Who are those people who throw nothing away? What primal insecurities are they acting out? Rock music has many self-confessed hoarders, among them Queen’s Brian May, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and the late David Bowie. Rock hoarders are doing something very specific: they are building an archive of the self. As young people they had a cast-iron belief that someday everything they ever touched would be of great interest – so they carefully stashed it away with a view that it would be laid out, eventually, in a large exhibition in the V&A. But while Paul McCartney has a warehouse of huge proportions for his possessions, Jarvis Cocker has a loft space in London three foot high, with a sloping roof “like a Toblerone packet”, a kind of emotional rubbish tip crammed with “psychic lint”: hundreds of things that mattered to him, and to the story of his band, Pulp.
The premise of this book is that Jarvis will go through his attic deciding whether to keep or chuck the things he finds, and hopefully discover himself along the way. This format is not strictly adhered to, thank God, because the first three things he finds mean nothing to him, and he can’t remember where they came from, so the book takes a few pages to get off the ground – rather as his band did.
In Cocker’s loft are dolls’ faces, a ballerina alarm clock, a plastic apple and reviews of his first show at the Sheffield’s celebrated Leadmill venue, among many other things. One of the most interesting items is the label from a bar of Imperial Leather, with a little bit of soap still attached to it. Jarvis saved this label because he was so upset when the soap’s logo was redesigned – he has always, he says, had a profound aversion to change. In the 1970s, the TV advert for the soap fascinated him, depicting a family aboard the Trans-Siberian Express, enjoying a luxurious sunken bath in their carriage. Cocker’s paternal grandparents lived above a post office near a railway line: as a boy, at night he would look out the frosted window at the trains, lather his hands with Imperial Leather and turn the hot tap ever so slightly so that the pipes juddered violently with a noise like a goose “being tortured in an airing cupboard”. Bingo: his own Trans-Siberian Express. This sliver of soap has as much relevance for him as his chit for the John Peel Roadshow in 1981, when he managed to give Peel a demo tape of Pulp. And this is where Cocker differs from other rock hoarders. He designed Pulp in a science exercise book at the age of 14, before he had any bandmates or could play an instrument. There is no dividing line between him and his band.
Everything Cocker has done, he has done slowly – he often mentions, in Good Pop, Bad Pop, the fable of the tortoise and the hare. Pulp had their first hit in 1994, but they were formed by punk in 1978. In the extreme makeover he gave himself at 16, Cocker’s glasses were modelled on Elvis Costello, and his hair on Ian McCulloch from Echo and the Bunnymen. He did not get famous till half a dozen other musical movements had swept Britain; as a boy he planned that Pulp would break into the music business and restructure it for independent labels: by the time he got there, the independents were becoming – or being swallowed by – majors. On his teen face Cocker is also wearing a tiny strip of beard: he had taken inspiration for this from a photo on the back of a record by Hugh Cornwell of the Stranglers. It is only when returning to the record, for the purposes of his book, that he realises the “beard” was just a shadow in the cleft of Hugh’s chin. The book explores, in a relaxed way, the idea that objects might be full of a talismanic significance which, years later, is revealed as illusion.
I was irked at first by Jarvis’s obsession with style – he worked backwards with Pulp, planning their look first, with no idea how he wanted them to sound. For anyone else as bored by the story of punk as I am, there is little joy to be had in reading about how liberating it was to be in a band without being able to play your instruments (“There was more to music than ability; in fact, ability was part of the problem”). Jarvis describes his coming of age, through pirate radio and John Peel, as though he was the first teenager ever to be inspired by punk’s ethos: I have unreasonably angry notes in the margins of my review copy reading “No shit” and “You’re not the only person to have ever existed!” In his attic, he finds a piece of paper noting the guitar chords to John Denver’s distinctly un-punk “Annie’s Song” and sadly, still, at 58, he writes: “Credibility. Blown.” Cocker’s focus on style is a huge part of him; he’s like a walking Wes Anderson movie. He’s hardly vacuous, though, and he is different. But what is it that sets Cocker apart, if his influences are so obvious? What is this strange paradox he has achieved, finding the original in the unoriginal?
As his memoir progresses, his dogged commitment to self-styling is touching, and his uniqueness begins to make sense. Cocker was not exactly kicking against his environment. His school – the City School in Sheffield – seems to have been a jolly place, with a maths teacher recording Pulp’s gig in the assembly hall and a chemistry teacher providing a light show with burning magnesium; in his sixth-form photo, every 16-year-old is grinning – and Jarvis smiles a smile you rarely saw later on.
Back home, he is very close to his sister – she makes him trousers for the stage. His mother, a former art student and later a Tory councillor, is a hugely present figure from whom he shyly hides his Hugh Cornwell album and his earliest experiments on the guitar: “I was trying to find my own voice without being overheard.” His maternal grandparents live next door and share the same phone line: his granny answers the call from John Peel’s producer, after the roadshow, inviting Pulp to London to record a radio session before they’d even left school. Only his father is absent: he walked out when Jarvis was seven and moved to Australia. Adults lie, adults forget, Cocker says. Mac Cocker would always write birthday cards with the message “I’ve put your present in the post” but the presents never arrived. No wonder there is so much stuff in Jarvis’s attic.
[See also: The joyless rise of Anna Wintour]
A picture emerges of a young punk formed not by rage and alienation but by pop dreams and a predilection for picking away at jumble sales alongside old ladies: “Sifting through the debris to find an alternative to the official narrative. Using second-hand items to tell a brand a new story.”
You wonder if Cocker would have revealed the beloved contents of his loft at the height of Britpop. You suspect not. As a schoolboy he made an acronym of his band: “Pure Unpretentious Loveable Pop”, but that is not quite the Pulp we came to know. Despite his band’s huge popularity in the 1990s, Cocker now says there was something about them that people got wrong. He was never, ever trying to be ironic: he swears it. Can this be true? With songs like “Help the Aged” and “Common People”? With his NHS specs and pursed, unsmiling lips, Cocker was the face of ironic detachment.
But after reading this book, I started to believe him – and it has something to do with those jumble sales, with his attitude to pieces of a discarded past. If Jarvis wore a lime green tank top on Top of the Pops – and I’m not sure he did, this is hypothetical – he was not saying, “Isn’t this tank top gross and hilarious?” He was saying, “I genuinely love this tank top, even if others may think it is gross.” Irony ruled the 1990s, but we used it brutally: it was insecure, and negative, and kept real enthusiasms hidden. Jarvis has, I think, spent his whole life being much more enthusiastic and loving of things than he appeared to be. He always withheld something, and perhaps that made him look cold. In turning out the contents of the loft, he has let the warmth back in.
Good Pop, Bad Pop: An Inventory
By Jarvis Cocker
Jonathan Cape, 368pp, £20
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Jarvis Cocker will be in conversation with Erica Wagner at Cambridge Literary Festival on 19 November. Tickets are available here
[See also: How music helps us to feel]
This article appears in the 01 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Platinum Jubilee Special