JOHN COOPER CLARKE: YOU HAVE THE FREEDOM TO SHUT UP
John Cooper Clarke has a cold.
It’s the kind of thing that separates the strong from the snotnosed. Sinatra had a cold once. An entire industry hinged on his well-being. It happened in a time in which artistic relativism was almost nonexistent. The voice needed to be the voice—the trademark, the talisman of that industry—or there was nothing. Punk changed all that. Musicians stopped waiting around and hoping for the best. They took what they had at the time and cut it up to suit the tenor of that time. The choice was to either do that—or just croak.
John Cooper Clarke—the Bard of Salford, the Doctor, the inspiration to Arctic Monkey Alex Turner; the boyfriend of Nico before her bicycle ride to oblivion—peripatetic punk poet who only recently visited Los Angeles to perform in live action after decades of absence, is touring now. He brings with him a voice that cuts through unnecessary atmosphere, caught between the deadpan and the Tin Pan, upbraiding those who would otherwise lay waste to your time. He brings you face-to-face with the inevitability of life with a laugh that’s as much a pillar of salt as it is a noise at the back of your throat, wielding his words in much the way sorcerers used to change the world with a simple flick of a wrist—an action which could be understandably mistaken for a motion of pen on paper.
One of the most distinctive physical voices since William S. Burroughs—in croak and in content—he conducts this interview under the stress and duress of the sickness in his throat. John Cooper Clarke is nothing if not a trouper. At ease, disease. This interview by David Cotner. Clarke performs at the El Rey on Sat., May 2.
So what’s a good sore throat remedy?
Gargling with port wine? I heard that from an opera singer. I quite like this voice—I’m thinking of hiring out a studio and doing a bunch of Louie Armstrong covers.
I asked Herb Alpert. He says to gargle with salt water.
Really! Well, he should know.
Diamanda Galás recommends tincture of opium. That might be a bit harder to get.
I’d been reading about that. That’s foolproof.
People are often asked about their first formative musical experience—first record, first concert, things like that. What was it like for you the first time you heard your own voice on a recording?
Oh, terrible! It was awful! Around 1962, I bought a tape recorder. My friends had records and they’d tape their records with my tape recorder, tape things off the radio. But when you first get a tape recorder, the first thing you do is bug the room, right? You don’t tell anybody. Then you play it back, hopefully with hilarious results. Now, until that point, I’d unashamedly walk around, singing. I thought I was a great singer. I was going to be bigger than Sinatra. And then when I played that tape back and I heard my speaking voice—well, it would take me another 25 years before I opened my mouth in song. I was so disappointed! I was listening to the playback and I thought, “Well, that’s his voice, and that’s his voice … so that must be my voice.” Oh, my God. I thought I had this rich baritone—but I had this nasal whine! That’s one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me. [laughs] What a disillusionment! Anyway, that was pre-puberty. After that, Nature took its course and I figured I could carry a tune.
How did you react hearing your voice after you’d matured?
I don’t know whether I’d got used to it, but at some point, I lost my inhibitions about singing again. Even now, I’ve gotta have a drink first. And I need to explain, right here, that I’m not a professional singer. [laughs]
Are you a professional anything?
I’m a professional spieler. I’m a poet—anyone reading this interview might be forgiven for thinking that I’m a professional singer. Nothing could be further from the truth. But I do enjoy singing. Speaking, though—you have the freedom to shut up.
What are your favorite words?
They’re usually 19th-century words of a medical nature like …
Sure, that’s a good one! ‘Neurasthenic,’ ‘mucilaginous’ … words like that, I take great pleasure in using medical and scientific terminology.
Words for critical conditions.
Yeah, yeah—that kind of thing.
There was a really good word that came up years ago on either Rhoda or The Bob Newhart Show: ‘multisubjectival.’
There’s another good one: ‘neurotypical.’ ‘Effervescent’ is good.
What song do you have stuck in your head lately?
Good question. ‘Return to Me’ by Dean Martin. The Italian title is ‘Ritorna-Me.’ You have to listen to his Greatest Hits. I had an old worn-out copy and I just renewed it. You’re old when you’re replacing records you’ve already got! That’s an old-guy thing, isn’t it?
Sometimes it’s a lazy-guy thing.
I can tick both those boxes! [laughs]
I’ve got three or four copies of Kind of Blue by Miles Davis floating around in different parts of the collection. I don’t know where to find one that’s handy, so I just go buy another copy.
Panic buying. I do that. But you can get anything now.
Yes, but that’s sort of like having a faucet in the kitchen that offers up champagne but never turns off.
Yeah—that’s a good way to put it.
People always talk about how CDs killed music, but I think it was actually the ‘repeat’ button on the CD player. It’s so easy to play a song until it’s just played out and you’re sick of the music that you loved.
That’s a big problem we have over here [in England]: they use a lot of the songs that we love now in commercials—and I’m not against commercials, and they pay for the TV stuff or what-have-you—but it does put a cloud over a song that you’ve held dear for many years, doesn’t it?
You have very personal associations with a song—and now those associations are hooked into an advertisement, like a lamprey.
What do you believe in now that you’ve always believed in? What beliefs have been unshakable for you over time?
Oh, that’s a big question—I guess if you’re okay with people, most of the time people are okay with you. I can’t really think beyond that. The Ten Commandments! [laughs] Two tablets of stone. Can I count them as one item? After all, it’s the Ten Commandments, so it’s really one item, isn’t it. Yes, I still believe in The Ten Commandments. I can’t find an argument with any of them.
Not even in the semantics of it all? ‘Thou shalt not kill’ versus ‘Thou shalt not murder’ and all that?
They’re separate things, aren’t they? Well, they invite semantics—that’s the beauty of them: they’re rules for life, in all its complexity. Anything that could happen in life is dealt with in The Ten Commandments. They inform our laws, even today. It’s the language of jurisprudence, isn’t it. Having said that! Not everything that is a sin is a crime. That’s a good thing, because if it was, it’d be a theocracy, wouldn’t it—and all that that entails. So it’s as good as it’s going to get, those Ten Commandments.
Do you notice how people—when they interact with you—use words?
Not always. Sometimes you just want some information quickly. In terms of style and vocabulary? I think I notice people’s conversational style more if they’re not actually talking to me—which means that I spend a lot of time listening in to conversations that I’m not necessarily invited to, or get involved with.
Has cadence changed, over time, in how people speak with one another?
Oh, yeah—definitely that, but also the inquisitive upswing at the end of each statement that occurs today, all over the world. All over the English-speaking world, anyway. That is markedly very strange, markedly different. I first heard it in Australia about ten years ago. I put it down to an Australian eccentricity [in speaking]—but somehow it caught on via California.
I understood that that was described as a feminine affectation—when there’s a question on the final word.
Yes, it sounds like a question—or that they wish something to be verified, almost as though you’re required to say something. Actually, it’s a bold statement.
What do you think that statement means?
I don’t understand it. It’s a vocal affectation. I would say that’s what it’s called.
I’d heard once that the difference between men and women is that men have answers and women have questions.
Is it gender-related?
I think it is. Maybe not that easily boiled-down.
Do you think it sounds effeminate when men do it?
No, I think it’s a social thing. I think it’s a very social aspect—the inflection of the question at the end of the sentence means the speaker is looking for understanding and approval. I suspect I shouldn’t be surprised that you’ve noticed that as well.
I think it’s just a stylistic thing that we ain’t got no business knowing about! [laughs]
What did you love most about Nico, and what did you learn from her?
I was already a big fan of hers—even before the Velvets. She became a star on this mod TV show, Ready Steady Go! and she put out a couple of records on the Immediate label—which was run by Andrew Loog Oldham, the Rolling Stones’ first manager. He put out records by the likes of Small Faces, P.P. Arnold, Chris Farlowe—some real good people—and also Nico, whose first record was a Gordon Lightfoot song called ‘I’m Not Sayin’.’ She was already seen as a kind of supermodel Euro-beatnik type. She could carry a tune in English with her surprisingly stentorian voice. Well, she had two voices. As Warhol pointed out, when she joined the Velvets, she had this sweet voice and then the Götterdämmerung approach. I actually liked the sweet voice she started out with. So I was big fan of hers as a vocalist. It was a long time before she joined the Velvets and then it was automatically … you know how there’s some people you think you discovered? She was like that with me. I’d followed her trajectory through the New York boho art scene. So when she sort of moved in to my house—well, I knew her a bit before that; she moved into Manchester and I was living in London at the time—it conspired that she didn’t have anywhere to stay. She moved in with me in Brixton, in south London. Learned? I don’t think I learned anything from her. [laughs] I heard a few stories—but did meeting her make me a better person? Well, we never got in each other’s hair and things were cool—in the old-fashioned sense of the word cool. Never a cross word.