John Cooper Clarke brings his own brand of poetry to Liverpool Philharmonic and Getintothis’ Banjo warms himself in the glow of a national treasure.
John Cooper Clarke is, remarkably, unbelievably and against all odds, still at the top of his game.
At the age of 70, he could be forgiven for taking it easy and resting on his laurels, but here he is standing in front of a sold out Philharmonic, telling his stories, telling his poems and making us laugh until our sides hurt.
Maybe, after his heroin wilderness years, he has no choice, maybe harsh economic realitites force him to tread the boards, but if this is the case there is no sense of him turning up for a pay packet. It is probably more accurate to say that he is doing this now because this is what he does. He is a poet, and he is here to tell us his poems.
Before he takes to the stage, he is ably supported by Mike Garry. Garry is more of a ‘proper’ poet than JCC, where the latter chooses comedy as his oeuvre, Garry uses his poems to vent his spleen, observe his world and to give form to his thoughts.
His stagecraft tells of a long time performing. He uses his space, sometimes walking away from his microphone to shout out some lines unamplified. The audience are held rapt by him, when he is not using his mic there is total silence in the room.
A fellow Mancunian, he shares a city and a past with John Cooper Clarke. To win over a Liverpool audience, he opens with a poem that details his time spent in our fair city, listing the streets, pubs and clubs that he has spent time in. His affection for these locations is obvious and the audience cheer as he triggers their own affectionate nostalgia.
His poem takes a darker turn however when he turns his attention to his hometown. Maybe this is also the difference between youth and adulthood, one filled with fun and laughter, the other with the realisation that pain and despair can surround us and cannot always be laughed away.
His observations are often grim, but his set avoids becoming depressing by dint of his personality and charm. He leaves the stage to huge applause and, minutes later, is selling and signing books for an eager bustle of people.
After a few minutes, John Cooper Clarke appears and is immediately in story telling mode. He tells us that he arrived late and needs to read the guest list aloud so people can be let in. There follows a long list that quickly heads into the absurd, listing the likes of ‘Wayne Newton and his sister Fig, JR Justice and the VIPs, anybody who speaks Maltese‘ and goes on to mention Jerry Hall, the Emperor Ming and ‘anybody who knows my brother‘. As someone who was actually on the guest list, my first laugh has a guilty hue about it.
One thing that quicky becomes apprent is that JCC is not just a poet. He is equal parts poet, raconteur and stand up comic. The intros to his poems are frequently longer than the poems themselves and are without exception hilariously funny. Introducing Get Back on Drugs You Fat Fuck he thanks us for not commenting on him ‘piling on the pounds recently‘. He is, of course, still pipe cleaner thin but nevertheless tells us that ‘I fell down the stairs last Monday and the wife thought Eastenders had finished early‘.
There is as much laughter in The Philharmonic tonight as any pure comedy gig will generate, but to tag Clarke as just a funnyman is to do him an injustice. He gives us limericks and haikus along with his more traditional fare, yes they are all comedic, but Clarke has obviously paid attention to his craft and played with poetry to arrive where he is now.
He tears through Beasely Street at a breakneck speed. Too fast in fact for us to get much of the meaning. His poems can be great works and a lot of this is often lost in the sheer pace of his delivery. This time though, this was just to warm us up for his updating of this tale; Beasley Boulevard.
In this, the ficticous Beasley Street has been gentrified. Where the original tells us ‘A lightbulb bursts like a blister, the only form of heat. Here a fellow sells his sister down the river on Beasley Street’, in the update, due to invenstment by ‘Urban Splash, Laurence Llewellyn Bowen and a couple of lifestyle gurus, you just wouldn’t recognise the place‘.
Where Beasley Street was a place of nightmarish grim visions, Beasley Boulevard has ‘noodle bars, poodle parlours‘, visits from Royals and the like. One line succinctly tells of of a place that, for all its faults, has had its soul taken away and where the locals are pushed out. ‘Where anything can happen, but hardly ever does, there’s a pub but the regulars are barred‘
This is John Cooper Clarke‘s genuis, to pack so much meaning into just a few lines. For all the laughter, there are points to be made, observations on modern life to impart and the deft hand of a poet who, after decades of writing, still has the talent and ability to make us laugh and make us sad at the same time.
With a nice sideline of appearing on panel shows, his star is now higher than ever and he is, quite rightly, being regarded as a national treasure. This is absolutely right but also quite anachronistic, as there is still something of the rebel about John Cooper Clarke. His refusal to grow old gracefully and his conitinuing ire at the world he documents will prevent him from becoming a cosy establishment comedian.
It is the comedy that wins out. tonight he made us laugh long into the nght. An artist, a thinker, a poet. And still on top form after all these years of a life less ordinary.