Lofty aspirations

It took an editor at his publishers to persuade the former Pulp frontman to ditch the PowerPoint slides about creativity and focus on the memorabilia in his attic

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“I’m just having trouble shutting the door: It keeps reopening on its own, like a little robot.”

Jarvis Cocker’s voice is as recognisable as his look, and almost unchanged despite over 30 years away from his native Sheffield. He’s speaking on the phone from London, the Vauxhall Bridge Road offices of his publisher to be precise, there to sign a thousand copies of Good Pop, Bad Pop, his new book.

It’s a memoir covering formative years, the narrative hung on recollections spurred by ephemera rediscovered in a storage space in a property he owns. As anyone who’s seen or heard Cocker interviewed would expect, it’s a candid, dry, amusing and often abstract work that always entertains and is often quite profound.

The singer, radio presenter and general bon vivant is in his late fifties now and constantly busy. The pinnacle of his pop fame, fronting the only Britpop outfit that really mattered, Pulp, may be a quarter of a century ago but since then he’s rarely strayed from the public gaze, constantly innovated musically and become something of a cultural commentator. Why did he decide the time was right for this book?

“There’s no real way of getting objectivity on your own life but by looking at objects I think I’ve got quite near.”

“Well, I didn’t even think it was going to be a memoir; it was going to be considerably different,” he says. “I’d been doing these PowerPoint presentations and some things from those, about creativity and how it doesn’t matter what’s around you everyone has that ability to be creative in them, did stay in the book. But then an editor at the publishers, Ana Fletcher, pointed out that the part where I talked about the things in my loft was a lot more interesting than the rest of it so, once I’d got over the humiliation of her telling me that and realised what she said was true, I started the writing again. When I went through the loft I was taking pictures of things I uncovered and I knew the book was going to be based around them.”

So the loft is a genuine place, not some metaphorical literary device you’ve employed to hang your autobiography on? “I’m not being labelled a liar at this stage in life!” Cocker counters, his voice filled with (hopefully) mock indignation. “It’s in a house I bought in the late nineties and I lived there for quite a while, but when I moved I just left loads of stuff there. Some friends have been living there for years and I just went back and I had to literally dive into it because you can’t stand up in there. It’s more a storage space than a loft – you have to crawl around, pull stuff out and look at it.”

And exactly what had that younger Cocker opted to squirrel away? Gold discs, framed royalty cheques, awards statuettes and the invoice for his first fully-heated, Olympic-sized, guitar-shaped swimming pool? How about a book of risqué jokes, half a penny set in amber, some perishing carrier bags and a 25-year-old label from a bar of Imperial Leather soap?

“The thing is,” he begins, tentatively, attempting to explain the rather atypical nature of this collection, “the memories these objects did bring back were different from if I’d been sitting staring at a blank wall trying to remember what happened in my life. That would have been me, now, deciding what my life meant. But being faced with evidence, some things I’d forgotten – and some things I’d rather have forgotten – made me accept the fact that at some point I must have thought these things were important and now there was no getting away from them. There’s no real way of getting objectivity on your own life, but by looking at objects I think I’ve got quite near.”

And did Cocker ever seek corroboration for these recollections, some from his childhood, many from those formative teen years? Even with the aid of peculiar props, surely the memories had occasionally become a little obfuscated over the decades. He admits to consulting people who’d lived with him in the dim and distant – “they remembered things, and laughed!” – but Good Pop, Bad Pop is almost all first person reminiscences. He sent a copy of the finished book to his sister – “I’ve not spoken to her yet, maybe she’s fallen out with me. I doubt it” – and his mum reports enjoying it while finding parts highly amusing.

“The thing is though, when you think the past is the past and it’s gone and it’s solid you start to investigate and it’s anything but solid because everyone has their own version of it.

“And I don’t want to do spoilers but there’s a story in the book about my eyesight. I’d always told myself it got all messed up when I had meningitis as a kid, told everyone this touching story about ‘a young child who’d bravely cheated death but his eyesight was ruined forever’ and all that kind of thing. But from my mum I found out it had been terrible before the meningitis and the whole story was just bullshit! I’d rearranged things to tell a great story that never actually happened.”

The book isn’t solely concerned with the minutiae of growing up somewhat out of place in working-class Yorkshire during the late 1970s/early 1980s though, – an artistic, sensitive soul obsessed with music and jumble sales whilst the majority of his contemporaries were more concerned with booze, birds, bragging and brawling. Cocker’s recollections of spending time on the dole, living in perilous, occasionally windswept properties and playing for peanuts in nascent bands of varying worth form something of a sociological record. Although never viewed through rose-tinted glasses, he does document a time when the safety net of signing on and housing benefit payments provided young musicians with space to develop and find out whether they had what it took to make it in the music industry.

“I should imagine it’s terrible for young bands now, because signing on did give you a bit of breathing space, though it wasn’t quite paradise. There were a lot of people who just got lost on the dole because there was no structure to their lives. I did it for four or five years but at the end of that I thought: ‘I need to do something, I can’t keep just doing this for the rest of my life.’ But it did make things possible for young bands. And it was quite funny how you had to pretend you were looking for work.”

Above: Pulp play Glastonbury in 1995. Main image: Jarvis Cocker at the exhibition Good Pop, Bad Pop at The Gallery Of Everything in London. (Mick Hutson/Dave Benett/Getty)

Another beacon of hope for emerging bands back then was John Peel, a man Cocker recalls in moving terms. The influence of the Radio 1 DJ – who for years filled the 10pm to midnight, Monday to Thursday slot with a selection of music that covered almost every base imaginable – is probably hard to fathom for those raised on a diet of instant Spotify and YouTube gratification. Back in 1981 Peel offered an early incarnation of Pulp the chance to record a studio session for his show on the back of a demo tape handed him in Sheffield some weeks previously. In Good Pop, Bad Pop Cocker describes this invitation as “awe-inspiring” and illustrates that enthusiasm with two drafts of his letter by reply, unsurprisingly accepting the chance to head to London and appear on national radio. Both scribbled missives are laughingly naïve yet utterly charming. Cocker can’t remember which version was eventually sent, but this marked the beginning of a relationship between the singer and the hugely influential DJ. Poetically, the very first radio play of what was to become Pulp’s breakthrough album, 1995’s Different Class, was broadcast live from Peel’s house.

Good Pop, Bad Pop draws to a close long before the band and their totemic front man were catapulted to fame by that epoch-marking collection. Cocker actually opts to wind his book up during 1985 by detailing a rather painful chapter in his life. Desperate to impress a prospective girlfriend, during “a pocket of awkwardness” in her flat he decided to exit the property from one exterior window, shimmy along the building and re-emerge into her room through another. Like you do. It doesn’t take Hercule Poirot to deduce what happened next.

“It’s a story I’ve told lots of times but I had to retell it because it was such a turning point in my life really, like a before and after thing,” Cocker states, recalling the desperate stunt that resulted in a long list of broken bones and an extended stay in the Royal Hallamshire Hospital. “It did alter the way I looked at the world – it really woke me up.”

There is talk of a sequel to this long-form debut, though the author admits: “If I do another volume I’ll probably have to go find a few people, make sure they’re OK with it. Like anyone in life, I’ve made a few mistakes and you’ve got to respect people who’ve been part of your life. Maybe I’ll carry on, maybe I’ll even end up writing about things people have heard of.”

Further conversation touches on Pulp’s stunning Glastonbury headlining performance in 1995 – “It’s always going to be one of the high points of my life” – and the prospect of the band reforming, something Cocker likes to leave as a “tantalising conundrum”. He also recalls – as does the book, in hilarious detail – a teenage Saturday job that once entailed selling rancid crab meat to the good burghers of Sheffield.

Through it all, and despite heading toward 60 years old, does he continue to believe in the power of pop music, for good or bad?

“To me, pop is a much broader term than a kind of music and in the book I talk about that pop culture explosion that happened in the 1950s. What I like about pop is there’s a democracy to it – it’s for everyone. I like the idea that anyone can have a go.

“I’m not a class war person who thinks people born into a background with money can’t do good things – I know quite a few of those people – but I just think things are better when everyone’s invited. I don’t want this to be a nostalgic book and I do believe that good things in pop can happen again and I do believe in the creative spirit in everybody. I’d really like to see the interesting stuff in the pop spotlight again.”

Good Pop, Bad Pop by Jarvis Cocker is out now (Jonathan Cape)

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