John Cooper Clarke, Nico and The Honey Monster: The Bard of Salford’s Brixton Stint, And Why He’s So Skint

A nonsense investigation into the Good Doctor’s finances. It’s 2am…

 © RGR Collection, 1982

By Neve Robinson

TW: Drug abuse, addiction

DISCLAIMER: Before we jump in, it’s worth noting that I’m a huge worshipper at the pointed feet of the Good Doctor. I don’t intend to talk about drug addiction lightly, and I’ve used only really his descriptors of it (which as you can imagine are fairly breezy and borderline humorous). I’ve not seen his bank account, so I don’t know how much or how little moo-la he’s raking in. I’d quite like to, mind. It’s all speculative and in jest, baby, but with some (of course) tragic features. He could be a billionaire for all we know, unwilling to throw a few pennies at a hairbrush or merely a detangler. I just wanted an excuse to waffle about JCC and Nico’s cohabitation for a bit, that’s all...

Beloved punk-poet and general genius John Cooper Clarke has (despite his quasi-celebrity status and sporadic sightings in Dictionary Corner on 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown now and then) never really been a man of much wealth. In his own words, “I ain’t waving the victim flag, but considering the massive impact I’ve had on British culture, it’s f*cking diabolical how poor I am.” While I’m mainly struck by how relatable as statement that is (Robinson’s Records is surely a soon-to-be-staple of the UK music journalism scene now that NME is sleeping with the fishes?!), it also occurred to me how that has bizarrely been the case for a chunk of his career. How can it be that such a revered renegade of his field has, for want of a better phrase, perenially been a bit skint? In his younger, more turbulent years, Cooper Clarke was a notorious heroin addict. Perhaps it can almost chiefly be attributed to this, and his perilous living arrangement with Nico of the Velvet Underground in Brixton, during which time his career took a serious blow and the Good Doctor went into hiding of sorts. Or perhaps the Bard of Salford spent his savings on Sugar Puffs (see below. I’ll explain later on). Regardless, this committed fan is dedicated to a detective’s cause – was it this period that bled the Bard dry? Or is money management just not a forte of the weathered wordsmith?

In the late seventies, it’s no secret that punk proudly ruled Britannia. Safety pins adored the lobes of many a spit-soaked skinhead front row at The Clash’s gigs. The Sex Pistols were sneering at Bill Grundy for being a “dirty bastard” after was leering at Siousxie Sioux live on telly. And the Manchester punk scene was thriving – Magazine, Buzzcocks, and even post-punk icons like Joy Division were emerging whom JCC supported himself. This was a world that Cooper Clarke felt at home in. With his shock of Dylan-esque hair and physique that can only be described as an anthropomorphic stick-figure drawing, he looked the part. And with his Manc drawl, acerbic wit and the possession of a sensational selection of swear words at his disposal, he sounded the part as well. At this point, Cooper Clarke’s career was undoubtedly skyrocketing. He had his only Top 40 UK hit in 1979 with ‘Gimmix! (Play Loud)‘. He supported The Fall and Elvis Costello. He worked closely with dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. It all seemed to be going so swimmingly for the young pin-legged poet. So what was the turning point? By the sounds of it, it was his decline into heroin addiction. He barely performed after 1982 due to this, which he himself attests to – “I didn’t write for ten years. [I was] lost to heroin.” And this lack of creative content arose around the time of his living with Christa Päffgen, better known as German songwriter Nico.

Their cohabitation was for a short spell, reportedly only a few months, in a poky flat in Brixton. It’s unclear how they met, but given that they hung out in similar celebrity circles at the time, it’s likely that it was a bonding based on mutual interests of drugs and words. Though they admittedly look cool as all hell together, make no mistake, it wasn’t a sexual pairing (“heroin isn’t really a sex drug”, Cooper Clarke attests). The two were never at all romantically linked, rather they were in what he refers to as a “domestic partnership”. Both heroin addicts, Cooper Clarke and Nico lived impoverished at this period of their lives; “it was a feral existence,” Clarke explained in a 2012 interview in the Guardian – “I was on drugs. It was hand to mouth.” The two were close friends, and even considered releasing an album of covers under the (working title) of Nico and Johnnie. But alas, their union was a toxic one, as their addictions hindered any hopes at creative craft and worsened each other’s. Initially, their living together “was as settled and domestic as two addicts living in the same place get.” Then, fellow Velvet John Cale moved in for a spell, living infamously off of “vodka for breakfast and then cocaine all the way.” This was the tipping point of the Brixton abode, when Clarke had somewhat of an epiphany.

News got out of Nico living in the neighbourhood. The NME had snapped a scandalous photo of the pair (only joking, it’s the picture at the top), and as a result numerous other addicts began camping outside of the flat and a “tidal wave of j*nkies arrived”. Though Cooper Clarke is grateful in retrospect for the photo being taken because (as aforementioned) it is the proverbial bee’s knees, it made living there and continually smashing drugs unbearable. Cooper Clarke’s finances were dwindling due to the cost of copious amounts of heroin required to function, not to mention the lack of work he embarked on throughout the 80s. What prompted him to move out and to start working again was the poverty that he was living in, as well as his addiction – he had to feed it, which required what The Flying Lizards longed for most – money. So, Cooper Clarke re-entered the comedy circuit by performing again. He took on gigs he wasn’t that keen on taking. As he told the Guardian, “I needed money more than ever, so I had to work. The glamour was flaking off with every new job. I really felt like I was selling my sorry ass.” He likely was referring here to several gimmicky roles he took on in order to nurse his drug habit, roles he wouldn’t have needed to had his career not sadly decelerated due to addiction. That of a DJ alongside the Honey Monster comes to mind (told you I’d explain it). Gradually though, with time and with rehabilitation, Cooper Clarke stopped working to fund this fatal addiction and worked on his kicking of the drug.

The revival of Cooper Clarke’s career is truly something to behold. One can only marvel at his dedication to recovery, and his hard work at maintaining his cold-turkey approach towards heroin. It’s a chapter of his life he’s glad is over, though his poem ‘Get Back On The Drugs You Fat F*ck’ implies his audience thought he was a bit funnier when he was hooked. He tours regularly (I myself have had the pleasure of having an audience with the Doctor thrice, and he puts on a cracking show, let me tell you). He wrote another book with another library of limericks within, The Luckiest Guy Alive. Most inspiringly, really, is how he can talk about this dark period of his life in jest and in his typical humour. It’s a heavy thing, drug addiction, and quite a taboo to talk about. Cooper Clarke strips away that sensitivity that people skirt around addiction with and confronts it head on. He’s quite the positive person, really, and has even acknowledged the tragedy of Nico, too, fairly lightly. She eventually went into recovery, but by 1988 was sadly gone, due to a bicycle accident on holiday. So, this is all very interesting to hear, isn’t it? And very bittersweet, of course. But we’ve still not solved the matter at hand. His career has been reignited – why is he so bloody skint still?

© GQ, 2019

Maybe Cooper Clarke is bluffing. As I say, he could be sat on a goldmine. ‘The Sopranos’ used a song of his in the credits, a feat he proudly boasts at every show of his. Surely that must have made some hefty royalties. And the man offered his services to the Arctic Monkeys, lending them ‘I Wanna Be Yours’. Surely Mr Turner slipped a tenner in Cooper Clarke’s pocket upon meeting? Maybe even a twenty. In fairness, it’s likely he spent a good sum of it on scran. The man loves his pies (see his poem, ‘Pies’). He’s, if you don’t mind my saying so – and he’s backed me up on this in his scribbles – a man clearly struggling with “piling on the pounds”. Perhaps those piles of pennies are going in the pockets of all of the Greggs in the Salford area. Even the grotty one in the Salford Shopping Centre, he’s by no means a snob. I don’t know. Maybe we need to launch a full enquiry into the expenditures of the sole resident of Chickentown (evidently). Or maybe, I need to stop thinking about such completely futile and useless things at 2 in the morning and let the poor fella have a break. He’s a man of the people, and like many of the people, he’s seemingly skint. Makes him even more loveable, no?

I’d like your contributions in the comments, if you’ve managed to make it to the end of this rambling tyrade. Why do you think Cooper Clarke is penniless ragamuffin? Or do you think he’s sitting on more cash than a Southern oil tycoon with a comically large cowboy hat? And most of all, was this unsolved mystery a total waste of my productivity and energy? Probably. But I love JCC, so it’s alright. I’ll leave you with this little treat – it may be bed time for me, but it’s Tummy Time for Cooper Clarke. I wonder if the Honey Monster paid him appropriately?

One thought on “John Cooper Clarke, Nico and The Honey Monster: The Bard of Salford’s Brixton Stint, And Why He’s So Skint

  1. Wow brilliant work Neve. Yes it is indeed a mystery as to why the great Dr JCC is not sitting on a small fortune, or is he ?. It’s subjective however, who knows he may not consider £10 million notes to be a lot of dollar ?

    Do you remember when we went to visit our Ryan and Craig Charles was interviewing him on the radio. 💕

    Keep up the stunning work Neve
    Love Mum x

    Like

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