Monthly Archives: March 2014

Evidently Chickentown: the inimitable John Cooper Clarke

John_Cooper_ClarkeJohn Cooper Clarke stands as a dusty relic of the punk era, a man who towers tall (quite literally – tall and spindly, with a scarecrow shock of hair) in the modern age. Just look at him and you get the sense he’s been everywhere, experienced everything of life – and particularly more than dabbled in his fair share of excesses.

His brusque, matter-of-factly delivered, satirically edged performance poetry is refreshingly free from pretension or artifice of any kind. He takes us along with him at high-velocity, 100 miles per hour.

Often deceivingly simple, his poetry is equally brutally powerful and beautiful. Evidently Chickentown is a stark vignette of the dull tedium and despair born of living in poverty, in a town where there is nothing to do but ‘fucking wait and fucking wait’ and ‘the fucking days are fucking long it fucking gets you fucking down’. Born out of the 80s, when Clarke was addicted to heroin, it’s a deeply dark poem. A heightened sense of entrapment and claustrophobia is hammered in to us through each repetition of – well, you know, that main word in the poem:

Clarke intersperses his recitations with wry observations and anecdotes, seamlessly moving from the role of stand-up comedian to performance poet, and a lot of his poetry is very funny. He undermines poetic conventions at every turn.

His version of the haiku form is a particular stroke of subversive genius. A haiku has to be formed of three lines, composed of a total of seventeen syllables (five syllables on the first and last lines, seven syllables on the second). Enter Clarke’s version:




It’s rotten here in jail, which he penned for Amnesty International, is one of the highlights – a raw and visceral piece. Clarke prefaces this poem by saying that he actually only spent three days in jail once for stealing a car. Yet he brings a horrific jail-time atmosphere incredibly vividly to life:

John Cooper Clarke doesn’t stop – he performs, on average, 100 shows a year.

I caught him on Friday at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, but his UK tour continues. Check out his website for the latest dates.

‘No sympathy for the devil…Buy the ticket, take the ride’

fear-loathingBeneath Waterloo station, in the great cavernous space of the Vaults, the chaotic frenzy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas springs vibrantly to life.

So much more than a mere chronicle of excess, Fear and Loathing is a parody, a ‘wild goose chase’ (as Raoul Duke’s attorney says) after the mythical ‘American Dream’ – which ultimately looms as a nightmare. It’s ‘the old Psychiatrist’s Club’ a ‘big black building, right on Paradise’, home to ‘twenty-four-hour-a-day violence, drugs…’ where nothing but ‘a bunch of pushers, peddlers, uppers and downers’ can be found.

Fear and Loathing is an elegy to the past, the vanished idealism of the 60s – the symbolic turning point being the Altamont festival of December ’69. A Stones fan is stabbed to death by a Hell’s Angel, drawing a curtain on the pretensions of the ‘peace and love’ mentality of the 60s and ushering in the cold, forbidding and authoritarian 70s – the era of the much-maligned Nixon.

But, as Hunter S. Thompson describes, in the 60s there was an ephemeral moment in time – the ‘fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning’, ‘we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave’.

The elegiac beauty of such passages of Thompson’s writing sometimes is in danger of getting drowned out by the high-octane, frenetic delirium that powers much of Fear and Loathing.

However, Lou Stein’s theatre adaptation skilfully captures the deep sense of loss and profound pessimism which underpin Fear and Loathing and make for some of the best writing in the novel. The more meditative pieces are recited by an older ‘Hunter S. Thompson’ in the form of John Chancer, effectively isolating these passages from the frenzied insanity of the overall narrative.

Rob Crouch as Dr Gonzo and Ed Hughes as Raoul Duke have great energy, as you’d expect, and render the comedic anarchism of the book perfectly. The stagecraft is immersive, mimicking the hallucinatory genius of Ralph Steadman’s sketches.

Continually entertaining and showing great love for the novel, Lou Stein’s adaptation of this classic holds up very well. I was driven to reread Fear and Loathing upon returning from the play, and on the way home couldn’t help but loop ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ full-blast in my headphones.

Buy the ticket, take the ride – performances end 8 March