Phew!!! It may be bloody cold outside (minus three degrees, actually) but in the frozen expanse that is Norway, things are definitely hotting up for Pulp's unlikely sex god Jarvis Cocker. Invites to private sex parties! Disappearing into the night with a blue-haired crazy with eyes like sin! Constantly pinned down by an entourage of willing hangers-on! Lord!
"Could someone please f-- me with a broken bottle?" asks Jarvis Cocker, of a crowd of teenage girls not old enough to legally drink alcohol from one, let alone perform bizarre sexual practices with it. Suddenly, the louche, elegant and friendly facade is torn away to reveal the gnarled, twisted talons of hate that lie seething within the sick, perverted mind of Britain's once loveable King Misfit.
Literally drooling with demonic rage, he picks up his microphone, throws it into the air and drop-kicks it into the eye of unsuspecting Steve Mackey, his long suffering bass lieutenant. Then, muttering all manner of hideous blasphemy, he stomps off stage to howl at the moon. Ah, but wait. There's bound to be a perfectly innocent, logical explanation for our hero's highly unlikely behaviour. Marital breakdown or personal bereavement, perhaps? Deep psychological trauma dating back to early childhood? Secret broken glass fetish? Nah, the keyboard's on the blink again. Of course.
We're halfway through a six-song TV special performance in Oslo, Norway, in front of an invites-only crowd of mildly disinterested club groovers and, just like the time it happened at The Forum a few weeks back, the gods are interfering just when Pulp were thinking all their troubles were behind them. Just to keep them on their toes, you understand. Just to ensure that for Jarvis Cocker and Pulp, life will never be quite that easy. "Oh Jesus, me foot's f---ed!" he groans as we greet him backstage and watch the upper part of said extremity swelling to worrying dimensions. "Typical of me. I didn't kick the microphone right - I got it with the wrong part of me foot."
Yeah, the boy Cocker may finally have wriggled through the net marked 'terminally unco-ordinated nerdular inadequates' into the sun-drenched, nymph-strewn oceans of pop stardom, but that doesn't mean he's about to be endowed with some supernatural ability not to trip over the cracks in the pavement, see without jam-jar glasses or snog without getting his tongue bitten. If he didn't know that before Pulp suddenly crashed into the Top Five, he was rudely reminded of the fact mere seconds afterwards..."I remember the day when 'Common People' went to Number Two," he'll tell us in a quietly confessional moment later, "and I suppose that should have been the moment when we knew we'd finally achieved something. Our finest hour to date, I suppose. But the actual day was so weird. The Sunday they announced the charts it was presented live in Birmingham, and all the chart acts had to mime to their songs. We didn't know what position we were, so we waited in this back room for them to call us. So time went on, it got to 6pm and everyone was getting shaky. I went to the toilet to put my contact lenses in, but I hadn't rinsed them properly, so my eye went bright red."
"Anyway, we had to go on, and I was still in quite extreme physical pain, and my eye was streaming, so people obviously thought I was crying because we were Number Two! And, of course, by that time my make-up was running and looked like non-set cement. It'd been raining, so there were big puddles in front of the stage, and just as 'Common People' reached its, erm, climactic chorus, I jumped off the monitor quite spectacularly, as you do, landed in a puddle, slipped and fell flat on me arse! So I'm left thinking, 'F--- me, this is meant to be your ultimate triumph, and you're flat on your back in a puddle, your eye killing you, face falling off, on a wet Sunday afternoon in Birmingham!'. Not quite what I'd been dreaming of for 20 years..."
And YET, earlier this very evening, it was all going so well... OK, so outside was Oslo in November, minus three degrees, with only one second-hand clothes shop, a population of very beautiful but very boring people, beer £5 a pint, ciggies £5 a pack, in the middle of a gruelling promotional tour of Scandinavia, and Sven Svensson from the Stavanger Gazette demanding to ask you how you got your name. Again. BUT! At 8pm, Norwegian hospitality came well into its own, in the shape of the gig promoter. "OK, so the band play six songs, then ve haf 1,200 litres of Absolut vodka, all free, and then it's party party! The bar is open until lunchtime on Saturday if you vant." And crack vol-au-vents on the rider. Splendid!
Naturally, the mood has curdled rapidly by the time we rejoin Pulp, 20 minutes after the dramatic and disgraceful anti-climax of tonight's show. "I never did like coitus interruptus", says Steve. "It was a bit unfortunate," frowns Jarvis. "It's the tenth anniversary of the venue, and the fourth anniversary of the TV station. And here come Pulp the party poopers! Next time we come to Norway they'll be coming to bottle me, looking for the skinny get in that band."
"Aaaaargh! The Vikings are after us!" screams Steve. And he's only half joking. Jarvis in particular is refusing to leave the backstage area to go to the aftershow club, fearing a summary lynching by his deeply offended audience, who will probably think he stormed off because he hates Norway. Paranoid? Surely not. The amusingly pink-haired make-up artist wishes to raise a practical question at this point. "If you like, you can all come to a sex party at my house." "Well, I only really want a feel," quips Jarvis. "Many coloured walls! Many fun people!" she argues, persuasively. "Well, the first erect penis I see, I'm going to drop kick him!" proclaims Jarv, mysteriously.
Eventually word comes back from downstairs that there are not, in fact, hordes of medieval Nordic warriors with torches and pitchforks baying for the blood of the evil Lord Cocker. So we decide to brave the dark recesses of the aftershow party in the club. We are greeted by a modest scattering of youths frugging in all manner of classically bizarre European styles to a selection of techno hits. Oh yes, and they drink. Like fishes. Like chronically alcoholic fishes adrift in a sea of flavoured vodka, in fact. And they screw, because, as the man once said, there's nothing else to doo-hoo-hoo.
It comes as little surprise, then, that Jarvis is immediately handcuffed to a sofa by several fright-wigged uber-babe crazies and tortured to within an inch of his life with weird conversation, fake fur and silk neck-scarves. Then again, that's Jarv's natural habitat these days. Everywhere you see him in London he's surrounded by an entourage of hangers-on united only by eating disorders, 'I'm Common' lapel badges and a penchant for Godspell wardrobe cast-offs. But Norway produces an altogether more outre brand of oddball. The kind that look like new romantic, prog rock teddy boys in music hall drag, or something. These are, it turns out, the prospective guests at the aforementioned 'sex party', which one increasingly suspects will consist of the make-up artist and her mates attempting to perform a communal lambada on Jarvis' porcelain pigeon-chest.
Meanwhile, Steve is busy continuing his study into the behavioural patterns of the Northern European female. He has his 'work' cut out. Almost literally, judging by the uncompromising mood of one young fan. "Steve, you vill now get your jacket and then you vill come back and f--- me!"
"Noooooo! I, erm, have to go home to my hotel and call my girlfriend."
"OK, I come vith you, yes?"
"I used to think French women were mad for it," gasps Steve, after prising himself from her grasps with the aid of a blowtorch, "but Norwegians take the biscuit. They practically bash you over the head with a club and drag you away. Quite impressive, really."
Now, shag scientists calculate that this quintessentially Nordic, semi-militaristic approach to courtship would succeed in over 97 per cent of cases. But not with Steve. See, Pulp's diagonal-fringed, lion-hipped bass warrior has given up his wicked ways. "Nah, I'm not having it. Me girlfriend's expecting our kid, so I'm gonna stay faithful." A Merciful fate has decreed that Il Jarvio, officially young(?), free and single, has been dragged away from the sex party posse, and is now descending ever further into the deep abyss of amorality with a blue-haired young praying mantis with cheekbones like Volvos and eyes like sin. As ever, though, Jarvis is alternately amused, strangely fascinated and perplexed by these people. That's why he'll always wander off from the band to tickle his brain further with whatever waifs and strays he can find. Plus he can always get a shag out of it at the end of the night...
We end up trudging through the arctic night to another club, aided by a thrilling guided tour of Oslo department stores from Betty Bluehair. We arrive at the club just after three to find they've stopped serving booze. We leave the hit man and her boogeying on down like John Travolta and Olivia Newton John with Parkinson's disease, and return to the hotel to pray for their tarnished souls. Lord alone knows what she did to the poor boy, but Jarvis Cocker walks into the hotel lobby just before midday that very same morning, looking like death cooled down. What better time then, to sit him down in the painfully sober, very cold light of day and pick his pickled brains for whatever soiled gems of wisdom may emerge.
Two Winter Olympic-strength coffees later, we're just about ready to grapple with the oily beast that is fame, the one Jarvis chased vainly for, ooh, the best part of 20 years, and which he's just reached intimate first-name terms with. So does it feel like he's finally got his revenge on the world, and proved wrong all the sneering misfit bashers who once kicked sand in his face? "Weeeell, it's not really getting my own back. It's not as if there was a teacher at school who told me I was worthless and I'd never amount to anything, and then I'd thought, 'Right, I'm going to rub your nose in it, and I'll drive past your house in my Rolls-Royce and do a shit on your front step'. Nothing like that."
Oh well. It's just, listening to the new album 'Different Class', featuring the likes of 'Mis-Shapes', with its spitting determination to avenge the socially disenfranchised, you get the impression that there are scores to settle. And then you hear the startlingly unscrupulous revenge fantasies of 'I Spy', addressed to some anonymous class enemy whose wife Jarvis is shagging, and you think... You're not a very nice man, are you Jarvis?
"Oh, you know how it is. Everyone's got a vindictive side. It was my justification for being a doley scumbag. I thought to myself that I was actually working undercover, trying to observe the world, taking notes for future reference, secretly subverting society. And one day, when the time was right, I would come out of the shadows and pounce on the world. I guess you could call that revenge, but not only for myself, but for the kind of people I respect."
So are we talking class war here? When you wrote on the sleeve of 'Common People' "There's a war in progress", was that what YOU were on about?
"I dunno. I used to think class was a myth. I always got really irritated when people went on about it. Then I came down to London and I had to admit it did exist. And it wasn't a money thing, it was more about people's expectations from life. If you come from a certain background, if you're intelligent and you want to do something other than go out every Friday and Saturday night and get pissed, then have a curry and a fight or a shag, if you can get one, then it's pretty difficult. Creative aspirations aren't what's expected of you. You see all these f-ing idiots with flash cars in London, and you think of all these people in Sheffield with so much about them, but who were slowly going out of their minds because there's no outlet for what they wanna do. So if there is a war to be waged, then it's creative people trying to invade the mainstream. I mean, the Blur versus Oasis thing was bullshit, but at least it was a skirmish happening in the main arena. I think creative people have gained a fair bit of territory in the last year."
You could say that. So now he's won his own personal battle for fame and recognition, is he any the wiser? Have all aspects of his life changed markedly for the better?
"The first time the fame thing really struck me was when I was on holiday in the South of England, and these big blokes would lumber up to me and I'd think, 'Oh shit, I'm in for a right hammering here for looking like a weirdo', then they'd shake my hand and say, 'Like your song, mate'. That was nice. Of course, as soon as I get used to it, some big bloke will lumber up to me, I'll say, 'Hello, who shall I sign the autograph to?' and he'll twat me for being a weirdo." Seeing him at Pulp's aftershow party in Glasgow a few weeks back, he seemed shocked and a little dismayed that he couldn't do his usual thing, DJing a little, mingling unassumingly with his public, drinking into the small hours. Because he was mobbed every time he emerged into the club, a result of Pulp giving 200 invites to the fans..."Yeah, that really worries me actually. I hate it when you have to be protected from anyone who hasn't been vetted by the management. Most of the best things that have happened in my life have come by meeting new people by surprise. "I love going out and talking to people, because it makes me forget myself. To tell you the truth I honestly don't like myself much. I bore the crap out of myself, I really do. I'd much rather be around other people. I had enough time for self-contemplation when I was on the dole, and I can't be doing with it now. So not being able to go out really scares me. I think that's when things start going wrong for famous people. You tend to turn your thoughts inward. They'll go off and become a Buddhist, and they'll be interviewed talking about how they want to find their inner self. It's all a bit unnecessary, really."
Ha! You say that now, pal. Just wait till the tabloids start camping outside your flat. You'll value your personal space then.
"Well, we've already had a bit of that. And I don't just mean the Mirror thing. The other week we were in Cambridge, and it looked like someone was trying to set up a scandal story. Russell was talking to some people outside the venue, and this 15-year-old kid came up and tried to give him this wrap of drugs. Russell said he didn't want it, so the kid said, 'Can you give it to Jarvis?' And then Russell looks over the road and there was a photographer with a telephoto lens! So the story's gonna be 'Jarvis Cocker gets kids to buy him drugs!' Incredible."
Cheers. We'll try that one some time. So how are you getting along with the paparazzi?
"Oh I can't really handle all that stuff. I mean, I'm quite reserved, and if I get a bit frisky and feel like snogging someone in public, I don't want to feel like, 'Oh I can't do that, it'll end up in the papers'. It takes long enough for me to pluck up the courage in the first place!" Funny that. There was a rumour going round recently about him doing considerably more in public with a close friend. But we're just not that kind of newspaper...
This week Pulp have just gone straight in at Number One in the UK Album charts. Ten years ago this week, Jarvis Cocker fell out of a window at a party in Sheffield, and ended up laid out in hospital for months, where he began to mentally (and physically) pick up the pieces of his increasingly shapeless life and art. Coincidence? Well, yeah. Nevertheless, there's a certain fairy-tale quality to Pulp's fall and fall and fall and rise that makes you wonder whether certain supernatural forces were indeed involved somewhere along the line.
"I've often wondered whether I believe in fate," he muses, nicking his fifth fag in an hour from your impoverished correspondent and sucking long and hard. "I say to myself that I don't. But surreptitiously I do believe in it. I have dreams where something trivial happens - like you're in a cafe and someone asks, 'Can you pass the pepper please?'. Then six months later you're in a cafe and someone actually asks you to pass the pepper. Now I interpret that as showing that your life could go a number of ways, which is revealed to you in dreams, and these little deja vu things turn up as a signpost to encourage you that you've gone the right way, the way fate intended. It all sounds a bit Mystic Meg, but... well, it makes for a good chat-up line."
It's this kind of positive, optimistic fatalism which runs through one of the album's most affecting moments. 'Something Changed' is a beautifully heart-warming, string-sustained rumination on a chance meeting between two people which changes both of their lives, but which could so easily never have happened if they hadn't ended up going out for want of anything better to do. "It's about the idea that you might meet someone who's going to be important in your life, when you'd been debating whether to go out at all that night, and your life took a different path." The kind of phenomenon we all end up wondering about during minor traffic jams and dull episodes of Casualty, and it exemplifies that talent Jarvis has, the one that marks out all great lyricists, for going beyond the obvious perspectives and immediate emotions, evoking and inspiring empathy with feelings, thoughts and situations that we'd forgotten we even knew. In this case, the chance meeting scenario, the going-out-on-the-off-chance philosophy that rules the social lives of millions of souls. And Jarvis knows it better than most.
"When I lived in Sheffield, we used to go to this club called The Limit, two or three times a week. The toilets were a pool of piss, they played the same records in the same order every night, but we always used to go just on the off chance that something might happen. And then we'd sit around saying, 'Shit here tonight, innit?'. But then the one time I didn't go, a girl stripped off on the stage, and then she came up behind Russell and hung her tits round his neck! So there you go."
You wonder how much of Jarvis' lyrical concerns are truly autobiographical though, and how much is merely personaspeak. I mean, all this beastly voyeurism business, for a start. Does it really turn him on?
"Erm... well, no more than anyone else, I don't think. I don't believe it's a very nice human instinct. But it's that forbidden curiosity. Sex is always a bit shadowy, isn't it? When it's done properly, anyway. I remember one time when I was a kid, and me and a friend were out in the park. These girls on the swings said to us, 'Hey, do you masturbate?' I'd never heard of it before, but they giggled so I knew it was rude. So I says, 'I might do', so's not to show meself up. And they laughed even more. I ran home and looked it up in the dictionary, and it defined masturbate as, 'To abuse yourself'. So from that moment I thought it meant you just tell yourself you're a bastard all the time. The point of that story is that curiosity is what made sex sexy in the first place. And everyone's at it now. Life is becoming a spectator sport. Most people would rather watch something than try it for themselves. I like to think I'm not quite like that."
At this point Jarvis Cocker the man has to make way for Jarvis the pop star, because the latter has to go upstairs for a photo session. There he suddenly turns into a camera devouring monster who will toss, turn, pout, preen and pull every expression and pose known to humankind and some more new ones with every click of the shutter. It's kind of like watching a documentary about a mental patient who thinks he's a supermodel. Except, whichever way you look at him, Jarvis Cocker is no Claudia Schiffer. Nevertheless, the comparisons fly dizzily and unaccountably around your head.
As soon as those cuddly hornrimmed specs go on, he's an early' 80s BBC newsreader out on a bender after being sacked. Or perhaps a delegate to the 1971 NatWest conference having had his drink spiked with acid. Rowan Atkinson in Saturday Night Fever? Kenneth Williams as Serge Gainsbourg? Lord knows. And then, sooner or later, you're struck by the gloss fake fur coat, the burgundy cords, the beautiful lemon shirt, open far enough to expose the threadbare chest rug, the suave slip-ons. Then you see the satchel. That's right, satchel. And you ask yourself, as this bloke for real?
"I would like to go on record as saying I've never worn anything as a joke," he pronounces, prodding the table, "although in retrospect I may look at something I wore and regret it, I know I thought at the time that it was worthwhile. And I hate the words 'kitsch' and 'ironic'. Loathe them. They're nothing to do with what me or Pulp are about. When people say we're ironic I feel so insulted, because it implies that you don't care about what you do, and that you don't mean what you say. I haven't devoted 15 years of my life to a joke. You may think we're misguided, but we're totally honest. Anyone who has listened properly should realise that we're never tongue in cheek."
Sorry. I guess we were fooled by lines like "Hey you in the Jesus sandals", Russell's hexagonal Buggles shades, that horrible Sunday supplement souvenir plate illustration on the cover of 'His 'n' Hers', Jarvis' Pans People dance steps... need I go on? No. Because the point you will grasp the more you get inside Pulp's world-view is that what you initially dismiss as kitsch is a heartfelt desire to find glamour and romance in the commonplace, find your own individual aesthetic in what's around you, make a triumph out of your supposed failings, embrace pop culture and shape it in your own image. And yet Pulp's image, Cocker aside, is far from a coherent, cartoon one. And so it should be, inevitably reflective of the yes-they're-damn-interesting-actually personalities within it.
The most recent addition, Mark Webber, looks every inch the mis-shapen little Pulp disciple you'd see at the stage door of any British gig. He used to run the fanclub, so go figure. Steve is the dark looker, friendly, funny and cool. Russell, meanwhile, is the enigma, ultra-dry, piercing stare, but quietly, coolly funny underneath the artifice. Nick is the gruffly warm, crudely humorous Yorkshireman, and Candida appears to be off in a mildly oddball but deeply loveable world of her own. And lest we forget, they've been the fellow travellers on Jarvis' frequently detoured voyage to the stars for a good proportion of Pulp's existence too.
A more pressing journey to be undertaken for Pulp right now though, is to a record shop in town, where they are to do several interviews and then a signing session. What a great life this is, eh? "So, Jarvis," begins an earnest young man from a local newspaper, "I understand you are the new boy in the band, yes? The band has been going for several years but you have just joined." Ah. This may not be as easy as it first appears. But at least we can earwig the odd quote...
Q: What kind of women do you like? Jarvis: "I once went out with a very thin woman. It just didn't work. Just this jarring of bones, like two skeletons wrestling in the dark. I prefer a nice full figured partner to tuck into.
Q: Why do you hate Wet Wet Wet? Jarvis: "Erm, that was just a joke. But I'm sure next time we see them they'll beat us up very badly. I hear Mick Hucknall's in town, by the way. Tell him we want a fight, because he stopped us from being Number One."
Q: How do you find Norway? Jarvis: "Very beautiful. But your Vikings came over and pillaged and took our women. Tonight we are going out to get our own back."
Very poor. And more sparkling wit will be scattered upon the record sleeves of this fair nation's youth, as each member of the band scribbles their own personal message for each fan for the next two hours. But it's all in fun. And no complaints at all the hard work either, since they still remember the days when record signings were an altogether more Spinal Tap-esque affair. "We went to New York for a signing session once," grins Steve. "and not a single person turned up. Then to add insult to injury, the store owner sent his 16-year-old kid up to ask for an autograph!"
Chores over for another day, Pulp's reward is free pick of four CDs each from the shop (they put it in the contract, the sly buggers) and dinner at an expensive restaurant. Yow! And so, several score bottles of red wine, and several roast reindeer chased with brandy coffee later, we are prepared for one final assault on Oslo nightlife. But not before Jarvis makes the most astonishing revelation of the whole trip. "Prince William is a Pulp fan, you know." Get awaaaaaaay! "No, honest. There was a thing in the Evening Standard about him, and his favourite band is Pulp! 'One wants to live with the common people...' Don't know quite what to make of that. Good name to have on the guest list, though..."
Yeah, you can picture the scene at Brixton Academy. "Nah mate, I don't care who the fack you are, there's no William Windsor on this list." It's a shame he wasn't here tonight, mind, since he'd be the only one able to afford to buy a round of drinks at the club we move on to later. That, however, is not high on Jarvis' priorities. If he is to make any headway on avenging the Viking raids he will need more sophisticated sustenance. Rumour has it that 'The Man' who we are looking for is easily identifiable by his cloak and fangs. No, really. Apparently it's all the rage among the vodka disco set in modern Norway to have your teeth lengthened. Visions of satanic black metal sacrifices of virgin music journalists briefly abound, but then an altogether more fearsome image emerges from the shadows. Yes, Ol' Blue Hair is back, and this time it's even more personal. She clamps her bony fingers round her quarry's much-coveted hand and grins lasciviously. Erm, just off to the toilet, then.
And so we leave Jarvis Cocker to search eternally for Dr Fangs, amused, appalled, stimulated and intoxicated by his surroundings, but never bored, because he's never being boring. Chances are, he's still out there now. Still wading through the crowd looking for a new surprise, a new experience, higher learning, higher love, different conversation, a different world, and a different class to call his own. Long may he roam.