My dad was an engineer and me mum was a cleaner. I left school in 1964 - the birth of Mod, the year of the first Stones album! By 1965, it was the early days of [Mod/soul club] the Twisted Wheel in Manchester. I virtually lived there. I'd only ever heard the words "soul music" used once before that, and that was about Ray Charles. Everything else was "R&B". Motown, ska, Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Solomon Burke - imagine hearing that for the first time when it didn't even have a name!

AT: Who were your early influences?

JCC: There was a bloke called Phill Harris. He was the voice of Baloo the Bear in The Jungle Book. He was a big white Southern guy, but quite hip, nothing redneck about him, he was a jazzer and used jazz slang, performed monologues with big bands. He did rewrites of 19th century poems by people like [popular 19th century American poet] George Pope Morris. He did Woodman, Spare That Tree - a sentimental, bucolic poem. He rewrote it and gave it o humorous twist.

AT: Were you always into rhyming words?

JCC: Yeah, but then I realised you didn't always have to. Do you think that?

AT: Yeah. For me, that's the exciting bit. Things that don't rhyme but sound like they do. Sometimes it sounds more effective. Like there's a great Gang Of Four tune [Damaged Goods] that sounds like it's going to rhyme but it doesn't. (Sings), "The change will do you good/I always knew it would/Sometimes I'm thinking that I love you..." and you think it's gonna rhyme with "would", but it goes, "but I know it's only lust". That's sound!

JCC: Were the Gang Of Four an influence?

AT: I only got into them recently. Oasis were t'first. Before that we were just into climbing trees. At school, I was never really bothered, then hip hop came along and the first person I latched onto was Roots Manuva, which was a words thing. I always liked how he could switch from the mundane to the cosmic quite seamlessly. I was dead into it, but I never had the bottle to write any words of my own 'till later. When did you first get on-stage?

JCC: The first time I got up with a mike was in the mid-'70s at a jazz club in Manchester, the Black Lino. But then I got a residence at this cabaret club, Mr Smith's, they had people like Matt Monro on. I'd do 15 minutes then introduce the next act. In the day I had a job at a printers, as a compositor.

AT: How old were you?

JCC: Twenty-six... I did a couple of gags, then I did things like Salome Maloney, which was an early one, maybe Hung Fu International too. They were more or less about Manchester. Salome was area specific, about a place that audience would know about. So it was poetry, but a particular of poetry. Crowd-pleasing.

AT: What were the first really big gigs you did?

JCC: Much later, in 1979. I supposed a group called Be-Bop Deluxe. The audiences were quite attentive, really. They had a strange audience, some punks., the David Bowie arty lot and trainspotters. That was the first time I'd ever done Glasgow Apollo. The road crew all tour were, "I can't wait to see how you go down in Glasgow, hee hee. You'll get battered." So I was shitting myself. But then I did it about a month later with Elvis Costello and Richard Hell, different crowd, different reaction. I was expecting it to be worse, but it turned out to be favourable. Even now, I'm not sure how I'm going to go down. It's a weird thing poetry. I think it puts people off.

MOJO: The Ritz To The Rubble and Salome Maloney have very similar subject matter.

AT: If I were to be honest, I heard that tune after I wrote the song. But it's one of my favourite of John's. Is yours about the Manchester Ritz? We played there with The Coral.

JCC: Yeah, it used to be a Mecca dancehall. It's threatened with closure at the moment. I thought it'd have preservation orders up to its bollocks, y'know? Original untouched interior, luxurious, plush. There were two Mecca ballrooms, the Ritz and the Plaza. Herman's Hermits started out at the Plaza. That was the training dancehall. Then it became a rough punky club in the '80s.

MOJO: Ritz, especially in the North, seemed romantic places, where people's parents used to meet.

JCC: That's right, exactly like the place in Billy Liar, where they play his song, Twisterella. It was exactly like that in the Ritz. That's actually a Locarno, in the film, I think the one in Manchester. A lot of it was shot in Manchester though it's set in Leeds. Have you read the Book, Alex?

AT: No but I've seen the film. Julie Christie...

JCC: She's... we can't talk about how old she is, that wouldn't be gentlemanly, but she still looks like a teenager. She's gorgeous. The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner, have you seen that?

AT: Aye, and Saturday Night And Sunday Morning...

JCC: That's where you got the title for your album...

AT: Aye, I robbed that one blind! I first saw that only about a year ago when we were doing the album. There's that bit where Albert Finney says, "Whatever people say I am, that's what I'm not." He says it with such conviction, looking in the mirror. "You don't know a bloody thing about me." It's a wicked film. Alan Sillitoe wrote us a letter, it was hand-written. He said our music wasn't his sort of thing, but to keep at it.

MOJO: Are all your songs especially about the North? Do you recognise a North/South divide?

AT: I don't think so. Me mum's from down here, she grew up in Amersham. She moved to Sheffield and met me dad, they were from two very different backgrounds. My dad were a music teacher. He played saxophone, he was a bit of a jazz-head, like. So I suppose in that sense, I was aware of it, but it never seemed a big deal. I think it would be a soft to try to overdo [our Northern-ness], people would see through that. I always thought, if we could just be ourselves, you can't get through that, there'll be nothing to find. If we could get to a point where I could just sing like myself, and say what I wanted, there's no crap there.

MOJO: Was there anyone who inspired you to sing in your own accent?

AT: It probably weren't like a band, it were more like me mates. You just thought they'd rip you to shreds if you don't sing in your own voice.

JCC: I don't know if I thought about anything further than Manchester to be honest. That North/South divide, I never thought about it. It wasn't as easy to get to London as it was now. My parents never even went to London. There was a bigger divide then than now. Regional differences are blurring. Slang used to be area specific, but that's changing. Someone in the Arctic Monkeys used the word "mither" earlier on. I'd never heard that outside Manchester. I'd given up using it 'cos nobody knew what it meant. Then you've got that title, Mardy Bum. That's great.

MOJO: What period in your life, Alex, were songs like Riot Van and I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor describing?

AT: I don't know if "describing" is the right word. Riot Van was when I was 13 or 14, down shops with the cider. But the rest of them was about two months of going out. That was before I realised that it was time we wrote about something else. It's easy to describe what goes on, anyone can tell people what they were doing last night, but I think there's a bit of a craft to it.

JCC: It's a funny thing, but I find I don't really write from experience much. Alex is a songwriter in a rock'n'roll band, and it's a very on-the-move thing. For me, it's a very sedentary occupation. I can't understand it when they make movies about poets, as they do, whether it's T.S.Elliot and Rimbaud with Leonardo Di Caprio. It's not a very movie-friendly occupation. Unless the guy's a detective who writes poetry and solves mysteries, it's dull. I make a lot of it up.

AT: But you have the knack of capping it, before it gets silly.

JCC: But that's the thing with a poem - it starts, so it has to finish. It has to go somewhere. There's a lot that needs to be explained, whereas a chord or drum fill might do it in a song. I'm trying to write some stuff at the moment, and it bugs the fuck out of me. I've got lots of new stuff. I was asked to do Beasley Street on Radio 4, so I re-wrote it as Beasley Boulevard. I gave it a makeover, a Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen. Just look as Salford Ouays, the old tenements are today's des-res's Everything's moving on, Alex.

Time's up. Arctic Monkeys have a second album to make, and the singer is required back at their Old Street studio. Tape-recorder off. Clarke and Turner's conversation turns to... the former's shiny new Beatles boots. It's obvious both are far happier talking pub bollocks about footwear than the nuances of their art. A few days afterwards, MOJO travels to Shefield to get a flavour of the city Alex writes about. I visit the Boardwalk and, as dusk falls, wander around the crumbling old industrial hub of Neepsend, the haunt of the prostitute in When The Sun Goes Down who "don't do major credit cards/I doubt she does receipts". Back in the town centre, gangs of boys and girls in Castle Street and a riot van dutifully screeches up, banter with police ensuing, as if to authenticate Turner's lyrics for our benefit.
Talking to Sheffield locals about Arctic Monkeys' phenomenal success - nowhere to international fame in 18 months, early beneficiaries of MySpace's viral marketing power, etc - they seem as unruffled and unimpressed as the group's singer. MOJO takes the opportunity to ask another Sheffield mega-star, Jarvis Cocker, about Turner and the group's sometimes frustrating matter-of-factness. He contends "there's a certain thing in Sheffield. People take a long time to see if you're on the level before they let their guard down. And it doesn't do to look to keen does it?

"It's like Arctic Monkeys winning the Mercury Prize and going, 'All right, cheers.' I like it, I think it's good. When I went back to Sheffield to record the new album, I remembered that never talking about anything emotional is actually a trait of all people who come from Yorkshire, not just a really bad personality defect I've got."
Or maybe it's a more universal than that. For three weeks after the interview, I chase "Johnny Clarke", as his answerphone message has it, to get some quotes about stuff we didn't get round to talking about - his twilight habits that saw him fade in and out of view in the late '80s and early '90s, his friendship with Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico, his experiences at the epicentre of Manchester punk. But I always got a friendly but evasive "Can I call you tomorrow?"
Finally, we talk. Clarke says he hates discussing his private life. He says nothing more about his wildness years than "every junkie's story is the same, I've got nothing new to add to the subject. That's all a long time ago for me." He says that he and Nico, who stayed at his Brixton flat before her death in Ibiza in 1988, were "never romantically involved" but she was "totally cool, a beautiful woman, even at the end".
He plans to release a new album next year (his first since 1983) and gets excited about his just-completed, as-yet-unpublished autobiography, Slim Volume. "It'll just be one page, printed on really thick cardboard," he laughs, reading the whole thing down the phone, "That's all you really need to know about me."
Steeped in northern earthiness, Clarke, like Alex, clearly regards himself as a craftsman rather than some fancified notion of an "artist". They're Billy Liar who did get the train to the Big Smoke, but never regarded themselves as any more special or grateful than the pals they left behind. It's an admirable, endearingly old-fashioned attitude that the likes of Joy Division, Johnny Marr, Shaun Ryder and Jarvis would instinctively understand.
"I think we'd rather put our feelings into our work," concludes Clarke. "That way you don't bore people."
by scummy | 2008-02-08 02:34


by scummy


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