A couple of years ago, I was at a team-building workshop and the “ice breaker” question was “Who would you love to have dinner with?” I was up first, and blurted out, “Dr. John Cooper Clarke.” [When I told John, his very quick response was, “Well that’s funny because I was having dinner with somebody the other day and they said, ‘Who would you like to break ice with?’ And I said David Ganhão.”] As the room tried to process why I wanted to break bread with a doctor, our music director started a slow clap and shouted, “yessss!” from the back of the room.
If you’re reading this and are also trying to figure out who exactly is this good doctor I speak of, you fall into a category of people which I like to call, “I’ve never heard of ‘em.” The rest of us fall into a second, smaller but ultimately more in-tune group that we’ll call, “I am aware that John Cooper Clarke is a genius.”
Simply put, he’s the punk-rock poet.
If you’re keeping score, this is JCC’s second appearance in Luso Life—you may recognize his mug from the collage designed for the “Someone who is cool” article (issue 008)… he’s right there on the left surrounded by Johnny Cash, Deborah Harry and the Chuck Berry—Great company. So, pour yourself a dirty martini, and enjoy the interview. [Note: reading in your best working-class Mancunian drawl will enhance the experience!]
My introduction to you was via Toronto’s alternative station CFNY where your song “Beasley Street” was on heavy rotation alongside other greats like Jim Carrol, XTC, Bowie…and the Raincoats—a band you shared the stage with. I interviewed Ana daSilva last year—she’s wonderful.. in fact she helped me get in touch with you…
Oh, wow that’s nice. Well, that would’ve been late 70s, early 80s. The one I remember particularly was Alexandra Palace. With the Pop Group and the Slits. You know the whole day of it there—a week later the place burned down. It’s up and running again now.
Not your fire…
No, no, no… a week went by. I was nowhere near the place when that happened. That’s what I always say when people ask me, “Where were you when John Kennedy got assassinated?” I was nowhere near the place! You’re not pinning that one on me! Find by yourself another fall guy [laughs].
You were born in 1949—four years after my mom. Her path to a better life was immigrating to Canada at the age of 20 to work whatever job she could find, in order to make money—the extent of her rebelliousness was listening to “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones on AM radio while at work. You, it seems, decided to not worry about money, and to become a professional poet. What do you think triggers someone to follow their dream even though that dream may seem unattainable? How did you not get discouraged?
Wow, I’m younger than somebody! That’s the best news I’ve had all week. Well, let me hold you up there, David. The rest of it is right, but the not caring about making money bit, you couldn’t be more wrong. The pressure was on me to get money—constantly—but being a professional poet wasn’t immediately seen as, you know, a good way to go about getting money. So, it did seem a bit foolhardy to the casual onlooker. I thought, I’m good at this poetry business so unlike all of my other get rich quick schemes, “this one’s gonna get me rich, and quick [laughs]!”
So, in your head you figured, “I will be paid big dollars going into it”.
That was the intention. I was looking backwards at that time and if you look at it, there’s always been a place for the monologuist. On any music hall billing at the turn of the century, the world that gave us, Charlie Chaplin—the first world-recognizable superstar, came the likes of Gower Champion, Sir George Robey. Later on in the world of variety, show-business really—it was our version of Broadway—you would have the remnants of the music hall world operating in the world of variety, which then, when TV came along, we had a ready made sort of show business, right there in the late 40s—people like Max Miller would be the most notorious really. These people were known for their risqué monologues, and give it another name—poetry. Later on, the one that the American and Canadian public would be most familiar with, would be Stanley Holloway, who starred in many movies like, My Fair Lady. Stanley Holloway would do things like “The Lion And Albert”, “Brahn Boots” and “Old Sam [Sam, Pick Oop Tha’ Musket]”. These were the people that gave me the idea that, if your poetry was popular enough, there was no reason why you couldn’t make your mark in show business with this. So that was my idea. From a very early age I figured that’s what I would do and I’ve been proven right really, there is always a place for poetry in the entertainment business—there’s always somebody at it. Later on from America you had people like Phil Harris. He was a massive influence on me—do you know, his work? He was the voice of Baloo in the mid 60s cartoon version of Jungle Book. He did “I Wanna Be Like You”, that was a duet between Phil and Louis Prima. I love Louis Prima as well. I’ve got all his records—love the ones he did with Keely Smith, his lovely wife. She was a beautiful girl; lovely voice. So getting back to it, the only way I could figure to make megabucks was to step out of the world that was prepared for me, which was, you know, getting a job in a factory.
You apprenticed as a printer.
Yes I was a compositor—I moved very quickly. I got the whole apprenticeship in six years. I got what they called a City and Guilds certificate, which means you’ve passed with flying colours and you’re a fully fledged compositor, working on side the graphic designer… and then the whole thing got computerized two years later, so what a waste [laughs]. That was the only time I ever did as I was advised by my parents–to get a trade, so I got this trade which became immediately obsolete. Since then, I’ve not taken any advice. An early lesson – ignore all advice. In those early days of independent television I thought, there’s a place for me there. In the same way that gifted painters entered the world and became commercial artists, I thought that maybe there was a literary equivalent of this—you know, writing jingles.
So, I guess you believe it’s possible for a John Cooper Clarke to emerge and have your level of success in today’s landscape?
Yeah, but via another route. I think it already has, hasn’t it—the world of rap. I mean if rap isn’t poetry what is? So it’s always around and it always has been. Songs like “Deck of Cards”, remember that one? It was a big hit for a guy called Wink Martindale. The story is about a G.I. who’s in a military chapel and he’s sort of messing around with a deck of cards and a sergeant sort of pulled him up about it, “You better have a good story soldier, taking out a deck of cards now in the house like God.” Check it out. It’s a real ingenious piece of work. I can’t go into it, it’d take too long, but it’s a really significant story.
I think everybody’s tried to write a poem, not tried, everybody’s written a poem. Unlike painting a picture, learning an instrument or getting dancing lessons, it’s the one thing—it comes along with language itself, the appreciation of poetry. Every year brings along the set pieces where a poem might be required—your mother or father’s birthday, Valentine’s Day—Hallmark Cards ain’t going out of business any day now.
Right. We have all tried to write a few lines.
It’s hiding in plain sight is what I’m saying. It’s the one that everybody’s givin’ a go. They use that word a lot, ‘accessible.’ It couldn’t be more accessible. What, do you want me to write it for you? Yeah, I’ll do that. That’s what I do [laughs].
Some of your poems come from true life stories—“Kung Fu International”, “36 Hours”… do they all come from there, or are some simply works of fiction?
Well, you know that, they’re true life stories, but they didn’t actually happen to me, to be honest. You know, very little of my stuff is actually a direct response to something that happened to me personally. I think if you’re a poet, what’s second nature, in order to get an angle, is you have to be an adopter of positions.
Which brings us to “Twat”. The way you unleash line after line of hysterical anger towards this person, it has to be written about someone specific.
Yeah, well, everybody’s got a target for that one. In fact, I always introduce it like this when I’m on stage, “everybody wants to murder somebody…” It’s a well known fact—the person might change on a daily or even hourly basis but at all times, every adult in the world wants to murder somebody, and that’s where I come in with that poem, as a shaman. Handover your homicidal impulses to me and I will deal with them through the medium of poetry. It’s a very popular poem.
You’re the only entertainer who doesn’t get upset when fans scream “TWAT” at you during a performance.
For most people in show business that would be a bad sign [laughs]!
All poetry is rhythmic but your delivery has an edge—the energy of Chuck Berry or a Ramones song—and it’s infectious… The only thing missing is Dee Dee counting off the tempo for your poems, “1-2-3-4. Like a nightclub in the morning, you’re the bitter end…”
I love the comparison because actually, the Ramones are very lyric conscious, aren’t they? They’re one of the most literate bands around. They really do tell a story as quickly, rhythmically and as enjoyably as possible. I’ve just been listening to the Beach Boys—they’re interchangeable.
They are. Even their themes.
Absolutely the same themes—growing up; being a kid; not being old enough to do what you want; to everything getting in the way of you innocently having a good time [laughs]. All the preoccupations of a young person.
The Ramones were huge for me. I got to see them at Lollapalooza right before they retired in 96.
Yeah. They burned brightly for not very long. I loved everything they did, you know, I must have seen them 78 times and every time they were on for less! They used to say, “We’re getting better. Last year we did 45 minutes, this year, it’s over in half an hour! We’re getting better all the time [laughs]!” So really, that’s been my ammo ever since. I kinda like to take it at a breakneck pace. To be honest, these days it varies a bit. Some of it’s taken at a leisurely walking pace. I guess that’s age for you. It’s not because I haven’t got the energy, it’s just that I think my stuff is a lot more reflective now than it ever was. But, the Ramones, like most rock and roll, is about instant gratification. It’s not a reflective medium, rock and roll. It’s about, “I want it all, now.”
I work with a Brazilian girl who loves your work but I’m not sure understands everything that you’re saying—it’s all about your delivery. Do you think delivery is as important as the words themselves?
How fabulous is that? I love that. Yeah, absolutely it is. That’s true of every record you’ve ever liked, isn’t it? I had a group in the 60s and of course, one of our idols was Chuck Berry. Every group we went to see, in the 60s did a bunch of Chuck Berry, otherwise, it was a, “what are you doing in the business?” kind of thing. I spent a lot of time trying to get the lyrics to “Too Much Monkey Business,” because a lot of it was jargon really—the vernacular was neighbourhood language, but hyper literate. He loved to tell you how literate he was in sneaky ways. I love the way deliberately mispronounces the Venus de Milo in “Brown Eyed Handson Man.” He referred to Marlo Venus. “Marlo Venus was a beautiful lass, she had the world in the palm of her hand. But she lost both her arms in a wrestling match to win a brown eyed handsome man. She fought and won herself a brown eyed handsome man.” You’ve just got to say the words and you’re singing the song, that’s the genius Chuck Berry. But that Marlo Venus, you know just sort of pulls you up, it’s all coming at you and then that just pulls you up, and you know he’s mispronouncing it on purpose. He knows it’s the Venus de Milo. If anybody had a library card, it was Chuck Berry [laughs]. But sensational the tricks you can pick up. I used to play it over and over, and I wore it out trying to get the lyrics. I just so much wanted to sing that song.
So what did you end up doing? Did you end up just making up your own lyrics?
I used to just make up what I didn’t understand. I don’t think Bob Dylan would have written, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” if he got all the words to “Too Much Monkey Business.” It’s almost the same song.
That reminds me of Elvis Costello’s response to a tweet accusing Olivia Rodrigo of plagiarizing “Pump it up” for her song “Brutal”—“This is fine by me, Billy. It’s how rock and roll works. You take the broken pieces of another thrill and make a brand new toy. That’s what I did. #subterreaneanhomesickblues #toomuchmonkeybusiness.”
There you go, Declan. Yeah! Of course he did. Anybody who plays those songs where every line is dynamic. The last thing Chuck was, was a blues singer. He never did any blues stuff. He used to listen to George Jones and Hank Williams, people like that—country music. That’s such a rich vein of inspiration right there. Even Miles Davis used to listen to it. Him and all those jazzers like Dizzy Gillespie. You couldn’t get further away from country music than those cats. They were in some beanery and they put this record by Hank Williams, and of course it was redneck music back then, and they were quite politically engaged dudes. “What are you listening to this stuff for?” The story. It’s the true stories of people’s lives, sharpened up into a song. I love country music. That’s what Chuck used to listen to all the time, he loved stuff like that. Stuff with stories, not that ‘two repeat lines and then the hook,’ classic 12 bar pattern. That wasn’t Chuck’s thing at all. He very rarely repeated any lines unless it was in the chorus or the middle eight. The thing was just a straightforward story of some shit that happened [laughs], made into a jewel of a song.
Unfortunately, for many he’ll be remembered for “My Ding-a-Ling.”
Isn’t that a tragedy? You see it happen quite a lot. I always feel the same way about Bob Marley, only being known for “No Woman No Cry”—it’s not even a reggae tune. It’s not very representative of Bob’s work. Chuck didn’t mind, you know, give the punkers what they want. “You want “My Ding-a-Ling,”? I wrote the motherfucker—ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching.”
I guess we all do it to a certain point, right? You perform your new stuff but you know the fans want to hear, “I Married a Monster From Outer Space” or “Twat” or whatever, so you’re going to pepper those in.
Sure thing Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I’m glad they do.
Elton John once said if a song idea didn’t develop within 15 minutes, he’d abandon it and move on… on the other side we have artists like the Beatles who would string together ideas from different songs to make a complete piece—a la “Day in the Life” or the “I’ve Got a Feeling”. You’ve said, “a poem is never finished, it’s merely abandoned.” So are you constantly changing your old work and updating it to keep it current?
Well, I don’t actually sit down and do that because my stuff comes alive for me when I’m in a live situation. The main part of my job is live appearances and that’s when suddenly, one day, a line will seem clumsy to me, in a split second, so I just change it like that. I don’t ever really re-write ‘em but I’m always messing around with them. Just keeping it fresh and fun for myself as well. Again, I go back to Chuck Berry on this, I did a tour with him once—six days in Spain, a different town every night. It’s a long story but I was his MC–I wasn’t even doing any poems, I was just bigging up Chuck. I was like that guy that introduced James Brown on the T.A.M.I. Show, you know, “your guy.” The guy that’s there just to talk you up. I was that guy… I am really good at that job. So he wouldn’t do the tour, which was being promoted by my ex-manager, the late Alan Wise. Before the tour, he was putting him on with Jerry Lee Lewis at the Manchester Opera House. You had the greatest piano player that ever lived and the most literate lyricist alive at the time and I said, “I’m writing myself in as the MC for this.” So I brought them on and they were both really knocked out with my introduction. It was totally right over the top. I remember what I said about Jerry Lee, it was like, “Here he is ladies and gentlemen, all the way from Ferriday, Louisiana. 99 pounds of pure industrial strength Soviet era radioactive dynamite. The greatest piano player the world has ever known. They call him the killer. His name is Jerry Lee Lewis!” Terrific. I did a similar sort of jump for Chuck. Anyway, he wouldn’t do this tour of Spain unless they wrote me in as the MC? So there I was and we talked about a lot of things—that’s when I found out that he liked to listen to George Jones and all of this.
He would dismantle his songs and put them back together every night. Every night it was like, “You’ve never heard it like this before.” It’s unbelievable.
He used pickup bands—different players in each city, right?
Now, I love a circular conversation! Like we said before, what’re you doing in the rock and roll business if you’re not doing any Chuck Berry songs? And Chuck, he knows that. He doesn’t need people who are, you know, good. He needs that chugging, riff. Just three timekeepers, that’s all Chuck needs—a rhythm section. Some guy’s just chugging away in the background and any of the flower stuff, old Chuck does it. And he does it in a way that doesn’t involve anybody else. He’s always slightly out of tune. He does it on purpose. Not enough to really get on your nerves but just to keep you interested. The audience don’t care if it’s a bunch of bozos standing around plunking away, they’re not interested [laughs].
I failed English all the way through high school, and had to repeat the classes in summer school—mainly because I was too busy reading books that interested me. “A Tale of Two Cities” didn’t resonate with 14-year-old David, true crime with a focus on the Italian Mob was my thing. I heard your poetry is part of the UK curriculum—fantastic. Do you have any idea how that happened? Who’s responsible? Do you agree with it?
Yeah, that’s right. I wasn’t invited to the meeting, David [laughs]. I don’t know who decided that, but I’m glad they did. There used to be a really fabulous English poet in the 60s called Adrian Mitchell. He was very popular, and he hated the idea of his stuff being on the school curriculum, and I could kind of understand it because I hated schools. But I did like poetry so I didn’t have a problem with it. If they had asked me I would have said, yeah. I thought, well, what other way is there of having it rammed down the reluctant throats of school children on a daily basis? [laughs]
I think it’s fantastic. I remember one of the only times English class connected with me, was when our teacher asked us to bring in our own poems via a pop song. I brought in an Eleanor Rigby. If I had the opportunity at the age of 14 to study your work, that’d be amazing.
Yeah, well apparently it’s very popular. Every teacher I’ve ever run into has always said the same thing—that’s what the kids dig at school, by a long way. That’s fabulous. It brought me a whole new generation of fans. I work a lot with other acts my age, and I look at my audience, and I look at their audience and touch wood, my audience is every kinda age, every kind of people, men and women, all kinds. Like that Brazilian friend of yours. Even people for whom English isn’t their first language, seem to get a bang out of it somehow. In fact, I was in Portugal for the first time about five years ago, I did a one-off art thing in Lisbon and I thought, nobody’s gonna show up for this, and no, no it was a full house—and nobody left! Everybody was real enthusiastic about it. So it’s not the first time that I’ve noticed that the actual language–it’s not irrelevant, obviously—but it doesn’t have to be your first language. That’s amazing.
I’ve done my best to introduce my children to everything that I think is culturally cool and they reciprocate by showing me what’s cool in their world. A few years back, I gave my son the John Cooper Clarke lesson and we spent an evening watching videos of your performances on YouTube. When “I Wanna be Yours” came up, he recognized the words from the Arctic Monkeys’ song—we were both JCC fans coming from different angles. Me as an old fan and Noah via Alex Turner and the Arctic Monkeys, who had used your lyrics to create a new song.
Well, thanks very much kid. Wow fabulous! That’s exactly what they’ve done. A poem is never a song but it is when you just tweak it, like Alex supplied a middle eight and a little chorus that wasn’t there when I wrote it. He’s converted a poem into a song, something that doesn’t often happen—not successfully anyway–but he’s done a great job on that. There are people that love that song and don’t even know that I’ve got anything to do with it. I’ll name one that I know for a fact. Have you heard of a woman called Abbey Clancy? She’s a supermodel. Beautiful girl. I was reading about her in one of the newspapers at the time and she was saying, “My favourite record is AM, the latest album from Arctic Monkeys, particularly “I Wanna Be Yours.” So she probably don’t even know it. If she’s like me she don’t really read sleeve notes, but she’s a big fan of mine!
So that was the beginning of your second coming? As you’ve said in the past, you’ve been famous twice—in the late 70s/early 80s and again now.
Yeah, yeah, far more now than I was in the 70s and 80s, because communications have become more widespread. You can’t really keep anything hidden anymore. It’s not a matter of self publicity so much anymore. People will find whatever it is that they’re looking for electronically now.
We’re dealing in larger numbers of people now than we were talking about in the days of punk rock. Having said that, I did have a top 30 single with “Beasley Street,” and Snap, Crackle & Bop, got into the top 20 albums. In those days, you really had to sell a lot of records to get into those lists. Not so relevant now. So maybe I sold more product back then but I’m much higher profile now than I was then. I was very much part of that small world of punk rock, really. It was a very small world and it only lasted two years.
Right, then it switched over to a more radio-friendly genre, under the banner of new wave and it became totally different.
Well, it took a while but I mean, when you think about the 80s, it couldn’t have been more reactive to punk ethos. It was all about conspicuous consumption and billion dollar promotional videos, you know, Duran Duran. I’m not having a go at it, that’s what pop music is all about—a quick way to wealth… along with boxing and football—all those traditional routes out of poverty and into mega bucks territory
Whereas punk, especially in the UK, was very political.
I think that’s when it went off the boil. I think there was something kind of inevitable about that, but at the same time, that’s what killed it for me. When it first happened, you had some good people from very diverse areas. It was as much about fashion and haberdashery, as it was about music. It certainly had little to do with musical proficiency. Even though that sort of, ‘we can’t play thing’ has been sort of hyped. They could all play like motherfuckers. Steve Jones was like a one man orchestra.
I know! That whole Sex Pistols album is just his guitars.
Unbelievable. Even now Jonesy says, “that wasn’t me, that was Chris Spedding.” It was him, I’ve seen them live. He keeps up the myth that when they did live shows Chris Spedding was behind the curtain. He still keeps that up but I saw them on their first appearance in Manchester and it was Steve Jones playing that guitar—I was looking for the other thousand guys [laughs]! Nah, that was a successful urban myth. It only really applied to Sid Vicious—he couldn’t play [laughs]. The Clash could have made it at any time, really. They quickly widened out their musical adventure. Go look at their albums, they’re not formulaic. No album sounds like the one that went before it and yet it sounded like The Clash. That’s a proper group, isn’t it. You could say that about the Beatles. There is a Beatles sound, but The Beatles don’t know what it is [laughs]. And that’s the important thing, isn’t it? You know, there are certain things about what you do that you can’t know. I think Bill Withers put this best. I seen a recent TV interview of the late Bill Withers— and they were talking about how to write a song and he said that the manufacture of a song involves a kind of magic that I don’t want to look into. I think that’s a superstition shared by every artist I know. You can’t know everything about it, otherwise, you become a self parodist of sorts. There are all kinds of psychological pitfalls in trying to analyze what you do. It’s alright to do it for other people and in doing so, maybe get some runoff for yourself. I think that’s why very often, especially in the literary world, writers aren’t good critics. Not many writers have been successful critics.
If the story is true, ex-Stranglers singer Hugh Cornwell gets drunk, imagines what “MacArthur Park” would sound like sung by you, he rings you up and the two of you go into the studio to record a whole album of covers.
It wasn’t my idea but I’m so glad it happened. I love singing. I’ve always figured I could carry a tune, but I was cruelly brought up short on this when I was a kid. I got a tape recorder for Christmas in 1962. I thought, all me friends have got great record collections, I’ll just tape their records, then I could mess around doing bits of editing and splicing and shit—I’m just bugging the room. It’s always good fun, that. And then you play it back and everybody says, “That’s not me, is it? That’s not my voice.” Nobody ever recognizes their voice and I’m like, wait a minute, “That’s me?” Yeah, that’s me alright. I’m thinking, “Well, that sounds like my mum. That sounds like my brother Paul. Everybody sounds like they sound, so that must be me.” And you know, for about 15 years, I went from turning every incident in the day to a song, to never opening my mouth in song for about 15 years. Oh, God, up to then I’d been deluded that I could really carry and a tune. Like, I’ll tell you, as I was saying before, I was trying to get a group together, so what a horrible epiphany that was! So to have a chance of putting it right, all these decades later, to be given that chance from H was a real gift.
I’ll tell you how it happened, actually. We’ve got mutual friends, and obviously I’ve been running into Hugh Cornwell over the years, through the medium of punk rock. Being on telly here and there, festivals, radio shows, you know, we had a sort of ‘hello’ relationship. We wouldn’t have had a drink together, but we’ve got a mutual pal in Essex, where I live, and we’re having dinner at his house and he says, “You know, I’m putting together an album of covers. Would you mind doing MacArthur Park?” So I says, “That’s a bit ambitious, H. MacArthur Park—it’s calling for the big operatic voice there.” So, anyway, it’s quite poetic, isn’t it? Whatever it is, the story is quite arcane. It’s something that only really Jimmy Webb could know about, but it’s enough to inspire this song—a big hit for Richard Harris in 1968. Nobody understands it. So I turned up at his home studio in Chippenham and he’s got the track down. He’s got Ian Anderson, the Jethro Tull guy doing a flute solo, he’s got only superstars on it. I started singing and I thought, I’d better have me Sunday best baritone for this. So I give it the big opera treatment and he says to me, “I thought you were gonna recite that,” which is what I had suspected. He says, “I thought you would approach it like a poem.” He was impressed, and said, “I didn’t know you could sing.” So I said, “Yeah, neither did anybody.”
If you look at the lyrics to MacArthur Park, you couldn’t speak those lyrics because actually, they’re quite mono syllabic. They’re not mellifluous enough to be able to convincingly speak. What I’m saying is, there’s a difference between a poem and a song, and there’s no greater example of a song than MacArthur Park. If I had of recited them, like a poem, I would have sounded like, Captain Kirk! You know, William Shatner’s version of, “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” Remember that? [Laughs and goes into a Shatner impression] “Some-one-left-the-cake-out-in-the-rain-I-don’t-think-that-I-can-take-it.” I wouldn’t do that. It’s the ravings of a madman, but you know, [sings the verse] “Someone left the cake out in the rain. I don’t think that I can take it.” I mean, that’s different, you know… that’s opera. It’s a moment made universal forever by virtue of melody, but there’s no way you could just recite that. So, he says to me, “You did a good job. Everybody agrees, including me, that you oughta sing every track on this album.” We didn’t do any more than three takes on any of those tracks, because I was in a hurry to go to France—me and my wife were going on holiday. So I said right, what are the other tracks? He gives me the other tracks but then I went hold on when we got to “It’s Only Make Believe”. I said, “Christ, you’re joking H, aren’t ya?” You know, that’s Conway Twitty. I ain’t walking in the footsteps of giants like Conway Twitty. I’m gonna wind up looking second best on this one. You know, you need a vocal range. Anyway he had every confidence in me. He said, “Johnny we’re gonna do that one first. You can do it.” Because there’s a semitone key change after the saxophone solo—it’s karaoke suicide. You check it out. Everybody miss-pitches it. They forget about that semitone key change after the solo and you’re left with the introduction to puberty [makes cracking voice noises and laughs]. It’s a tough one but I pitched it dead right. Under-pitched it. I came out of the basement and finished up in the heavens. So after that everything else was a doddle. It was a great choice of songs.
You didn’t have a hand in selecting any of the songs?
No, no, he’d already selected them and they’d already put all the tracks down. He’d got all the people, like the engineer was a guy called Phil Andrews who’d worked with Led Zeppelin. So everybody involved in it knew what they were doing—there was quality control out of its brains. So to find a place with these people and not make an idiot out of myself, well, I couldn’t be happier about that. That opportunity was just terrific. We even went out on a short tour promoting it and that was terrific. Singing in public, I’m glad I did it once—superb. And some of the tracks are just a joy to sing. I already knew the lyrics to every track apart from MacArthur Park—it’d been a long time since I heard that track. There’s a lot going on in that number. The rest of them I already knew.
How did you find tackling other artist’s words vs. recording yours? I had heard that you didn’t care much for being in the studio with your stuff.
Well, it wasn’t my idea. I’m a total control freak, so if something isn’t my idea, I’m very disparaging about it but I couldn’t find a convincing argument against it at the time. It works and I’m glad it happened now, but for years, I had a bug up my ass about it. I thought it sort of cramped my style. Like I was saying before, I vary the speed of my delivery, even within the same poem–some bits rushed and garbled, others are lingered over, you know what I mean? That’s just technique. When you’re a one man operation you get these little quirks that kinda make you who you are. So when you’re trying to sort of fit these poems into a preset kind of musical soundscape, I found it was kind of limiting for me. Again, I couldn’t give a good reason why not, so I went along with it. But even saying that you know, I was proven wrong in some cases. Some of those tracks wouldn’t have been written had the music not been there—the music came first and I had to use the studio time. Sometimes the music inspired a lyrical approach that I hadn’t erstwhile taken. I’m thinking of one called “A Distant Relation” on the Snap, Crackle and Bop LP. It’s got kinda jangly, beautiful filigree, arpeggiated guitar—very Johnny Marr-like. And understandably when I tell you that it’s Vincent Reilly playing on that one, who after the Smiths broke up, played on “Suedehead” and those early Morrissey records. He used to be in a punk group called The Nosebleeds. He’s still working now with my friend, Bruce Mitchell, the greatest drummer that ever lived under the name, Durutti Column.
Do you think there’ll be another album with the two of you?
Well he’s a very busy guy, H. He’s a worldwide phenomenon. He’s always working, even more than I do, all over the world, so I don’t think that opportunity will present itself again but if he ever needs my help, he’s got my number! It was a great thing and I’m glad I did it but I don’t think it made any of us any money. Probably more likely to plunge us into poverty [laughs]. I don’t know anybody makes money out of records anymore but I’m not gonna go into that. I’m glad we did it and it turned out pretty good.
I love it. It’s on heavy rotation at the Ganhão house. It’s been the soundtrack to many dinners.
Thank you, David. Really good to know. Which is your favourite track then?
Spanish Harlem is a fave.
Yeah, I love “Spanish Harlem” it’s a beautiful song. I like the ballads. I think I’m more of a balladeer than an out and out rocker. I like that Ricky Nelson number at the end, “Sweeter Than You.” It’s a beautiful song. I love “Donna”. I like that one because H sings on it with me. [Sings] “Oh Donna” and I think our voices are lovely together. He’s a fabulous singer, H.
To get political for a bit, we have a former comedian/actor/all-purpose entertainer leading the Ukraine—he seems to be doing a fantastic job defending his country… what are your thoughts on having the class clown in charge of the school?
Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. We’ll have to wait and see won’t we. I’m totally ignorant about this. I don’t know what happened to my non-digital radio which is usually on in the background all day, but it packed up! I think it’s a message from God, I’m merciful and ignorant of developments, so I don’t really have too much of an opinion. It could make you miserable though, couldn’t it.
Fair enough. Even though we’re a media company with newspapers, radio and television, as the Creative Director, I tend to steer away from the stories and focus on my work–I don’t pay much attention.
Yeah, exactly. Me too. With what I do, if it’s topical, it’s accidental. I’m not really an issue lead writer. Like you, I tend to deal in the surface of things. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. A lot of people miss out on a lot. They don’t pay enough attention to the surface of things. I think it’s a great artist that draws your attention to things that are in plain sight. Things that you just forget about because it’s been in the corner of your eye for too long but you cease to pay it any importance. If I scratch the surface, it’s not very deep. [laughs].
I left a lot of stuff out. I tried to put in the entertaining bits, so it had some kind of trajectory and read like a story but there’s a lot of stuff I missed out. Is it very analytical? I don’t know really, whether it is.
When the memoir was released, I immediately ordered a signed copy for my son (thank you)… and bought the audiobook for myself. He actually read the book, then read it a second time with you… we found it entertaining.
I hope you did. That was my main aim, really. I’ve never psychoanalyzed myself. Where people would psychoanalyze themselves, I write poetry [laughs]. Maybe it’s a kinda displacement exercise or something. I’ve never written poetry as a kind of therapy, or as a cathartic expel to deal with any issues inside myself. Like I said early on, I started writing poetry in order to make a living out of it—it’s the only thing I’ve got a knack for [laughs]. I’ve always got an audience however, ill defined. I’ve got an audience to consider and one’s own psychology is only really of any use to oneself. That’s part of the fun anyway—reading somebody’s stuff and getting psychological about it. It’s always easier to do with other people.
As a poet, was it harder to write your memoir as opposed to it being in verse?
Well, yeah, it’s not something I ever did. Like I say, self-revelation isn’t my aim in a poem. Mainly because, one has to be an adopter of positions in order to get some things across. I’ve got one called “The Motorist,” but I’m not allowed to drive [laughs]. So, it’s written just as an adopter of positions, the motorist currently has been the scapegoat of the world isn’t he—a white guy in a car is responsible for all the misery in the world, to hear some people talk. So for the purposes of getting an angle on something, “The Motorist” is written in the first person. Just saying that because it’s quite a current poem, really. It’s always fun to take the part of somebody who is socially reviled. I’m an adopter of position, so yes, writing about myself and my experiences—good job I’ve got a good memory—was a new experience. I tried to keep it conversational. There’s no particular style involved. It comes across as quite stylish, I know, but there is no ammo going on there that I’m familiar with. In fact, it was spoken, recorded and then transcribed, then gone over again and sharpened up. It’s the best way I know of doing things, in fact your own country-man was a great influence on me here. I read a lot of biographies, autobiographies, memoirs and things like that, more so than I read fiction now. One of the best memoirs I’ve read in recent years was Paul Anka.
I haven’t read that one.
It’s fantastic. I can’t recommend it enough. He’s from Ottawa and moved to the States very early on. He was kind of a big influence on me. He’s in my book, it says that he was the first teenage millionaire [laughs]. So he was a big influence on me, plus I loved his first hit, “Diana.” Everybody loved that song, it was number one all over the world. I’m still a big fan now. He still looks great, doesn’t he.
He even did a rock album.
Yeah, now that is a great album! Rock Swings. I love that record, it just shows you how a different treatment will make you look at a song. That’s a good case in point. I was at a wedding with my wife and daughter in France and they were playing music at the after show party, and I think, I know this voice… and yet he’s singing “Eye of the Tiger.” So I had to go up there, I said, “excuse me,” in bad French, “Is this Paul Anka?” The DJ says yeah, so I made a point of buying it. I’ve never been a mega fan of REM, I see their worth—they can all play nice tunes but I’ve never really understood what their songs are dealing with. I’m a bit pernickety like that. But when I heard his version of “Everybody Hurts,” then I understood what that song is all about. It took Paul Anka. What a fabulous song that is, I’ve always overlooked it—just put it in a bag marked REM and stuck it in a corner. Not interested at this point [laughs]. He didn’t really do much to it, he sings it the way it is, but he just kind of puts in those little Vegas inflections—really makes you have it. Great voice. Great singer. Great songwriter. Big fan—Paul Anka. He’s gotta be the top guy in Canada… or is that Neil Young?
It depends on what side of the political fence you’re on.
What does that apply to Neil Young? A bit curmudgeonly in later life I believe. Well he’s got too much time in his hands—he should be sockin’ it to the free world. Somebody should remind him that rust never sleeps.
We started with food, so we’ll end with food… and there’s only one correct answer to this question. I know you enjoy custards… are you a fan of the pastel de nata?
Oh yeah, absolutely that’s my favourite breakfast cake.