"I used to think trees were dirty" he ponders "because when I was a kid in Salford you'd climb them and come off filthy, it was like you'd been up a chimney…And even if you got a stretch of park you just had to scrape the grass and there were, like, cinders underneath…it was horrible…"
John Cooper Clarke took that overwhelming sense of grime that skunked up the 70s city and used it to tell the world about the Salford experience. In the process he reinvented poetry. Took it out of its poncy parameters and spat it down the ears of a massive new young audience. Here was a bloke with over spiked hair, shades and leather jacket, getting up at punk gigs, machine-gunning words about stuff that everyone recognised, in an accent that couldn't be missed. It was funny. It was clever. It was hard edged. And it rhymed.
The ultimate John Cooper Clarke creation was `uneasy, cheesy, greasy, queasy, beastly Beezley Street, a place `where the perishing stink of squalor, impregnates the walls...' and where everyone's `common problem is that they're not someone else'. In line with the times, the poem has been regenerated, is now called Beezley Boulevard, and, fittingly, its first Salford performance will be at The Lowry in September.
"A poetry programme on Radio 4 asked me to do Beezley Street but no-one particularly wants to hear that again" John explains "So I thought I'd re-write it, give it a makeover – like what happens to neighbourhoods. I just tarted the place up."
The `tarted up' Beezley Boulevard becomes this sterile pretentious place; an `urban splash art ghetto', with `pubs where all the regulars are barred'. Basically, every line encapsulates everything that makes normal people puke at the thought of `loft living' and `urban bases'. Regeneration is reviled as `regime change'. And fiftysomething John Cooper Clarke proves that in the 21st Century he's still the most potent people's poet on the planet.
He's a mega poet who's now on the school curriculum, in all the Proper Poet books and hey, gets invited to do stuff on Radio 4's `Bespoken Word'. But the last thing John goes on about is poetry or the poetry circuit…"I did one or two things in libraries and stuff but it's horrible, it's not entertainment". Or what inspires his poetry – "Couldn't tell ya, if I knew I'd tap into it and do a lot more…" No. When you're talking John Cooper Clarke you're talking rock n roll. Full stop. He started off performing in the steaming pits of punk and the sentiments have never changed.
After 20 years of performing the same material – "I think I carried it to a ridiculous degree" - John hooked up again with his old mate, Blue Orchids founder and ex Fall and Nico guitarist, Ricky Goldshaw, who originally got him onto the punk circuit. He's now handling John's affairs and things have started to move forward again. It's like the fun's coming back. Just before Joe Strummer died they were touring with the Mescalaros, and John's recently supported The Fall and been a compere for Chuck Berry, of all people, in Spain.
"He was on at the Opera House with Jerry Lee Lewis, we went down and, I don't know, we sort of hit it off with Chuck somehow" says John "I'm like `Who does he think I am, Ronnie Wood ?' I'll be it. In fact we went the full Rolling Stones in Spain and I got into the Keith persona because you're entitled to wear a bandana there, it being sweaty and that, so we had the time of our lives.
"Chuck is fantastic, great to watch, even when he's just going through the motions" he adds "It's a shame that My Ding-a-ling is the high point of his act but he really is great."
In Ricky's back garden the duo come on like a quick fire double act, prompting each other with stories of strange Salford characters, mad experiences on the road and exciting plans in the pipeline. Ricky's piling demos onto the CD player featuring John's voice ranging all over the place from trance tracks to funked up sonatas and hard rock rhythms. One of them is a forthcoming single called Dead Man's Shoes, made with Sheffield rockers, Reverend and the Makers, who supported Arctic Monkeys on their last tour. Cooper Clarke can still cut it with the kids.
His work was brought to a new generation last year when someone wrote and performed a biographical play but the pair blocked it going any further than the Kings Arms in Salford. They weren't impressed.
"It was going to tour around the country but it was rubbish" says Ricky "We tried to talk to them but then we lost our rag and said `take it off, you're not having the material'..."
"My mum was called Brenda in it…her name was Hilda" John adds "And there was all this explanatory dialogue `Oh he's been smashing since he's had TB'. It was an excuse for him to put on a nylon wig and do my stuff…No, I didn't go and see it…"
Instead, with Ricky's help, John Cooper Clarke is trying to reinvent himself. There's the music tracks. And there's a stack of new poems. But it's hard.
"I asked someone after The Fall gigs how it was and they said `Just the same as ever'" Ricky recalls "`But they were all new poems' I said `What do you want, he's a f***ing poet ?'"
John looks through his rose-tinted shades, smiles with a gob full of golden teeth, and his usual self-depreciating manner changes just a notch…
"It's a poem. You speak it" he argues "What can you do – stick a brush up your arse and sweep the floor at the same time ?"
With Beezley Boulevard he's just done the literary equivalent of that…The legend lives on…
See also John Cooper Clarke Part 2: On Life in Higher Broughton - click here
A full archive of John's work is at www.johncooperclarke.com