Puppy Love
Words: Lynn Barber, Photographer: Harry Borden
Taken from The Observer Magazine, 5 April 1998

He always seems so sweet - funny look, funny lyrics (no wonder teens and housewives adore him). But, he says, he loathes himself. So is he really nasty?

Of course, it is chic nowadays to pretend that one loved Pulp from their first album It in 1980 but, like half the nation, I only became aware of them with 'Common People' in the summer of 1995 and only fell in love with Jarvis in February, 1996, watching the Brit Awards on television. Just as the gorge was rising unbearably at the sight of Michael Jackson pretending to be the Messiah, salvation arrived in the unlikely shape of Jarvis, stumbling around the stage and mooning ineptly. Thus a national institution was born. If the Queen had given him a knighthood the next day, she would have done herself a lot of good.

And now he is coming to breakfast. This is a sort of fugue experience because I spent an embarrassingly large part of my teens and twenties fantasising that a pop star was coming to breakfast. In those days it was John Lennon but Jarvis is a not entirely unworthy substitute - as a lyricist I'd almost give him the edge.

Quite why Jarvis is coming to breakfast remains a mystery - his PR minders wanted us to meet in a caff but I refused (risk of being mobbed by fans) - so Monday morning finds me whirling round the house in a complete tizz, hiding the potpourri (he told the Face that potpourri, along with Beleian chocolates, counted as his 'worst fear') and double-checking that I haven't suddenly acquired a copy of A Year in Provence.

On time to the minute, a gleaming antique Porsche draws up to the kerb and a very glamorous pop person in heavy slap and earrings steps out. It is the PR. Jarvis, in thick specs and belted granny cardie, unravels from the passenger seat. I find it quite confusing trying to combine the roles of interviewer and hostess, but he makes it easy - he is so likeable. All he wants for breakfast is old-fashioned tea and toast. He comes into the kitchen and rabbits on while I make it. He goes into a great long rap about The Graduate, which he had watched on telly the night before, or rather "I didn't really watch it because I've seen it so many times but I had a record on and I just had the picture on because, you know, I'm postmodern, - that's what we're all supposed to do, now we're living in a fragmented, almost millennial society - do five things at once and only pay attention to little bits of them."

He keeps asking whether I think the closing shot of The Graduate is meant to be a happy ending. He seems really to care about my answer. But I, trying to make his breakfast and do five things at once, am not really paying attention. Only afterwards do I realise he was talking about his own situation, post-fame: "I always thought it was a happy ending, but having seen it again, the way that shot lingers at the end, it was like, Well what next then? The event's happened and now it's actually the reality of living the rest of your life."

After a while I start panicking - is he going to talk about The Graduate all morning? He avoids questions by swerving past them and talking about something else - mainly film and telly trivia. He says he's trying to wean himself off watching telly, but he obviously watches it a lot. He told me the entire career of John Nettles, ex-Bergerac, ex-World of Leather, before admitting, "That's a bit of a digression. But that's the trouble, you see - my mind is littered with all that kind of stuff, which takes up the room that important, proper memories should be in."

Or maybe he's just tired of talking about himself. "Being the singer, it's always me me me, I, I, I - I think this, I do that, this is my insight into the world. It's a very self-obsessed thing." And talking about himself only adds to the self-loathing that seems to be an ineradicable part of his character. He doesn't like his own company, he gets sick of hearing himself, that's why he always has flatmates. He formed a pop group originally, aged 15, because he wanted to be in a gang. And Pulp is a gang - they share the money equally, they make decisions democratically - but he always ends up doing the talking. And so he has created this sort of monster, the public Jarvis, who is Jarvis, but perhaps a slightly cute and cuddly version of the real thing.

It's important to remember that Jarvis has been Jarvis for an awfully long time. He seems new, in that he only 'arrived' in 1995, but he had 32 years of being Jarvis before most of us were aware of him. And by all accounts he was always the same Jarvis - he hasn't been styled up for stardom. There are plenty of sightings from Sheffield in the early 1980s or from St Martin's College in the late 1980s that describe essentially the same man. He always dressed like he does, he was always thin and nerdy and low-key, he was always a misfit. Lotte Heath, who went out with him at art school, describes him as 'like an old man - he always wanted to go home and have his cup of tea'. But also, she remembers, 'He was so weird and different and unique I always knew he would be famous.'

He was an 'accident', born in 1963 when his mother, Christine, was an art student and his father, Mack Cocker, was a local jazz musician and occasional actor who was apt to claim to be Joe Cocker's brother (one of life's little ironies - he would have been better off staying as Jarvis Cocker's father). Mack and Christine married, settled down next to her parents, and had a daughter, Saskia, two years later. Note the names - there might be a Jarvis and a Saskia (Rembrandt's wife) in every playgroup now, but I bet they were the only ones in Sheffield in the early 1960s.

Jarvis describes his mother as being 'as close to a Bohemian as it's possible to get in Sheffield.' The two big events of Jarvis's young life were that at five he developed meningitis, and was left with permanently damaged eyesight, and then at seven, his father left home, emigrated to Australia, and disappeared - no letters, no Christmas cards, nothing. Christine got a job emptying fruit machines to support the family.

Henceforth, Jarvis was entirely surrounded by women - his mother, his sister, his grandmother, his aunt, his great-aunt. As he remembers it, all his friends' fathers also disappeared in 1970. Two years ago, an Australian tabloid tracked down Jarvis's father in Darwin. It said he had been an alcoholic, but had now reformed; and had worked as a radio DJ, claiming to be Joe Cocker's brother. The Sun of course offered to fly Jarvis to Australia for a big reunion but Jarvis refused -'I can't imagine anything worse'. But in fact he did go privately to meet his father, which was probably the inspiration for 'Help The Aged' and, more specifically, 'A Little Soul' on Hardcore, in which a father tells his son: 'You see your mother and me, we never got along that well you see. I'd love to help you but everybody's telling me you look like me but please don't turn out like me... I've only got a little soul.'

So he doesn't feel bitter? "No, I don't feel bitter at all. I understand it totally. If you think about that time, the 1960s, and I know that I wasn't a plarmed pregnancy so, for a start, he probably didn't want to get married. Then, I know he had aspirations to be a musician and to be an actor, which probably had to be put on hold. And also he ended up living next door to my mother's parents - and they're nice people but, you know, it probably made him feel just a bit under pressure. So I don't feel any bitterness towards him at all. I feel sorry for him." How does his mother feel about it? "My mother's all right, you know, she's sensible."

When Jarvis talks about his childhood now, he always plays it for laughs, but it can't have been much fun at the time. Fatherless, brotherless, pathetically thin and weedy, bespectacled, useless at games, and called Jarvis, he was exactly the sort of boy other boys pick on. But he was bright; he learnt to use wit as a weapon. At 15, he formed a band because, "I couldn't play football so it was an alternate way to hang around in a gang. Also, because I was a sad teenager, I thought being in a band would solve all my problems. I thought I'd be able to get girls." In fact he didn't get a girl - or not enough to lose his virginity - till he was almost 20, but his attempts to do so provided some of his best lyrics.

When he was 17, he had the first of many false dawns - recorded a session for John Peel, released his first album - but it didn't lead anywhere. This was the beginning of the 1980s, his dismal decade. The original members of Pulp went off to university, but he hung around in Sheffield for six years, drawing the dole, living in squats. He got a new band together and released a second Pulp album, Freaks (Ten Songs about Power, Claustrophobia, Suffocation and Holding Hands), which was inspired by "me thinking we were turning into freaks living on the margins of society which I've never wanted to do. I've always wanted to fit in, really."

In 1985, he was trying to be Spiderman to impress a girl when he fell 30ft off a window ledge and ended up in hospital with a broken pelvis, wrist and foot, and spent two months in a wheelchair. It seems to have had a galvanising effect. Up till then, "I'd done nothing but live in the future" but suddenly he decided to apply for a film course at St Martin's in London. It was here, of course, that he encountered the class system and met the girl who inspired 'Common people'. He also discovered Acid House raves and the joys of being Sorted For E's and Wizz. He made a third album, Separations, but it wasn't released for three years.

In 1990, a Pulp single, 'My Legendary Girlfriend', was chosen as NMEs single of the week, and suddenly labels were vying to sign them. Pulp actually signed with Island and went through the whole champagne celebration party knowing that the contract wasn't worth the paper it was written on because they were already signed with someone else. It took a couple of years to sort out their legal entanglements, but finally they released His 'n' Hers with Island in 1994 and got shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize.

And then in 1995 they released 'Common People', the first single from their new album Different Class. Incredibly, it was never number one, it was beaten by two blokes from Soldier, Soldier. But Pulp were called in to replace the injured Stone Roses as the headline act at that summer's Glastonbury Festival, and when Jarvis started 'She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge, she studied sculpture at St Martin's College', the whole 100,000 strong crowd sang along, word perfect. Jarvis was too nervous to enjoy it then, but he said afterwards: "It makes you feel you haven't wasted the last 15 years of your life, that you were right to have carried on. It makes you feel you weren't mentally ill that time." The album went triple platinuin and won the Mercury Music Prize.

But of course, and this is where The Graduate comes in - his problem was what happens next? He'd spent more than half his life being an unsuccessful pop star - he was so used to it that he was completely unprepared for success. For the first year he went to every party he was invited to and got very drunk. He'd stopped drinking beer because he didn't want to get fat, so he was drinking whisky and brandy instead. Was he drunk for the whole of 1996?

"Could be. It's a nice thought. You know, it was quite an exciting time. I'd been going along, being in a band, since I was 17 and so obviously, by the time we actually achieved that ambition, I was a completely different person. So then there's a sort of examination of motives, because instead of it just being a fantasy, now you've got the reality, and you think, 'Well hold on, why did I want to do this? Is it because I want to be successful and show off and go to places? Or is it a pure and noble artistic intention to create something?' And after having been a marginal character, on the fringes of things, suddenly being in the centre, the eye of the storm you are kind of cut-off from your former life, because you can't really just do normal things. And so you think, 'Well, do you just have to hang around with famous people now because they're not going to hassle you so much?' The thing is, I always worry about things, all the time - but if you get pissed, then you stop worrying, you kind of go on to autopilot. So, it's not like I turned into Oliver Reed or something, but I have to admit there were some hairy moments. But luckily, through a combination of still knowing people I'd known for a long time, from before getting famous, and maybe having a bit of common sense, in the end you realise you're going to have to stop, otherwise you're going to be a kind of laughing stock."

There were darker rumours about heroin, not exactly discouraged by a recent interview in Select in which he seemed to admit he'd experimented (though he told me that he was misquoted). I would have bet he was too sensible to get into hard drugs, but he seems keen to prevaricate. "Well, you know, I've had 'em. But if you talk about them then it's like as if you're showing off, like there's something really great about the fact that you've had them. And there isn't. And it's not even like a big deal because there's lots of people in the world who've had lots more than me, or who are much more experienced at taking drugs."

Anyway, whether he was drunk or drugged, 1996 and 1997 were virtually missing years. Pulp were supposed to start recording their new album in autumn 1996 when they came back from their world tour, but they had only written one song, 'Help The Aged'. And when they did assemble in the studio in November, Jarvis suddenly pissed off to New York for three weeks on some unexplained mission to 'find himself'. Meanwhile, Russell Senior, Jarvis's oldest, most loyal lieutenant, decided to leave the band because he found 'It wasn't creatively rewarding to be in Pulp anymore'. Pulp managed the split amicably, agreeing a financial settlement between themselves without lawyers, but obviously it took a while to adjust. Jarvis still sounds a bit cool towards Russell: "He'd been with me for 13 years. But I wouldn't say we were close like confiding things in each other. There was always quite a bit of friction between us." Russell told Radio One that Jarvis slept in brown pyjamas and had halitosis.

The new album was due in 1997 but in the end Pulp released just one single, 'Help The Aged', which only got to number eight in the charts. There were obviously disagreements within the band about what to put on the album - guitarist Mark Webber told NME that there are two tracks ('TV Movie' and 'A little Soul') he can't bear to listen to but "recently it has been a case of Jarvis's will overriding everyone else's common sense". This sounds bad - but one of the many attractive features of Pulp is that they all feel free to slag Jarvis off, and often do. Steve Mackay, the bassist, says the band pick on Jarvis because "He's got to have something to write about, hasn't he? Paranoia, psychosis, lack of self-confidence, those are the kind of things that lead to fairly reasonable songs."

All the group seem quite resigned to the idea that This is Hardcore won't do as well as Different Class - it's a very dark album. The title track entered the charts last week at number 12, which is not promising, and there are no immediate plans for a tour. Instead, Jarvis is going off to make three programmes for Channel 4 about 'Outsider Artists'. He thinks film-making is what he'll do when his pop career is finished - "It could save me from the trout farm."

And what of his long-term plans? He turns 35 this year, so in theory the pram in the hall beckons, but he still feels he wants a refund on his adolescence. "I've always been a bit immature, you know, in that I never saw much attraction in becoming an adult." He thinks he might buy a house (at present he shares a rented flat with friends) but I don't want to get too settled. Because being a pop star, or any kind of artist - they're not like real people you know - it's always a balancing act that you play. Because you have to write about things that real people are interested in, because they're the people that buy your records, but you don't really live your life like a normal person because in a way you invite disasters, because it gives you material. I hate that aspect of it because it's like you're something less than a real human being and I think it's more important to be a human being than to be an artist..."


"Well yes! Because otherwise you're some kind of unnatural monster. It's like that song "Dishes" [I am not Jesus though I have the same initials - I am the man who stays home and does the dishes] and this aspiration towards doing the pots - which will never be more than an aspiration I'm afraid - I don't know if I'm just being some kind of sentimental prat really. I probably couldn't hack it, if I tried to live a domestic life. I'd like to be able to do it, you know - most of the rest oft he stuff is just a load of shit really - but I think it's much more difficult nowadays because there's so many distractions and so many options. I don't like choice. I'd rather be in a kind of Soviet discipline where you just had one thing and it might not be very good quality, but at least you didn't have to go to the supermarket and choose from 10 varieties of it. You watch the telly, and there's so many lifestyle choices, so many things that will make you feel dissatisfied with what you've got in your life. And so, for two people to stay together and be happy and not resent each other, it's very difficult. But that's the thing to aspire to. Because the other things are just illusions, really."

He has been with the same girlfriend, Sarah, a psychiatric nurse, for several years. There is no question of marriage because he doesn't believe in marriage, but he is obviously thinking in terms of commitment, possibly even children eventually, though he doesn't think he can combine being a father with being a pop star. Though even that... He used to make all these rules for himself but now he's loosening up. He wouldn't necessarily retire if his girlfriend got pregnant. A couple of the band have become fathers recently and they seem to have survived. And what does Sarah feel? Jarvis won't talk about her because "I've come to realise - having had certain intrusions into my private life - that it's quite important to keep it private."

One of the intrusions was a make-up girl he had a fling with in early 1996, who kissed and told to the News of the World. (She gave him a good write-up - she said: "In bed, he satisfied my every need" - though he never took his shirt off.) It sounded such an obvious tabloid trap I wondered if he was set up - did he feel like an innocent dupe in that entanglement? "Oh no no no. I'm not innocent at all. I probably even knew that kind of thing was going to happen. I didn't know that but a lot of people had told me from the outset that I would find myself in trouble if I got involved. But sometimes - well, that's how it happens, isn't it? It's not a logical thing, sexual attraction. And sometimes the fact that you can see this car crash about to occur, in a way it's a kind of a turn-on, you know?"

I wondered if the fling with the make-up girl was perhaps intended to provoke a crisis with Sarah? He gives me a nasty look and says, "I don't know. That would be something for me to go and talk to a psychiatrist about, wouldn't it?" Might he do that? "No. I believe in DIY therapy - you write songs about it - that kind of works things out. Because a lot of times, the things you end up writing songs about, like 'Help The Aged', is something that is preying on your mind, and somehow using it and facing it somehow defuses it."

If This is Hardcore is DIY therapy, he's been grappling with some horrendous problems - panic attacks, self-loathing, disgust, drugs and (on 'The Professional', the B-side of the single) sexual exhaustion - 'I'm rapidly losing interest in sex, I can't even hold myself erect'. Only one song, 'Dishes', holds out a slender hope of redemption - and he says that if the Jarvis of six or seven years ago had heard that song, he would have said, 'What a load of sentimental twaddle!' Now he thinks it's borderline sentimental. But he is still, he believes, emotionally cold. "This is something that's always worried me, really - I can get involved and affected by programmes and stuff that I watch on the telly, and even books you know" - he stops and shakes-his head reproachfully, "Even books!" before continuing - "But when it comes to emotional or supposedly emotional events in my life, I have difficulty summoning up the kind of requisite feelings. You kind of know what kind of response you're supposed to have but... Someone can be crying and I'll be just sat there stony-faced, saying, 'Can you keep it down please, I'm trying to watch the telly.'"

Really? He always comes across in interviews as so sensitive and caring. But if you listen to the lyrics, a quite different Jarvis emerges, a cold-eyed stalker lurking in the shadows, a class-war guerrilla raiding the bourgeoisie, preying on its women. 'I Spy', on Different Class, is the clearest exposition: 'You see you should take me seriously, very seriously indeed / Cos I've been sleeping with your wife for the past 16 weeks / Smoking your cigarettes, drinking your brandy, messing up the bed that you chose together / And in all that time I just wanted you to come home unexpectedly one afternoon and catch us at it in the front room... / Take your year in Provence and shove it up your ass.'

Russell Senior said he always felt Jarvis was a hypocrite when he sang about the Common People, because by the time he sang it, he was a celeb. But that is why it is important to remember that successful Jarvis is a very new phenomenon. Now he has fans throwing their knickers on stage and passing him their phone numbers, but for most of his life he belonged to the ranks of the sexually deprived and envious - 'You were the first girl at school to get breasts. Martyn said that you were the best. The boys all loved you but I was a mess. I had to watch them try and get you undressed.' He can't suddenly forget all those years. And so I think he finds himself now in the position of a voyeur who has spent every evening watching a girl undress, and then one night she opens the door and says, 'Hi! Do you wanna shag?' The reaction is a mixture of shock and glee but also disappointment at losing his reliable fantasy. The reality is never so good. I think that's what his whole problem with success is about - it was more fun dreaming about it. And now he is too old, and too aware, to enjoy it shamelessly, as he should.

Press    Home