November 10th, 2014 | Live reviews

The peripatetic punk poet from Salford arrives late—20 minutes or 40 years late, depending in how you look at it—apologizing out of a halo of cigarette smoke, saying, “I got here a little late, too late to read the guest list.” It’s a failing he turns to his advantage as he then reads that guest list, making a poem out of it in which the names rhyme and people are caught unawares by his awareness and the utterly-packed house (courtesy of Part Time Punks) erupts into the rapture of applause. “I tried to make it entertaining as I can,” he shrugs.

Blessed with the metabolism of a laser beam, Clarke—Dr. Clarke to friends and authority figures alike—then admits, “Anyone who’s ever seen me will attest that I’ve been putting on the pounds lately.” Clarke, now in his 65th year of business, then launches into a poem titled “Get Back On Drugs, You Fat Fuck.” A two-line poem, “Necrophilia”—because what else is there that had to be said?—segues into odd observations. “How deep would the sea be if there weren’t all those sponges down there,” how marriage is “a sexual relationship that is recognized by the police” and how, after his divorce, “We split the house—I got the outside.”

Such is the education of Dr. John Cooper Clarke.

His voice—a mesmeric nasal dirge that crushes expectation into the dirt until it rises up into a twisted smile made of dust—carries on into the poem “Psychedelicate.” “It goes over great at Glastonbury or wherever else they take psychotropics for a living,” he promises, and—as with the rest of the evening—does not disappoint, not one jot, iota or tittle.

He sallies forth to the next poem, written in ’79 while on tour with Richard Hell and the Voidoids. Inspired by a song by the Comateens—”The best band name I’ve ever heard!”—it’s titled “She’s Got a Metal Plate In Her Head.” In the tradition of fine art and showmanship, Clarke understands with great and frightening acuity that great titles get the people through the door and on the wild effervescent ride on which they secretly long to be taken. This poem precedes an older one, “Beasley Street,” its cadence caught squarely between the Beat and the auctioneer. It is a dizzying riot of verbiage swept along on a wave of rhythm and rhyme, crashing on the shore of the slightly more sober country of the poem “The Makeover,” haunted as it is by the twin ghosts of change and memory.

“You’re a very inspiring crowd,” he says, vowing that “I’ll be back—and next time, it’s personable.” And there’s no better word than “personable” to describe his closing poem “Evidently Chickentown,” an epic in common verse that boasts more instances of the word “fucking” than there are atoms in an actual chicken. Exiting on an exultant whirlwind of words, John Cooper Clarke delivered the perfect end to an evening in which hundreds were held spellbound not by failure or fashion but instead by the eldritch power of words bristling with wit and wisdom.

—David Cotner