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?

An Introduction To Brian Eno: Six Tracks To Get You Started

By Josh Phillips

Brian Eno – 10 of the best | Brian Eno | The Guardian
© Photograph: Brian Cooke/Redferns. Eno, 1972.

Brian Eno is perhaps a name you have heard before. He seems to hang above the edifice of  popular culture; his ideas commonplace today even amongst the changing tides of once-again-in vogue elite cultural tastemakers of the 70s. Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy, Eno.  

The question (who is Brian Eno, anyway?) is best understood through the lens of Eno as a solo  artist. He is, of course, many other things. Producer, visual artist, theoretician, songwriter, song singer, synthesist and sometime-provocateur are but a few of the many guises of Mr. Eno (add to this list the following: mammal, uncle, wine-lover and masturbator, per Eno’s own book A Year With Swollen Appendices). To label the work put out under the name Brian Eno (or simply ENO) as that of a ‘solo artist’ is perhaps misleading, as Eno himself is rarely the sole artist or performer featured  on the records bearing his name alone.  

Instead, the role of ‘Eno the solo artist’ is most clearly understood when analysing his role as a collaborator – mixing the many technical disciplines of his host of collaborators as a kind of master  alchemist in the recording studio, wielding many foreign elements as tools to forge crossover points between the experimental theorist John Cage and the blues rocker Bo Diddley, or the art rock  sensibilities of The Velvet Underground and the cacophonous jazz fusion of Miles Davis. 

The man himself posits the theory of collective ingenuity (or “scenius”) as the driving force behind many of the most crucial works in art history. Looking at the solo career of “the quietest revolutionary in rock”, it is hard to disagree with the idea, as Eno redefined the roles of musician  and producer. He embraced experimentation and spontaneity, while injecting a distinctively flamboyant  avant-garde approach to the cliché and overtly-macho world of 1970’s popular music. Here are 6  tracks to introduce a new listener to the works of glam-rocker/ambient-extraordinaire Brian Eno.  

(Please note: this list features works put out under Eno’s own name in which he is the sole or main artist. Please stand by for a similar piece introducing listeners to his gargantuan back catalog of  collaborative work as a producer and guest performer for the likes of Talking Heads, David Bowie,  Nico, Roxy Music, John Cale, David Byrne and Cluster, to name but a tiny selection). 

Track 1: Burning Airlines Give You So Much More from Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974) 

© Peter Schmidt, 1974.

The opening track to Eno’s second full-length solo LP, Burning Airlines Give You So Much More acts as a manifesto for the album and for this period as a whole for Eno. The scratchy guitar lead  (most likely played by non-musician Eno himself on his Teisco Starway guitar) that waltzes through each refrain is distinctly wonky and chromatic even within the canon of an artist that doesn’t seem  to care too much about traditional harmonic cohesion.  

With lyrics hinting at espionage and long journeys to the far-east, the theme of this song seems to  be more notional and off-the-cuff than allegorical or narrative; but each line does seem to evoke a deeper, more hidden meaning upon closer inspection. “Maybe she will do a bit of spying, with  micro cameras hidden her hair” could be an improvised passage referring to generic Cold War  clandestinity, but it could refer to something more personal. The digging for meaning is optional of course, as this art rock opener is fulfilling enough as an artistic statement without the interference  of personal bias on the part of the over-curious listener. 

Track 2: The Big Ship from Another Green World (1975) 

© After Raphael by Tom Phillips, 1975.

The Big Ship is, in many ways, the fusion of Eno’s two somewhat opposing internal voices in the  mid-70’s. The figure of Eno as a rockstar in the burgeoning art-rock movement has been made  famous by his public persona as the spiritual totem of Roxy Music and synthesist of possible alien origin, but his tendency to craft oblique and evocative instrumental music was well-hidden until his  break with Roxy Music in the early 1970’s.  

This track combines these two personas seamlessly, as Eno uses drum machines, distorted  guitars and synthesizers to craft a slowly-building instrumental that grabs hold of the listener and  doesn’t let go. Seriously, this is one of his absolute best works. 

Track 3: 2/2 from Ambient 1: Music for Airports (1978) 

© Brian Eno, 1978.

Amongst the contributions made by Eno to the greater sphere of popular culture as a whole, none  are more widely recognised and quantifiable than his coining of the term “Ambient” and his  subsequent championing of this emergent sonic philosophy. It is said that ambient music is “as  ignorable as it is interesting” by design, and no album better demonstrates this concept that the  aptly named Ambient 1: Music For Airports, which was originally composed to fill the wide-open  neutral spaces within Cologne Bonn airport. 

2/2 is one of four tracks on the album, and each of the four could have been selected here. 2/2 has  always seemed as though it were the most nostalgic of the four pieces on the LP, however, as the  looped, wordless vocals and thinly-spread piano clusters of the other pieces can hint at a cold lack  of attachment at times. The ARP 2600 synthesiser on 2/2 is warmer, more expansive and more  easily evokes feelings of homeliness by comparison. 

Track 4: Golden Hours from Another Green World (1975) 

© Neal Preston/CORBIS, 1974.

Another selection from Another Green World that draws from a similar sound-world to the rest of  the album with sparse percussion, organ stabs and distant group backing vocals. This song,  however, differs from many others from this period as it showcases Eno’s ability to pen exquisite  lyrics that would be the envy of pop songwriters and folk singers alike. “I can’t see the lines I used  to think I could read between” is as good a metaphor for the loss of one’s youth and changing  perspective as has ever been penned by McCartney, Mitchell or Young. 

The instrumentation here is similar to many other tracks on the album, with this track almost  exclusively being performed by Eno himself, save for two noteworthy contributions by guitarist  Robert Fripp (who performs a staccato, jig-like guitar solo) and Velvet Underground alumni John  Cale on Viola. 

Track 5: Discreet Music from Discreet Music (1975)  

© John Bonis, 1975.

While it may be true that the term “ambient” only gained entry into the popular lexicon following the  release of Eno’s 1978 album containing the word, the truth is that the theory was in development  for some time preceding that. 1975’s Discreet Music (released on Eno’s own label Obscure  Records) is a cornerstone of the emerging genre, and the liner notes of the record elucidate the  way in which the record combines the tranquil and atmospheric feeling of Eno’s art music with the  chance operations and sonic exploration of American avant-garde composers John Cage, Steve  Reich and Terry Riley. The back cover of the LP gives a physical blueprint of the signal chain  through which the piece was recorded, with a diagram displaying the complex studio arrangement  required to give the ever-evolving generative tones heard on the record. 

The length of the piece is also of note. The theoretically-endless, evolving piece has a duration of  over 30 minutes, roughly one whole side of a vinyl record. With this, the piece distinguishes itself  from the popular music of the time and stands alongside longer-form classical works. The length, limited by the physical restrictions of music consumption at the time it was recorded, asks the  listener “did you know I could make this go on forever? if only I were allowed share this with you forever.”.

Track 6: Taking Tiger Mountain from Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974) 

© Brian Cooke, 1972.

The finale of the album that bears the same name, this track is another Eno-ic exploration into the  world that exists between the song form of popular music and the instrumental world of the  classical avant-garde. Layers of guitar and piano subtly grow under synthesised white noise,  imitating the howling alpine wind on a snowy mountainside. 

Eno again summons lyrics heavy with symbolism and meaning; “we climbed and we climbed,  forging lines through the snow”. One does feel as if a the summit is being reached, as the waves of  motion slowly build underneath the chanted chorus and until we can all “take tiger mountain”. This one is a personal favourite, and an often-overlooked essential Eno cut.