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John Cooper Clarke Interview

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Punk poet John Cooper Clarke on inspiring Alex Turner and that “f*cking nutter” Ed Miliband

You started out supporting punk bands in the Seventies. That must have been a pretty rowdy atmosphere for a poet…

Punk gigs were a doddle compared to working men’s clubs. Punk came from the arty end of the spectrum: the first Pistols gig was at Saint Martins College. Nothing was as bad as Glasgow working men’s clubs for hostility. I didn’t do any favours calling myself a poet; I just got people swearing at me. But my biggest enemy isn’t hostility; it’s indifference.

Do you still get heckled at gigs nowadays?

Doesn’t happen. Why would you pay those ticket prices to stop somebody doing the thing you’ve paid to see them do? It wouldn’t make sense in today’s economic climate [laughs]. The recession has made heckling a luxury that nobody can afford.

There must have been a few wild nights out with the punk bands…

I remember a 12-hour pre-match drinking session in Finsbury Park with John [Lydon] and his posse. It was before Arsenal vs Spurs. We had a lock-in. I dropped off a few times, we all did.

What are you working on at the moment? Can you give us a snippet of any new poems?

I’m working on something called ‘Anger Manager’. [Recites] “I woke up in town, can’t expand/On the empty bottle in both of my hands/I got reasons but they’re never gonna stand/Anger manager!/Anger manager!” You know, I’ve never been more prolific than I am right now. It’s like a sickness; everything’s got a poem in it.

Is it true Arctic Monkeys stuck with their name because you said you liked it at an early gig?

I wouldn’t go that far. I was playing the Boardwalk in Sheffield, and they came to see me after the gig. I heard the name ‘Arctic Monkeys’ and thought, “Do I know them?” Such a good name you thought you already knew it.

The band adapted your poem ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ for their most recent album. What do you think of the track?

Fantastic. [Alex Turner] transformed it from a throwaway poem into a moving love ballad. High point of the album, if I say so myself. Alex’s hair’s good now. Terrific quiffage.

Speaking of hair, do you still get mistaken for Ronnie Wood?

All the time. I ran into Ron recently. I told him, “I’ve been your unpaid decoy for 25 years. It’s payback time.” We had a photo together. Spot the difference [laughs].

Russell Brand’s nicked your look, too, hasn’t he?

Oh no, he’s a very handsome man. It takes a lot of work for me to look this bad [laughs]. Tell you what, though, Johnny Depp owes me one after Edward Scissorhands. But I’ll tell you where I got this look from: one picture. Keith Richards on the steps of Chichester Crown Court, 1967. Black four-button jacket, pin-striped trousers, white shirt fastened to the neck, no tie. He’s the dude, Keith.

You’ve spoken in the past about your admiration for the old Labour party. What do you make of the coalition?

They’re not fit for purpose. A coalition government is, by its very nature, anti-democratic. It’s a situation nobody voted for. But who else is there? Ed Miliband? He’s a f*cking nutter. There are no normal people in politics. I’d like to see a return to adversarial politics. What happened to the class war? Everybody thinks they’re f*cking middle class now and they’re entitled to live in the leafy suburbs.

You claimed you didn’t write for 10 years while you were using heroin. Is it a myth about it being a ‘creative’ drug?

It’s deadening. It’s a painkiller, innit, so it puts the kibosh on any extreme discomfort, but in the process, the baby gets chucked out with the bathwater. The true story of heroin has never been put better than in Lou Reed’s song Heroin. That tells you what’s great about it, and the destructive side.

Did you know Lou?

I met him once in New York. He was blagging on my guest list, actually. I was happy to oblige. He’d just got married, so he showed me his wedding photos.

Do you think we’re missing rock stars like Lou Reed these days? People talk about One Direction and Justin Bieber being the closest thing to the Beatles and the Stones…

Look, if you set a load of teenage boys free, they’re always going to get into trouble. I don’t see that ever changing. There was a saying at Narcotics Anonymous: ‘If you hang around the barber long enough, you’re gonna get your hair cut.’ The Beatles weren’t the lovable mop-tops they were painted to be. They were the mum-and-dad choice in contrast to the outlaw Rolling Stones, but when the Stones were at grammar school, the Beatles were in Hamburg, robbing drunks, taking drugs and f*cking whores [laughs].

How are you with technology? Do you send emails?

No, no. The reason I haven’t got a computer is because I know how good they are. You shouldn’t give an obsessive type a computer. If you bought me a computer, you’d find me dead six weeks later, under a pile of pizza boxes. I’d watch Elvis videos for the rest of my short, morbidly obese life [laughs]. It’s computer or career, for me.

John Cooper Clarke’s UK tour starts on 8 Feb; johncooperclarke.com

(Image: Getty/Kevin Cummins)

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