The Unique and Odd Brilliance of John Cooper Clarke

Last night, the pews of St Peter’s Church of central Wellington were occupied with what I imagine is not the usual attending crowd. A mix of aging hipsters, ex-punks and the occasional younger attendees filed in and filled the ornate church. The entrance into the church was filled with a distinct herbal odour most likely not found there on Sunday mornings.

The draw card was Dr. John Cooper Clarke, punk poet and 70’s survivor turned celebrated English national treasure and school syllabus figure. But first up, NZ’s Andrew Fagan of The Mockers warmed the crowd up with a mix of stand-up comedy (bad) and his short snippet-like poems (pretty good).

After a lengthy wait, Clarke was introduced, and even after that, he took his time to actually appear on stage, to such dramatic entrance music I can only guess it was satirical. The performance poet, now one year short of 70, cuts an almost cartoonishly exaggerated figure, with his impossibly thin skinny-jeaned legs, oversized coat, felt top hat, and, of course, the black shades.

His performance is as much stand-up comedy as it is poetry. Actually maybe more so, if judged by the amount of time he spent on each, dragging out the build-up to each poem with never ending comedic scene-setting and tangents; some hilarious, some baffling, some indecipherable, but all entertaining in a way (the number one cause of dry skin worldwide – towels.) The banter-to-poetry ratio was further imbalanced by the relative shortness of most of his poems and his rapid-fire breakneck-speed style of recital.

There’s no way way to avoid saying it – John Cooper Clarke can be pretty difficult to understand at times, his flow occasionally slipping into a fast and indistinct mumble (and filtered through that thick manchurian accent.) But it was worth focusing to the best of your ability, because, and this is something I haven’t actually mentioned until now, Clarke’s poetry is brilliant. It was worth sitting through even the most puzzling tangents, in which you could feel the audience slowly slipping away (the chimpanzee butler with a razor section?), for when he finally delivered the real substance, poised with his book in hand, which he would flip through for what seemed like ages beforehand trying to find the right page.

Early short pieces like Hire Car and Get Back On Drugs You Fat Fuck immediately proved a passion for the rhythmic and musical qualities of words and rhyme, matched importantly by an incredible craftsmanship and control over them. The audience responded with cheers of recognition to perhaps his most famous piece, the classic Beasley Street. The night’s highlight, She’s Got A Metal Plate In Her Head, was introduced with a story about how he wrote it on tour with Richard Hell & The Voidoids, a striking reminder of this man’s history. Come to think of it, there wasn’t a dull moment of poetry reading itself.

However, not every prelude was as interesting a story as his adventures with (musical) punk royalty. As the set went on into its second half, his stand-up interludes became longer and longer and more rambling, occasionally losing the audience altogether in waiting for the next poem. The Dr., in his current age, comes off as completely besotted with his own wit, whether it’s funny or not, mumbling about random things into the microphone then chuckling away to himself like a granddad reading a newspaper on a deck chair. This is, of course, an entirely understandable result of a career behind a microphone, and no one would blame him for it. But it’s still a shame that as great a poem as I’ve Fallen In Love With My Wife had to be preluded for such a ridiculous length of time with your typical dad-jokey ‘marriage will drain all your happiness, be warned’ speal.

I only feel that he lost the majority of his audience once however, and it has to mentioned. It was the lead-up to his piece Crossing The Floor, about gender transitioning. This section started with his usual rambling jokes and quickly became what can’t be described as anything other than transphobic, the audience’s laughter slowly decreasing with each line to a few lone chuckles at Clarke’s description of “some guy that’s had the big chop believing it would unlock the doors to paradise… a surgical solution to a psychological problem”. That’s not even as bad as when he likened transgenderism to someone believing they’re Napoleon (“You wouldn’t give them a white horse and tell them to invade Russia would you?”) and told us his poem is about people transitioning from Male to Female because “I notice there’s not a lot of traffic in the opposite direction.” Disappointing from such a counter-culture icon.

But this passage aside, John Cooper Clarke’s actual poetry was, of course, consistently brilliant and consistently brilliantly delivered. After another older classic, Evidently Chickentown, which he pointed out was the most obscene piece he could have chosen to perform in an active church, he encored with I Wanna Be Yours, the poem adapted as the last track on Arctic Monkey’s AM. The chat I heard between people on my way out of the venue mostly aligned with my own thoughts – ok so he lost the plot at points, but wow what a way with words.

John Cooper Clarke, St Peter’s Church in Wellington April 23 2018

Ruben Mita