1Which Yorkshire band’s recently-released debut album contains a track called ‘John Cooper Clarke’ that eulogises you?
WRONG. It’s Working Men’s Club.
“What a great name! I’ve got to check them out. They sound like my sort of band. I’ll mither my daughter to Goggle [sic] them on her Skyper. Sometimes a band hit you out of left-field and being a poet, it’s always the name or song title that gets to me. One I really remember liking – and this is as up-to-the-minute as it gets with me – was Electric Six’s ‘Gay Bar’ [John starts singing a rousing rendition of the song]. To get serious for a second, it’s great that a young band have name-checked me. Judging by my audience, there’s no typical demographic for me – it’s all ages.”
2Alex Turner adapted your poem ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ a track of the same name on ‘AM’. But which Arctic Monkeys single printed your poem ‘Out of Control Fairground’ on its CD inlay?
“That’s a really good question! Was it ‘I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor’?”
WRONG. It’s ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’.
“I wrote ‘Out of Control Fairground’ after seeing The Simpsons episode with guest star James Brown [‘Bart’s Inner Child’], where self-help guru Brad Goodman tells the town to chill out about everything, they’re on a hippy-kick, and a runaway Ferris wheel rolls through the streets.”
Ever discussed collaborating with Arctic Monkeys?
“Alex seems to be doing alright on his own (laughs). But he knows where I live. Just say the word, Al! I did the intro for them when they played Sheffield in 2018 and it was a wonderful experience. I owe Alex, because I heard their version of ‘I Wanna Be Yours’, and I’ve always said that a poem is not a song – different rules apply – but his reworking was sensational.”
3In your new autobiography, I Wanna Be Yours, which politician do you say asked you to help get his memoirs published?
“It’s gotta be [President of Ireland] Michael D. Higgins?”
WRONG. It’s Gerry Adams, who you say – on a train to Dublin – claimed he’d written his autobiography while he was in HM Prison Maze in Northern Island and pulled out sheets of lavatory paper with his memories written on that he’d encased in plastic and kept hidden up his jacksie.
“Oh, shit! Crikey, I’d forgot about that! It’s just a theory, I have no proof, but I’m convinced it was him. The reason I said Michael D. Higgins is because he was actually my support act for the first time I ever did a poetry reading in Dublin. I’m more proud of that than meeting Gerry Adams!”
4You DJ-ed with the Honey Monster in a 1980s Sugar Puffs advert. What is the (made-up) name of his record he’s spinning?
“Ooh, that’s a long time ago! I know it’s the one where I say, ‘I said ‘groovy’ – not ‘gravy’, as gravy falls on my head.”
WRONG. It’s called ‘Tummy Time’ – the Sugar Puffs slogan at the time.
“This is terrible. I’m not going to win the speedboat! (Laughs) What’s the consolation prize? The NME chequebook and pen?”
5What did you pick as your luxury item when you appeared on Desert Island Discs in 2019?
“A boulder of opium twice the size of my own head.”
CORRECT. How do you look back on your years of drug use?
“Well, of course I enjoyed it at the time, but halfway through it’s a club that’s very difficult to leave. I hope I haven’t been too light-hearted about it in my book, but I didn’t want it to be a misery memoir, which it could have easily turned into. There’s a whole big chunk of that time I’ve intentionally omitted, and thank God it’s over. I didn’t think that day would ever come when it [heroin] wouldn’t be the first thing on my mind. After quitting, for years I’d still dream about it – but I never got to the point where I managed to get that syringe into my arm. It’s regrettable, and if I could rewrite that bit of my life, I would. It comes back to bite you on the arse in so many ways – you don’t develop as a person; your whole personality disintegrates with that shit. Rather than a shining example, I think I was a terrible warning – and I wouldn’t have it any other way! (Laughs)”
You spent time sharing a Brixton flat with Nico, and flirted with recording an album of covers under the name ‘Nico And Johnnie’. When producer John Cale moved in briefly, you noted that for him, it was vodka for breakfast and then cocaine all the way. What was that period like?
“You know, at the time it felt normal. For a while – until it became known in the neighbourhood that Nico was living in that house and the tidal wave of junkies arrived, and it became uninhabitable. Before that, it was as settled and domestic as two addicts living in the same place get. (Laughs) But it stopped being normal when there were people camped outside the house thanks to NME printing a picture of us living there. It’s a good photograph, though, so I’m retrospectively glad somebody took it.”
6Who did Chuck Berry once mistake you for?
“When it comes to being mistaken for a member of the Stones, it used to be Ron Wood – we had similar hair and the same hooters. I once pretended to be him in the ‘80s in Dublin to Norwegian fans who mistook me for him. I thought: I can make this guy’s holiday and send him back home to tell all his mates he had a drink with a Rolling Stone. So I went along with it [Imitates Ron]: ‘Oh yeah, man, I remember doing the Oslo gig. One of the rockingest gigs we’ve ever done!’ and signed an autograph ‘Keep rockin’, Ron’. (Laughs) I like think to think that one day, Ronnie will do the same thing and recite one of my poems to a fan in my voice! But I’m a very ambitious man. I’ve got a framed photo of my wife between Ronnie and me in the front room. We met at an NME Awards and the first thing he said was: ‘Here we are! The bookends!’”
7What number did your song ‘Suspended Sentence’ reach in John Peel’s Festive 50 in 1977?
“Ahhh – was it 16?”
WRONG. It was five.
“I’m selling myself short again! I ought to develop an ego (Laughs).”
How did it feel to be embraced by punk?
“For me, punk was terrific ‘cos it got me out of the Manchester cabaret scene and out into the wider world because of the higher international reach it had. Getting involved in it wasn’t my idea – it was Howard Devoto [Magazine frontman] who said ‘You look the part. You’re punk by default’. Because I had short hair, wore suits and was going for this slick nightclub entertainer look that was retro even in the world of cabaret, but it fit right in with the punk scene. It was a great chance to reinvent yourself as a completely unique citizen, and those opportunities are rare in a young person’s life.”
8Name any of the rejected children’s murder mystery books you allegedly pitched.
“I can name them all! Scarface Junior, Eat Lead Miss, and Hickory Dickory Dead. They rejected them out of hand, thinking it was a sub-genre that would never catch on. You can’t deal with murder for the under-11s, I was told.”
CORRECT. They sound ideal for Netflix…
“(Laughs) I’m up for writing slasher movies aimed at the under-11s! But then when you think about what they read in Grimms’ Fairy Tales – with its fucking infanticide and cannibalism! I originally pitched those books under my nom de plume Byron Slayne.”
9Who once said: ‘John Cooper Clarke uses words like Chuck Berry uses guitar riffs’?
“Is it Kate Moss?”
“Thanks Kate! She’s always saying nice things about me.”
What was it like MC-ing for Chuck Berry on tour in the 2000s?
“I was a fan of his – to the point of being socially awkward. He’s such a genius lyricist. His technique was effortless – he made it look easy. He would even fuck it up on purpose in order to make himself seem human. He used to take those songs we know so well every night, dismantle them, and play them in a completely different way. It was a pleasure to see him every night. I can’t talk him up enough. He wasn’t the most popular or the nicest guy in the world, but he could write a motherfucking unforgettable song.”
You also met another legend in slightly more bizarre, sad circumstances when you and Nico score dope off a dealer, only to realise years later it was fabled jazz musician Chet Baker. Are you 100 per cent sure it was the Prince of Cool?
“Absolutely. But I didn’t realise until 30 years later after, when I saw the [1998 Chet doc] Let’s Get Lost – ‘cause I remember Chet Baker as the blue-eyed pin-up boy of modern jazz. So meeting him looking like Geronimo’s ugly kid brother, I certainly didn’t think at the time: ‘Ooh, it looks like Chet Baker’s gone to pieces!’ I didn’t make the connection until after I saw the movie. What also told me it was him – as if I needed more proof! – was it said at the end he’d died after falling out of a hotel window in Amsterdam. Which is where I bought the dope off the guy.”
10Name any three other guest stars that were on the episode of the BBC’s Pop Quiz you appeared on in 1982.
“Jools Holland, a guy out of [British ’80s new wave group] Classix Nouveaux, and Mari Wilson.”
WRONG. Apart from Jools and Sal, you could have had: Paul Jones, BA Robertson or Depeche Mode‘s Dave Gahan.
“Sorry Dave! [A noise comes from the background] My missus is yelling don’t give away all of the book. Don’t tell them the ending! There’s a twist. I die at the end – they won’t see that coming (Laughs)”
The verdict: 4/10
“Your questions were about my new book and I’ve got less than half of them right! I’ve been rumbled as Bullshitter Number One! (Laughs)”
John Cooper Clarke’s autobiography, I Wanna Be Yours, is out now.