The “Godfather of Punk Poetry,” John Cooper Clarke is currently in the midst of his first North American tour in more than 30 years. Professing that he hails from “that generation where everything I love in life comes from the States,” Clarke is taking full advantage of the long-overdue opportunity. Last week, he answered the phone from the hallowed halls of Chicago’s Chess Records, where he’d just finished playing “Hoochie Coochie Man” on legendary bluesman Willie Dixon’s upright bass.
“What a thrill,” Clarke gushed in his Mancunian lilt. “All of America is an endless source of fascination to me. Every city has something that I want to check out.”
This week, he’ll get his chance to cross Philadelphia off that list as he performs at World Cafe Live tonight. Renowned in his native England, Clarke is best known stateside these days for his poem “Evidently Chickentown,” which was played during a scene in the final season of “The Sopranos.” But early in his career, Clarke rose to prominence alongside the leading lights of the U.K. punk scene, performing or touring with the likes of the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Elvis Costello and Joy Division.
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With his unruly tangle of hair, the 66-year-old Clarke remains the image of an aging rock star, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones. While his long career has deviated from the punk world, he remains philosophical about being tethered to the movement. “There’s no point in fighting — that kind of thing,” he shrugs. “If I’m there in the popular imagination as a punk poet, I’m just glad I’m in the public’s imagination at all. So I don’t have a problem with that. If it was OK with Patti Smith, it’s OK with me.”
Music — and more importantly, lyrics — have always played a key role in his work, Clarke says. “I’m a very old guy, and I remember the world pre-Elvis. I love the American Songbook. Ella Fitzgerald, Nat Cole, Sinatra, Dean Martin, Eddie Fisher, Helen Forrest, Doris Day — they were great singers, and they could really sell a lyric. It was all about the adult world, and I was a kid, but I didn’t care. I wanted to understand that world, and those great lyrics helped me to do that. Then in England, lyrics were real important to those punk records. The Sex Pistols, The Clash — they made the rock ’n’ roll kids unusually interested in lyrics, and I guess that’s why they kind of liked my stuff.”
Like so many of his punk contemporaries, Clarke nearly became a casualty of drug abuse in the 1980s, a period during which he was addicted to heroin and living with Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico.
Looking back on those times from a healthier place, he claims, “I’m the luckiest guy alive, just to be alive in this wonderful world and to consider myself a commuter to these shores. I’m just waiting for the trouble to arrive.”
John Cooper Clarke is at World Cafe Live Monday, May 11, at 8 p.m.Tickets ($20) are at www.worldcafelive.com.