Jarvis Cocker spent 16 years having his dreams of pop stardom sneered at by people who said he'd never make it and would linger forever in pathetic, humiliating obscurity. With Pulp now firmly established alongside Blur and Oasis as part of Britpop's triumphant triumvirate, no wonder he's out for revenge.
Does Jarvis feel vindicated? It's an obvious question, but it needs to be asked. Jarvis Branson Cocker, the overnight success who was 16 years in the making; the stick-insect fantasist turned sex symbol; the agonisingly shy boy from nowhere who can now wrap the world around one flamboyantly etiolated finger; the "Voice Of The Eighties", who spent that decade languishing resentfully in acrid obscurity, unheard and uncared about, is now so famous he employs a former member of West Ham's Inter-City firm to protect him from the thumb-sucking pseudo-pre-teens and brutally boisterous boys who want, respectively, to sleep with him and be his best mate.
Such is the price of fame. It's pretty much the way Jarvis dreamt it, when 18 years ago, as a much put-upon weirdo, the bullies' favourite bullee, Jarvis mixed woozily analgesic revenge fantasies with dreams of exhilarating superstardom. Eventually the song that would make him and his band Pulp household names, "Common People", would render celebrity and reprise indistinguishable. Sixteen years. As cold dishes go, they don't come much colder than Cocker's revenge.
Do you feel vindicated? "Yes," he replies. "That is the main thing I feel at the moment." He says this with tremendous emphasis. He tastes the words, savours the feeling. It's the first real show of emotion from someone who feels at his most relaxed and comfortable camping it up in front of an adoring crowd, but who, one to one, prefers to stare awkwardly at his fingertips, his long skinny legs twitching anxiously, his voice as toneless and featureless as a Speak Your Weight Machine.
Russell Senior - Pulp's guitarist for some 12 years, and one of the singer's oldest friends - has often said that Jarvis only really lives as a performer, adding that when the two were living together, Jarvis never actually stopped performing. "I honestly believe he couldn't do anything else," says Russell. "We and Nick [Banks, the drummer] have both lived with him. Before I'd lived with him I'd known him socially and you always expected this Jarvis act would be dropped at some point during the day. But you can sit down to watch 'Neighbours' and he'll be prancing round the room, striking poses and putting on silly voices, speaking to the characters like they're guests in the room. And I'm just sat there havin me tea. I'm going, 'Look Jarvis, there's just me here, you're not on stage, just sit down and let me watch the telly.' But there's no point in telling him to stop being Jarvis because he can't help it. You know, I've never actually seen him be 'natural'."
"I mean he's right. I never stop," admits Jarvis as we hurry toward the dressing room, minutes before the band's recent Birmingham gig. If I stop I get bored, if I actually just sat there watching the telly it would seem really pathetic to me. I have to talk at the telly, take the piss or whatever. I like a vocal disagreement with the telly, me. I think it makes me a little difficult to be around sometimes," he continues. "It certainly makes me difficult to live with. I think Russell found the whole experience of living with me very traumatic."
Russell also implied that you were virtually unemployable. "I'd go along with that, yeah definitely. I mean I've never had a proper job. The nearest I got was working a three-day week in an under five resource centre, and I hated that. 0h, and I had a Saturday job as a fishmonger, but that doesn't really count, does it?" Are you living with anyone at the moment? "No." Must be a nightmare having no one to perform to. "Not really. I just perform to myself."
The thought of Jarvis in solitary flirtation with the cathode ray tube is eerie yet apt. Jarvis has made male masturbation alluring and exciting, an extraordinary feat given that the only people who ever found male masturbation alluring and exciting were male masturbators. Aimed at him, the word wanker is a compliment. It is partly Jarvis' overt freakishness and showy dankness that makes him so stylishly sexy. Partly that and partly the fact that from a very early age Jarvis, whether purposefully or not, took on board Andy Warhol's vision of style - the idea that for from concealing your disadvantages, you turn them into advantages by exaggerating them.
"Exactly," says Jarvis. "I really do believe that you should exaggerate your supposedly bad features. You know, if you've got big feet wear big shoes, if you're tall and skinny wear very tight clothes. If there is something odd about you, then you either consign yourself to the margins or play on your uniqueness. Like I was amazed when I first saw a picture of Jean Paul Satre. I mean you think of him as this highly sexed bohemian and then you see a picture and you think 'F***ing hell. you boss-eyed get!' He was a very ugly man. One eye's looking over here and the other one's looking way over there, which is a bit of a no-no when it comes to going out with girls. I thought if he can get over that, if he can make it a part of what he was about, then there's hope for me."
"Obviously, it's also got to do with the way you carry yourself. I mean there are certain people who just wouldn't feel right overstating what they may have spent years trying to conceal. It's like when you're naked, you know. Some people stand there looking really vulnerable and they withdraw into themselves. Other people just look like they couldn't give a f*** what anyone thinks. They're just like 'This is it.' So, yeah, generally I'd say that its not a bad rule to go by."
So which category do you belong to? "I think the second. I hope the second. You just have to say 'This is it', don't you? So I totally agree with that idea of style. When I was younger my mother did try to get me to wear normal clothes, so I was sort of forced to experiment with trying to fit in, but it didn't work. So I decided to go totally the other way. I went the whole hog, and yeah, I got the piss taken out of me and stuff, but no more so than when I'd been trying to be normal. And anyway, once a couple of people have done it you become a sort of magnet for others. There's these two mates of mine who dressed a bit weirdly and they met while being chased by skinheads. They're best mates now. So it does act like a sign."
Revenge and class struggle are constant themes on 'Different Class', Pulp's latest album. Though they haven't entirely replaced sex, they have come to mix unpleasantly with it, most notably and savagely on "I Spy" where Jarvis fantasises about sleeping with a rich man's wife, in order to cause both him and her maximum hurt. "'I Spy' is probably one of the most savage songs that I've ever written," acknowledges Jarvis with an embarrassed grin. "It's definitely the most vindictive. I wrote it about the time I was on the dole in Sheffield. Sometimes if you're in a real cocky mood, you can walk down the street and kind of despise people from above. You know that kind of superior hate. There you are, walking down the street and everyone just thinks you're this useless, jobless piece of crap. But inside, you feel really strong. Their hatred sort of helps you feel that way. You know what's going on, you've got their number, and you know you're gonna get your own back some day."
Pretty sick stuff. "Well I think it's important to acknowledge that you've got these feelings inside you. It's usually when you don't admit to those things, or fail to recognise them that they build up and explode." Which in a way they have done with Cocker. Watching him perform "I Spy", is a blood-curdling experience. His humour is a sick self-consciously lewd midnight blue, that far from lightening the song makes them weightier and more vicious. Take these few lines from the song:
"I spy for a living / I specialise in revenge / I'm taking the things I know will cause you pain / I can't help it, I was dragged up / My favourite parks are car parks / Grass is something you smoke / Birds are something you shag / Take your year in Provence and shove it up your ass."
And it's too bitter to be truly considered political. Jarvis need not worry about any Paul Weller comparisons just for the moment. In fact, if anything, it reminds us of The Sex Pistols. It shares that same barbarian lust and nihilism. To begin with the anger isn't simply directed at posh tarts and hoity toity nobs ("Common People"), but also at birds and yobs ("Mis-shapes"). Though Jarvis denies it, he's a misanthrope nonetheless. Jarvis claims he doesn't hate people, just narrow-mindedness and stupidity, which in our book amounts to much the same thing. Revenge is something that preoccupies Jarvis now more than it ever has. He says he feels vindicated, but somehow we doubt he really means it. It's going to take a lot more than a couple of Top 10 singles and a Number One album (inevitable that) to lance these boils.
Jarvis Branson Cocker was born in Sheffield in 1963. His father was a part-time musician, whose chief claim to fame was pretending to be Joe Cocker's brother. His mother was an artist so classically unsuccessful she was, by the time Jarvis came on the scene, earning her money emptying fruit machines. At the age of five, Jarvis was almost killed by meningitis. The disease permanently damaged his eyesight. His steady and expressionless look (those fabulous, famous unblinking actor's eyes), is in fact the puzzled stare of the chronically myopic. Jarvis began school wearing horn-rimmed National Health specs. He also had long hair and was a head taller than his class mates. Sometimes he would turn up wearing lederhosen, the unhappy consequence of having a doting German aunt, and a poverty stricken mum. When Jarvis was six, his errant father upped and left. He went all the way to Australia, and has only been in touch after hearing of his son's success.
Pretty much from then on in Jarvis, a long lanky streak of piss, got the shit end of the stick. He did what most kids do when they find their lives have become a grim and humiliating treadmill, he withdrew. "Before all this happened, I used to walk the streets thinking about what it would be like. I used to dramatise myself. It was like I was starring in my own movie. Everything I did took on this incredibly dramatic perspective. I'd be telling myself stories about myself in my head." So while most of the other children resident of Intake (the drab Sheffield suburb Jarvis still calls home) were out playing with their mates, Jarvis was locked in his bedroom daydreaming and playing the guitar. At school he would imagine the few friends he had playing in a band that didn't exist. For years it remained a secret he guarded even from those friends he envisaged playing Madison Square Garden with him.
"To me it wasn't just a dream, it was the dream," remembers the singer. "From a really early age, I just believed it would be a way of sorting out my life for me, a way of getting girls. Once you've done it for a while, you do realise you have a certain aptitude for it, that you do actually have things that are worth saying. But if you're on the dole then it's very handy to have something that gives you some purpose. It gives you a centre to your life, gives you an excuse to be alive even if you're just fooling yourself and there's not a chance of anything happening because you have a purpose. It was useful for me and it's useful for anybody because not many people are that religious nowadays. For a long time though, that's all it was, an excuse. Like I'm not just a person walking the street, I have a point, I'm in a band."
Then in 1977 with Jarvis aged 17, punk rock happened and suddenly it was OK to look awful. It was OK to be Jarvis. Jarvis formed Arabicus Pulp (the Arabicus bit was swiftly dropped). The group were almost immediately offered a session on John Peel's show, at the time the Peel show was the show to be on. Momentarily the dream seemed to have become a reality. Briefly - very briefly - Jarvis Cocker, the kid with the joke height, joke hair, joke clothes and joke sex life (the joke being he didn't have one) was hip. He was Peel material. And on his own terms, too.
"For me that was it," remembers the singer. "I persuaded my mum I was going to be a pop star and that she should let me give university a miss." A few years later, as he lay in hospital with a shattered leg, his place at Liverpool University long since withdrawn, Jarvis began to feel like he'd made the single biggest mistake of his life. And not just once, but over and over. He'd released a clutch of records to an indifference so spectacular and contagious it even infected the normally magnanimous Peel. The DJ stopped playing them.
"That's why I wrote 'Countdown' [released as a single in 1990]. I'd spent years on the dole lying in thinking my time would come and it suddenly occurred to me that maybe it wouldn't. Maybe I'd been fooling myself all the time. I began to think that I'd wasted all this valuable time." Jarvis blamed himself and, oddly, the DJ who had given him his first break (he and Peel have only very recently made it up). There he was, credibly poor, interestingly weird looking, his background suitably grim and his sexuality enviably confused. Why, he was practically the living blueprint of a pop star. It was like he'd been programmed or something. And yet it wasn't happening, and looked like it never would. Within a year, he'd enrolled at St Martin's School of Art to study film. It was here that he met the wealthy and predatory Greek girl who became the subject of the brilliantly savage "Common People". It was there that he developed his class consciousness, or there at any rate that his class consciousness began merrily to fester. But London also offered something else - perspective.
The experiences that Jarvis had thus far regarded as too mundane to be written about began to fill with meaning. Sheffield's grubbiness, the years on the dole, the virginity lost laughably late, all of it seemed suddenly inspirational. "What got me about London was the highs and lows. One minute you're sitting in a shitty little flat and the next you're in this flash club. But what struck me was how different people were and how different the life was. To a lot of Londoners, the stuff me and my friends got up to in Sheffield seemed almost exotic to them. And I realised that all this stuff that had happened to me that I'd thought was dead normal was actually worth writing about."
Thus was born Pulp Mark II. In 1989, in the last few months of a decade Jarvis says he despised, a single recorded five years before the album "Separations" was released to critical adulation. Pulp started playing gigs again. By 1994 the magnificent libidinous "His 'n' Hers" had gone platinum and been shortlisted for the Mercury prize. And Jarvis began, perhaps, to feel vindicated.
In September of this year Pulp released the double A-side, "Mis-Shapes" and "Sorted For E's & Wizz". The first song was a part revenge fantasy, part clarion call. The second was a melancholic, perhaps even posthumous, evocation of the rave scene. Within weeks of its release Daniel Ashton, a 17-year-old school boy became the fifty-first person in Britain to die as a result of taking Ecstacy. The Daily Mirror, who had already launched an attack on the band for featuring a speed wrap on the sleeve to the single, went into panicked moral overdrive. By the time they'd finished howling with outrage, their readers had voted 2,112 to 770 in favour of banning the record. Pulp had become the most dangerous band in the country. Cocker was Public Enemy Number One.
He picks at his fingernails as we remind him of this. "That song has been totally misinterpreted. The whole thing it's trying to say is that no matter how greater time you have on drugs, you know that it's been artificially induced. You've introduced a chemical into your brain and that's what makes it such a hollow experience. It's sad that you've had to rely on something other than yourself. I would like to think that you could arrive at that pitch of excitement on your own. And of course, there's that other feeling, the idea that however great you're feeling you want to make it that much better. Which is another danger. It's like the first rave we ever went to was absolutely brilliant. It really knocked me out. But then after that it was never the same again. You're searching for that illusory thing, where you're always trying to get back to that state, but you know you never will. And you start to see through it, notice how it's a bit frayed at the edges. And that's what that song's about. Drugs aren't a magical thing. Just chemicals that leave you feeling hollow."
So how did you feel when the tabloids cast you as this pervert pusher? "It's very irritating to me," he mutters. "For a number of different reasons. To begin with, there's the horror it. They take this high moral tone, as if they're the guardians of public mortality or something, when everyone knows they thrive of immortality. They want loads of horrible things to happen, that's how they sell their papers. If ever there was such a thing as immoral earnings then that's what they're up to. Titillation, that's it. Like ringing up that bloke the day after his son had died of an E overdose to ask him what he thought of our record. They don't give a toss about his feelings, they just wanna paper up their story. I don't buy them papers, so even though I know that they exist they don't affect me. Then all of a sudden you're a part of the way they sell themselves. It brings to your attention just how f***ed up it is."
He becomes more animated. For the first time, he is visibly pissed off.
"You see this is another thing I have against the tabloid press. After the Hilisborough disaster, some of the papers printed pictures of people getting crushed against the barriers. And, you know it's there in a paper, so you look at it. You know it's not a very healthy thing to do, but it's like driving past a car accident. There's just this part of you that can't help but be curious. It's not healthy, it's just human curiosity. Which of course is always their excuse. People wanna read it, so we'll publish it. And that really is irresponsible, because those morbid urges and instincts shouldn't really be encouraged. Newspapers shouldn't pander to those urges."
So it's one rule for the press, and another for Jarvis Cocker? "Look - all I am is a singer in a pop band," he snaps. "I'm supposed to be irresponsible, aren't I?" I couldn't have surprised you? "It did actually, because I thought we were going to get into trouble over the record. Not the sleeve. Which, by the way, wasn't even our idea."
Is there a part of you that enjoyed the controversy? "Er.. Well, yeah, in a funny sort of way. Because I think it's pretty cool that pop stars are actually front page news now. A few years ago that would have been unthinkable. The best thing though is that we didn't go looking for trouble. It just happened. I mean it's not outrage for the sake of it, which I hate. The song was about drugs, so the sleeve should have something to do with it. That was our reasoning. And I suppose there is the thing that if you get people's backs up you must have touched a few raw nerves. No one gets worked up about something that doesn't bother them. So at least I'm connecting. So, yeah, that kind of thing excites me. Especially because I've never written anything in a sensationalist way. I've always just tried to write in the way that I actually think about things."
Don't you think you had it coming?
"No. No, I don't. I mean pop's been around for 40 years, it's middle-aged. It's having its mid-life crisis. So it should be allowed to talk about things in a serious way. I mean when it started, it had to make veiled references to stuff, but now you ought to be allowed to be a little more explicit. So to say we're corrupting people is absurd. I'm just saying things the way I see them. People will say that I'm encouraging kids to take drugs, but I just think that if you take notice of people in a band you've gotta be pretty f***ing feckless in the first place. We're the last people you should be taking notice of. Besides 'Sorted' is not the sort of song you'd want to hear if you were off your face."
On the positive side, being the bad-boy pop star does have certain advantages. Not least that it makes you appear more dangerous, and dangerous is always sexy. "Now that would be handy. I could live with that." As if he really needs it. The boy who started in a band writing about sex before he'd even kissed a girl is still in the same band, still writing about sex, and fancied by virtually every woman in the country. But for Jarvis Cocker, after 6 years waiting for his moment to arrive, enough will never be enough. He's got a lot to get out of his system.