This Just in from Canadia...
Words, glorious words!
Dr John Cooper Clarke operating at Lee’s Palace in Toronto, April 12, 2018
Benjamin Darvill opened for John Cooper Clarke on April 12 at Lee’s Palace in Toronto. He is a former member of Crash Test Dummies now transplanted to the UK, who has pivoted into a suit-wearing, blues-singing character called Son of Dave. With a box of tricks on the table next to him, holding shakers and rattles, a harmonica in hand, and a stomp box at his feet, Son of Dave was the MacGyver of one-man bands. He beatboxed, shook, rattled and rolled, creating a full-band sound. He performed entertaining ditties like “Devil Take My Soul” and “Rattlesnake,” all the while engaging the audience. He delivered comedic interludes between songs, adopting an irascible persona and complaining that he wore polyester suits and played harmonica for a living. He also shared bold, bawdy stories about his adventures in cheap hotels. The audience was bopping and laughing – the perfect warm-up for an irreverent poet.
Fellow Mancunian poet, Mike Garry, took the stage and introduced himself, mentioning his past incarnation as a librarian and the influence of Clarke on his younger self. Like his friend, “Johnny,” Garry also wields wit and humour the way Spiderman employs his silk – it hits its mark.
He remarked that it was a good day for a song, and he launched into a sing-song that began, “Sad today, and I don’t feel right today, and I feel all uptight today …” He moved into a tongue-twisting conversation with himself about not thinking about things he’s thinking about. The pace changed to a rhyme at the end of every line, and then, free-form observations about life in Manchester. He was meandering, and this was his “Mancunian Meander.” Poetry emphasizes the musicality of language, something Garry focuses on in his work, writing poems as songs. He also seasons his poetry with references to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, a by-product of his Catholic upbringing.
Manchester figures prominently in his work – a dark, industrial city often enveloped by grey, rainy days. It is a place where things can hide in shadows, though there is no hidden meaning in his work. It is all in the open – exposed – the darkness, the ugliness, and the causes for celebration. Like a town crier, Garry recited “St. Anthony (An Ode to Anthony H. Wilson)” [Factory Records co-founder, journalist, impresario, and Manchester cheerleader]. In this poem, commissioned by the BBC, Garry used an inventive device of including groups of words beginning with every letter of the alphabet in proper order.
He also gave dramatic recitations of poems inspired by Mancunian life, such as “Pay as you Go,” about consequences from sexting, which he prefaced with humour as comic relief; “Penny for a Guy;” and “God is a Manc,” all very gritty. There are many beautiful locations in the world, some described as heaven on earth or paradise; Manchester isn’t one of them. It is unlikely that God is a Mancunian, though people grow attached to the place they call home; however, as in the poem, God may indeed have made its men smart, articulate, a bit rebellious, softly spoken, emotionally open, and in touch with their feminine side, if famous sons like Johnny Marr, John Robb, and Mike Garry himself, are the norm.
Some weeks before his mother died in 2013, she asked him to write her eulogy. Garry balked at the request, but on the morning of her funeral, he did, as a poem called “Things Me Mam Taught Me.” The work makes it obvious how great an influence Patricia Garry was in his life. Besides insisting that he make a habit of reading and working hard, she also taught him, “Charity starts at home / It’s good to spend some time alone / Say something positive, don’t just moan … If someone’s down, pick them up / If someone’s thirsty, give them your cup …” She also told him to have as many kids as he could. Garry has four. His only son is in New Zealand, and he shared the poem he wrote for him called, “I Truly Miss My Son Today.” In it, he declares he would walk barefoot across Europe and Asia and swim naked through the South China Sea for mere moments with him. He brings a drama to his work with enunciations and accented stops at final syllables. He adds speed and volume for urgency, deceleration and pauses for gravitas, and a lilt to rhythm.
Working with the Cassia String Quartet for several years now (not on tour with him), coupled with his dramatic inflections, Garry elevates poetry to the potent art form it is. The Yin-Yang of his wordsmithing and light, mood-enhancing music can be heard in “The Threads That Weave,” a video created for Manchester United and Nike. He cleverly uses weaving and sewing analogies for Manchester’s industry. The way he purposefully punctuates words with his Mancunian diction, the structure, ebb and flow of his recitation, the timbre of his voice, and the light music hovering in the background, make it mesmerizing. He is the Tesla of poets – engineered for a rocket-powered, yet smooth verbal ride that leaves the listener awed. These talents, and his work with inner city youth, led to an honorary Doctor of Education degree in 2015.
Now that the appetizers had been consumed, the main course was about to be served. The theme from S.W.A.T. (original series) blasted from the speakers for a minute or so, and the Bard of Salford himself, John Cooper Clarke, sauntered onto the stage with his signature skinny chic and now relaxed coif. He informed the audience that he carries a badge. Dr Clarke, as he prefers to be addressed since receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Salford in 2013, drew his scalpel of laser-sharp wit and went to work on the audience. He started with “The Official Guest List” of people too cheap to buy a ticket. Incidentally, all their names rhymed.
He moved on to musing about questions he can’t answer, like, what is occasional furniture the rest of the time? Periodic tables? Then there were questions he could answer. What is the difference between a Lada and a Jehovah’s Witness? You can shut the door on a Jehovah’s Witness.
Clarke’s poetic style is funny, unfiltered, and often voices things others are afraid to say. His not caring what others think made him a punk darling in the 70s. His performances are a treat: he’s a top tier comedian who zig zags between American mafioso impersonations, jokes, stories, observations, poems, and limericks. The wise guy persona may be linked to his poem “Evidently Chicken Town” being in the penultimate episode of The Sopranos, or his fascination with American society. Either way, he performed this poem with an extra helping of Jersey swagger. JCC has a talent for saturating himself with culture, particularly the North American variety. At one point, he told the audience not to worry, he’d be done in time for them to get home to watch Jimmy Kimmel, then barreled into “Beasley Street” at 700 mph, one of his early and poignant works about the poverty and seediness in Salford. He conjures misery with sound play such as, “Hot beneath the collar / An inspector calls / Where the perishing stink of squalor / Impregnates the walls / The rats have all got rickets / They spit through broken teeth / The name of the game is not cricket / Caught out on Beasley Street.” He updated it three decades later as “Beasley Boulevard” to account for change. Clarke joked that Thatcher may have gotten ideas from “Beasley Street,” which he wrote 18 years before she got in power.
He stated he’s had weight fluctuations like Luther Vandross. He suspected though that Luther’s were due to a combination of deep fried soul food and prescription sedatives, while his own were due to non-therapeutic drug use; then, he kick-started into “Get Back on Drugs You Fat Fuck.” Clarke refuses to own a smart phone or a computer; having known the allure of drugs, he prefers to stay away from the temptation of information, or the rewarding beeps and alarms of social media. He writes all his work by hand in notebooks which he travels with. Since he’s become a “doctor” though, he can’t read his own handwriting. Clarke shared a story of how he had gotten into minimalism. At one point, he was down to a George Foreman grill and a bottle of disinfectant. The Dalai Lama told him he needed to “get some shit.”
“She’s Got a Metal Plate in Her Head” from 1979, the more recent “I’ve Fallen in Love with My Wife,” and forty-year old “Orientation Course” all loosely covering different relationships were showcased. The latter he had recently rediscovered. Clarke stated it is about the inner workings of a man who spent his time at Kwok Man, an all-night Cantonese restaurant in Manchester. It is about a crush on an Asian girl who works in the family restaurant. Some lines from it are, “Crazy for that Chinese girl / Her brother knows where I live / I’ve seen him slice up a raw shark / with a non-serrated shiv … Crazy for that Chinese girl / Her dad’s a fabulous guy / If I ever put the move on her / I’m gonna have to die.” He assured us this was an unrequited love, in case his wife asks. He has run the gamut of relationships. He told the audience that when he got divorced he split the house with his ex. He got the outside.
At the end of the show he stayed on stage; he was “gonna milk it, but a staircase was involved.” Clarke mentioned Alex Turner being influenced by his work and making Clarke’s poem “I Wanna Be Yours” into a hit song for the Arctic Monkeys. He finished the evening by reciting it as the encore. Beneath all the biting commentary, his sarcasm, and mischievous frankness, Dr Clarke has the heart of a romantic – to a sadistic degree, as he says. He is a rare creature – smart, sharp, and sassy. An evening with him involves culture, commentary, and a generous dose of comedy. At 69, his performance was still one of those entertaining, laugh-out-loud evenings, that left a smile on the viewer’s face and an uplifted feeling, long after John Cooper Clarke had left the building.
Words, Images and Video: Maria Meli