Dead and not dead: Lou Reed and John Cooper Clarke

Street Hassle

John Cooper Clarke by Stewy (
John Cooper Clarke by Stewy ( (Photo credit: dullhunk)

Which of these two reformed heroin-addicts and ex-boyfriends of Nico was likely to survive to this century? Neither. BBC4’s reputation for impressive rockumentary continues with a couple of programmes on the iPlayer now (for people in the UK who pay for it) about two wordsmiths, very different personalities but both towering figures of “alternative” popular culture. On Sunday night I sat up late watching an adoring documentary about the Bard of Salford Evidently … John Cooper Clarke on the iPlayer (UK only); and last night I caught up with the one hour programme about the life of the late Lou ReedLou Reed Remembered. Both these guys were lucky to survive periods of their lives lost to addiction; the best work of both was done before the slide, but in both cases I’m grateful they lived a few decades longer to tell the tale.

I was lucky enough to see Lou Reed play a short solo set in Belfast in 1987 and even luckier to see one of the few Velvet Underground reunion gigs, in the admittedly unatmospheric venue of Wembley Arena in 1993. I’ll never forget hearing the boom and tinkle rhythm of the intro to “All Tomorrow’s Parties” kicking in and pinching myself that I was actually seeing this for real. John Cale sang Nico’s part by the way – she was another long-term drugs casualty, having had a heart attack and died five years earlier while on her bike in the Ibiza sun. This is why Goths need to stick to cemeteries and cellars for their own health.

As a teenager in the 80s, my older brother had got me into John Cooper Clarke’s “Snap, Crackle and Bop” album – his “punk” poetry with the musical backing of The Invisible Girls (Vini Reilly et al). I used to wonder then, eight, nine, ten years after it was made, what’s Cooper Clarke doing now? Where is he? Why isn’t he still writing? The answer, as he and Peter Hook described in the documentary, was heroin. Some of the contributors to the Lou Reed programme talked about his use of narcotics in an almost glorifying way, suggesting Reed was experimenting for his art so he could report from the front line of experience, as it were. But the reality with heroin seems to be that it kills the desire to do anything apart from more heroin. As Harry Hill once put it, licking his lips as if sharing his views on Maltesers: “Heroin: it’s very more-ish, isn’t it?” Cooper Clarke’s life for many years consisted of looking for where he could score, getting the money to score, scoring, sleeping, then same again the next day. In this way a decade can pass.

Oddly enough, Cooper Clarke spent some of these dead years co-habiting with said Nico. As one contemporary put it, they got on because they shared a strong common interest: in hiding heroin from each other. Sounds like a borrowed John Cooper Clarke line. At one time, even had the Velvet Underground’s John Cale there too, when Cale was producing a Nico solo album. (What is it about the initials JC by the way that so often brings greatness? Johnny Clarke, John Cale, John Cleese, Fermanagh-born Glentoran midfielder Jim Cleary … not to mention the lad Christ).

But both Reed and Cooper Clarke somehow came through it and got clean. They went on to revive their live acts and produce worthwhile new material, even in later life. Having spend the 90s revering his book of poems “Ten Years In An Open-Necked Shirt“, picked up in a remainder bin in Queensland in 1992, and digging out CD rarities like “Ou Est La Maison de Fromage?”, I caught Cooper Clarke live for the first time at The Enterprise in Chalk Farm around 2000 or so. He was just brilliant – funnier stand-up than you’ll see anywhere, yet that was only the garnish to the acerbic verse.

English: Salford, Greater Manchester, the UK -...
Salford, Greater Manchester: “the rats have all got rickets,” according to JCC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what do/did these guys share, apart from wearing black a lot, a druggy past and the fleeting affections of a wasted German chanteuse? What they both do brilliantly for me is to revel in the grit of city life – messy but vividly real – and to do so in a life-reaffirming way. Not by easy gloss, or trying to prettify the ugly; but by getting the ugly out there and helping you come to terms with it. It’s as if they are both saying, “Here’s the worst, it’s awful (not that you’re much better) but now you can feel it a little.” And actually that can be very liberating. Cooper Clarke’s classic “Beazley Street”, like Reed’s “I’m Waiting For The Man”, is about ultimately pretty squalid stuff, but both writers have their tricks for making it engaging to their listeners. For Cooper Clarke, it’s the insistence on playfulness, no matter how dark the subject (“People turn to poison quick as lager turns to p***”); for Reed, it was the well-observed local detail (“Went up to Lexington / 125 …”), the choice of subterranean characters and subjects to shine a torch on and, of course, the brilliance of the music – on those early albums especially.

For people wanting to understand other people’s lives and experience, writers like Reed are gold-dust – and very rare. The formula sounds easy; but who else can do this like Lou Reed did?

I enjoyed also, from The Wire magazine, Mark E Smith from The Fall’s tribute to Lou Reed. For MES to pay tribute to anyone is something of a miracle. I notice he got a plug for his new record in there too: Mark E Smith’s tribute to Lou Reed in The Wire. Of course, Mark E Smith is above all of them, genuinely. I worry for the health of my rasping, shrivelling heroes: so, long may they splutter on.

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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