Sunday, June 13, 2010

John Cooper Clarke, Don Letts and Me

One of the many best things about John Cooper Clarke is the fact that he laughs at his own jokes. I find this hugely endearing, because I do too and I always thought it was wrong, but now I know it is right, because John Cooper Clarke does it.

The journey down to Hereford would have been gruesome if I hadn't been looking forward to the gig so much.
I got stuck behind every farm vehicle from every farm from the Cotswolds to Herefordshire, and it was muggy; but when I got there the hotel, the Green Dragon, was mercifully easy to find, and mercifully still stuck in the 1980s as far as decor was concerned. The promoter, Richard Page, who runs the Wild Hare Club, was there with his partner; both were in high spirits so I couldn't sulk.
We wandered round the corner to the Blue Rooms where I did a sound check, and I went off the the Pizza Express to be ignored for more than 15 minutes before I was served, yet it took less than a second to have the money I put down to pay the bill whipped away by an eagle-eyed waiter!
Richard had done loads of publicity; there were posters everywhere.
The Blue Rooms is a big, low-ceilinged club that also has a bit of a 1980s feel to it, but that seemed to suit this billing down to the ground, and the audience too. His iPod mix of 1970s alternative and punk music summed the evening up perfectly.
They were a good crowd in general, and there was a great atmosphere sweeping on to the stage from them: they reminded me of the Scottish audience way back who had come out to have a good time, and you found yourself playing to a sea of smiles.
There were some fellow customers from the pizza restaurant and they told me the wine had been off, too!
I played for about 40 minutes, my summer set, the happy songs which seemed to go down well ( I am not used to playing encores because of time-pressures at the normal clubs I play but I think I could have done one here) and then I went into the dressing room, and there was John, looking exactly the same as he had more than 20 years ago when Helen and the Horns played Ronnie Scott's with him. He is a lovely bloke; the only sign of weathering (you see, he was well-weathered even back then) is a trio of snazzy gold teeth which make him look more piratical than Johnny Depp.
I walked in on him opening my Gretsch case for a peek (why is my Gretsch always the star of the show? if I was a lesser person I would be jealous!) and we had a good yak about Lover's Rock, which he is a big fan of too. He sang this song to me which is a real gem and I wish I could remember who he said it was by but I don't suppose I'll find out now.
Then it was stage time and he strode out with his white plastic supermarket bag full of poems. Within seconds, the audience was his.
"I have always wondered how deep the sea would be if there weren't any sponges down there".
So many of the things seems so obvious: but then that's his genius, isn't it? He mingled in the surreal too.
"Anyone here from the Isle of Man? Got your passport here?", as he picked up the mike stand and offered to stamp it with its three-pronged feet. "No man is an island, but that one is!"
He got the audience to say "Knock, knock".
"Who's there?", he asked.
It is so nice to laugh!
Sometimes I forget this, as most of my life seems serious and difficult in spite of the joy of doing gigs. I stood there and laughed myself stupid, in unison with the audience. It was like being a child again.
The man who drank too many Martinis after work: "Home honey, I'm high".
There was a very funny riff on Mark E. Smith (whose name I am often tempted to preface with 'What's the point of...') saying "Helen Mirren".
But maybe you had to be there to get that one!
Just before the end, the long journey kicked in and I retreated to the dressing room and listened to the speech-rhythms of the rest of the performance with Phil, his manager, who was talking along with him in places.
I asked if he knew the routine off by heart. "Yes", he said, but he hadn't heard the Isle of Man jokes. He struck me as a very good manager; everything seemed to happen with the minimum of fuss.
Actually, the same about the promoter, Richard. He was the exact opposite of some promoters who gush about how fantastic you are for ten minutes and then spend the rest of the night trying to put you down. He was respectful and if there were any panics, he hid them very well.
If you get the chance to see John Cooper Clarke on this tour, you must go and see him.
He will restore your faith in humanity, poetry, rock'n'roll and a good deal else besides.
He has influenced so many people, and it's too easy to forget that.
He also just has a sort of open charm that puts so many of the clever-dick type comedians to shame.
He is the real deal.
Then Don Letts appeared in the green room; I was chuffed that he had seen me play and liked my set. He is a very quiet and unpretentious man and it was really nice to meet him.
The drummer from The Pretenders came in (they originated in Hereford, apart, obviously, from Chrissie) and backstage rockchat ensued.
John remembered playing with Martin a few years ago and sent him a big kiss; he stood in the green-room gloom in his Chelsea boots on a pile of poems, forbidden cigarette between forefingers and a drink in his hand.
The Don got his CDs out and went out to play. It was impossible not to dance. I danced with a girl called Becky who books actors for medical students to practice their bedside manner upon.
The floor was full; we danced to Toots and the Maytals and a track where someone sang over Al Capone by Dave and Ansel Collins, and loads more great stuff. I witnessed the most gentle stage-ejection I have ever seen, where an over-enthusiastic young woman jumped on stage and started dancing inches from Don's nose. He kept his head down, concentrating, and the sound guy walked over, put out both hands, and helped the over-enthusiastic young woman back on the the dance floor, where she continued dancing, free from being a nuisance.
Eventually, I had to retreat. the whole experience more than lived up to expectations and I hope to be invited back; Richard mentioned booking Martin there at some point and it's the sort of gig he'd go down a storm at.
On the way home, I mused about the oddity of three quite urban-based artists popping up in Hereford, such a rural town; as a night is really worked, though.
On the way back I noticed the vertical meadows by the sides of the motorways where they slice through hills in cuttings, and where poppies, grasses and ox-eye daisies have decided to seed themselves regardless of the traffic and tarmac, and blossom in joyous spring display.
And the shooting school (gift vouchers available). Just try transplanting that to Peckham!


Anonymous said...

I'm still wondering about medical students practising their bedside manner!!

Richard MC of the WHC said...

Hi Helen, Richard here, only just got round to reading this been busy with the real job - currently writing Greenpeace's global marine reserve manifesto for UN meeting in September...Probably don't behave like a normal promter because I'm not - am totally amateur. The bill for this gig was really a nod to my London past - just wish somehow that Joe Strummer could have played the a way I don't think I'd have been quite the same if I hadn't ever heard white Man in Hammersmith Palais....

Anyways, thanks for the kind words and yup, you'll be back and we'll drag Martin along too. as ever with these shows I missed quite a lot of what happened up front, so it's always good to hear other accounts later. The re-living of the punk rock wars backstage was hilarious, Don going to me, well you know Chyssie (Hynde) lived in my flat for a while... Martin, who looks ndistinguishable from the other blokes in The Cross Keys who have just stepped off their combines, kept saying JCC to me that JCC was better than ever. JCC meanwhile was a hoot, air guitar playing the opening riff of Marquee Moon - he loves his music -mention any song and he'd say 'I play that every day...' Towards the end of his set Don played a reggae version of an Elvis number and JCC crooned along. Phil the manager suggested he might have a latter second career as an Elvis impersonator, however the consensus was that he might have trouble looking the part for the Vegas years. How does he stand on those, said Caroline at the Hotel staring in disbelief at this pipe cleaner legs. Just befre we packed JCC back to the hotel he was talking about the danger going off to hospital and ending up with that illness the one with lots of initials - MRSA - that's it. He then lent over to me, took my hand and said Richard - you know I went to B&Q....came back with a bad case of MDF. Brilliant and given every other persn I know is a woodworker, a joke that will stand me in good stead for ages.

Hope offsprogs are good and safe and you are still enjoying the summer. Stas, my partner, who I don't think you actually met, (not Moira who was kindly doing the door), and I are off to Barcelona on the train, on our own tomorrow, how good is that?

Laters, Richard x