Jarvis Cocker is late. The dog walker didn’t turn up on time and he arrives at the London Library looking worried, even though he already rang to apologise. “I’m flustered,” he announces, pulling off his beanie and unwinding an elegant scarf. He’s dressed in a pleasingly autumnal palette of oranges and browns. Still skinny as a rake, salt and pepper hair uncombed, his bag full of books, the epitome of the rumpled dandy about town.
We’re here to talk about his memoir, Good Pop, Bad Pop. But don’t expect tales of Britpop debauchery. It’s an account of his upbringing in Sheffield, his protracted, passionate apprenticeship in the foothills of pop, and it ends in 1985, years before Pulp exploded into mainstream visibility. He chose the library because the book hinges around his own collection, which is substantial, though far stranger than these venerable rooms of leather-bound volumes. The Jarvis Cocker archive – as I’m sure he wouldn’t call it, being temperamentally averse to pomposity – has spent the past two decades in a moth-infested London attic, a low, narrow storage space he compares to a Toblerone.
It’s been bothering him for a long time, the knowledge that so many pieces of his past were crammed into a room you couldn’t even stand up inside. What was up there: precious relics or a load of unwanted, mysteriously undiscardable crap? “It’s like that phrase ‘brushing things under the carpet’, isn’t it? I love doing that. But it did prey on my mind, realising I was in some way not dealing with things.” During lockdown he began the gargantuan task of dragging it out into the light.
He’d been planning on writing a memoir anyway, and the ensuing game of “Keep or Cob” (cob being Sheffield slang for chuck, as in “I cobbed him”) suggested a structure. “The thing that makes it a bit more interesting,” he says, “is that because it’s based on real, tangible objects, sometimes it triggered memories that wouldn’t have voluntarily come up. It wasn’t just the party line I was giving.” It turned out he’d been building a time capsule all along. Even the most seemingly worthless objects – a used bar of Imperial Leather soap, a plaster cast of his wonky teeth, a polyester shirt, a green plastic apple – released a rush of memories, undisturbed since the day they were interred. Objects are funny like that. History resides inside them, indiscernible to a casual eye.
The pearl of these excavations was a small beige exercise book, with his mother’s name written on the cover. It contained the Pulp masterplan, written by a 15-year-old Cocker before he’d so much as figured out how to play a chord on a guitar, let alone appointed band mates or written any songs. It includes a detailed breakdown of the Pulp wardrobe (“garish” T-shirts, drainpipe trousers and “rancid” ties), plus the chords to Annie’s Song by John Denver (“Credibility. Blown”). Best of all, there’s a cartoon of a cleaver labelled “Pulp Inc”, poised to sever a fist marked “Major Record Label”, which is gripping a squashed-looking “Repressed Artist”.
This is quite an unusual vision of creative success for a teenage boy, I suggest. “I wasn’t just saying I wanted a yacht and loads of money. I was saying: ‘Yes, we’re going to change the structure of society.’” He laughs ruefully. “Nice idea.” He’d always aimed high. As a child, his career goal was astronaut, superseded post-puberty by pop star. For a shy, lanky kid with glasses and bad teeth, forming a band was a way of being in a gang. “And I really wanted to have friends.”
Starting Pulp was a way too of alchemically transforming everyday existence into a more fantastic version. Several times in our conversation he touches on his persistent desire to live inside the TV, a zone of adventure populated by dinosaurs, Daleks and the Monkees. “I realise that image doesn’t work so much now because TVs are just flat screens. But when they were boxes you kind of thought – what’s in it? You could almost imagine fitting inside it.”
It was punk that offered a way in. Suddenly you didn’t need to master complicated chord structures; suddenly being weird was a potential source of power. Elvis Costello legitimised NHS specs, while the Fall and the Slits could barely play their instruments. The young Jarvis would lie in bed listening to John Peel under the covers, poised to capture any song that gave him what he still calls “the tingle” on his radio cassette recorder.
There’s something deeply endearing about these early exploits, a lost world of fanzines and flyposting. Pulp’s first gig was in the school assembly hall during lunch break, ticket price 20p. They wore matching outfits made by Cocker’s sister out of psychedelic material discovered in the school stock cupboard. The show opened with a “distinctly underwhelming” light show by their chemistry teacher, which might have been more dramatic if they’d thought to close the curtains. Undeterred by this exercise in humiliation, they carried on performing around the city, slowly working out how to produce a listenable song and play it live too, ideally without the singer’s glasses flying into the drum kit as he flailed joyfully on stage.
This isn’t the first time I’ve met Jarvis Cocker. The first time was on 5 March 1993, when Pulp played Portsmouth’s South Parade Pier with Saint Etienne. I was 15 and had snuck out with a friend who was forbidden to go. We met the band outside, admired Jarvis’s kipper tie and were settling in for a night of dancing when the lights went up and a voice announced that two underaged girls were in the building. We laughed at those losers, before looking up and seeing my friend’s incandescent father. It was among the most mortifying experiences of my life.
In retrospect, there’s something more than a little Pulpish about this scenario. Embarrassment is always rubbing and groaning up against glamour in their songs, threatening to topple it entirely. Cocker’s lyrics are strewn with bus depots, gasometers and corner shops, the bathetic staging posts in an electric landscape of sexual fantasy and failure. He imbued the Sheffield suburbs of Catcliffe, Ecclesall and the Wicker with the same seedy glamour as Serge Gainsbourg’s Montmartre or Lou Reed’s East Village.
The realisation that it was possible, even desirable to write about real, mundane events and places didn’t come until his early 20s. The rest of Pulp went off to university, but he didn’t want to relinquish the pop dream and so was living on the dole, attending “Disco University” two nights a week at a club called The Limit instead of taking up a place at Liverpool to study English. He might have drifted on like this for ever, were it not for accidentally tumbling from the window of a girl he was trying to impress. He fell two storeys, smashed multiple bones and spent months recuperating in hospital. “It knocked everything into a different perspective,” he thinks now. Lying in his hospital bed, he saw that real things “were the only interesting thing. It took a violent fall to earth to make me realise that”.
There’s something about this revelation that recalls Andy Warhol, another prodigious hoarder who likewise made an instantly recognisable look out of features others might have attempted to conceal. In fact now that I look at him properly, Cocker is dressed in the echt Warhol uniform of blue jeans, plaid shirt, specs and a preppy jacket. Both grew up as outsiders in mining towns before escaping by way of art school. Like Cocker, Warhol was entranced by popular culture, in love with the democratic appeal of ordinary proletarian objects. He even wanted to call Pop Art “Common Art”. You could imagine him tapping a sly toe to Common People, as plutocrats squabbled over his screen-printed soup cans.
Cocker first encountered Warhol via a Velvet Underground compilation he bought as a teenager in HMV. Intrigued, he got Popism, Warhol’s deadpan memoir of the 1960s, out of Sheffield library. As he says in Good Pop, Bad Pop: “The Pulp idea – the concept that you could find artistic depth & sustenance in the things other people throw away – wouldn’t have been possible without my exposure to this record & ideas from the scene that gave birth to it. Pop was empowerment. It was accessible to everyone.”
The problem with pop is that it necessitates being popular. Warhol was fascinated by fame, especially the eerie way it converts a person into a spectacle. You’d hope that someone who spent over a decade trying to become a pop star would like it when they did finally succeed. This is where Cocker’s memoir becomes a little melancholy. It leaves him at 22, still doggedly pursuing his outsize dream. But by the late 1990s, he’d been catapulted to the heart of fame, the chased-down-the-street-by-paparazzi, can’t-go-to-the-shops-for-a-pint-of-milk version. In a recent interview, his girlfriend at the time, the actor Chloë Sevigny, said she designed her entire subsequent career out of a conscious desire to avoid that sort of frightening, annihilating fame.
How did he navigate it, the forcible switch from observer to observed? “I don’t know if I did navigate it. Fame in our times has taken the place of heaven in past belief systems. You think that your life’s a bit drab or it’s not really working, but if you’re famous you’d be at the front of the queue, you’d be at the best table, all this kind of paradise. So to experience this thing that’s got this weird belief system around it – and also this belief system you’ve constructed yourself – it’s never going to be what you thought. I didn’t end up in the telly.” He pauses to consider. “To turn your nose up at it doesn’t seem right because you do want people to engage with what you’re doing. But it’s the other bits. It’s the being observed part that wasn’t so good. I prefer to be furtive.”
The conversation moves on, but later he circles back to it by way of a brilliant rant about The X Factor. He never liked the idea of the mentors. What was exciting about the show, he thought, was the kids themselves, their energy and ferocious desire. “It just makes it so dull if there’s some grownup in charge who’s going to tell you how to do it. The exciting thing is that anyone can do it. Most music came from really abject origins. It doesn’t come from comfortable surroundings. So it’s not like ‘let’s make it accessible so some lower-class people can join in’. That’s where the power of it is coming from. The thing that makes it exciting, that takes you away, is that it’s come from frustration and somebody wants to blast through it into somewhere else. And sometimes they do.”
Furtive is a great word. Even better when said in Cocker’s distinctive, lugubrious tones. Furrrrtive. There is a furtive quality to old Pulp songs, something damp and libidinous, but also vulnerable and awkward and comical. They’re about fancying people who don’t fancy you, or getting off with the wrong girl while eyeing up the right one. Their erotic frequency ranges from the breathless adolescent voyeurism of Babies (“I hid inside her wardrobe, and she came home round four, and she was with some kid called David, from the garage up the road”) to the bleak incantatory rites of This Is Hardcore, a song that for all its Peeping Tom posturing is really about getting fucked by fame.
It struck me, listening to these songs again in the harsher lights of the present decade, that sexual expression has changed drastically in the intervening years. Nobody could call them innocent (I tried “wholesome”, and saw Cocker visibly recoil), and yet they are artefacts from a more innocent moment, before the weaponisation of adolescent male sexuality by way of the incel movement, which has seen sexual incompetence or failure become yoked to extreme misogyny and entitlement.
Cocker is only vaguely familiar with this concept, and openly appalled by it. He thinks the representation of sex has undergone a troubling shift since his own teenaged years. “Sex has disappeared from the mainstream. There was nudity on the telly when I was younger and I was grateful for that. You would get quite good films, like an Antonioni film, which had sex but was also about human relationships. The message was sex is part of life. Whereas now if you want sex you have to go to a porn site and it’s going to be horrible, and it’s not part of life. So it’s like sex exists in some weird place that is separate to life. Which isn’t true.”
In the book he describes trying to provide some kind of sex education for his own adolescent son, to the mortification of both parties. It worries him, the fact that sex and life have become so severed. “Because what you’re dealing with is you get those feelings, those instincts, at a certain age and they are strong feelings and you’ve got to deal with them in some way and if there are no clues except some kind of foul thing online where you start to think of people as objects, and why aren’t I getting my sex that I was promised – or whatever, I don’t know what those people think.”
Yes, I say, they talk about the right to sex. “No, that’s a horrible thing. But for me, that couldn’t happen because of being brought up in a very feminine environment. So when I started to feel … urges, because I’d been brought up in a very female-dominated environment, there was no way I was going to start thinking of women as objects.”
There’s a photo of the young Jarvis at the age of seven, in tiny blue shorts and flip-flops, completely surrounded by women of all ages: sister, cousin, mum, gran, aunts. His dad had just left, abandoning the family and moving to Australia, literally as far away as you could get. Lots of people hoard and make art to fill some kind of nagging gap, and Cocker is certainly aware of the “hole” left by his father. He grappled with it too in 1998’s A Little Soul, in retrospect one of the most beautiful songs and especially videos Pulp ever made, about a father with nothing to give to his son.
“I didn’t realise when I first called it Good Pop, Bad Pop, that could be about my dad as well. The only interesting thing about my dad is that he just wasn’t there. I think when that happened, not trying to be Mr Cod Psychologist or whatever, but I think you do look for something to fulfil that role.” It was pop – good pop – that took care of him, providing nurture and nourishment, reassurance and excitement. He feels now that he was born at a lucky moment, when “you could get stuff that would fulfil that role from pop sources.”
Lucky: he uses the word five times over two hours. Not everyone would think of Sheffield during Thatcherism as a lucky place to live, but he describes it as a kind of seething cornucopia for a culture-hungry working-class kid. Take jumble sales, or nightclubs, or university grants, or even the dole. There were so many things to do, so many cheap ways to educate yourself or create something strange and new.
Does he worry about kids now, about the kind of creative education they might have? So many of the resources he relied on have been lost. He agrees, but he also thinks, without wanting to sound “like a new-age guru” about it, that creativity is something everybody possesses. Over the past decade or so, he’s been going round the country giving a PowerPoint presentation on creativity in school assemblies and festivals and village halls. The message is that anyone can do it, if they only pay attention to what they’re already dreaming about. “I’m not a pessimist. I think people do find a way to do their own thing.”
So there’s bad pop and good pop, hunger of all kinds and art as a consistent source of nourishment and pleasure. Several times he mentions that he’s trying to get better at relationships, rather than zoning out in front of the TV and putting all his feelings in a song instead. Clearing out the attic is part of a concerted effort to get to grips with old stuff, on an emotional as well as physical level: to change bad habits, to communicate more instead of escaping into fantasy. “Me ringing you this morning about the dog situation, that was a slight breakthrough,” he announces, surprisingly, “because a few years ago I would have just worried about it. The journey would have been an absolute nightmare. So then ringing, even though I wasn’t pleased about being late, at least I knew I’d dealt with it.”
I can’t imagine many pop stars saying that. Anyway, he’s not planning on changing too much. “Obviously not being a good communicator in personal relationships is bad and can lead to some tricky situations and moral conundrums. But also there’s something really beautiful about using your life as raw material and making it into something that, if you do it right, it’s like a thing that’s there for ever and people can access it and it will do something for them.”
It’s such a democratic vision, good pop. Anyone can participate, anyone can play. It’s not about fame or money, it’s about making something worth sharing, and God knows Jarvis has done that. After we finish he whisks us into the darkened stacks, to view the hundreds and thousands of things that people have made over the centuries. And then he pops to Pret for a quick sandwich, the man who fell to Earth, just as ordinary as you like.
Olivia Laing’s latest book, Everybody, is out in paperback on 26 May