Poets and Songwriters – John Cooper Clarke and Bob Dylan

What’s the difference between a poet and a songwriter..? Instead of going into a diatribe about it I’m going to use two examples in an attempt to show the difference. John Cooper Clarke is most definitely a poet (whether or not he’s a good poet is another debate). JCC came to fame in the late 1970s and early 80s and inevitably became known as a ‘punk poet’. The recent UK riots got me thinking about JCC, and in particular a poem of his called Beasley Street, from the 1980 album Snap, Crackle & Bop. There’s still some debate as to whether Beasley Street actually exists. What is certain is that JCC was writing about Moss Side, a rough and run-down area of Manchester. Less than a year after JCC penned Beasley Street there were three nights of rioting in Moss Side. The poem is reproduced in full after the following YouTube video of JCC performing it. It’s fun to read the poem while listening to the video. Incidentally, John Cooper Clarke fashioned himself after Bob Dylan. The photo at the end of this post is not Dylan, it’s John Cooper Clarke, taken in 1979.

Beasley Street

Far from crazy pavements -
the taste of silver spoons
A clinical arrangement
on a dirty afternoon
Where the fecal germs of Mr Freud
are rendered obsolete
The legal term is null and void
In the case of Beasley Street

In the cheap seats where murder breeds
Somebody is out of breath
Sleep is a luxury they don’t need
- a sneak preview of death
Belladonna is your flower
Manslaughter your meat
Spend a year in a couple of hours
On the edge of Beasley Street

Where the action isn’t
That’s where it is
State your position
Vacancies exist
In an X-certificate exercise
Ex-servicemen excrete
Keith Joseph smiles and a baby dies
In a box on Beasley Street

The kingdom of the blind
a one-eyed man is king
Beauty problems are redefined
the doorbells do not ring
A lightbulb bursts like a blister
the only form of heat
here a fellow sells his sister
down the river on Beasley Street

From the boarding houses and the bedsits
Full of accidents and fleas
Somebody gets it
Where the missing persons freeze
Wearing dead men’s overcoats
You can’t see their feet
A riff joint shuts – opens up
Right down on Beasley Street

Hot beneath the collar
an inspector calls
Where the perishing stink of squalor
impregnates the walls
the rats have all got rickets
they spit through broken teeth
The name of the game is not cricket
Caught out on Beasley Street

Cars collide, colours clash
disaster movie stuff
For a man with a Fu Manchu moustache
Revenge is not enough
There’s a dead canary on a swivel seat
There’s a rainbow in the road
Meanwhile on Beasley Street
Silence is the code

The hipster and his hired hat
Drive a borrowed car
Yellow socks and a pink cravat
Nothing La-di-dah
OAP, mother to be
Watch the three-piece suite
When shit-stoppered drains
and crocodile skis
are seen on Beasley Street

The boys are on the wagon
The girls are on the shelf
Their common problem is
that they’re not someone else
The dirt blows out
The dust blows in
You can’t keep it neat
It’s a fully furnished dustbin,
Sixteen Beasley Street

Vince the ageing savage
Betrays no kind of life
but the smell of yesterday’s cabbage
and the ghost of last year’s wife
through a constant haze
of deodorant sprays
he says retreat
Alsations dog the dirty days
down the middle of Beasley Street

Eyes dead as vicious fish
Look around for laughs
If I could have just one wish
I would be a photograph
on a permanent Monday morning
Get lost or fall asleep
When the yellow cats are yawning
Around the back of Beasley Street

People turn to poison
Quick as lager turns to piss
Sweethearts are physically sick
every time they kiss.
It’s a sociologist’s paradise
each day repeats
On easy, cheesy, greasy, queasy
beastly Beasley Street

(You can find a more detailed post about John Cooper Clarke here)

Now we get on to Mr Zimmerman. It used to be very difficult to find original Dylan tracks on the likes of YouTube, because Sony Music rigorously enforced the copyright. Just recently Sony have eased up a bit, hence I can now embed Desolation Row, from the 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited. Desolation Row is one of the best pieces of poetical lyricism ever written; but it ain’t poetry. At a press conference in 1965 Bob Dylan was famously asked if he would describe himself as a poet. Dylan replied: “I think of myself more as a song-and-dance man”. Dylanologists write reams and reams about songs like Desolation Row. Bob Dylan is a very talented writer, yet however much you intellectualise it he is not a poet. Once again, listen to the track and read the lyrics reproduced below. Compare it to the much lesser known Beasley Street by John Cooper Clarke. See if you can figure out the difference between poetry and song lyrics…

Desolation Row

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row.

Cinderella, she seems so easy
“It takes one to know one,” she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets
Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning
“You belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place, my friend
You better leave”
And the only sound that’s left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row.

Now the moon is almost hidden
The stars are beginning to hide
The fortunetelling lady
Has even taken all her things inside
All except for Cain and Abel
And the hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love
Or else expecting rain
And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing
He’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight
On Desolation Row.
Now Ophelia, she’s ‘neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row.

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
You would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row.

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They’re trying to blow it up
Now his nurse, some local loser
She’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read
“Have Mercy on His Soul”
They all play on penny whistles
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row.
Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains
They’re getting ready for the feast
The Phantom of the Opera
In a perfect image of a priest
They’re spoonfeeding Casanova
To get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence
After poisoning him with words
And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls
“Get outa here if you don’t know”
Casanova is just being punished for going
To Desolation Row.

At midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row.

They be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
Everybody’s shouting
“Which side are you on ?”
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row.
Yes, I received your letter yesterday
About the time the door knob broke
When you asked me how I was doing
Was that some kind of joke ?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row.

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