John Cooper Clarke is, by anyone’s estimation, an odd bird. In point of fact, he looks like a kind of bird. If, in years to come, it was revealed that beneath the drain-pipe jeans and the winkle pickers and all the rest of what amounts to his uniform, there was not skin but rather black feathers – well, most people would nod and say, of course, and we knew it. It would be the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle. The Luckiest Guy Alive, billed as his first book for several decades, sidesteps another of the many curiousities: Clarke is a writer with a discography, not a bibliography. In addition to supporting a great many bands over the years, and collaborating with a great many bands over the years, his primary route to market has been recordings of his performances – and now, just as he looks to his seventieth year, it may be that his voice is so known, that he can sandwich poems new and old within beautifully designed covers, in the knowledge that readers can hear him, even when he isn’t actually speaking.
If you’ve seen Clarke live recently, you’ll recognise ‘Attack of the 50ft Woman’ (“Her faintest whisper amplified / Takes the highway in her stride”), ‘To a Tiki Shirt’, ‘Beasley Boulevard’ and ‘Your Metrosexual Ex’, among others:
“What a waspish wit what sibilant tones
A man without a chaperone
His little black book is a weighty tome
He doesn’t really want to be alone
At home alone in his Jo Malone cologne
Audacious orchidaceous kex
Connecting with you even yet
Your metrosexual ex.”
The performance arches off the page. This is wordsmithery of the highest order, comedy built around zinging echoes (and comedy is a big part of the JCC schtick – he wants to elicit laughs as he delivers these one-two punches). At the same time, the musical elements, evidenced primarily in the way each verse may circle back to a repeating refrain, make you understand why performers as diverse as Mark E Smith and Alex Turner have been such big fans.
Now, there are poems here – ‘Crossing the Floor’, for instance – that could be said to share outdated views (“Bye-bye Boddingtons hello shorts / I wear size 9 kitten-heel courts / I’m gonna get a vagina of sorts”). But they could also be said to be provocations. Clarke is a canny operator. In this age in which people pussy foot around saying anything that might offend anyone in case it, you know, destroys their careers, we need JCC more than ever. There aren’t enough people willing to say fuck it if you can’t take a joke. There are lots of poems here taking aim at odd targets (‘The Motorist’, for example, seems to be a poem about how motorists are endangered species, endangered by green sorts who would have us drive less; “Pleb Squad” concerns the kind of policemen who will pull you over for minor infractions; “Pity the Plight of Young Fellows”, as the title suggests, “With their complex romantic attachments / O look on their sorrows and weep”, is an inverted take on Neil Young’s ‘Old Man’, with JCC being the old man taking a look at the lives of the young) – undercut with a sense of “Love it or shove it at any event.”
Like with all good jokes of a certain type, sometimes the repetition is funny, sometimes the repetition drives you mad, and sometimes the repetition, as you’d expect, takes a circuitous course from funny through annoying back to funny again (and then sometimes back to annoying again – and then sometimes zinging between fun and annoying like a perpetual motion pinball). You can turn to pretty much any page of this book and find some pairing of words, or some rhyme, or some exotic image that will make you smile. Yes he’s influenced a generation of pop punkers and yes he’s generated scores and scores of copyists (who think it’s all scatological or based on intonation), but there is no-one like John Cooper Clarke.
Any Cop?: There is no-one like John Cooper Clarke. The Luckiest Guy Alive is a salutary testament to his legacy. Treat yourself.