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
5) Pay As You Go
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
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
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)