Wednesday, September 06, 2023

John Cooper Clarke VS. Iggy Pop: a choice for September 15th

1. On Iggy Pop

I love me some Iggy. 

Baby duck favourite: an unpopular but very creative 1983 slab called Zombie Birdhouse. This was the first Iggy Pop album I ever read about or owned, and it started with Creem Magazine, believe it or not.

No, folks, I was not cool enough in 1983 to know what Creem was. But I was 15, and buying a few rock mags, sampling whatever made it out to the magazine stands of Maple Ridge, where I found a few issues of Creem, in there with the Hit Paraders and such (I read that, too). I was also buying a few porno mags, when I got up the nerve, and there was an issue of Creem that had what, to a 15 year old boy with a lust for rock, had some pretty sexy pictures in it (sorry, Ms. Jett); that may have incentivized my purchase of the mag further (so it was because of masturbation I first read about Sonic Youth and the Minutemen!).

Weirdly, the Iggy Pop interview I remember reading, dealing with Zombie Birdhouse, appears to have been in a different issue, one I don't remember owning, but which article I remember details from to this day, not having read it since that time, like that Iggy wrote the lyrics for Zombie Birdhouse on a typewriter -- his first time ever doing that. They're really weird lyrics, really artful, just the kind of thing a 15 year old obsessed with decoding song lyrics would get excited about, and I remember thinking about Iggy typing them out, how the technology might have informed the rhymes and such. Check out "Run Like a Villain":

Big dick is a thumbs-up guy
He shot a missile in the sky
It functioned just as advertised
Until the fire made him cry

Look into it later when the dust is clearing off the crater

Run like a villain, let the good times roll
Run like a villain to the sugar bowl
Run like a villain, 'cause you can't adjust
To a saccharine suburb in the mush

I've got some loving arms around me
Darker than the tombs of Egypt
Dumber than the crudest fiction
Buried in a melting coffin
Nights like this appeal to me!

Tracy got an Afghan, pedigreed
Prescription shades and designer jeans
A Sony Walkman on her head
All she wants is to be fed

Run, run, run, 'cause you're soft
Run, run, but don't get lost

The shining moon, the dead oak tree
Nights like this appeal to me
I've got some loving arms around me

Trying to steal a moment of pleasantry
In this zombie birdhouse

Run, run, run
Run like a villain, let the good times roll
Run like a villain to save your soul
It can't be done, I already know
So I run like a villain to the sugar bowl

'Cause who you are, nobody knows
Who you are, nobody knows
Rings on your fingers and bells on your toes

That's the opening song, and to a kid stuck in Maple Ridge (a "saccharine suburb in the mush" if there ever was one), it impressed the hell out of me, not that I understood half of it. And the album gets a fair bit weirder -- especially "Street Crazies," which is a somewhat unheralded masterpiece, artful and tribal and singular in his catalogue, if perhaps lacking on the level of basic human compassion (but he's celebrating the craziness, right? He's identifying with it!). I know people who hate that song, and I dunno, maybe they have a point -- it's certainly not the same raw, street-level Iggy that sticks it deep inside 'cause he's loose... tho' tangentally, I don't think Iggy will ever be able to top Colleen Rennison's delivery of that with GRRL Circus at the Rickshaw a couple years back. I've seen Iggy do it live with the Stooges, at that Seattle show with Watt on bass and both Ashetons, and I highly doubt that at any point he made anyone in the audience want to stick anything anywhere; that song DESERVES to be sung by a singer with a fair bit of libidinous impact, and as such, Rennison -- sweaty cleavage dripping -- took it to the next level, broke open the horny heart of the song in a way that Iggy simply cannot do (or maybe he's just not my type?). 

Anyhow, Zombie Birdhouse was the first Iggy solo album I ever owned and fell in love with, and became the de facto measuring stick by which all other Iggy albums I acquired, back then, were measured (Party is fun but it's not as strange or poetic as Zombie Birdhouse... Soldier has some powerful songs but it's much more vulgar and direct than Zombie Birdhouse... and so on, at least for awhile).   

Three other things happened around this time. I saw a clip, thanks to Much Music and City TV, of a show (I think) called Stereovision, with Iggy on tour in Toronto circa 1981, doing a magnificently weird, and again, highly lyrically ambitious tune called "Winter of My Discontent." It never appeared on album but I loved it from the opening of the performance, with Iggy quipping with an ironically hubristic sneer, "This is a song I co-wrote with William Shakespeare." Ha! It's an extremely nihilistic Iggy, a dark, menacing Iggy. The same show -- which I taped off TV onto VHS and watched many times -- had a stellar "Dum Dum Boys" and a clip of Iggy getting into a  verbal altercation with a chubby, curly-haired audience member, who was angrily telling Iggy to "fuck Bowie," which you can tell Iggy was kind of impressed by ("Fuck Bowie? You'd like to, wouldn't you?" he shoots back, but he's kind of chuckling to himself; the exchange is here, and ends with Iggy gobbing prodigiously on the fella). I was as unsettled -- on some level repelled, really -- by the footage as I was impressed (Iggy is wearing a black sweater at some points and you can see giant wads of audience gob hanging off it), but there was no doubt that when the band launched into "Rock 'n Roll Party," coming out of this exchange, that there was an elevated level of energy. I still didn't really understand what punk rock was, but this, surely, was a prime example. (The audio for what appears to be the whole concert is here). 

Then Grant Shankaruk of Collector's RPM gave me a cassette of an Iggy album I could not find anywhere (New Values, also a favourite, best known for "Five Foot One," but also notable for "Billy is a Runaway," one of his most entertaining deep cuts). And somewhere in there, Henry Rollins wrote a piece for Spin that proclaimed Fun House (and the Velvets' White Light/ White Heat) as his two favourite albums of all time (the whole thing is readable here, midway down the page).

Back then -- with the cool record shops an hour away by bus and most of the best records out of print -- I had heard no Stooges; not Fun House, not Raw Power, not the debut. Hadn't heard any Velvets, either. Rollins directly informed my seeking out the entire catalogue of both these bands, and man, was I grateful. I am still not a huge fan of Raw Power (and had an entertaining exchange on Facebook last week where none other than Art Bergmann and Billy Hopeless chastised me for voicing that opinion) but Fun House has gotta be the unchallenged contender for the greatest rock record of all time, no? Can we all agree on that? If I ever get to personally thank Henry Rollins for the impact he had on my life, it won't be for "My War" or "Hard" or "Liar" or his kickass cover of the Pink Fairies "Do It," though I love all of these things; it's gonna have to be for his Spin article, maybe the single most important thing I ever read in a rock magazine. Thanks, Henry! (BTW, if you haven't heard Henry Rollins talk about sharing a stage with Iggy, it's probably my single favourite spoken piece of his). 

Anyhow, I've been perusing Iggy Pop's setlists, mulling over whether to go see him at Rifflandia on the island on September 15th, and noting the songs I am excited about. There's plenty of stuff I saw him do with the Stooges in Seattle a few years ago (and a few I also saw when he opened for the Pretenders at the Coliseum on the Blah Blah Blah tour, a show that David M. was also at, as he talks about in Absolute Underground 113, by way of reviewing, from memory, a legendary Iggy show in Vancouver in the 1970s; it's a great read). 

But much as I love some of Iggy's standbys -- who doesn't get a thrill from "TV Eye?" -- the exciting songs are the ones that I have never seen live before, that I wouldn't EXPECT to see live, and probably will never get a chance to see live again, like "The Endless Sea," "I'm Sick of You," and "Mass Production." There's no saying for sure whether he'll still be performing these songs once he comes to Victoria for Rifflandia, but they're not songs he did at either show I saw before, tho' they've been standbys on the European leg of this tour. Truth is, I'd much prefer material off Zombie Birdhouse or a live "Rock 'n Roll Party," but jeez, the opportunity to see "I'm Sick of You," in particular, is pretty damn compelling.  

So after some waffling, I had finally decided, just this last week, that I was INDEED going to see Iggy Pop at Rifflandia, probably committing in the process to milling around Victoria overnight until I could catch the first ferry back to the mainland. I did similar things a couple of times in Tokyo, after a show by Joe Strummer, for example, walking around the streets, huddling with a notebook in a doorway, counting the cabs that passed, or looking for an all night cafe to slump in for a few hours (hard to find in Tokyo, so good luck on the island). I imagine Victoria would be much grottier, with Tokyo's passed-out drunk salarymen and dyed-hair teenagers replaced by addicts and aggressive panhandlers. It quite possibly could get ugly, and even in the best-case scenario, would be expensive, exhausting, labour-intensive, and a hell of a lot of work, if you don't drive and live three hours (and three modes of public transportation) away. Oh, and with the one day ticket ($155), ferry fare there and back, dinner and breakfast and whatever other incidental expenses I got dinged for, it would prolly cost me close to $300. But how many more chances am I going to get to see Iggy Pop, for godsake? The man's a living legend. 

That was when I realized that John Cooper Clarke is playing the Rickshaw that day. Oops! Sorry, Mr. Osterberg, it's Dr. Clarke for the win! I get to stay in Vancouver, save $250 dollars, go to my favourite venue, and sleep in my own bed! I've seen Iggy twice, but I've never seen John Cooper Clarke, and I just read 300 pages of his autobiography, so...


2. On John Cooper Clarke

Understand: up until yesterday, I thought I was going to be interviewing Dr. John Cooper Clarke -- and not merely for my blog; I have a magazine that is interested, but the original plan was to first do something here that might meaningfully plug his Vancouver show, with the magazine (which would putatively pay me) being a sort of cherry-on-top to reward my efforts, to further incentivize his doing it (two articles out of one interview!).  But despite the best efforts of the promoters and publicists, that interview didn't end up happening, and doesn't look like it's going to. But if prepping for an interview that doesn't happen doesn't do my readers any good -- since they don't get to reap the fruits of my labours -- it actually can benefit me a great deal, especially if I'm already a fan of someone's, because it is impossible to do the work without coming to a deeper, richer appreciation of the artist in question. 

Take Ferron, for instance: knowing I planned to request an interview with her, this past folk fest -- but not knowing whether that would come to pass -- I sat down to the lyrics to "It Won't Take Long," one of her greatest songs, and really thought about them. They're a bit more writerly than your average song lyric, with the song considering a few different angles on the theme of compromise versus revolution, and it took sitting down with them as printed text to really appreciate how rich the words were. There are still plenty of things I could have asked her about -- like who the men in the desert wandering are; one thinks of the Magi, but the story she tells doesn't exactly seem scriptural, so what's going on there? But my sense of the song was greatly enriched by actually reading the words and thinking about them as poetry. It's not always easy to fully appreciate the meaning of lyrics when they're being sung to you, and (compared to my boyhood) I resort to lyric sheets a far bit less than I used to, but really sitting down and focusing on the words -- taking the time, treating them as poetry -- was highly rewarding. In the end, I didn't get to interview her, but I can live with that; I did get to see her live (and got her to sign my record!), and even if I didn't get her to answer the questions I had about her songs, I came, by virtue of doing my homework, to have a far deeper understanding of them, so it's still a win.  

Now, John Cooper Clarke defines himself as a poet, and the language he uses is very important --  potent, punchy, richly detailed, and very funny -- but he is associated mostly with music, especially the early Manchester scene (ie., the one depicted in 24 Hour Party People). Joy Division, the Buzzcocks, the Fall, and Tony Wilson -- the man played by Steve Coogan in that movie -- all appear in his memoir, and there are, in particular, some fun Mark E. Smith stories for Fall fans to chuckle at: he was "about eight years my junior," Clarke writes of Smith, "so I first new him as a schoolboy. His mother worked at the post office in Sedgley Park where all my artist mates cashed their giros," and Clarke dropped in "at least once a week to look through the music papers in case I'd been mentioned in dispatches." At that post office, "[e]very so often, Smithy would make an appearance in his school gaberdine, hitting his mum up for chip money" (from pp. 278-279 of the hardcover). This is fairly funny to imagine! Besides being associated with, opening for, and touring with these bands, Clarke appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test, reading his grim, superb "Beasley Street," to backing accompaniment, which was a feature of his recorded output, as well -- Disguise in Love, Snap Crackle & Bop, and Zip Style Method, his three most famous albums, all have a backing band on most tracks. 

But here's a heads up: this is simply not what he does, live. There will be no band, no backing track. He doesn't even care for the experience of working with musicians in the studio much. From page 290-291 of his COVID-penned memoir, "I Wanna Be Yours": 

I discovered that the studio is an unnatural environment for a control freak like me. I don't like it. I like to be able to claim full responsibility and blame for anything you think about what I do. I don't want to have to credit some cunt on a guitar as having anything to do with it. It's borderline hostility: I like guitar players, but not in my studio. 

My poetry has its own kind of organic momentum: it speeds up, then slows down, then speeds up double, then slows down again, etc., etc,, etc.... What I do depends a lot on varied speed; I leave people with the impression that it's really fast, but it isn't always. That's the knack. Put me working with expert musicians and it's like nailing my foot to the floor. I listen to my stuff with music and it's like I've been grounded. There are moments when I come on like a broken arm, an injured gazelle, a bird in a gilded cage: and who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?

A bit later, he talks about the problems his having recorded with backing music caused for him, after his first album came out in 1978 (pp. 310-311): 

I got a lot of gigs on the strength of Disguise in Love. This created difficulties at first, because now I was now known through the medium of the album, on which I'd been accompanied by all these top of the range session guys from the Dougie James Soul Train plus various celebrity cameos. I was perceived to be the front man for this 'supergroup', and my appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test only confirmed that belief...

For almost a year after the album came out, I was really swimming against the tide in that respect. I'd turn up at the venue without a band, and you can imagine they'd be both puzzled and annoyed, especially abroad. Every time I'd have to reveal that there was no band, there never was a band, I couldn't afford a band, I didn't need a band, and anyway, The Invisible Girls were purely a studio phenomenon. What I do is poetry. Just me, the PA, and the public. 

...not that his recorded output leaves you completely unprepared. Consider "Twat," which appears as a bonus cut on CD versions of Snap, Crackle & Bop. The words are offered on his website; I recommend reading along as you listen to it, but will reprint them here for your ease:   


Like a Night Club in the morning, you’re the bitter end
Like a recently disinfected shit-house, you’re clean round the bend
You give me the horrors
Too bad to be true
All of my tomorrow’s
Are lousy coz of you
You put the Shat in Shatter
Put the Pain in Spain
Your germs are splattered about
Your face is just a stain

You’re certainly no raver, commonly known as a drag
Do us all a favour, here… wear this polythene bag

You’re like a dose of scabies
I’ve got you under my skin
You make life a fairy tale… Grimm!

People mention murder, the moment you arrive
I’d consider killing you if I thought you were alive
You’ve got this slippery quality
It makes me think of phlegm
And a dual personality
I hate both of them

Your bad breath, vamps disease, destruction, and decay
Please, please, please, please, take yourself away
Like a death a birthday party
You ruin all the fun
Like a sucked and spat our Smartie
you’re no use to anyone
Like the shadow of the guillotine
On a dead consumptive’s face
Speaking as an outsider
What do you think of the human race

You went to a progressive psychiatrist
He recommended suicide…
Before scratching your bad name off his list
And pointing the way outside

You hear laughter breaking through, it makes you want to fart
You’re heading for a breakdown
Better pull yourself apart

Your dirty name gets passed about when something goes amiss
Your attitudes are platitudes
Just make me wanna piss

What kind of creature bore you
Was is some kind of bat
They can’t find a good word for you
But I can…


So that's the first point, for those going, or considering it: this is an evening of seated poetry you are going to see, not a "concert," per se. Another important thing to realize, which I didn't clue into before sitting down to his book, is that he's been doing this at least as long as Iggy Pop, and perhaps longer; at 74, he is only two years' Iggy's junior, and the first public performance of "[I Married a] Monster from Outer Space" took place circa 1966, if I recall correctly, at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rally/ happening, and his first regular gigs -- at Bradley Manning's Embassy Club, a kind of cabaret -- correspond roughly with the year of my birth, 1968 (he talks in his book about auditioning for Manning, who was skeptical about the idea of hiring a poet, until Clarke likened his act to Stanley Holloway and "The Lion and Albert," part of the UK music hall monologist tradition; it's quite eye-opening to realize the connection). 

There is a bit more about John Cooper Clarke in my interview with the Minimalist Jug Band, immediately prior. And for those who want still more, there's a ton of other interesting stuff in Clarke's bio, including his years as a heroin addict (which he figures made him more productive, at least for a time, because he needed to be able to pay for drugs!), his relationship with Nico (which I haven't gotten to yet), and stories about growing up in Britain in the 1950s and 60s. There's also the story about he and Nico buying heroin off Chet Baker (!), though that doesn't come up when he talks about Chet in his Amoeba Records "What's in My Bag" clip.  

The book, I Wanna Be Yours, is a surprisingly sweet read, actually -- he remembers brand names and jingles and favourite products of childhood, talks about seeing Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and others, and paints quite an engaging portrait of himself as a young man. You'd think, hearing "Beasley Street," that he'd be full of complaint and derision, but he really isn't. Plus he makes a point of explaining that his fondness for drugs was informed by the cultural norms of his youth (where popping "pep pills" was commonplace) and by being treated for boyhood TB with opiates, long before any moral hysteria about drugs got underway. One wonders if the lack of shame and disapproval around these things helped him be so functional through his years as an addict -- if the scorn heaped upon drug users actually damages them more than the drug use? 

That was one of the questions I was thinking I might ask him, but -- ah well! 

Oh, by the way, he deals with his poem "I Wanna Be Yours" being covered (execrably, I think, but what do I know?) by the Arctic Monkeys here

Gig info here... See you there (unless you're actually going to Iggy; more power to you, if so!). 

1 comment:

monsterdog said...

i saw a picture of iggy in creem magazine before i ever heard a stooges record...he was standing on stage and bending over backwards so far his head was almost touching the stage behind his feet...that was the moment iggy became my favourite rock star...shortly afterwards i found the stooges 1st album in box of $2 records in a music store near kingsway and listen it was immediately my favourite album...then i found funhouse at the record store in the richmond mall...more wow and holy fuck...then i was kinda distracted by alice it to's out...alice was my new fave...then i heard raw power...then the stooges played two nights at the pender ballroom...holy motherfucking wow...the stooges were more rock'n'roll than everything else at the time...creem was my buyers guide that i could always count on to hip my to the best rock'n'roll...