If you were hoping for an autobiography this isn’t it. Jarvis Cocker calls it ‘an inventory’ and insists: ‘This is not a life story. It’s a loft story.’ But anyway it’s as quirky and engaging as you would expect from Cocker and also the most beautifully produced book I’ve seen in years, designed by Julian House. And it does, in its circuitous way, tell us quite a lot about Cocker’s formative years in Sheffield.
The MacGuffin is that Cocker is meant to be clearing out a loft where he’s been storing stuff for years and deciding what to ‘cob’ (chuck) and what to keep. Of course he has trouble cobbing anything, which is why he’s accumulated so much junk in the first place. He is a hoarder. He does, right at the start, manage to cob a 20-year-old stick of chewing gum and a packet of collar supports, but after that he runs into difficulties.
He finds a school exercise book from when he was l5 containing his thoughts on Pulp Fashion: ‘Most groups have a certain mode of dress which is invariably emulated by their followers,’ he pontificates, before sketching the basics – duffle coat, plain shirt, ‘rancid’ tie, pointy boots, silly socks, Oxfam jacket. At that stage he had only just begun to assemble a group, but had already decided to call it Pulp. And then there was the Pulp Master Plan:
The group shall work its way into the public eye by producing fairly conventional, yet slightly offbeat, pop songs. After gaining a well-known and commercially successful status the group can then begin to subvert and restructure both the music business and music itself.
He adds a diagram of a meat cleaver, labelled Pulp Inc, falling on a fist, labelled Major Record Co. Finding this exercise book is a proud moment: ‘Certainly more imaginative than aspiring to a Porsche and a big house. Bravo the 15-year-old me.’
Another book he is thrilled to rediscover is the Sexy Laughs Fantastic Dirty Jokes Book, which he found on a bus seat when he was 13. He was desperate to learn about sex, specifically from a male perspective, because he lived in an all-female household with his Mum, Gran and sister Saskia. His father left when he was seven and emigrated to Australia, so he never saw him. Unfortunately the dirty jokes didn’t teach him much about sex because he didn’t understand them, but he kept the book anyway.
The loft contains many pairs of broken spectacles. He is so short-sighted he often treads on his glasses when he gets up, and tries to remember to put them on a clothes hanger at night. He always believed his myopia was a result of catching meningitis, aged six, but recently his mother told him he was probably short-sighted from birth, and it was only recognised when he started school. When he got his first glasses he exclaimed: ‘Oh, there are holes in the trees’ (he’d only seen them as green blobs before). He was issued with NHS ones, which came with pink frames for girls and blue for boys, but then he saw Elvis Costello and opted for black. He is more lookist than you might expect.
As a teenager he was devoted to ‘the Jumble Life – it felt like you were bucking the system in some way, living on the cast-offs of the consumer society’. All his clothes came from jumble sales, and he also bought bric-a-brac, because it says ‘Pulp to me. Bright. Shiny. Mass-produced. The type of thing you might find in a Christmas cracker.’ A strange brass brooch of a tortoise and a hare makes him reflect:
I’m on Team Tortoise. Sometimes that’s a source of frustration for me. I wish I could be more prolific. I don’t like the fact that it takes me so long to make a record or write a book or clear out a loft. But then I remember how Aesop’s fable ends: the tortoise wins the race.
He hates change: he likes old things. When Marmite started using plastic lids he kept the lid from an old jar and transferred it to each new one he bought. So he is delighted to find in the loft a sliver of Cusson’s Imperial Leather soap, still with its original label. In fact he likes it so much he puts it in a vitrine and calls it art. This makes him believe that ‘I am over my problem with change. I embrace change. (Maybe “embrace” is too strong a word: more like I “awkwardly shake hands” with change.) I can move on.’
Probably the most important find is the guitar that changed everything. His mother had given him her old acoustic guitar, and he started learning chords, but he knew that punk bands despised acoustic. So he was thrilled, aged 13, when his mother’s boyfriend gave him his first electric guitar. This would keep him busy after school for the next three years. He didn’t go to a concert until he was 13 but he listened to pop on the radio and especially the chart shows. He gets annoyed with people who dismiss pop as pap because, he points out, Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ got to No. 2 in the charts (as indeed did ‘Common People’) so it wasn’t all rubbish. And then he stumbled across the John Peel Show on the radio and listened to it devotedly every night. When, finally, he got a band together and made a recording, he took it to Peel and was summoned to play a John Peel Session. This seemed like every dream come true – but actually it didn’t lead to anything, and he would wait another 14 years for his breakthrough.
But he was very determined. When all his school friends went off to university, he deferred his place to study English Literature at Liverpool and stayed in Sheffield, living on the dole in a derelict factory while he worked on his music. In 1985, trying to be Spider-Man to impress a girlfriend, he fell out of a high window and broke his wrist, pelvis and foot, spending many weeks in hospital. ‘I credit this as the moment my world view changed profoundly… I found myself eyeball to eyeball with what I’d always been searching for: something to write about.’
From then on he would write about real things that actually happened to him ,e.g. ‘I Scrubbed the Crabs that Killed Sheffield’. And eventually he would go to art college and meet the girl from Greece who had a thirst for knowledge… But that must wait for the next volume. Let’s hope he’s not too tortoise-like about it. This is joyous stuff.
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