Sunday, 4 June 2023

If I Could Have Just One Wish...

On Friday night, I spent an evening at The Forum in Bath in the company of Dr. John Cooper Clarke and Mike Garry. JCC has been busy on the South West circuit in the past 12 months: I missed two opportunities to see him perform in 2022, one solo in Cheltenham, the other as 'support' for Squeeze at this very venue in Bath. No way was I going to miss a third chance to see the man for the first time on stage.

On my last visit to The Forum in October 2022 to see Angel Olsen, I entered a cycle of hell trying to find a parking spot and ended up missing a chunk of the support act. I was determined not to let that happen this time. Aside from a kerfuffle with an obstinate car park ticket machine, I made good time and was in my seat in the Upper Circle around 7.15pm. I had a good view of the stage and looked forward to the evening ahead.

The pre-show music turned out to be a selection of songs, with the occasional link, DJ-style, by the good Doctor himself. The Upper Circle was looking alarmingly empty as the sounds of Mike Garry and Joe Duddell's St Anthony: An Ode To Anthony H Wilson piped through the PA. And then, bang on 8pm, as the music ended, Mike Garry walked on to the stage. 

I'll confess that, beyond the above song and superlative reviews of his performances by Swiss Adam over at Bagging Area, I'm not familiar with Mike Garry's poetry. I deliberately avoided watching any clips on YouTube as I wanted the experience of seeing and hearing everything for the first time.
I'm not sure exactly how long Mike was on stage - at a guess, around 45 minutes - but I was completely focused from the moment he opened his mouth. Unexpectedly - well, for me at least, having not seen him perform, the set was poems interspersed with anecdotes and commentary...and singing. It all works beautifully and seamlessly, Mike making use of the stage, wandering around, his voice drifting in and out depending on his proximity to the mike stand but not a single word or note missed or wasted. 
By coincidence, Swiss Adam also saw Mike perform last week in Stockport and he writes about our similar experiences with an eloquence that I will struggle to match. Where the shows differed was with the audience. "There's no need to ask people to be quiet while he's on", writes Adam, "everyone is silent while he speaks and sings." Sadly, not the case with the Bath crowd.

At one point, Mike stops to address the stewards. "Excuse me, can you tell the people in the bar to shut the fuck up or come in to hear some poetry?"

It's symptomatic of a far-from-full venue - I can't see the stalls but Mike also comments on the empty front row(s) ("They've only come to see John Cooper Clarke") - and people who are more interested in schmoozing in The Forum's bar, that many have perhaps only come along tonight just to say "they were there" and have no interest in the either the poet or the performer. Ironically, John Cooper Clarke will again comment on the still-empty front row(s) later in the show.

Their loss. For those who bothered to turn up, Mike Garry delivers a compelling, astounding performance, his ability to change rhythm and pace, from spoken word to storytelling to song woven so seamlessly that it feels like it's all part of the same narrative. Which it is, of course. As Mike returns to St Anthony, I wish he was only half way through his set and not at the end, closing with the wonderful What My Ma Taught Me. No other word for it, he was superb.

Some rather more attentive soul has posted Mike's setlist online.  
1) Spring Tides
2) Think About It
3) Penny For A Guy
4) Signify
5) Pay As You Go
6) Son
7) St Anthony: An Ode To Anthony H Wilson
8) What My Ma Taught Me
After a short break, there is a shuffle back to seats. My view remains largely unimpaired: of the block of twenty-odd seats that I find myself in, barely half of them are occupied, even when Johnny Green, former road manager for The Clash and epitome of OAP cool in thick-rimmed glasses, suit and gravelly voice, walks onstage to announce the headline act. 
And then it's John Cooper Clarke's turn. Huge grey cap and matching jacket, pipe cleaner black jeans and shiny black shoes and - of course - shades and jet black long hair erupting from the base of his cap. I'm twenty-odd years younger than Dr. Clarke and wishing I could look half as good.

Like Mike Garry before him, John Cooper Clarke's performance is well honed and a seamless mix of anecdotes, poems and, yes, singing too, his accent intentionally switching between Salford and New York when the moment demands. John unapologetically references the songs, films and TV shows of his youth, giving explanations or context for some, for the benefit of the younger audience members (though, of the still-sparsely occupied Upper Circle, the prevailing hair colour/'style' is white or bald). 
Beasley Street is backed and juxtaposed with Beasley Boulevard, 1970s squalor jet washed and demolished to make way for urbane 2020s living, which struck a chord in the "posh" environs of Bath. Mike Garry joked about "paying £400 to park here" tonight. In a previous job, I worked in Bath with people trying to break a cycle of substance misuse, so I see the detox hostels, the night shelters and street homeless that exist side by side with the obscene wealth and waste. These two poems and the way that John performed them really resonated with me.

The biting social commentary has always existed alongside humour and the Doctor is a very, very funny man, his stories and preludes littered with groan-inducing one-liners. He's also entertains with poetry form and structure, including half a dozen Haikus, all brilliant.

The 'hits' are saved for the end, inevitably closing with Evidently Chickentown, before leaving the stage to rapturous applause. The stage is empty for what seems like barely a minute before John Cooper Clarke is back. "I was gonna milk it", he tells us, ‘but there were stairs involved."
And so, there is a two-poem encore of perhaps his other most well-known works. A common misconception is that Twat is about Margaret Thatcher. It was written before she became Prime Minister and was focused on another MP - I forget who - but frankly has a timeless relevance to any number of Tory MPs, past or present. John hurtles through the reading at even more breakneck pace than the recordings I'm familiar with, holding the mike out for the audience to deliver the titular last word.
The final words of the night are - perhaps unsurprisingly, given that it's also the title of his autobiography - I Wanna Be Yours. I might be the only one on the planet who hasn't heard Arctic Monkeys' cover version (on their album AM) but like Evidently Chickentown's use in The Sopranos, anything that opens John Cooper Clarke to a new and wider audience can only be a good thing. With that, he says a final farewell, exits the stage and the house lights come back on.

I emerge, blinking into the lively Bath city Friday night, feeling like I want to do it all over again. A brilliant, challenging, hilarious, emotional and mentally nourishing evening. If you have an opportunity to see either - even better, both - then grab it without hesitation. 

As above, the setlist was posted online in record time:

1) Hire Car
2) Get Back On Drugs You Fat Fuck 
3) The Luckiest Guy Alive
4) Bedblocker Blues
5) Lydia, Girls With An Itch
6) Necrophilia
7) Home, Honey I'm High 
8) Beasley Street
9) Beasley Boulevard
10) Haiku #6
11) Haiku #2
12) Haiku #3
13) Haiku #4 
14) Haiku #5
15) Haiku #1
16) She's Got A Metal Plate In Her Head
17) I've Fallen In Love With My Wife
18) Evidently Chickentown
19) Twat
20) I Wanna Be Yours   
So, it wouldn't be a gig review without an accompanying audio selection. As mentioned earlier, I've only got the one Mike Garry performance (with Joe Duddell) and I've included a radio edit of the Andrew Weatherall remix. Do check out the full length versions of the remix and the original, spoken word (YouTube link above).

I only have a few John Cooper Clarke albums too, so I've chucked in a couple of more contemporary performances (including 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown on Channel 4) and a remix of Evidently Chickentown by the dynamic duo Jezebell. All done and dusted in less than half an hour.
1) Evidently Chickentown (Album Version): John Cooper Clarke (1980)
2) She's Got A Metal Plate In Her Head (Live): John Cooper Clarke (2015)
3) Twat (Live): John Cooper Clarke (1979)
4) Get Back On Drugs You Fat Fuck (TV Performance): John Cooper Clarke (2016)
5) Beasley Street (Album Version): John Cooper Clarke (1980)
6) St Anthony: An Ode To Anthony H Wilson (Andrew Weatherall Remix - Radio Edit): Mike Garry & Joe Duddell (2015)
7) Evidently Chickentown (Jezebell's Cold Turkey Edit By Jesse Fahnestock & Darren Bell): John Cooper Clarke (2022)
8) I Wanna Be Yours (Album Version): John Cooper Clarke (1982)
If I Could Have Just One Wish... (26:44) (Box) (Mega)


  1. Seems like you had a great evening at the event, Khayem. Sadly I had no possibility to watch him. Maybe because in Germany only a few persons can understand his words and poems. So I'm happy about your collection. And if only one should matter than it will be Twat.

    1. Many thanks, Walter. In the spirit of 'never say never', I hope you do have an opportunity to see John Cooper Clarke perform one day.m It took me a very long time but I'm glad I did.

  2. Excellent review.I've only seen the good Doctor twice back in my student days and then supporting the Fall.
    I really should make the effort to see him again.

    1. That must have been quite something, CC... twice! I'd heartily recommend a revisit, not least because Mike Garry seems to be a regular touring partner and he was brilliant too.

  3. Oh wow, I am so envious. A few weeks back I just randomly said, "Ooh, I wonder if JCC is doing any tours this year" because we'd recently been tuning in to a few clips of him, only to look it up and find he would be at the town 12 miles from me the very next night! Of course it was all sold out so we were kicking ourselves. It was almost worse, being so near and yet so far, one of those "if only..." moments. I've added myself to his mailing list now.
    Anyway, wonderful to read this lovelyreview and get a little closer to his live performance through you!
    I have some catching up to do re. Mike Garry too.

    1. Thanks, C. Too often I've only found out about a gig a day or so before and by then, either ticket availability or logistics have ruled it out. Not being able to see JCC (twice) in 2022 motivated me to get tickets in advance this time, though judging by the empty rows on Friday, incredibly this was perhaps one of those nights where you could have rocked up on spec.

      And yes, being introduced to Mike Garry firstly through Swiss Adam's reviews and then a first hand experience was a very good thing. I'm looking forward to reading - and seeing - more of his work.

  4. Great review Khayem, glad you enjoyed both but especially Mike Garry who should be better known than he is. Amazing there were empty seats

    1. Thanks, Adam. Yes, I agree that Mike deserves much greater recognition... at the very least greater respect from the ticket holding audience members hanging out in the bar during his performance.

      I was shocked by the number of empty seats. I wonder how many were actually sold and the holders then made other plans and just didn't bother turning up. I've experienced this before at some theatre shows in Bath and Bristol. Not everyone is affected by the cost of living crisis, I guess...

  5. Have to say, it was a total contrast when the duo came to Glasgow on a Sunday evening, in mid-May 2023. There wasn't a spare seat in the house (capacity of the venue was just over 1,000) and Mike Garry was treated, played in front of a respectful and silent audience.

    Indeed, when he went to the merch stand immediately after his set, there was such a queue wanting to buy his books and chat to him that the start of JCC's set had to be delayed by 10 minutes and even then, Mike had to tell quite a few folk to return to their seats he'd come back at the end of the night to sort out more sales and chats.

    Sets in Bath appear to be identical to what was played in Glasgow. Oh, and I bought myself a bright orange 'Twat' t-shirt, while Mrs JC got herself a black t-shirts with JCC's face on it. Have already worn mine to a couple of gigs to nodding approval from audience members.

    1. In fairness, there was a massive queue for Mike's signing at the merch stall during the interval and post-show, to the extent that I didn't get there on first attempt and sadly couldn't hang around after the show.

      Kudos on the JCC T-shirt purchases though, JC. Great choices!