Performance Review: Dr John Cooper Clarke @ Exeter Corn Exchange

Legend of punk poetry, Dr. John Cooper Clarke, stuns Exeter Corn Exchange with an absurd tirade of one-man showmanship.

From the open-mics of his native Salford and the iconic haze of the Old Grey Whistle Test to the pop-disorder of 8 Out of 10 Cats and the closing verses of the Arctic Monkeys’ platinum-selling, ‘AM’, the acerbic punk-poetry of Dr. John Cooper Clarke has met legendary status for its relentlessly pithy and side-splittingly lyrical commentary upon the seedier edge of British drudgery. Last week, the good doctor’s 2022 ‘I Wanna Be Yours Tour’ reached Exeter’s Corn Exchange, and an obliged crowd – spanning all genders, ages, and haircuts from comb-over to mohawk – amassed at the City’s largest entertainment venue in keen anticipation of the deservedly titled ‘pied piper of punk poetry’.

The evening begins with a call for some ruckus (“but not too much, it’s poetry after all”) by the semi-mythical, “punk-rock-inventing”, Bill-Nighy-meets-John-Lydon, road manager, Johnny Green – a comedy set in itself, though brief. Clarke’s support act, Clare Ferguson-Walker, giggles before us shortly after. The relentless joy with which she offers her empowered reclamation of self-deprecating habits, clumsy past encounters, and lockdown existentialism is undeniably infectious as she “over-shares” in verse to rapturous laughter. Ferguson-Walker leaves us on a poignant yet triumphant note, recounting ‘The Man Who Was a Chaise Longue’, written by the poet as an elegy upon the coming-of-age challenges faced by her gender-queer teenager. Her words were warm, vital, and an admittedly welcome antidote to the aging doctor’s occasionally behind-the-times comedic musings.

“And now for the main event” hails Green.

Lights dim, chatter hushes, surreal B-movie soundbites erupt, and out stomps the iconic frame of Dr. John Cooper Clarke. Clarke immediately addresses his own mythos, “I’ve circumnavigated the globe ten, count ‘em, ten times now”. “I get asked the big questions… such as… what is occasional furniture the rest of the time?”. Surprisingly languid, the punk-poet sways between these witty one-liners, bizarre bouts of mock-Brooklyn dialect, and dazed, drunken-karaoke-style croonings of ‘30s love ballads. It is a somewhat disarming experience, yet renders the “true Clarke” moments doubly rewarding. Always three steps ahead of even the quickest minds in the room, the skeletal figure contorts from mock-suave crooner into its iconic, gravity-defyingly diagonal, knee-quivering stance and begins a recitation. Quicker than lightening, yet having accumulated the occasional crowd-pleasing adlib in recent years, Clarke performs his seminal hits. ‘Beasley Street’, of course is a highlight. Hailed as the definitive dirge on ‘Thatcher’s Britain’ (though “I wrote this one eighteen months before the b*tch got anywhere near the houses of parliament… If anything, I worry I might’ve given her a few ideas”), the poem feels fresh as ever. For a moment, it is almost as though the aging figure is transfigured into the razor-sharp youth of late-70s punk archives. 

‘Beasley Boulevard’ comes next. A syllable-for-syllable reworking of its iconic predecessor, the poem acts as an ever-so-cool commentary on modern gentrification and stands as proof that, although settled now into a somewhat TV-friendly retirement era, Clarke’s command of poetic grammar and pithy wordplay still bites back with sharp humour against today’s performance norms. Clarke does things on his own terms, and duly, as we rose to his tempo the night’s eccentricity grew steadily from dizzying shock into a shared tirade of hilarious, literary delirium.

– Dan McKay

Featured Image Source: Pexels

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