A modern-day bard John Cooper Clarke chronicles his life from mechanic to a punk poet in autobiography I Wanna Be Yours

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John Cooper Clarke, Britain's “punk poet” has had an interesting life. Now 72, the “Bard Of Salford” recalls the highs (and there were a lot) and lows in a rambling, funny autobiography, I Wanna Be Yours (Picador), which was published in 2020.

Clarke rose to fame during the “punk” rock era of the mid-1970s. In the book, he identifies the key moment as the famous Sex Pistols’ gig at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976. Prior to that, Clarke had made a small name for himself in the working men’s clubs in Lancashire (the comedian Bernard Manning gave him his break) and prior to that he’d been in not particularly good bands during the sixties.

I was living in Salford at that time, studying at the University of Salford (which awarded an honorary doctorate to the poet in 2013). Salford, for those who don’t know, is the birthplace of footballer Paul Scholes and a city in its own right; many Northern English conurbations have twin cities, Sheffield-Rotherham and Liverpool-Birkenhead are good examples. It’s important because this is where Clarke’s distinctive accent comes from (his delivery sometimes reminds me of the longer monologues of another laconic Mancunian comedian, Les Dawson).

He was embraced by punks rather than the other way round and he quickly secured gigs supporting local and national bands (he rates The Fall as the best of the lot). He recorded an EP, published a book of poems and he toured and toured; he had to, because by then he had developed an addiction to heroin which would dominate his life for two decades.

But all that stuff comes in part two of the book. The first part is a memoir of growing up in a Northern city in the 1950s and 1960s, in his case in the largely Jewish district of Higher Broughton. He trawls through the popular culture of post-WWII with his usual trademark rapier wit, commenting on music, fashion and hairstyles, fast food, adverts (one of my favourite chapters), football, comics, movies and television (a life changer!), and even his uncle’s “beautiful pale-blue and cream Dansette” record-player.

Clarke was a sickly child who contracted TB and was sent to Wales to recuperate. He didn’t fit in at any school, each one telling his parents he “lacked team spirit”. But he did find an inspirational English teacher, Mr Malone, who encouraged his students to read poetry out loud. He liked Baudelaire and Edgar Allen Poe but he also loved the trash-talking verses of Muhammad Ali, as well as comedians like Stanley Holloway (one of my all-time favourite versifiers, especially for his hilarious Lion And Albert). He seems to have been a voracious reader.

He left school and began a succession of strange jobs: bookie’s runner, mechanic, woodwork lab technician (if you search on YouTube you can find an ancient interview with Tony Wilson, the founder of Factory Records, as he’s handing out tools to students — it’s hilarious), printer’s apprentice and even firewatcher art a royal navy dockyard. He also “knocked over” chemists to satisfy a growing drug habit. In his teens, he ran with a local gang and encountered a succession of memorable “nutters”, such as thug “Lemonhead” who got back at the world by climbing a tree to take potshots at locals with an airgun, and chemist stealing duo Angie and Marcel.

And somehow, despite all that was going on in his life, he managed to write verse. I was also surprised to find out that he was a fan of the American Songbook (songs from the early 20th century by legendary songwriters like Rodgers and Hart, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and the like).

But don’t expect an analysis of how he writes poetry. He has little to say on that subject.

The second part of the book details his heroin addiction. He shared a flat in Brixton, London with singer and actor Nico; there’s a hauntingly sad moment when he later realises that an “old guy” with sunken cheeks who brought him his drugs was in fact the jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. Over the course of his addiction, Clarke had to be resuscitated three times, and he did eventually get clean, remarry and settle in Essex.

He also talks about the rise of rock’n’roll in the 1950s, the late 60s Northern Soul scene, mid-70s dub reggae and punk rock, and the 80s Factory Music scene. Clarke was part of it all. He’s had some amazing backing musicians, too, from the wonderful Invisible Girls to being backed on tour in Australia by New Order.

In the 1990s, three of his poems were included in the national school syllabus for English. A young musician from Sheffield, Alex Turner, studied Clarke at school. The two met, Clarke thought the name of Turner’s band, Arctic Monkeys was cool, and the relationship blossomed. He appeared in one of the band’s first music videos and the band featured Clarke’s words on their album cover. The band is now one of the top indie bands in the UK; they had a big hit with a cover of his 1982 poem I Wanna Be Yours on their 2013 album, AM, which Clarke credits with introducing his work to a new generation.

In 2019, Clarke was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, a sure sign that he’d made it. And his favourite track? How Great Thou Art by Elvis Presley.

John Cooper Clarke’s latest book of poetry, The Luckiest Guy Alive, was published by Pan Macmillan in 2019.

John Clewley can be contacted at clewley.john@gmail.com.

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