The intricacy of detail he supplies is staggering, right down to his uncle’s “beautiful pale-blue and cream Dansette”, and you start to wonder: is he going to tell us everything? Apparently yes, because he’s forgotten absolutely nothing. This is the Lancashire lad as mohair-suited Proust, weak of lung but iron of will, plotting his course from antic poète maudit to punk laureate with all points in between. Be warned, however: he doesn’t actually take to the stage until page 203. Before that come screeds of reminiscence about his hungry years and his frequent changes of career.
There are laughs on almost every page, although the course of his happy-go-lucky life takes a decidedly dark turn after he achieves success by throwing his lot in with the punks. “There were uglier and more drug-dependent people than me at CBGB after all, and they seemed to be doing all right. I wanted my slice of that slutty, messed-up glamour pie,” he writes. Fame, he ruefully observes, is destructive: “You’d have to be some kind of a monster, a sociopath, for it not to devastate your personality.”
As a writer of comic prose Clarke is the match of anyone alive, and his turns of phrase are as sharp as his suits (the view over 1950s Manchester from the fire escape behind his house was “Coronation Street for a million miles”). His drawl is as much a part of his peculiar ars poetica as the words of the poems themselves. Every sentence he writes, you read in his voice. By the end of the nearly 500 pages of I Wanna be Yours I felt I’d not so much read a memoir as listened to an outrageous confession from a psychoanalyst’s couch. The only comment that remains to the therapist is: “All right, Doctor Clarke, but how did all that make you feel?”
It’s impossible not to hear Clarke’s voice, rhythmic and deadpan, while reading his memoir. Like his poetry, his prose style is wry and dry. At nearly 500 pages, the book is long though the language is succinct. Mad anecdotes and whimsical gags abound, but wisdom often lurks beneath the wordplay. Clarke has his unreconstructed moments – there is jovial mention of “whores” and “nancy-boys” – but any mockery is at his own expense. He recalls a gig supporting Be Bop Deluxe at Glasgow Apollo, where he was met with jeering. He lasted just four minutes before fleeing the stage. “Like all artists I have a delicate ego,” he writes, “and what I require from an audience is a unanimous display of carefully considered adulation.”