Review: John Cooper Clarke @ the Dukes

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When it comes to someone like John Cooper Clarke, you either love him or you’ve never heard of him. As a figurehead of the punk scene, he has produced some of the most proactive, sharp-witted and insightful poetry of the modern age, whilst maintaining a satirical and ferociously funny perspective on life.

As part of national poetry month, the bard of Salford brought his tour of the U.K to the Dukes Theatre, Lancaster. The sold out performance saw Luke Wright and fellow Mancunian poet Mike Garry supporting Clarke, both delivering outstanding performances, as well as proving themselves to be magnificent wordsmiths in their own right. The influence of Clarke’s punk energy was apparent in both of the opening poets’ work, ranging from their rapid-fire deliveries to their lexical agility. However, both acts certainly asserted their own sense of voice, with Mike Garry notably showing a deeper and more sentimental insight into his subject matter, which mainly found itself focused on working class life in Manchester.

Both poets provided a fitting appetizer for the main course of the nights procedures, but the stage was now set for ‘the lad himself, that poetic sensation’, as the compère so appropriately introduced him. With nothing more than a microphone stand and small table, a stick thin figure emerged from the shadows at the side of stage. Clarke’s dramatic entrance music was overcome with a roar of applause and a ubiquitous feeling of ‘look how thin he is!’ This frail frame marched to the centre of the stage, where he grasped the microphone stand as though he needed keep himself upright. The theatre fell to a brief silence, with John’s commanding presence being felt by everyone in the room. ‘So,’ he announced to the audience. ‘Anyone got ebola yet?’ A joke that was met with equal parts laughter and disbelief.

At first glance Clarke looks to have aged little more than a few days since his peak of fame in the late 1970s, still sporting his iconic dark sunglasses, wild back combed hair and trousers skinnier than his actual legs. Nonetheless, one aspect of the bard that certainly has not deteriorated is his razor-sharp wit; throughout the set it became apparent that it was as much a stand-up performance as a poetry recital. The bulk of the evening was made up of these anecdotes and witticisms, giving it a flow that would have otherwise gone amiss had he just reeled off a catalogue of poems for an hour.

He opened the set with a sarcastic poem disguised as the official guest list. ‘As luck would have it,’ he explained, ‘everyone I know in the Lancaster area, their names rhyme with each other.’ He quickly rolled through a number of poems including ‘Hire Car’ and ‘Get Back on Drugs You Fat Fuck’, stopping only to deliver punchy one liners. Clarke entwined a number of newer pieces into his set, most notably a follow up to his acclaimed social commentary poem Beasley Street.’ Introduced as ‘Beasley Boulevard,’ whilst perhaps not as powerful, it has a far more tongue-in-cheek feel to its predecessor, ‘that was then, this is now’ he explained to the audience. There has been a definite change from his days as a dry social commentator with his movement towards stand-up, but his words remain as intelligent and as dark as ever.

For the penultimate poem, Clarke delivered an engrossing rendition of ‘Evidently Chickentown’ at a break neck speed, which had every member of the audience attentively following his every word, even though most of us already knew them anyway. As well as branding it a favourite from his lengthy back catalogue, he remarked how the poem brought him back in to fashion with an appearance on the T.V series the Sopranos. He also added how Alex Turner’s updated version of the poem ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ brought him back into the limelight. Of all of Clarke’s work, this is by far his most heartfelt, and his slowed down delivery made it a poignant encore.

There is no doubt that Dr Clarke has reaffirmed his position on the world stage since his revival back in to pop culture, and his performance at the Dukes has certainly assured us that the bard of Salford still has plenty of life left in his verse. Even for those of us who switch off at the mere mention of the word poetry, John Cooper Clarke brings his poems to a level that can be appreciated by anyone. He is more than just a poet; he’s John Cooper Clarke.