Jarvis Cocker: ‘It’s dangerous to believe fame is an improvement on reality’

In 1981, a teenage Jarvis Cocker was pictured in the Sheffield Star holding a plastic tortoise. The photoshoot, in Jarvis’s mum’s living room, was to celebrate his band Pulp being invited down to London to record a session for John Peel’s legendary Radio One show. But it was only when he came across the photograph again four decades later that Jarvis fully appreciated its symbolism.

“I looked at it and thought, ‘what am I holding?’” the now 58-year-old tells Weekend from his home in Shepherd’s Bush. “And then I realised it was a tortoise. Which is crazy – how could I have known at the time I was destined for life in the slow lane?”

Pulp would indeed take the long way round to glory, eventually finding success during the Britpop goldrush of the mid-90s, when the nation finally – and enthusiastically – embraced Jarvis’s witty, waspish tales of furtive voyeurs, adolescent yearnings among the woodchip wallpaper and seedy trysts in Bri-Nylon sheets.

Disinterred from a crawlspace at the end of his attic, the tortoise picture is one of many treasures that form the basis of Jarvis’ terrific new book, Good Pop, Bad Pop – an account of his formative years that’s almost certainly the first showbiz memoir by way of a loft clearance.

“It was kind of accidental, really,” explains Jarvis. “I decided to have a clear-out, and rather than just throw it all in a skip, I decided to look at everything, and take pictures. And as I did that, it gradually dawned on me that, if you put all the things in the right order, it would tell a story.”

Some artefacts – like the school exercise book in which the 15-year-old Jarvis outlined his surprisingly fully-formed manifesto for Pulp’s world domination (“my Dead Sea Scrolls”), are the stuff of proper pop archaeology.

But, for Jarvis, the junk and bric-a-brac – the stubs of Imperial Leather soap and piles of broken plastic novelties – are just as important: from the name Pulp to a fashion sense forged rummaging through the local Methodist jumble sales, he has a lifelong fascination with “society’s cast-offs” and misfits; of finding art and poetry in “the things other people throw away”. (On Pulp’s 1995 hit Mis-Shapes, he proudly identifies among the “mis-shapes, mistakes, misfits, raised on a diet of broken biscuits.”) “Maybe that’s why I’ve held on to all this stuff,” he muses. “There are things in there I’ve been carting around ever since I left home – which is a long time ago now.”

Another photo in the book shows Jarvis, aged seven, surrounded by his immediate family: his mum, grandma, sister and two aunties. His dad having left earlier that year, it was an almost exclusively feminine environment (even the cat, Nif, was female). Did that inevitably shape his personality?

“Totally,” he says. “I mean, it’s hard to quantify, because I’ve got nothing to compare it to. But, for example, when I got to puberty, and started wanting to learn about sex and stuff, I had to do it all through eavesdropping on their conversations.” (Again, it’s hard not to see a direct lineage here to another 90s Pulp classic, Babies, in which the young protagonist spies on his friend’s sister and her boyfriend from inside her wardrobe.) “I was learning it all completely from a woman’s point of view.”

His dad, Mac Cocker, was a radio DJ and occasional actor who’d departed for a new life in Australia. “Again, I’ve got nothing to compare it to,” says Jarvis of life without a father around. “I think kids will just accept whatever the environment is. I certainly never doubted that I was in an environment where the people who were looking after me loved me. It was just an absence, I guess, and it’s only as I’ve got older that I’ve realised that was quite unusual. I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything at the time.”

His mother Christine had dropped out of a fine art degree when she got pregnant with Jarvis – so, although money was tight, it was arguably a more bohemian household than was the norm for working class Sheffield at the time. “There was a bohemian edge to it, I guess,” says Jarvis, cautiously. “My father left a lot of books, which was important. I spent a lot of time climbing onto the bookshelf to pick one.”

Another legacy of his parents’ artistic side is his name, which he hated so much, he used to pretend he was called John. (It didn’t help that, for a while, his mum also insisted on sending him to school in lederhosen, a ‘gift’ from his uncle John’s German in-laws.) ”I’ve asked my mum about the name, but never really got to the bottom of it,” he says. “I know my sister’s called Saskia because that was Rembrandt’s wife’s name, but Jarvis… I think maybe it was some ancient name that they liked.

“But yeah, I really hated it as a child, I thought it was cruel. That’s why, when my son was born [in 2003, to his then wife, French fashion stylist Camille Bidault-Waddington], I was determined he’d have a normal name. That’s why ended up as Albert.”

It was only when punk came along that the young Jarvis fully embraced his exotic moniker. “You had all these people with made-up names like Johnny Rotten and Johnny Moped,” he says. “And I just thought, ‘well I’ve already got a weird name…’”

Punk changed his life in so many ways. “Punk happened at the ideal time for me. I was thinking, ‘I want to be a creative person, how do I do it?’ And then punk came along and said, ‘don’t worry about learning to play an instrument or anything like that – just get on with it.’ That was a brilliant bit of timing, because it gave me permission to join in.”

When I was a kid, I thought that if you became famous, it meant you would live inside the telly.

Jarvis Cocker

When that first Peel Session failed to translate into pop stardom, Jarvis spent much of the next decade “sleeping through” Thatcher’s Britain on the dole in Sheffield. (Technically it was ‘supplementary benefit’, he notes – but “the dole just sounds more iconic”.)

After a long fallow period, in 1985 a re-energised Pulp emerged with a new line-up and a new single, ready for the band’s “glorious second coming”. At which point Jarvis, in an ill-fated bid to impress a girl, fell 20 feet from an upstairs window, fracturing his pelvis, wrist and foot (“Cocker comes a cropper” ran the headline in the Sheffield Star).

In the end, it proved to be something of a lucky break, as it was while convalescing in hospital that Jarvis refined his “magic formula” for pop glory, which he expressed as: ‘Scott Walker + Barry White + Eurodisco + Gritty Northern Realism = The Future’.

The gritty realism came from listening to the stories of his fellow patients – many of them older miners and steelworkers who’d been injured in work accidents. “It was one of those road to Damascus kind of moments,” he says. “I realised that inspiration wasn’t going to come from some mystical, cloudy realm. It was just a case of looking at the world around you in enough detail.”

His love of disco, meanwhile – forged in the neon nightlife of 1980s Sheffield – was one area in which Jarvis diverged from his fellow punks: while they were obsessed with ‘keeping it real’, for him, “pop had nothing to do with reality – it was an improvement on reality”.

“When I was a kid, I thought that if you became famous, it meant you would live inside the telly,” he explains. “And when I got older, something of that idea was still there: that it would be like living in a different dimension, a different realm.

“But that can take you into some really dangerous places – when you think that something artificial is better than reality. It’s like when you watch those amazing old Technicolor films – the world looks more beautiful than it really is. It looks like an improvement on reality, but it sets up a very strange dynamic in life, if you prefer something on a screen to what’s actually happening.”

This is a lesson Jarvis would learn the hard way when, after all those long, agonising years in the slow lane, he finally got his wish, and became a bona fide pop superstar. (Melody Maker even declared him “the fifth most famous man in Britain”, behind John Major, Frank Bruno, Will Carling and, er, Michael Barrymore.)

Though the book ends in the late 1980s (a second volume may follow) Jarvis alludes to the coming hurricane when he mentions The Song That Made My Name. That song, of course, being Pulp’s generational class anthem Common People, the withering tale of a Trustafarian poverty tourist, inspired by a girl Jarvis had met while studying fine art and film at St Martin’s College in London.

Within a month of the song’s release, Pulp found themselves parachuted into Glastonbury’s Saturday headline slot, as late replacements for The Stone Roses. “That concert was just unbelievable,” recalls Jarvis. “It was the very first concert we’d played after Common People became a hit – on the main stage of Glastonbury on the Saturday night. Talk about a Harrier jump jet leap to fame. I think the previous year we’d played at two in the afternoon. The moment when we played Common People and everyone was singing it back… I don’t think I’ll ever have an experience like that again. It was just indescribable, really. A very magical moment.”

But the magic wouldn’t last. Within a couple of years, Jarvis had grown weary of the whole Britpop circus – he still can’t bring himself to use the B word – and life in the white hot glare of fame (complete with movie star girlfriend, Chloe Sevigny) suddenly felt less like an escape than a trap.

Then there was the Michael Jackson incident. Incensed by Jackson’s faux-messianic performance at the 1996 Brit Awards, Jarvis famously invaded the stage, and wiggled his bottom at the self-proclaimed King of Pop. He was hauled off to be interviewed by the police, on suspicion of assault (even though there had been no physical contact with either Jackson or the children surrounding him on stage), while a slightly worse-for-wear Bob Mortimer called on his former career as a solicitor to offer legal representation.

Though most now remember the episode with amusement, Jarvis himself was traumatised by the accompanying furore, which he credits with contributing to a nervous breakdown. “I don’t really talk about that, because I don’t like to think I’m trying to milk it for anything,” is all he’ll say today. “But yeah, it had a big impact on my life for sure. And not a particularly positive one.”

If Pulp’s million-selling 1995 Different Class album is considered a high watermark of Britpop, then 1998’s anxious This Is Hardcore marked the start of a 30-year hangover, which most of the main players have spent trying to distance themselves from the whole thing.

“When it started, we thought it was going to be something exciting and interesting – that something a bit left-field was going to happen in mainstream culture,” says Jarvis. “Being in London at that time – in The Good Mixer [pub] in Camden, meeting other people in bands and feeling a camaraderie and shared purpose – all that was brilliant. Then Union Jacks started appearing – it started to become this jingoistic kind of thing – and then it got co-opted by Tony Blair trying to jump on the bandwagon. It just got hijacked. And then a few years later you’ve got Geri Halliwell in a Union Jack minidress. And then unfortunately Robbie Williams happens, and you know it’s all over.”

Jarvis has spent the subsequent two-and-a-half decades shuttling between Paris, where Albert lives, and the London home he shares with his girlfriend, art director Kim Sion. During that time, he’s parlayed his reputation as one of pop’s most celebrated men of letters into an eclectic career taking in everything from solo records and a Sony Award-winning radio show to being an editor-at-large for Faber, and even creating an album of nature sounds for the National Trust. He’s guest edited Radio 4’s Today programme, appeared on Question Time and in a Harry Potter movie, and there’s an animated version of him in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox.

“I think my life has tended to oscillate between two poles,” he reflects of his journey to this point. “There’s this idea of wanting to escape and be a spaceman or something, or escape into TV-land or celeb-land. And then there are these bumps, these falls to Earth – like that fall from the window – where I realise ‘actually no, real life is where it’s at’. I hope I’ve become more stable. I wear lead boots when I’m walking down the street now. I can’t float off any more.”

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

An edited version of this article was published in Waitrose Weekend on 19 May, 2022 (c) Waitrose Weekend

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