The Bard of Salford. The Punk Poet. Doctor John Cooper Clarke, needs little introduction, especially in his home town, but as the lights go down and a single spotlight picks out a mic stand and a small table the house announcer informs us that ‘The Doctor is in the house, the King has entered the Palace’ and the familiar, stick thin, tousle topped figure, dressed in the signature dark glasses, jacket, skin tight jeans and snake skin boots takes centre stage.
Within minutes we are in the very familiar but ever so surreal world of one of the true legends of the punk era. Opening the set with a few stories and gags we learn that John was last in the Palace Theatre in 1958 to see Bob Hope which ‘…was just swell’, before reciting ‘Guestlist’ with its abundance of rhyming names describing the colourful characteristics of his Manchester acquaintances.
In fact the jokes and humour are rather more evident than the poems at this end of the gig. Not that it’s a problem. Far from it. JCC is far more than capable of holding his own as a stand-up comic. His play with words, delivered in the faux American/Mancunian monotone that we have grown to adore, give lines such as ‘What is occasional furniture the rest of the time?’ an extra appeal and helps to address the surreal – ‘I turn into a meringue. In an existential kind of way.’ Which even makes John himself fall aside laughing, claiming he made that up on the spot. And so we get an introduction of how the man’s mind works.
Never afraid of controversy or afraid to offer his own unique take on life, the Doctor, (as he likes to address himself after receiving his honorary degree from the University of Salford last year), explains how been prejudice, generalising and judging by appearances is the answer to his own longevity, ‘…London late at night, over in the dark I see seven guys in hoods. Sure, they could be Franciscan Monks. But I judge by appearances.’ He admits he’s received criticism for this approach but says he is more than justified and usually answers with just one word, ‘Hitler! – If I’d have been back in Nuremburg, one look at that guy and I could have told them. He’s a cunt!’
The Doctor starts to thank everyone for not pointing out that he’s put on a few pounds and explains how he’s responsible for all the eating disorders you read about, Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia and his own personal downfall Ambrosia. Yes. You got it – rice pudding. As a result he’s been appointed as the MC for the South Kensington branch of the Bulimic Society, and rather than spend New Year’s Eve with family and friends he has to attend their annual bash. ‘I knew I was in the right place when I saw a cake jump out of a girl.’
All this talk about putting on weight and eating disorders paves the way for ‘Get Back On Drugs You Fat Fuck’, John’s poem about an insult he received upon his return to Manchester after cleaning himself up. ‘Because as we all know, it’s compulsory to take drugs in Manchester.’
At which point the upper tier of the theatre explodes. Directly above us, it would appear that someone is not happy. A woman can be heard screaming ‘How dare you? How dare you?’ over and over, much to the annoyance of the crowd. The Doctor shouts a curt ‘Leave it!’ and talks her down with ‘What did you expect? Can’t believe you even bought a ticket.’ Not sure what her issue was? The reference to Manchester’s drug culture? Trivialisation of eating disorders? Or maybe she’d dropped a dodgy tab and was having a bad trip?
But the show must go on and it wasn’t long before we were on familiar territory taking a nostalgic trip down ‘Beasley Street’, after which we find that Mr Clarke has recently been back to his old stomping ground only to discover that ‘Urban Splash’ have been round with Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen and given the place a makeover. Beasley Street is now Beasley Boulevard and has a new JCC poem as well as noodle bars, and a pub ‘…where the regulars are barred.’
After a protracted yet funny explanation of the history, composition and of course his own version of the ‘Haiku’, it’s time to reminisce. We are taken back in time to when Clarke supported and toured with Richard Hell and The Voidoids and in particular a conversation on the tour bus around band names, where the conclusion was drawn that all decent bands names should end in ‘ones’. The Rolling Stones, The Ramones, and Coopers own band when he was a teenager, The Chaperones, who ‘…who couldn’t play fuck all, but we got lot of gigs accompanying people on dates.’
At 65 the Doctor is starting to ponder his age. Alzheimer’s doesn’t seem that bad and even has a few advantages, ‘You can hide your own Easter eggs.’ When we start to hear his views on assisted suicide, and in particular how they relate to Terry Pratchett, we get further affirmation of the man’s ability to weave an engaging and humorous tale that delivers some great snippets, ‘…if I don’t die a gibbering wreck, you’d better call someone, cos it’ll be murder.’ Which leads nicely into ‘Bedblocker Blues’
‘If you ain’t having a good time in these opulent surroundings, then you must be on some kind of dope.’ Apart from the woman earlier, I would say everyone was having a very good time. Mr Clarke announced he was ending the show and going out on two old favourites. They could only be ‘Twat’ and of course ‘Evidently Chickentown’,but not before we’ve heard how you’ve only really made it in showbiz if you’ve got a chimpanzee butler. Not just any chimp butler though, only the ones that have made it in polite society. Such as the one that John knew who had written a book on etiquette, and whose brother had opened a chain of dance academies!
Despite suffering from déjà vu and amnesia at the same time – ‘I can’t remember what happens next.’ – The Doctor can recall and is very proud of the fact that ‘Chickentown’ was the closing song/poem for the Sopranos series. He fires through the lines as fucking fast as a fucking train, much to the delight of his home crowd who give him a majestic round of applause as he leaves the stage. Returning a few moments later for one last poem, one he admits to have thrown away until it was recently resurrected by Alex Turner and the Arctic Monkeys, ‘I Wanna Be Yours’.
This time he really does leave the stage. His friend, Mike Garry closes the night with an ode to Johnny Clarke. The houselights come up the tannoy announces, ‘Ladies and gentleman, John Cooper Clarke has left the building.’
Evidently, we have just seen a legend.