A famous face returned to his hometown last Thursday, the place that launched his career and earnt him the title of the greatest punk poet to ever walk the planet. John Cooper Clarke may not particularly appreciate being labelled an ‘alternative poet’, as we know from his previous BBC radio 4 interview, but nobody could mistake the sense of belonging as the bouffant-haired, pipe-cleaner jeaned bard stormed onto the Bridgewater Hall stage amid the raptures and cheers of his disciples.
After living in Colchester for the past two decades, he may secretly miss fathering Manchester’s creative and diverse community, certainly more than just the “meat and potato pies and car theft” which he conceded mid performance.
There was no empty seat in sight and a famous face lurked by the merch stand in the form of ITV’s beloved John Thomson for the return of the people’s hero, for the tour of his first poetry collection in over 30 years. Before people could stabilise their excitement or question the price of a foster’s pint, the godfather, donning a tailored grey blazer and a tweed trilby shuffled his 25’’ waist onto the stage. It took a few minutes for the jeers to settle, as Clarke exuberated hilarity and a Pete Doherty esque swagger by scuffling with the microphone stand and swaying up and down.
The show lasted just shy of an hour and a half, an hour of which was saturated with hilarious anecdotes and some brilliantly bizarre anecdotes that are only acceptable if coming from his mouth. The crowd hung of every word like gospel, laughing in anticipation at times before Clarke had even reached the punchline. Whether divulging on his magical fantasy kingdom of Oldham, the partisan football divide in Manchester or the psychotic persona of Liam Gallagher, us willing Carp took the bait and cackled boisterously.
The brief interlude that the poetry took place, was divided between selected poems from the new collection ‘The Luckiest Guy Alive’ and the more classic poetry that fans adore. He provided an abrupt Haiku masterclass with 6 haiku’s, in non-chronological order, simply because “Life doesn’t work like that.”
Whilst some exerts of the haiku’s could have easily been prescribed as a self-help book as well as a poetry collection “Don’t lift anything heavy, and try to sit still” it was the final haiku, or haiku number 2 as he labelled it, stood out in its typically funny, but actually very perceptive, criticism of the haiku 5-7-5 syllable formation ‘To con-vey one’s mood, in sev-en-teen syll-able-s, is ver-y diff ic’. People may forget that beneath the humour, lies an exceptionally articulate, gifted poet.
Another new poem that resonated with fans was the eponymous poem ‘The Luckiest Guy Alive’ dedicated to the love of his life, his wife Evelyn. Despite a mid-life heroin addiction and a few failed attempts at finding his soulmate, Clarke boasts that he has landed on his feet and has never been happier in his life than right now. Poetry in itself.
Towards the end of the set, and indeed the pre-prepared encore, Clarke performed the best-loved numbers. This rendition began with ‘Get back on drugs you fat f*ck’, which he dedicated to his past experiences in returning to Manchester and the distraught look of his old acquaintances as he seemed to have “Piled on the pounds of late” following recovery from his heroin addiction.
He followed this with ‘Evidently Chickentown’, the poem which brought about Clarke’s self-proclaimed proudest achievement, as it featured on HBO’s The Sopranos, a delightfully gritty gift from one don to another. After he lectured the crowd on the working class importance of film credits, he left and then immediately re-emerged to perform ‘Twat’ and ‘I Wanna Be Yours.’ Performed at around 200mph, ‘Twat’ echoed the decay of the anachronistic poetic form, and the birth of rag-tag, auditory performance poetry, which still holds the crown forty years later.
Of course, Clarke waved adieu to fans with his penultimate mark on the world, the one that “Couples love at weddings.” and “Turned into a sexy serenade by my good friend Alex Turner” ‘I Wanna Be Yours’. Once again, he may have performed the poem at lightning speed, but fans matched the enthusiasm and recited every word back to him, as he gestured love hearts with his hands and smirked through his notorious black shades.
What can be said is that Clarke, in both his content and his demeanour, has maintained his unique sense of humour and remained as humble as he was in the early 1970’s. He still carries an air of sensibility and awareness that has all the makings of a modern day Ghandi. As for his poetry, it’s a testament to how age never tests true ability. It was a privilege to see the prodigal son return home. Just for a night, we were the luckiest guys alive.