Fame Fatale
Words: Dave Simpson, Photographer: Pat Pope
Taken from Melody Maker, 30 March 1996

So Jarvis Cocker is innocent. But that doesn't mean he's got off the hook - we still want a word or two with Michael Jackson's nemesis. What about? Oh, fame, fate and the size of his penis, the usual. Dave Simpson meets the Fifth Most Famous Man In Britain on the release of Pulp's new single, Something Changed.


Jarvis Cocker is famous. He is, arguably, the Fifth Most Famous Man In Britain, behind John Major, Frank Bruno, Will Carling and Michael Barrymore. Suddenly, Jarvis Cocker has become ubiquitous. As I write, Coronation Street's predatorial hairdresser Maxine is eyeing up another victim as Cocker's "Common People" plays in the background. In a few hours, jovial buffoon Chris Evans will present the scarily compulsive "TFI Friday", while a lifesize, cardboard cut-out of Cocker gazes spectre-like over his shoulder.

This morning, the daily papers carried the usual ream of stories about Jarvis. In The Guardian, two pages are devoted to an analysis of Cocker's success, post The Brits incident, which The Guardian calculates has earned him an additional three quarters of a million quid's worth of free advertising and sold him an extra 50,000 albums, all the result of one single burst of spontaneous behaviour.

This is getting scary. Meanwhile, over at The Sun, the pop page carries pictures of Cocker's Hillman Imp, and questions why a star of Jarvis' stature and probable wealth should drive such a dodgy, rickety old motor. Why? Precisely because he is Jarvis Cocker, the Fifth Most Famous Man In Britain and, along with Noel Gallagher, the most important man in pop. Jarvis Cocker is an original. The gawky bespectacled, anoraked, sexually and personally incompetent Sheffield nerd who dreamt and designed his own superstardom, emphasising his weaknesses and turning them into strengths. The class warrior who rose out of an adolescence of beatings, put-downs and dismissals to pen his own triumph and serialise his revenge, with damning ripostes like "Common People", "Mis-Shapes" and "I Spy". The Roxy Music fan who transformed his own perfect group: from hopeful Peel session wannabes to generation-soundtracking, futuristic, post-modern ironic disco darlings. The savage wit, the finest lyricist of his generation, the master of Pulp's Album of '95, the brilliant "Different Class".

But there are no precedents for Jarvis. Not in recent times, anyway. Not since Elvis hit supernova has a performer been - on the face of it - so unprepared for the consequences of his fame. It's a long way from the run-down shacks of Memphis to the glitz of Las Vegas. But not so far, maybe, as the distance between the Jarvis Cocker who, as a child, was forced into lederhosen on a run-down council estate, who, as a twentysomething outsider, did himself serious injury as he tried to impress a girl, to the consummate performer who took on Glastonbury and won and who pivots as a supreme sex symbol on "Top Of The Pops".

It's a long way, but the little things - the Hillman Imp, for example - suggest that, deep down, Jarvis is still the same person who dreamt of his success and is now experiencing it in vivid 3-D. Is it all how you imagined it, Jarvis? "Nothing's ever the same as how you imagine it," begins the Fifth Most Famous Man In Britain. "It's just like going on holiday. There's always that exciting bit where you know you're going somewhere and you think about the potential of what might happen. That's always the best bit. Actually having the thing is never the same."

In what way is stardom different to how you expected it? "Erm, well, it's not that it's different, so much," he considers. "It's just that when it happens to you it's weird. Cos you grow up thinking a certain way about famous people. You can't help it. I remember when I first came down to London I saw Henry Kelly off 'Going For Gold'. He's not even particularly famous, but I saw him walking down the street and I thought, 'Oh, yeah, I've seen you on the telly. You're dead famous, you.' And I came away with this glow. And so you tell people when you get home, 'Guess who I've seen today? Henry Kelly walking down the King's Road!' and then it's funny when it's you, and you realise that people will be doing that about you. 'Oh, God, you'll never guess who I saw looking a right mess in t'Garage'. It just makes you feel a bit weird..." He pauses. "It's like... You've gone to the other side of the looking glass. You're inhabiting the other dimension. And it is weird. You don't particularly feel any different in yourself."

Jarvis Cocker is preparing to enter another fame dimension. Right now, he's filming his parts for the video for "Something Changed", the fourth single lifted from "Different Class". When I speak to Jarvis, he's in Elstree, where he's worrying about his make-up and ironing out any last-minute panics about his part. It's a long way from Sheffield. Those who know Jarvis from his pre-fame days say he hasn't changed. But who really knows except, possibly, Jarvis himself? "I've got a terrible temper on me now," he admits in a rare show of candour, offering a glimpse of the darkness behind the looking glass. "In what way? I just started cobbing these mugs round the kitchen the other night. I didn't like 'em." Jarvis Cocker is nobody's mug. "I didn't like' em, so I just chucked 'em."

Jarvis Cocker is a smash hit. I glimpsed his show in Halifax some seven years ago. Things were pretty much the same, although not as highly developed. There were the same surreal monologues between songs; the song's themselves concerned sex, security, the insecurity of sex, one man's struggle against the world, sex, impotence, the lack of sex... And, as the band played, they sounded like a space-age version of Roxy Music, who were pretty space age anyway. Then there were the disco elements, the stop-start minimalism of punk, and, of course, the Jarvis lyrics - basically, full-length bonkbusters condensed into four minutes. Seven years ago, Jarvis Cocker was already the most important man in pop, although nobody realised it. "Top Of The Pops by Christmas," I wrote in my review. Well, I never said which Christmas. "That's been the best thing about our success," he says, "that we haven't had to change in order to get it. Which is the most satisfying way you can have success. Even thought it takes a long time, if you've done it, without, well, selling out, then you can feel quite proud of yourself."

Selling out? Nobody talks about that old thing anymore, except Jarvis. Jarvis Cocker is a proud man. He has - gulp - integrity. He knows his own mind and he knew that he was right. He is from South Yorkshire: land of Arthur Scargill and Sheffield's beleaguered, Socialist town council. The theatre of Cocker's early dreams. But what's Jarvis' life like now? Is it the high-speed existence of all the apocryphal stories? "Depends," ponders Cocker. "It's in fits and starts. It is fast moving, and then one day you suddenly end up at home and you think, 'Oh, what are you supposed to do in normal life?' And you wake up and you expect a tour manager to come in and say, 'Right, first you have your breakfast and then you should get dressed and then you should have a shave', you know. You expect someone to be organising you."

Having mapped out his life, Jarvis Cocker has his life planned out for him. A nice little irony. Can you ever step back and look at it all, Jarvis? Or is it all happening too quickly to take in? He pauses, taking that step back. "I don't know," he offers, eventually. "I mean, I don't know whether it's that healthy to do that. If people become aware of it, they might become done in by it." Note, please, the way the subject talks about "people", in the third person.

Some people I know have dreams about Jarvis Cocker: lurid, vivid, lustful dreams. Dreams you wouldn't tell anybody about. They tell me, though, because the dreams are all about Jarvis. Does Cocker find the attention of fans disturbing, or strange? "I don't mind fans so much," he offers, matter of fact. 'It's more, like... I went shopping the other day and this photographer jumped out from somewhere and started taking pictures. And, like, I'm only walking down the street. And then I got in the car and two more jumped out, and started taking pictures of me getting in me car. You know, those kind of things get to me."

Do people generally know where you live? "More and more people know where I live. I haven't had the proverbial camping on the lawn, no. It's been all right so far. I was a bit worried when that Michael Jackson thing first happened, when the first reports were that I'd gone up and smacked some kids, I thought 'Oh, this is gonna be great, you know, when I go outside. They're gonna be really pleased to see me, childbeater living on our road. Let's beat him up.' But luckily, when the truth of it came out, they were really quite nice."

Jarvis Cocker has been touched by the level of support he's received, from both public and industry. The Michael Jackson Incident is like a microcosm of his life. The victorious underdog of his dreams. Arise, Sir Jarvis. Hoorah for Cocker! "At first it was all their side of the story," he considers. "I did feel a bit isolated. But when people rallied around, it was good. Because people in the music business can be very bitchy about each other, so its nice when people forget that and give you support." So how does it feel to be one of the most famous people in England? Jarvis goes strangely quiet. "As I said before, it's better not to think about it," he says, at last. "Because if I thought about it it would be terrible. I must say, I try to think as little as possible in my everyday life."

A curious statement from the man whose songs document the trivialities, minutiae and overall struggles of daily life with such devastating insight. "It only gets me into trouble." Ah. While you are reading this sentence, Jarvis is selling more albums, appearing on more posers, starring in more people's dreams. His life is strictly regimented: hotels, soundchecks, interviews, hotels, photo shoots, and so the potential for impulsive irrational behaviour is diminished. Conversely, the desire for such behaviour must grow and grow. Maybe the Michael Jackson incident was just the start of it. Maybe Jarvis has spawned a monster that he feels only he can tame, destroy even. Maybe attempting to destroy the monster can, perversely, only feed it. You said that thinking too much got you into trouble. In what way?

"Cos I've always been a person who thought about things more that actually did them," he explains, "and I think it's more important to do things and then maybe think about them, afterwards and think what they mean. Rather than analyse everything before you've even done it, because you can often end up not doing anything then because you'll talk yourself out of it. It's like, if you wanna chat a girl up, you should just do it while you think, 'Yeah, God, she's all right. Instead of, you know, watching her for six months and trying to get the courage to talk to her and then you go and talk to her and then you find that she's not that nice, really. And in the meantime you've still got this ridiculous fantasy about who she is. If you'd have gone and talked to her you could have got that out of the way, and gone and done something else."

Is this the Jarvis of now tailing about the Jarvis of the past? "Yeah. I was that person. I'm still bad at that, actually. I try and stop myself now, but l'm still pretty bad at that kind of thing. I just try to curb myself. I think you've got to rely on your instincts quite a lot, nowadays." Are you a more impulsive person than you used to be, Jarvis? "Probably yeah. But I'm glad because that's what I always wanted to be. Ten years ago I would have sat back and thought about the Michael Jackson thing. It was just a snap decision. It seemed right, and having thought about it afterwards� It's like, everyone asks me why I did it and it wasn't like I was sat there thinking about it going, 'Well, this is morally unsound, what Michael's doing, portraying himself as der-der-der.' You know, vaguely, I probably knew that it was wrong, then this feeling that it could be done, that I could walk onstage. So it lust happened like that. Now afterwards everyone's asking about it obviously so then you think your reasons for doing it were valid and that it was a good thing to do."

You sold 50,000 more albums as a result of the Brits incident. "Is that right? I didn't know that." He suddenly sounds irritated. "I bet that's not true. I don't know where they get these figures from." It's hardly unknown for a band to shift units following a major event. Queen after "Live Aid", for instance. "I know, but I've seen one report that said Pulp are selling millions of records in America. That's bollocks, that! We're selling a thousand records in America, or summat." You sound terribly insecure, Jarvis. "You always need a certain amount of security in your life," he says, "but I think I'd always like to have a bit of insecurity in my life, not to have everything under control. I'm not a control freak, as that advert would say. I think it's fair to invite happy accidents. That's how the best things happen."


Do you believe in fate, Jarvis? "Erm, I always run from a fete. Ha ha." Ho. "But I think there's a certain pathway which your life can follow. You don't necessarily have to follow that path, it's just that there are certain roads that will lead you from Sheffield to London, so to speak. And if you take the wrong turning at Chesterfield you'll end up in Dewsbury. You know what I'm saying," he says, quietly. "There's a potential which your life can realise, but I don't believe in fate in the way that some people think, 'Oh, well, there's no point actually making any effort in life because if something's meant to happen it'll happen anyway.' That's a load of bollocks. It's a way of copping out of actually making any decisions." So you've got to twist your own fate? "Or your own sobriety." Note, please, the subjects use of a Tanita Tikaram reference. "You have an active role in fate. That's what I'm trying to say." Do you believe in God?

"Erm. I don't know, really. I'd like to believe in all them kind of things, life after death, etcetera. But I think its like when you do that thing on pinball when you've just finished your go and it matches the numbers and if you get the same numbers at the end you get a free go. What l would hope is that it would be like that but if you'd been reasonable in your life you'd get an extra go." Jarvis Cocker equates the afterlife with a game of pinball. He is a wizard. A true star. "If there's any justice in the cosmos, I don't think you're going to heaven by morality. If it's just Me Green Shield stamps, like how many you collect for times you go to church, then I've had it, basically." Jarvis Cocker equates going to heaven with Green Shield stamps. Jarvis Cocker is a man of the common people. You said you were impulsive. Impulsive often equals immoral. How do you manage to introduce, say, chaos into your life?

"Oh, I manage!" he chortles. "Quite easily. In what way? Well, you know. You just have to use your imagination." A classic Cocker double entendre. Is Jarvo referring to his use of the imagination, in order to randomise his life? Or is he saying that I have to use my imagination when thinking of Cocker's lifestyle? "Maybe kind of, er, just getting in our car and driving to Aylesbury," he suggests. Driving to Aylesbury? "Yeah, just looking at the map and seeing What's there. Probably nothing, but it'll get you thinking." Oh, yeah.

FAME (2)

Almost all his songs so far have been about the pre-fame Jarvis, the dreamer whose fantasies of love, lust and revenge lay unfulfilled. Now that they are fulfilled, what of Jarvis' muse? Will he continue to mine the same seam of his peculiar, solitary past, like Morrissey has done (with diminishing returns)? Or will he force himself to analyse his fame and focus on his success? And if so, can Jarvis' concerns post-fame be of as much interest as those from before? Can Jarvis Cocker- the fifth most famous man in Britain, remember? - keep sticking his pen right through the heart the common people? It's a quandary, and I think he knows it.

"I don't know how my focus will change," he begins. "It's something�" A telling pause, then a deflection. "I haven't bothered to think about it." He thinks about it. "Obviously it's dodgy because in one way I think its dishonest to write about... well, it just depends on the way it feels. I never know what I'm gonna write about until I start writing, anyway. Cos the lyrics are always done at the last minute. And it's basically my frame of mind at the time, when I've got to do it. Cos I'll always leave it until I've got to do it. Cos I don't really like writing words." Another curious statement.

The finest wordsmith of his generation doesn't like writing lyrics. "So I know that when it comes to it it'll be a case of deciding what is comfortable. It is difficult because a lot of people might think, 'Oh, he's still writing songs about being in a council flat when we know for sure he's living in Primrose Hill and... [spits] lording it,' or whatever. But then again, I don't want to write songs about the hotel room, the dressing room, the stage, all that kind of thing. It isn't that interesting to other people, I don't think. They don't live that kind of life."

People might be interested in your thoughts on the whole experience of fame, as someone who, as a young, gawky, bespectacled oddball was unlikely to gain nationwide notoriety; a man who has overcome what must have felt like disabilities. The thoughts of Chairman Jarvis as the lunatic who took over the asylum, maybe. "Well, maybe, in which case I will have to think about it. But that's it, I don't mind contradicting myself. I said I'd never open a shop but I did the other day. I mean, I don't mean I've got a shop! I haven't started trading in cabbages and greens. But I opened one as a 'celebrity'. People are laughing in the background. I opened a Diesel shop in London. Neal Street. So, yes, I do like contradicting myself. I think you're allowed to do that. You're allowed to change your mind, aren't you? That's the thing about life." Sure. Remake, remodel. "As long as you don't totally change it. Like if we went heavy metal or something stupid like that."

Do you think Pulp will change much musically? "Oh, I hope so. I hope so, yeah. Radically? I don't know. I'd like it to change. There wasn't a massive change from 'His 'n' Hers' to 'Different Class' but I think there was a shift, a movement. You have to do that. I hate it when bands just make an album that sounds exactly the same as the last one. I would hope that we would change."

How much of Jarvis' former life remains. Do you have much contact with former members of the band? "It depends. Pete [Mansell] - who played bass with the band - I see him quite a lot because he lives with Candida [Doyle, keyboardist]. I see him probably more than I ought to, really. Then Anthony who played bass, he's famous in his own right now [as the notorious streaker during Elastica's set at Glastonbury last year and additional guitarist at Pulp's recent arena shows]. I definitely see him more than I ought to." A lot of people have seen more of Anthony than they ought to. "Yeah. It's just the bass players I stay in contact with. The rest of them, they can all... [mock scornfully] go to hell."

Do you go back to Sheffield much, Jarvis? "Not that much. I go and stay with my sister sometimes, but I've not been back much in the last couple of years." Do you ever revisit the haunts that triggered off the songs? The supermarket where you took the girl in "Common People", the corner shop in "I Spy" where you negotiated the dog turd on your bike? "Very occasionally." His voice is deathly quiet now, almost contemplative. "The last time was when my uncle died, cos he was buried in the cemetery round there. My mother's moved away, you see. So I've got no reason to go back to the place where I grew up. But it is strange. It triggers off memories, I suppose it always does when you go back to a home town. But, on the other hand, Sheffield's changed. It's better, I think. It seems to have livened up a bit. When I left in '88 it was a dismal place. It's weird when there's a place that you used to know off by heart and you used to go out four or five times a week, know everybody on the scene and all that kind of thing. And then obviously you move and you're out of touch. It seems like another planet."

Was there a particular incident that inspired 'Something Changed?' "It was originally written about 12 years ago. My sister sang an early version, but it had different words. It never got used, and then I just remembered it. Because it had been written such a long time ago it made me wonder what I was doing then. And I worked out that it must have been written quite near to me meeting this girl. lt's just wondering, really. If I hadn't gone out and met this particular person in this particular nightclub, and formed a relationship with her, how different would my life have been? So it's not really about fate, it's more about the randomness of things. Which I like. As I've said before, that's the main thing I feel is missing from my life. The worst thing about having a schedule and a timetable is that there's less chance for unexpected things to happen."

Are you still a fan, Jarvis? "Oh, yeah," he insists. "I'm trying to think who I've heard recently. I like Moloko. They've done a remix of "F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E" on this new single. I predict great things for them this year. And I enjoyed watching Denim on our tour. People think they're a joke. But anyone who comes into contact with Lawrence would realise that they don't go onstage with red noses on. Even though he says it's a novelty record, he's very serious about it being novelty. Do I get on with Lawrence? I wouldn't say we're goin' down the pub every night." You seem to have a lot in common. "I guess so." He seems to be in the position you were in towards the start of the Nineties. He's been pursuing his own single-minded pop vision for many years, with Denim and previously with Felt. But he seems to be struggling to get onto that next level. Perhaps you could give him some tips? "That's the last thing I would do for anybody," says Jarvis, somewhat detached. Then he adds: "Any group that takes 15 years to become popular shouldn't give advice to anyone, should they?" Jarvis Cocker laughs. A nervous, tiny laugh. A very Jarvis laugh.

Is it nice when childhood heroes - Roxys Phil Manzanera, for example - say highly complimentary things about Pulp? "Yeah, ifs good," he admits. "Bryan Ferry said nice things as well, old Bry. I like compliments, obviously, that's why I'm in a band. I've got an ego problem." He chuckles. "I don't know, though. Generally I don't like all that chumminess." He's still the outsider. But can Jarvis ever be anonymous now? Can this great observer ever hide in a crowd and watch things going on? "It's more difficult. Unless I start wearing disguises." Works for Michael Jackson. "Yes. But it is more difficult," he repeats. "And I miss that. You know, it can't be helped." The price of fame.


The people are calling Jarvis. Not the common people, but his people, beckoning him to resume filming. Time for one last question. I casually asked a friend of mine - an academic to whom I'd just lent my copy of "Different Class" - if he had one question he'd like to put to Jarvis Cocker. He said this: "Ask him if he's got a long and thin penis to go with his long and thin body." Well, Jarvis, have you?

He appears momentarily fazed. "A long, thin penis", he repeats, ever so slightly perturbed by the brusqueness of the enquiry. "'What, like a bit of 'osepipe?" What can I tell my esteemed, erudite colleague, Jarvis? "Well, the long bit's right. I don't know about the thinness. But then again, I've not really done much comparison. The thing is about tails is that they can sometimes be deceptive, can't they? I mean, obviously I've seen other male tails, erm, flaccid, bit it's the thing that... some hardly grow at all when you get the lob on, and others grow a lot. So I'd say mine was..." He pauses. "...not bad, you know, and it seems to work for me. But as to how it compares to other people's, I can't really tell you."

Does it say a lot about how Jarvis Cocker is perceived that an academic would ask that sort of question? "It's all right," says the Fifth Most Famous Man In Britain. "It's OK. It's better than talking about plectrums."

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