I Wanna Be Yours by John Cooper Clarke is many things. It is an immensely engaging memoir that fizzes with wit, and it is simultaneously a chronicle of a lifetime’s worth of extraordinary culture. From music hall and working men’s clubs to punk and post-punk, whether as an observer or participant, Clarke has done it all. The book is also an at times bleak account of his descent into heroin addiction, always written with a lightness of touch, but never swerving in its mission to bare all.
Though he needs no such affirmation, it cements Clarke’s status as one of the most distinctive voices in pop cultural history – it’s impossible not to hear him read every word aloud in your head with that unforgettable Manc drawl – and reveals much about a remarkable life and career. Here are the biggest talking points.
John Cooper Clarke was the original punk
You can divide I Wanna Be Yours into two distinct sections: before and after the legendary Sex Pistols gig at Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976. It’s at this point Clarke, then a local favourite in the working men’s clubs and casinos of the North West, transforms in an instant into the nationally known poet laureate of punk he’s still venerated as today. It is not Clarke that embraced punk, however, but the other way around.
He embodied its ethos before the concept even existed. Much older than Johnny Rotten, Pete Shelley and co. (or at least the only one not lying about his age), he always loathed the hippies. “Everything that they wanted to achieve, I wanted to stop happening,” he writes. The combative stage persona he developed with his formative gigs at Bernard Manning’s Embassy Club meant that shows in front of “these viscious, drunken, delinquent, blocked-up punks held no terrors for me,” and his sharp stage get-up was perfectly suited to the scene.
Through his poetry he engaged with disaffection and grit a decade before the punks picked up their pens, with more wit than Joe Strummer could dream of. Even his shambolic attempts to form a Beatles-inspired band in the ’60s meant “we were punk rockers before that became a good thing.”
His life is littered with extraordinary characters, and not all of them famous
The second, post-Pistols half of I Wanna Be Yours sees Clarke encountering just about all of the great, good and downright grim of ’70s and ’80s music – Elvis Costello, Gil Scott-Heron, Nico, Mark E. Smith, Richard Hell, Linder Sterling and legendary NME scribe Nick Kent to name a few – but it’s the obscure local characters, the figures skulking around the peripheries, that are the most entertaining.
There is Bill ‘Man Mountain’ Benny, a local gangster and nightclub owner with his own theme tune. There is the PE teacher Mr Durcan who arranged for arguing students to “duke it out, Marquess of Queensbury style in the ring” after school. There is the local thug ‘Lemonhead’, an “embittered nutter” who spends his time camped out on waste ground taking potshots at passers by with a sniper rifle. There are pharmacy-robbing brothers Angie and Marcel, and there is moustachioed jazz aficionado ‘Spanish Fred’, dressed with “psychotic attention to detail” in a pinstripe suit with his hair slicked back.
He’s got some unconventional influences
Clarke writes about his English teacher, Mr. Malone, with affection. This the man who first taught him that poetry should be heard, not read, and who managed to transform his classroom into a hothouse of proto-rap battles. “Some of the toughest guys I ever knew were all vying for attention with million-dollar words, the slickest of rhymes, and ever more arcane vocabulary,” Clarke recalls.
He also cites poets like Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud and Edgar Allan Poe among his chief inspirations, but even more influential in his early days were figures such as Muhammad Ali, with his swaggering rhyming trash talk, and Edwardian music hall star Billy Merson. The most surprising influence of all, however, is the agony aunt section of his mother’s Woman’s Own magazine, one of the first places he fell in love with the written word.
His musical endeavours were a mixed bag, to put it lightly
John Cooper Clarke has always been adjacent to musicians, but in I Wanna Be Yours he recounts his many attempts at forming bands of his own. Throughout the ’60s, he was a member of a comically inept beat combo whose Spinal Tap-style career is worthy of its own book. At first, they’re known as The Mafia, an “unquantifiably bad” blues covers band, who play their first gig with matching “full-on metallic-Christmas-tree-decoration gold” hairstyles after buying the wrong shade of dye. When gangsters were no longer cool thanks to early 1960s TV series The Untouchables, they changed their name to The Vendettas, then again to The Chaperones after a line-up change, and then again to The Lovely Flowers in a doomed attempt to cash in on “the whole horticultural vibe” of the late ’60s, and for which he assumed the stage name Brett Vandergelt Junior.
Not all of his groups were such a shambles, however. Much later down the line, now a successful performance-poet, he spent time as the de facto frontman of The Invisible Girls, a band assembled to provide musical accompaniment that included an eye-watering number of bona fide legends including Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley, Joy Division and New Order’s Stephen Morris, The Fall’s Karl Burns, 10cc’s Paul Burgess, Be-Bop Deluxe’s Paul Nelson and the Durutti Column’s Vinni Reilly. On a 1980s Australian tour, meanwhile, his encore consisted of cover of ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’ with none other than New Order as his backing band.
John Cooper Clarke and Nico very nearly recorded an album together
Clarke’s time spent sharing a Brixton flat with actor and songwriter Nico, while both were deep in the mire of serious heroin addiction, is well-documented. Among the revelations of I Wanna Be Yours, however, is the fact that the two distinctly voiced flatmates came extremely close to recording an album of duets under the name ‘Nico And Johnnie’. The projected track list included ‘The Beat Goes On’ by Sonny and Cher, ‘Love is Strange’ by Mickey and Sylvia, ‘Welcome Home’ by Peters and Lee, ‘I Just Want to Stay Here’ by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, and ‘Thanks for the Memory’ by Bob Hope and Shirley Ross. “We practised at home, and got to be pretty good,” Clarke claims. “I can’t prove this, because sadly there is no recorded evidence, but you’ve gotta believe me.”
Drugs nearly killed him on three separate occasions
Running parallel with Clarke’s rise to fame is a descent into serious drug addiction. This developed from him stealing prescription amphetamines at school in the ’50s and robbing pharmacies for opiates as an adolescent to eventually succumbing to heroin addiction under the pressures of celebrity, a habit that would eventually have a crippling effect on his work. “I was not equipped psychologically to deal with any of this new reality,” he writes. “Since my main imperative was now the acquisition of ever-increasing amounts of heroin, there was always something better to do than write poetry.
For all the ludicrous stories of drug-smuggling and evading the police, there are some truly harrowing moments. On three separate occasions Clarke has to be resuscitated from the point of death. In one particularly grim passage he has to arm himself to try and score in the perilous underworld of late-’70s New York. The saddest of all, however, is when he realises that an emaciated, greasy heroin dealer is in fact Chet Baker, once jazz’s handsome, charismatic ‘Prince of Cool’, now a shadow of his former self
The book’s full of great bands, but The Fall were the greatest of them all
If nothing else, I Wanna Be Yours stands as a thrilling document of some of music’s most exciting moments of the last century. From the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll in the late ’50s; The Beatles and The Stones; the rise of Northern Soul at the Wigan Casino; mid-’70s dub reggae; punk rock; and Manchester’s immortal Factory-led post-punk scene in the ’80s, Clarke saw them all.
Of all the artists who appear in the book, The Fall, Clarke says, were the best of the best. He first encountered Mark E. Smith when the late singer was a schoolboy, and Clarke ended up becoming an “unofficial uncle” to the future Fall frontman – “you know, the type of uncle who doesn’t give a fuck what you get up to,” as he puts it. He was later blown away when his adopted nephew grew into one of rock’s all-time greats. “I’ve worked with the best of them, but The Fall I would watch night in, night out,” Clarke remembers. “Each performance seemed unique.”
His connection with Arctic Monkeys goes back far further than ‘AM’
For many, Arctic Monkeys’ cover of Clarke’s 1982 poem ‘I Wanna Be Yours’, the closing track on ‘AM’, was the gateway into the bard of Salford’s work. As he reveals in his book of the same name, we have the compilers of the 1990s GCSE English syllabus, who included three of Clarke’s poems, to thank for it. After a show at The Boardwalk in Sheffield, Clarke was approached by a young musician called Alex Turner who had studied him at school, and whose band were about to become megastars. “I asked him what they were called, and he said The Arctic Monkeys,” Clarke remembers. “The name of a group is important and that one is unforgettable. They were speaking my language.” The rest is history.
– I Wanna Be Yours is out now via Pan Macmillan