Most of modern America’s knowledge of poetry is from lessons in English class, learning things like haikus and reading Where The Sidewalk Ends; but people subconsciously become more of a poet than they think. I’m not saying the beatnik stereotype that sits in a dark cafe, snapping their fingers; but if you have a movie quote that you repeated for a few weeks or a song chorus that couldn’t stop escaping your lips for that entire shift at work, you’ve echoed a poets words. We may not call them poets though; we call them things like rappers, writers, or simply just an artist. From the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare in the 1600s, to Drake’s newest mixtape, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late; poetry has stood the times as one of the most expressive forms of art that humanity has seen.
The UK in the 1970’s not only had a “poetry revival”, but also saw the start of a Punk Rock movement that will form the future of rock and roll forever. Since poetry and music are so similar, it’s only natural that someone would bridge the gap between the two; speaking the message of both poets and musicians to reach a crowd that would never have gotten into traditional poetry in the first place. Before some nights that bands like The Buzzcocks, The Fall, and The Sex Pistols would play shows for a thriving audience of teenagers, a gaunt looking man with long, knotted black hair and sunglasses would take the microphone. With a notebook in one hand and a drink occupying the other for most of the time that it was not holding the microphone, John Cooper Clarke would change a generation by connecting young crowds to a more raw and relatable style of poetry that mixes comedy and frantic a cappella that could be fronted for the greatest band in the world if he had a three-piece behind him (and later would be with The Invisible Girls; they were no Ramones but the rocked it with songs like I Don’t Wanna Be Nice). “You’ve either never heard of him, or you love him” is a precise way to describe his career. From Punk shows to colleges, then into tours and onto numerous albums and EPs, John Cooper Clarke still spreads his engaging message around the world; and on that journey he made it to Vinyl at The Hard Rock in Las Vegas this past week, and will be going on to more US tour dates in the US before going back over the pond.
Opening up the show was a pleasant surprise; stand-up comedian Tom Rhodes would put on a hysterical set that went on for a good hour. Having heard of Tom’s stand-up on Netflix and his recent appearance on Comedy Central’s @Midnight, I was not surprised by his ridiculous story time about almost being molested by Louis Anderson, and an adventure with two lesbians on ecstasy. Check him out on www.tomrhodes.net for tour dates or any upcoming appearances that he may be doing, it’ll be worth the good laughs. After a few moments of desperate conversation for time filling, Tom was able to hand the stage to Dr. John Cooper Clarke. With a gin and tonic and one hand and a notebook in the other, he immediately started flipping through pages and rambling random jokes up until his first reading. Once he would put the words on the page in his voice, a different attitude would take him over; the ryhmes would flow, his foot would tap and his tone would even get deeper. It was memorizing once you would get caught into his words. I found myself not even finishing the beer I had bought before the set; trying to take a sip but my jaw would drop and I would just set it back down. Going through rapid-fire poems about things like Alzheimers, exclaiming “There are three advantages to alzheimers. One, you can hide your own Easter Eggs. Number Two, you get to meet new people every day. Number three, you can hide your own Easter Eggs” before going into his bit, Things Are Going To Get Worse. He would also go through more of his well known material like Chickentown, which is featured on The Sapranos episode, Stage Five; and go into ending with his most popular poem, Beasley Street.
The show left me in aw. Not being into spoken-word poetry at all, I was shocked at how different the show had been compared to my expectation. It was more of a concert or stand-up gig than anything; but without a huge crowd in the venue it was an intimate performance to be apart of. Luckily, I was able to meet with the doctor after his set to share a drink and pick his mind about music and modern poetry, among many other things.
ZR: I was very interested that you would go on stage before Sex Pistols and Buzzcocks shows, and somehow come up in that scene.
John: Well there was no scene for poetry back then, there was but it was just colleges and 50 people in a library, but they weren’t all that interested in it really at that point. You can’t really do poetry if you don’t think you’re some kind off top dog, its an all or nothing occupation. So that’s why I’ve always made a point in my career by doing my stuff in places that you might not expect poetry, I made a point of that. First it was Rock and Roll and I carried that on now by doing Las Vegas. Some guys asked me if I’d like to put a few American dates together and if there were any places that I hadn’t done that I would like to do; well obviously Vegas came up, you know. All my favorite people come from Vegas.
ZR: Big fan of Sinatra?
John: Yeah! Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Elvis. Big on Elvis; the gold standard.
ZR: I remember hearing you on that Sapronos episode, and not even knowing your work I remember getting chills hearing Chickentown closing it out.
You can imagine how I felt. I was already a mega fan; I was right into that show. To me, that’s TV’s final hour. In fact, that was the last time they had any music at the background, because in the last episode, it just went black, silent credits.
ZR: How did that go? Did they approach you for the song?
No, it was a total surprise. I knew about a fort-night in advance; but even better it took me by surprise, even though I knew it was going to happen. It was such a great episode; Christopher gets back on dope, everything goes to shit. It fit it so well. I heard the drum in and I was like, “I know that drum pattern, that’s my fucking record”. It was such a big hit for me.
ZR: So where do you see poetry in the future?
There are loads of people in England. I kind of created a world where people can operate, and some great people have followed in my footsteps. There’s a chick named Kate Senter; she’s really on fire at the moment. I always say that, poetry, anyone can do this. The rap industry has proved it. You don’t even have to be literal, you just need a microphone. I recon everybody in the world has written a poem; they may not have painted a picture, they may not have learned a musical instrument; but everybody in the god damn world has written a poem. I can’t prove that but I’m sure that’s true.
ZR: How do you feel about modern UK Punk Rock? I haven’t really heard much out of there recently.
John: I always liked the American model, I have to say. I like The Pistols and the Clash, and The Buzzcocks and The Fall; but mainly I like that kind of CBGB aspect, especially The Ramones. My publicity t-shirt quibbed off of the Ramones; with the eagle and a few tweaks to make it English. We have this guy that was dealing with the merchandise in England, and I’ll never be able to repay him enough. He didn’t do it snidey; he actually went to the estate of Johnny Ramone and got permission. I was so fucking obsessive about that band. I think you can have an opinion of most things; but if you don’t like The Ramones, there’s something wrong with you.
I went and seen Ronnie Specter last year, she had a New York band behind her; approximating the wall of sound with three guitars, you can’t do that! I was a little late getting in, and when they opened the doors, I swore they were playing the her record but it was her. The crowd was just a bunch of ex punks, you now, CBGB types; they loved her. If there was ever a woman that invented Punk Rock, it was Veronica Specter. I would say this, I’ve seen a lot of people; I haven’t seen Elvis; but I’ve seen The Beach Boys, Jerry Ley Lewis, Little Richard, I’ve seen all them; but you know what? I went to that one-women show with Veronica Specter; I’ve never seen a better show in all my life. I’ve never been more entertained; I may have been as entertained, but I can’t recall it to mind. She was reading from her autobiography and showing super-eight footage of The Ronnets playing The Peppermint Lounge in between Joey D and The Starlighters.Unbelievable, you’ve never seen nothing like it. I love The Ronnettes; but Phil Specter, I hold my heart. He’s in the right place. I think he was failed by society. You know, for years he’s been pulling guns on people; The Ramones said they would never work with him again, John Lennon, you know. That mother fucker’s crazy. Anyone who ever did a session with Phil Specter came out and said ‘that mother fucker’s gonna kill somebody!” So they had the warnings. He should have had an FBI guard 24/7, 365 days per year, and he didnt’t get that; everyone knew he was fucking crazy. If only he had an FBI guard 24/7, he’d still be producing hits today. He was failed by society. Obviously, I feel sorry Lana Clarkson and her family, you’ve got to. I mean, Christ, she was murdered. That’s right out of order, but they had their warnings; the FBI could have stopped that from happening. My only criticism of American society, he should have had around the clock guards.
ZR: So what are your thoughts on the elections coming up in the UK?
John: Well, you know, I’m kind of jaded with politics obviously. I’m 66 years old, I’d be a fool to believe anything a politician says; but I’ll vote for the Labor Party, you know. I have a chip on my shoulder. In fact, I’m a well balanced person. I have a chip on both shoulders.