It Goes on Forever

John Cooper Clarke, I Wanna Be Yours

Picador, 480pp, £20.00, ISBN 9781509896103

reviewed by Peter Mitchell

I went to a party dressed as John Cooper Clarke once. The theme was Dress As Yr Idols. I was in possession of a physique, a pair of trousers and a tie that were almost skinny enough, plus I had just about enough hair that, if doused in coca-cola and back-combed like Nicky Wire said to, it’d approximate his beetling updo. More importantly it was easy and I got to go around roaring the lines from Beasley Street — ‘people turn to poison / quick as lager turns to piss / sweethearts are physically sick / every time they kiss’ — at nonplussed students, which satisfied me, because I was 19 and a prick.

I loved John Cooper Clarke in much the same way I loved the poster I had on my wall of Johnny Rotten hanging on a cross and leering: he was a presence, with the cool punk trick of seeming less a person than a cut-up of borrowed clothes and carnival malevolence. What he actually did, or had done back in the seventies and eighties, was stand in front of a microphone, a tiny birdlike body inside a skinny mod-dandy suit, and bark poetry in a sepulchral Salford rasp. He was funny as shit, and his poems at their best (see, again, Beasley Street) had a strangeness and prophetic violence that transcended their playful fucking around with breakfast cereals, 1950s horror movies, sex, puns, the North of England, hatred, drugs, Elvis, and so on. On his records he’d be backed by The Invisible Girls, a semi-anonymised Manchester new wave supergroup which at various times featured Martin Hannett, Pete Shelley, Stephen Morris and Vini Reilly. So: Pam Ayres redone as a tubercular Dylan lookalike in pimp shoes, with a heroin habit and a Factory Records pedigree, basically.

Years later I got to see him live and was amazed at what he got away with for a ticket price of about 25 quid: about 20 minutes, it felt like, of cabaret one-liners reeled out in no particular order, interspersed with some of his better-known poems delivered mechanically and fast enough to be more a physical than a verbal accomplishment, a bit like Not I at the working men’s club. Well, I thought, Jimmy Carr gets away with far worse, and he didn’t write Beasley Street.

Anyway, I’ve spent a day reading I Wanna Be Yours and I’m not going to pretend it’s good, but I’m also not going to pretend that that’s any reason to be disappointed in it. Rock memoirs are usually where you get to find out that the people whose work blew your tiny teenage brain open either can’t really say anything meaningful about it or about themselves, or are surprisingly dim company, or are great but simply have no idea how to write anything. I Wanna Be Yours is no different.

Clarke himself is fairly engaging company, but he can’t write for toffee. Or, rather, what he’s doing here is a straight-up cheesy showbiz autobiography that’s in tune with the part of him that’s not a Punk Icon™ but rather a comedy act who learned to hold a crowd at old-style cabaret night and Bernard Manning’s Embassy Club.

This means 470 pages — yes, 470 pages — of anecdotes that land on a ‘needless to say, we all laughed’ kind of thunk, digressions, non-sequiturs, and the kind of time-filling patter Clarke knows all too well he’s quite good at — in person, if not on the page. Once chapter, entitled ‘Motorcycle Accident’, begins like this: 'Over the years, I have often been compared to Bob Dylan; eg, “Compared to Bob Dylan, you’re not very good!” But seriously, there is one experience we have in common: a motorcycle accident.’ We then get to hear about his motorcycle accident.

So much of I Wanna Be Yours is like this, and it goes on forever. There’s more or less a whole chapter explaining which breakfast cereals Clarke likes or doesn’t, including an anecdote about the time he found some desiccated cat turds inside a favourite hat of his mother’s, the texture of which (the turds, not the hat) was so exactly like that of Weetabix, that he has never enjoyed Weetabix since. He prefers Shredded Wheat: with hot milk, mind you, rather than cold. He has heard of other ways of eating Shredded Wheat, but does not approve of those. He used to enjoy reading the Shredded Wheat box, with its picture of the Shredded Wheat factory near Newark, and later he spent a few years living in Newark, where he had the pleasure of actually seeing the Shredded Wheat factory! And so on.

Reading stuff like this, it’s tempting to think it’s all a bit, and Clarke’s doing a sly number on the form for laughs. Having grown up on Viz magazine’s matchlessly puerile but note-perfect parodies of celebrity gossip rags and memoirs, I kept expecting him to suddenly swerve into a story about doing Elizabeth Taylor up the bum to pass the time in the dole queue. But it’s not a bit, and fuck you (I’m addressing myself here) for hoping it would be. The problem here isn’t that Clarke’s a light entertainment celebrity when he could be a punk flamethrower, but that there was never any real distinction between the two in the first place.

What’s actually happened is that a very good spoken-word poet has written a quite sweet, rambling memoir, and no-one’s edited it to stop him making a tit of himself, and he hasn’t really made a tit of himself because no-one cares. He supplies enough recycled laughs, minor score-settlings, catalogues of cultural enthusiasms, original historical data and occasional moments of genuine feeling to keep his fans invested: the market those fans constitute (mainly male and ageing) isn’t really going anywhere, and it’s all part of the manufacturing of a certain kind of ‘national treasure’ status.

That status is worth interrogating, though. There’s a tendency, especially with men of Clarke’s vintage who are associated with punk and new wave — movements which didn’t so much annihilate the incoherence and colossal self-regard they purported to hate as repeat it as year-zero insurrectionism — to be enlisted as bar-stool philosophers, tupenny-ha’penny commentators or mascots for cultural nostalgia. This is annoying, because it reduces the unrecapturable energy and inventiveness of what they did to grim, beery masculinist self-congratulation. It’s also depressing to see people who made strange, transformative and insurrectionary work turned, as a cultural product, into their least interesting possible selves. See, for example, how Shane MacGowan has become a magnet for tiresome dullards like Pete Doherty and Johnny Depp and the kinds of men who like them, people who lack the minimal imagination required to understand that MacGowan’s having spent most of his life off his face is probably the least interesting or important thing about him. Depp is soon to release a documentary film about him called, inevitably, A Round with Shane MacGowan. (A Drink with Shane MacGowan already exists.) This stuff never happens to women, for whom there are fewer second chances and less indulgence about substances, shitty behaviour, creative decline and plain old boringness. To reemerge as writers, or to be published with anything like the indulgence Clarke has received with this book, women — and I’m thinking here of Kim Gordon, Patti Smith, Tracey Thorn and Viv Albertine, all of whom have written actually very good books — have to put the graft in, and do better than a string of anecdotes about scoring heroin or falling off a bike.

All that stuff out of the way, here’s what’s good about I Wanna Be Yours. The account of Clarke’s childhood and adolescence, as in most decent rock memoirs, recreates a world, and out of that world it assembles the aesthetic materials and obsessions that would later go into his work and image. He’s funny on the texture of life in Salford in the 60s and 70s. His enthusiasms are real and he doesn’t care what you think about them: he loves clothes, style, ska and dub and punk, writing poetry and getting off his face — first on uppers, then on downers, and then to a life-ruining extent on heroin. Touring with the Sex Pistols he has the wit to notice that the audiences in industrial towns aren’t pissed off by their behaviour but by the fact they can’t play: if you’ve grafted all week, you expect your money’s worth. For that reason, though he doesn’t like the music, he gets the appeal of metal. He’s nice about Bernard Manning for being a decent businessman who was serious about paying his acts and serious about performance being work.

Like most punks he’s primarily a helpless fanboy, and gets properly starstruck over Shirley Bassey, CBGB’s and Patti Smith. At one point he’s living in a flat in Brixton with Nico, John Cale is staying over, everyone’s extremely strung out and it’s all very unpleasant indeed, but he’s absolutely cock-a-hoop that half the Velvet Underground are under his roof. He’s really pleased that he’s got an honorary doctorate and people like his poetry. He’s had loads of jobs and isn’t a dick about them one way or the other. His rejection of political commitment (he has an odd go at Rock Against Racism which sounds as if there were some fairly bruising arguments back in the day) comes off as oddly likeable, which is unusual. Some of his anecdotes are genuinely quite good, including a touching one about a doctor who may or may not have kidnapped him and given him some really good intravenous cocaine in Switzerland. He doesn’t think being a drug addict is cool, and he’s very well aware it’s not fun, and he isn’t going to tell you much about it because he doesn’t want to and it’s boring, apart from that bit with the intravenous cocaine in the Alps. He’s sincere, without being serious. It is impossible not to love him.
Peter Mitchell is a writer and historian based in Newcastle.