We Called The Bard Of Salford For A Chat
Talking To Us About His Memoirs, Life, Football and The Poetry Scene
A few rings and a husky voice answers the phone, it is, of course, the bard himself. We started off with the obvious, lockdown and asked him if he written any new material over the time.
“Do you know what? No. I haven’t written anything since the epidemic began in all honesty. To be honest, I was using the time to write my memoir, which is available in the shops. Had it not been for the epidemic I don’t think it’d be finished, even now. If I was living my normal life, travelling the world, delivering poetry to eager audiences everywhere, I can’t see how I would have got the book finished. In a way, the epidemic has played into my hands. I think the reason I haven’t written any poetry is because I don’t see the point if there’s no audience to recite it to. I’m not one of these people, I don’t write poetry for therapy, or to ‘express myself’ as they say. All these reasons that everybody’s writing poetry now they’re stuck at home. It turns out, every cunts a poet, rather than the other way round.”
He then took a minute to write down his new favourite sentence, ‘Every cunts a poet, rather than the other way round’, taking breaks to laugh to himself as he wrote. I asked him if he thought of doing any online gigs to compensate for the lack of being able to perform, to which he suggested “Buy a copy of my book, ‘The Luckiest Guy Alive’ and recite it to each other” before proceding to tell me another title he has come up with, “Still in lockdown? You wanna get out more.”
Getting onto his autobiography, I asked him if he would ever, as a one off gig, go back to performing at Bernard Manning’s club, which he mentions in his book as one of the first places he performed after Manning gave him his break. “If it was being televised or something like that, then why not? You know what, you’re good value Rhys, it’s gave me an idea that. I’m very remiss in doing a DVD of my act, really there should be a DVD of it somewhere. I’ve always had it in mind to do that, and that would be a good idea to do it at the Embo (embassy club). It’d be easy to get an atmosphere in there, because it’s not too big, and it would look different to everyone else’s.
Talking about the initial gig at Bernand Manning’s club, he says “I thought the incongruity of the situation would automatically stir a bit of interest. If you went to a poetry reading in a library, there’s nothing unusual about it, you know what I mean. I just thought the last place you’d expect to see a poet would have been the embassy club, and the governor agreed with me, as it says in the book (in his best impression of Manning) ‘they don’t like poetry here kid, half of em can’t fucking read’ but I wouldn’t have done it differently, I think that was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done”
After telling me about putting music to his poetry, and how never really wanted to do it, he brought up his track, ‘A Distant Relation’ about which he says “it was very Smiths-y before the event, you know. Understandably, because what drove that track was the beautiful, delicate guitar work of Vincent Reilly, who later worked with Mozzer after The Smiths split up, I think he played on Suedehead”
He then got onto telling me the advice he gives to young poets, who offer up books of their own work for him to read. He says “Are you sure you want to do this? Because if I see anything I like, I’m gonna swipe it. It’s traditional man. Poetry is a hyper competitive branch of the arts. We don’t like each other. You hate people for writing shit before you, like the great Steven Morrissey says ‘We hate it when our friends become successful’ If you read poetry for a living, you have to think you’re top dog. Otherwise you just wouldn’t do it. It’s so potentially embarrassing to stand up and read your poetry to other people, especially if you live in fear of embarrassment. It’s a real big thing to do, so you couldn’t do it if you didn’t think you were top dog. However you delude yourself is your affair, but delude yourself you must. I mean look at those rap guys, they always think they’re top dog. Poetry is that. It’s a phonetic medium that should be heard and not read”
I then got onto talking about his gigs, and the support acts he takes on tour with him. Talking about Toria Garbutt, one of the support acts who he has had with him since the start of this tour he says she’s a “promising talent, absolutely. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be on the show. We run a pretty tight ship, and we’re all sufficiently different from each so not to impinge, we never stray onto each others territory. So it’s nice. It’s good that poetry is such a broad church. It works real well. It’s really good, there’s me, Toria, Mike Garry, Luke Wright, Claire Ferguson-Walker. It’s very diverse. Our stuff is very different.”
Going back to talking about his book, I ask him if there’s anything that he’s realised should, or shouldn’t be in there. “Well I made a mistake. The one that bugs me the most is I mention going to Old Trafford with my dad when I was a kid, and I’ve mis-positioned my idol at the time, Duncan Edwards. Bad move that. I’ve put him down as a striker, a centre forward, and he was never that, he was up the right hand side, I think. Mis-positioning Duncan Edwards is terrible. Football mistakes are unforgivable.”
Whilst we were on the subject of football, I asked him what he thought of England’s chances in Euro 2020. He starts laughing as he answers, “Fucking less than zero. Are they taking the piss? I was expecting a real fucking solid battle with the Sweaty’s (referencing Cockney rhyming slang, Sweaty Sock – Jock, for Scotland) but what a fucking disappointment. I thought they’d be trying to cripple us, and all that sort of thing, but no such luck. No fucking entertainment value. Bloody awful that, bloody fucking awful. Puts you off football watching games like that. It hurts me to say it, but the Welsh games are far more entertaining, but mind you, we’re talking about people for whom a draw is a victory, let’s not get carried away ahaha.”
A few years ago, Dr John, and ex-Stranglers vocalist Hugh Cornwell, did a covers album together entitled ‘This Time It’s Personal’, and he told me about the one song he felt he couldn’t sing from the list that ‘H’, as John calls him, had picked. “I looked at the tracks, and thought yeah I can do that, Spanish Harlem, yeah I can sing that, Love Potion No.9 I can sing that, Donna, I can sing that, they were all songs that I already knew and liked and had the originals, I’d be singing them since year zero. But the one where I said, I can’t sing that, was It’s Only Make Believe, I said ya know, I ain’t no Conway Twitty. It’s karaoke suicide, everyone is fine til it goes up after the saxophones”
From here, John went into a bit of a segue, talking about all things from his disagreements with music streaming, that people should pay for music, and how it’s “yet another stinking heritage of hippies. What’s their gift to the world, fucking drugs and free music”. He continued with “this getting stuff for free has gotta fucking stop. It’s part of the enjoyment, it’s something real. It’s money. It’s the world we live in. Why shouldn’t musicians be paid for what we do. What dreadful sin have they committed that they should be deprived of a living. In all art forms, you have to factor in vanity, and how can you know your worth, what other way is there of gauging your own worth, in any kind of art, unless you can prove people will pay cash money to have some of it. What other method exists? If everyone is just getting something for nout, it’s not gonna end well”
We got onto his appearance at Arctic Monkey’s Sheffield gig on their last tour. “I did a bit of mc’ing for them, and did my version of ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ when they were doing them five nights in Sheffield. They’re great, they were fantastic, really lovely. A great band and great guys. They’re exception to the rule, and the last proper band I can think of actually. Four pals form a group. That’s them. They took the Beatles’ kind of route didn’t they? In fact, the Arctic Monkeys are the last example of this. I can’t think of anyone since that’s gone that traditional route.”
To round off, I asked him if he’s ever lost any of his books containing his work. “Yeah loads actually. For a while, in what I call the wilderness years in the 80’s, when I was arriving at gigs on public transport, and some of the 90’s I used to loose a lot of stuff one way or another” I asked if any had ever resurfaced, to which he replied, “Yeah once actually. Somebody mailed one of my notebooks to me. Very nice of them. They could have been an eBay millionaire in a thousand years”
Dr John Cooper Clarke’s autobiography, ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ is out now, as is his book of poetry, ‘The Luckiest Guy Alive’. Tickets for his upcoming tour are available from his website, which includes two dates at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall.