Jarvis Cocker wanders through London’s Tower Books and Records like a spy in a foreign country. Close by, music fans are harvesting the racks of pop releases, among them the extraordinary 18-year legacy of his band Pulp.
“You must feel like you’re running the gauntlet,” I whisper. “It’s OK,” he says crisply, “as long as you keep moving.”
The lead singer has acquired a taste for the disappearing act. Aged 35, he’s staging a contradictory battle with stardom, from the very core of his being through to the icy soundtracks and acoustic regrets that characterise Pulp’s latest CD, This Is Hardcore.
Hit him with a direct question about fame, however, and he’ll state that he is “barely at the mezzanine level”. Pulp are [just] a British phenomenon.
Originally we’d arranged to meet at Bungees, a London cellar cafe, but it turns out to be closed. Cocker is disappointed – the area it is in reminds him of his past as an art school student in the late ’80s. We move to a wine bar, where he keeps fidgeting with his watch until he confesses that the American writer, Ken Kesey (famed for One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest and his antics leading the Merry Pranksters), is doing a book signing down at Tower. “Do you want to come?” he asks.
Interviewing Cocker you encounter his diffident intelligence, a humility mixed with self-loathing, and a certain indefinable will. He has cycled to our meeting (cycling is admittedly de rigueur with London groovers right now) and once we check out Kesey, he ends up giving me three hours of his time. When Cocker does encounter the odd fan on our walk through the city and in the store itself, he quietly extends the conversations. He’s at pains to be like them.
Cocker himself is something of the ultimate fan. He slaughtered all comers on Pop Quiz and aside from a fascination for Kesey and ’60s obscurities, he maintains an avid interest in the culture around him, from fronting a new Channel 4 series on “outside artists” to fossicking around the city for books and CDs. He’s declared a moratorium on reading magazines – “it got so bad I’d have opinions on films without ever seeing them” – and is making efforts “to read more novels. I’m about 50 pages into Irvine Welsh’s Filth but it’s too early to say what I think. I’ve also got a copy of [F. Scott Fitzgerald’s] This Side of Paradise by my bed. A friend says it’s perfect for me,” he says, raising his eyebrows.
The oily brown hair, the sallow skin, the burgundy polyester of his matching shirt and slacks, the slightly hunched posture of a man used to diminishing his own height … he’s cool in the way that all suburban dreamers are when they’ve managed to transform themselves into something exotic and uncertain. At heart, there’s the polite Sheffield lad with permanently damaged eyesight from a meningitis attack when he was five, the young man who didn’t lose his virginity until he was nearly 20.
It is hard to recall this is the same strutting creature who dazzled an open-air crowd of 20,000 in North London recently, parading like a cross between a refined Iggy Pop and a strange, venal bird.
“Being on stage is about the only exercise I get,” he says dryly.
Poor sales and uncertain critical responses for This Is Hardcore and a pair of stunning, if uneasily beautiful, singles (‘Help The Aged’ and the chilling title track) have been cited as benchmarks for the death of the Britpop phenomenon. But Cocker was “gutted” by the popular rejection of This Is Hardcore as a single, probably the most ambitious gesture of his recording career.
This Is Hardcore is a dark, epic world away from the almost vaudevillean, kitchen-sink wit of 1994’s His ‘N’ Hers and 1996’s Different Class. Its alienated sex fantasies, fears about aging and droll confessions don’t fit the pop mould at all. And yet it is this material that the band – Nick Banks (drums), Candida Doyle (keyboards), Steve Mackey (bass), Mark Webber (guitar, keyboards) and Richard Hawley (a guest guitarist from The Longpigs) – attack with a devouring intensity in the live arena. And although one can immediately sense a quantum leap between most of the pre-Hardcore material and the orchestral, marooned density of songs such as ‘Seductive Barry’, it is clear that, for Pulp, this is the way to go.
“Pop music traditionally deals with young flash things but pop music itself is middle-aged,” Cocker says. “I just want to find a way of being an adult without it being boring. I don’t want to continue acting like a teenager for the rest of my life because I can’t hack it, you know.”
This Is Hardcore may sound bleak, but it combines all the glamour, sophistication and decadence of Pulp’s major influences: Roxy Music, The Walker Brothers, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, glam rock and John Barry’s James Bond movie-theme urbanity and drama. Or, as Cocker sings: “This is our music from a bachelor den, the sound of loneliness turned up to ten.”
It’s been a long trip to the lizard lounge. Pulp actually made their first album, It, in Sheffield in 1980 and did a live- to-air for DJ John Peel when Cocker was only 17. It would be quite a while (and several albums) before success came their way again.
Frustrated with his band’s progress, Cocker left Sheffield for art school in London. But the urge for making music never went away. “I heard the other day that crocodiles can slow their heartbeat down to three times a minute if they’re conserving energy. That was kind of like what we [Pulp] were doing – we weren’t actually dead, we just looked like we were.”
With his National Health Service specs and geeky cool, Cocker made his name as “the Mike Leigh of Britpop”, securing hit after hit from the mid-’90s with songs about hiding in a cupboard to watch his girlfriend’s sister having sex (‘Babies’); losing your virginity (‘Do You Remember The First Time?’); taking drugs at a rave (‘Sorted For E’s and Wizz’); and the tale of a northern lad being seduced by a female art student interested in some lower-class experiences (‘Common People’). The last song virtually became the anthem of 1996.
“‘Common People’ transformed things for us in this country. It seemed to enter the public imagination,” Cocker says.
This Is Hardcore is an about-face, a blow against that “imagination” and any possibility that Jarvis Cocker could continue in the role of Britpop’s quirky jester, the man who waved his arse to Michael Jackson on stage at the 1996 Brit Awards.
Of fame, he would later tell Time Out magazine: “It would be great to walk into a club like John Travolta does in Saturday Night Fever and have everyone give you a high five and yelp ‘hello’, but the reality is some pissed-up bloke going, ‘How’s your mate Michael Jackson, eh?'”
It brought other dubious rewards, too. A 1996 Sunday tabloid kiss-and-tell expos of a fling he had with a make-up girl. Of this he says, “You really have to keep it locked away. You don’t want to do a Clinton, do you?” Even more painfully, a tabloid newspaper in Australia tracked down his estranged father in Darwin. Cocker hadn’t seen or heard from his father since he was seven. They offered to pay Cocker’s air fare to visit him. Cocker quietly declined.
It’s an awkward subject. “I only met my father face-to-face this year for the first time. It’s a personal thing. Something that can only be worked out by the two of us. The papers only cloud the issue,” he says, before holding each word like a blow, “it’s … not … right.” To add to the events of the two years leading up to This Is Hardcore, Cocker also broke up with his long-term girlfriend. He is now single. Again, there’s that sense of Cocker being hit by his own words as he speaks.
“It’s not the best thing to happen to you if you want to keep the relationship together … to be successful.” Help The Aged and A Little Soul were inspired by his encounter with his father. In the latter, Cocker sings: ‘You see your mother and me, we never got along that well/I’d love to help you but everybody’s telling me you look like me/I’ve had one, two, three, four shots of happiness/ I look like a big man, but I’ve only got a little soul.’
“I know it’s boring,” he says, hating the moaning rock star image as much as recent depictions of him as “a porn- fixated heroin addict”. “But you do get a distorted view of what life’s about, chasing this thing called success. When you get it you have to ask, ‘Is this it?’ There’s a loss of innocence.
“Pornography seemed like an appropriate comparison. Because it takes all the romance out of romance. It’s like there’s always a forward urge in people’s lives to go deeper. That when you get there it’s going to be better.” He talks about the process of reflection, the way “you accumulate a lot of stuff, then sit in a room and instead of taking more stuff in, you dredge it out. It’s like you get too cluttered.
“Your 20s are a period of exploration, finding out who you are. But you do have to cut back on experience. And find some kind of order instead of leaving stuff strewn about everywhere. When you are young you don’t understand that. Secretly at the back of your mind, you’re quite pleased to go through trauma. It gives you something to write about. You might even see something noble in it. But as you get older it just f – – – s you up. It does you in.
“I hate the consumer-based society,” he says. “Everything is based on consumption, using something and throwing it away. It’s no surprise divorce rates are rising. People do the same with relationships.” The restlessness that burns away in him found some respite in his work for Channel 4. “I first read about outside artists in a book by Roger Cardinal when I was a student. It’s stuff made by people who’ve never had any training: people who are in institutions or people who are isolated, usually.
“They’re pleased that people look at their stuff. But that’s not the reason they made it. It’s more that they feel compelled. They say they had a dream, or that God made them do it. In the me, me, me world of popstardom, who has that attitude? “
This story was first published under the title ‘Pulp Friction’ in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Spectrum pages, 18.09.1998.