Jarvis appeared on Desert Island Discs on 24 April 2005. As is customary he picked the records he would take to a desert island. He was also interviewed on a range of topics by Sue Lawley, including: the 1996 Brit Awards incident, growing up in Sheffield, falling out of a window while trying to impress a girl, and his post-fame life crisis. Lawley at times arguably sounded rather reproachful with an undue focus on the negative points in Jarvis' life.
JC = Jarvis Cocker
SL = Sue Lawley
SL: My castaway this week is a musician. After a long struggle on the fringes of the pop world his band Pulp achieved great fame and cult status in the 1990s; its album Different Class sold two million copies and at Glastonbury in 1995 his song Common People became a pop anthem. Tall, gangly and on the face of it a bit of a nerd but in fact perceptive and eloquent; his music and lyrics made lack of success acceptable and appealing. He himself lost his way after that triumph, drinking too much and making an exhibition of himself at celebrity occasions. But he is over that now, married and living in France, he's presented a television series on art and written the music for the latest Harry Potter film. 'What I like about people' he says 'is that they don't do what they are meant to; we've been haphazard and we've sorted it out, and that's human isn't it': he is Jarvis Cocker.
The great height of your success though Jarvis was that 1995 appearance at Glastonbury, wasn't it, when you stood up and everybody knew the words to Common People.
JC: I guess so, I mean it's quite scary to me that it's now ten years ago, but, yeah, that was the event that made the success a concrete fact.
SL: Yeah, but the irony is that you'd written it, and had always been, if you like, a kind of outsider, and what you discovered in that moment was that you were everyman. You know, what you felt meant something to all those people.
JC: Yeah, that is the strange thing, I mean erm... you're a human being and even though everybody likes to think that they're fantastically interesting and very unique the basic things that drive people are always the same things. And so if you manage to kind of - no matter how specific the thing you write about - if you manage to kind of write about it properly it will kind of connect with people.
SL: There will be some people of course who don't know what we're talking about. I should quote a little bit from Common People, I mean the end line really: 'You'll never live like common people, you'll never watch your life slide out of view, and dance and drink and screw, because there is nothing else to do.' I mean that kind of...
JC: You recite it very well.
SL: Did I lend it something new and different? Erm, but we should explain how you came to write it.
JC: Erm, well, the song is basically about a girl that I met when I was at art college in London. We were having a drink one night - I quite fancied this girl - and she came out with this stupendous statement saying she wanted to live like common people, she wanted to move to Hackney and see how common people lived. And so it came from that, and I embroidered the story to make the girl fancy me - that's the great thing about song writing and stuff, you can alter the facts to kind of paint yourself in a more favourable light.
SL: (Laughs) But the point is you've never idealised things like the average pop song. You've never said to coin a phrase: 'Everything's gonna be alright.'
JC: No, no, I mean that's something that I have had, erm.. quite a bee in my bonnet about from the start. When I hit puberty, with a bang, and started being interested in girls and stuff like that: my main kind of education, if you like, about those matters had been from listening to songs. And I felt that the information that I'd been given from pop songs really didn't prepare me for the real world of trying to go out with girls and relationships and stuff. And so I consciously wanted to write pop songs that had the messy bits in, and the kind of awkward fumbling bits, because I felt I had been sold short in some way and I wanted to provide a public service or something.
SL: Yeah. It's the theme of your life really, the sort of, reality is a disappointment, but we'll hear a bit more about it. Tell me about your first record for your desert island.
JC: Well, my first record is the theme from the television series the Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, which always seemed to be on in the school holidays when I was a kid. I don't think I'd last very long on a desert island at all - I've not got very many practical skills - but at least if I'd got this song playing I could act the part a little bit.
(The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (original TV soundtrack) composed by Robert Mellin)
SL: That was the theme from the television series the Adventures of Robinson Crusoe and it was written by Robert Mellin.
If Glastonbury was your high point of your career, Jarvis Cocker, then presumably the Brit Awards a year later in 1996 were probably the low point: that was when you went up on stage when Michael Jackson was singing and kind of bared your behind.
JC: Well, I'd like to point out I didn't bare my behind.
SL: Oh right - what did you do then?
JC: I shook it.
SL: You wiggled it.
JC: In the direction of the audience but it was always covered.
SL: Oh, was it?
JC: Oh yeah. No, I'd never expose my err... backside. I mean for aesthetic reasons and also it's too kind of rugby player kind of... it's just unpleasant.
SL: Why did it become such a big story then, as if you'd done something terrible?
JC: I suppose it's one of those things that aren't supposed to happen: I mean I never thought it would happen. We were at the Brit Awards and, you know, they were very pleased that year because they had got Michael Jackson to play. And I just thought - the hypocrisy of the whole thing was really getting me down. And I was just arguing with our keyboard player Candida, and she was saying: 'Why don't you do something about it - stop complaining!' And I said: 'I am going to then!' And so I then started walking to the stage and, you know, you would have thought there would have been some security or something, but low and behold the next thing I'm on the stage and not really knowing what to do. So, of course, when in doubt wiggle your bum about in front of people.
SL: (Laughs) But it was just one kind of incident that became part of err... a descent into, you know... pretty rubbishy behaviour if you like. I don't know, it sounds like I'm telling you off, I'm not, but that seems to be what happened, isn't it?
JC: I don't know whether that was a particularly rubbishy behaviour, but, it was certainly attention seeking behaviour. And I did get attention and the fallout from that I guess was the real kind of thing that really did me in for a while because it made me a very instantly recognisable person.
SL: Yes. Yes, you became a kind of tabloid figure as it were.
SL: Which added to what you didn't like, didn't it? Because what you were against was kind of the artificiality of fame.
JC: Well, that's it, I really messed it up for myself there, you know, I was now the observed rather than the observer, you know...
SL: You lost your invisibility.
JC: The hunter became the quarry, or whatever. And it just did me in. I can remember thinking as a kid, you know, well if I was famous I wouldn't have trouble with girls, you know, girls would be just throwing themselves at me, and I would just live in a hotel and get room service all the time. And I guess, even though I was quite old when we got fame, I still in some strange way thought I was going to enter this new realm, this new world. And of course that wasn't the case, and so there was a kind of a crashing disappointment, which was kind of doubled, I suppose, by the fact that then suddenly I realised the life I had been living before was quite good. And there was no way kind of back to doing it anymore. So I had really done it.
SL: Record number two.
JC: Record number two is Joy Division, Transmission. It's kind of post-punk, it's from a couple of years after punk happened. But punk was a very important event for me because I was about 13 and I was very kind of conscious that I didn't look normal and stuff. And then punk came along and said: 'Hey, it's alright to be different.' And so suddenly all these kind of gawky, messy bits suddenly became fashion features and plus points, so I kind of grabbed it with both hands and really got into it. This record reminds me of that time.
(Transmission by Joy Division)
SL: Joy Division and Transmission, and memories for Jarvis Cocker of being a teenager in Sheffield, where you apparently had the kind of freedoms that every teenager would really, really like - describe them to me.
JC: Err, well yeah, I mean my mum by Sheffield standards was fairly bohemian, I mean, my girlfriends were allowed to stay over - when I eventually got one. But maybe she was just so pleased that I had finally got one that she thought she better not put any obstacles in my way.
SL: And your father was a jazz musician and she was an art student.
JC: Yeah, my mum went to Psalter Lane Art College and that was cut short by my imminent arrival.
SL: So you were a bit of a mistake as it were.
JC: I was very much a mistake because at the time when my mother discovered she was pregnant she actually wasn't going out with my father anymore. She didn't actually believe she was pregnant, it was almost like an immaculate conception. It was traced back to some kind of fumbling on a Boxing Day party, around Christmas 1962. But she'd gone to the doctors because she thought she had appendicitis or something, and was told she was like three or four months pregnant. As I say, they weren't going out with each other, so it was obviously a shock to the both of them, but they went though with it and got married.
SL: And then, spool on a few years, when you were seven your dad left - he upped and offed.
SL: Err... that left a mark? You remember the day?
JC: Well, I suppose it must have left a mark but erm... I can't remember being upset. I'm sure it has had an effect on me, erm... I have no sense of loss or something like that.
SL: You don't feel scarred?
JC: Well, because, I guess, it was a strange split in so much as my father just disappeared, he just went to Australia, and I didn't see him again for 20 odd years. So it was just, bang, he's gone and now it was just me, my sister and me mum.
SL: Yeah, but you avoided marriage for a while didn't you, I know you're married now, but it's as if you maybe... I'm getting into kind of psycho-babble now, but it's like a role model, heh?
JC: Yeah, I remember quite soon after me dad going really consciously thinking: 'Yeah, obviously that doesn't work, so I'm not going to have any part of it.'
SL: What you did have trouble with - as I read it - was what your mother sent you to school in as a boy. I read you were sent to school in a sweater dress, is that right?
JC: Sweater dress!
JC: Err no, no, I wasn't that... I wasn't actually... no that would have been... I think the Social Services would have got involved there. No, I mean she used to make me wear very short shorts and then long jumpers so it looked like I had a jumper dress on or something.
SL: And lederhosen, I read.
JC: The lederhosen was the most embarrassing thing, I guess: it was black leather shorts with two zips at the front and little kind of leather braces with a bone carved stag on the front of them. And, of course, my mum thought I looked very...
SL: You remember them in great detail.
JC: Oh aye yeah. They're burnt forever into my memory. And obviously my mum thought I looked cute, and maybe I did look cute, but going to school in Sheffield dressed like that, when I already was kind of self-conscious with the glasses and the long hair and the bad teeth. You know, suddenly this goat-herd turned up at school and of course everybody laughed their heads off, and I was mortified, because I've always been quite shy - very shy child - and I just wanted to blend into the background and suddenly I was feeling like I should be yodelling or something.
SL: Tell me about the next bit of music.
JC: Lieutenant Pigeon, Mouldy Old Dough, this, I mean this is, I guess it's a novelty record but it's one of those records that for some reason I find quite moving, there's something about it, even though it is silly, there's something quite touching about it. Just before I left Sheffield to go to London there was an all-night cafe and they had a jukebox there: this record was on it and I often used to amuse myself by playing it.
(Mouldy Old Dough by Lieutenant Pigeon)
SL: Lieutenant Pigeon and Mouldy Old Dough. So you're in the dinner queue at City School, Sheffield, Jarvis Cocker, and it's sort of 1978.
JC: And my mouth is watering already thinking about it.
SL: (Laughs) And you suddenly think: 'Right, this is the secret of life; this is how I'm going to cure all my problems; I'm going to invent a band and I'm going to call it Pulp.'
JC: Yeah, I knew I wanted a group that was kind of a pop group; I didn't really want a serious rock group; I wanted it to be pop music.
SL: And John Peel spotted you at some point, didn't he?
JC: Yeah. I went to one of his John Peel roadshow things and gave him this tape and he said 'Oh, I'll listen to that on the way home.' And I never thought he really would. And then about three days later there was a call - I had to run round to me grandma's because we didn't have a phone in our house - and it was his producer saying: 'Do you want to come down and do a session?' So I was amazed, you know, it was the show I listened to kind of religiously every night, so it was really like a dream come true for me.
SL: So did that confirm for you that there was a future in it for you, and that you could hop off the regimented path and not go to university, because you deferred didn't you - by that stage you had a place at Liverpool.
JC: Yeah, yeah, that definitely gave me the confidence, the misplaced confidence as it turned out. You know, it gave me the ammunition to say to me mum: 'I don't want to go to university, let me put it off for a year, and let's try this out.'
SL: But you nearly got into Oxford to read English, what, why didn't you? What went wrong?
JC: Oh, very simply, I didn't read one of the books I was supposed to have read and then pretended that I had.
SL: What was the book, do you remember?
JC: It was Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles. I had read some of it, but I hadn't got to the end of it and I just kind of talked rubbish, and the bloke found me out straight away and so that was the end of that.
SL: And so you stay in Sheffield for six years, everybody else had gone, I mean everybody else who was in the band.
JC: Everybody else in the band either had strict parents or had common sense and just gave up.
SL: What were you kind of waiting... what did you think would happen? Did you think somebody would come for you because you were special, or you were just going to kind of see what happened? I mean what were you thinking?
JC: I just thought that if you did something and it was good then somehow people would discover it. And what I ended up was, I ended up being on the dole, because that was your alternative laid out path, I guess, that if you left school at that time and wanted to do something in any way vaguely creative, you kind of went on the dole and did it. But well, it didn't quite work out that way, maybe you would do it for six months and after that you just got into the dole living by fortnights culture, and just kind of wandering around like a lost dog or something.
JC: And I didn't want to end up like that.
SL: But you did. I mean, if you don't mind me pressing on it for a second: that's what you did between the ages of 18 and 24.
JC: Yes, supposedly my formative, and supposedly the best years of your life, aren't they?
SL: Well, they were very creative years: did you think someone was just going to suddenly find you, discover you, promote you in some way?
JC: I don't know, I mean I didn't do the band every minute of the day, and I didn't really want to move to London. I had always kind of had an affection for Sheffield and thought it was an interesting place; it's not a beautiful town or anything, but there is something about it, I don't know, some spirit to it.
SL: Record number four.
JC: Engelbert Humperdinck: this record of his, Ten Guitars, reminds me of there, because there was a pub just down from this factory I was living in, and this song, which I'd never heard before was a big favourite there. And I saw some very interesting acts there: there was an old woman who had to be carried on to the stage and she used to sit there and she sang this song, what was it? - 'I haven't had it up since Christmas, I haven't had it up since Christmas, that old umbrella of mine.'
JC: And so this reminds me of that: this pub is now closed and that kind of entertainment is kind of gone. And err... on a desert island this would make me smile, listening to this song.
(Ten Guitars by Engelbert Humperdinck)
SL: Engelbert Humperdinck and Ten Guitars. You mentioned the woman singing in the pub with the umbrella: I mean it's been said you are kind of the Alan Bennett of pop, which is quite a nice thing to have said about you really. But it is true isn't it, this noticing people who are both sort of funny and moving, and I suppose in their unique way say something about humanity.
JC: Yeah, I mean I like people who kind of don't particularly have any ambition. You know, like you were asking me how I could spend all that time in Sheffield. I don't know, to me it seems like it doesn't really matter much where things happen; it's kind of what's going on in your head really, that makes life interesting or not.
SL: Now, the most formative experience during those six wasted years...
JC: Wasted years, no they're...
SL: ... - I'm not allowed to call them wasted, no, no, no, alright not wasted - was that you ended up in a wheelchair.
JC: That's it that was the high point, yeah. I was trying to impress this girl that I'd met in this disco and we went back to her flat, and I think I'd been to a party the week before where I'd seen somebody do, to me, this very impressive stunt of going out on to one window ledge and then coming in back through another window. You know, by walking around the outside of the building from one window ledge to another, which was great in this party where they had sash windows, but then in her flat which was kind of modern and which had the kind of windows that hinged in the middle - so to open them the window went out into the street - so I thought, oh yeah well, I would hang from the window ledge and swing across to the next window ledge. Not really realising the feebleness of myself, and all that ended up was I was hanging from the window ledge...
SL: How far up were you?
JC: Erm, it was higher than a double-decker bus because one went past. You always kind of think there is going to be a guardian angel or that I will find that last ounce of strength that will help me pull myself back into the window in this life-threatening situation. Suddenly, I realised that wasn't the case, and I let go and fell and fractured my pelvis and me ankle. I ended up in a wheelchair for, I don't know, a couple of months - not that long. But I could have easily killed myself if I had fallen in a different way. And it would have been such a pathetic, meaningless death.
SL: Are we talking life-changing event here or was it just something else that happened to you?
JC: No, that was quite a turning point for me because then... it was then I decided that I needed to get out of Sheffield, I suppose.
SL: It only took you another three years didn't it.
JC: I know, well, I've never been quick.
SL: Next piece of music.
JC: Record number five, Scott Walker, The War is Over. Somebody had made a tape for me and I had flu and I was laid in bed and I was feeling very sorry for myself and I put this tape on: I thought maybe I had a high fever of something, and it was just the flu that had made me imagine that this music was so good, and I rewound the tape and listened to it again, and I've kind of loved his music ever since really.
(The War is Over by Scott Walker)
SL: Scott Walker and The War is Over. So was Pulp existing all of this time in different forms, or was it kind of on hold?
JC: Pulp was like a... it hovered like an indistinct spiritual presence. For big periods of my life it was kind of like a security blanket in a way. You know, it just kind of made me feel like I was doing something.
SL: But you came with it - this security blanket - to London eventually; you went to St Martin's Art College to study film.
JC: Yeah. As you've been reprimanding me earlier about, you know, how I should have made something of my earlier life. I eventually came to that conclusion as well, myself. And so that got me down to London, and it was very exciting because the college was in Covent Garden just next to the Tube, so you were right in the centre of things. But it wasn't like every day I was sitting there with nose to the grindstone; as I say the group often was really an amorphous excuse for... it was just something I could say when, you know, people say: 'Oh, what do you do?' I could say: 'Oh, I'm in a group' you know.
SL: Why do you think it was then that your songs really began to take off at that point, you know, were they different? Where they... what was it that rang a bell?
JC: There was a movement in English music at that time, of music that would have been kind of condemned to an indie ghetto normally, suddenly was going to the top of the charts. And it was kind of an exciting time, it was this feeling of the outsiders, the lunatics, can take over the asylum or whatever. I was very carried away with it, I thought, you know: 'Come on! Revolution is going to happen now', you know, there's going to be a change. And it didn't quite turn out that way but it was quite exciting.
SL: Well, it did briefly, didn't it?
JC: Yeah, for a few months. And maybe that's how things always happen. These things do go in cycles and there isn't any way of prolonging it.
SL: And then to quote the song, you then began to 'slide out of view'. In the end you sorted that all out for yourself didn't you; you didn't go into therapy, or go into rehab, or whatever.
JC: Probably meanness on my part, you know, The Priory being very expensive. I don't know whether it's that great to cure yourself but if you do try to sort it all out yourself, you kind of have the satisfaction of knowing you've done that. That happens a lot in our culture doesn't it, you know it's like you pay somebody to do something, or you take a drug to make you feel a certain way, or you take a drug to make you feel another way. And it's like laziness, you know, you should actually have to do something to feel good rather than just kind of swallow something.
SL: Record number six.
JC: Dory Previn, The Lady with the Braid. I remember very vividly first hearing this record. I had moved to London. I was living in this squat and I was trying to put a curtain rail up, which was err... I think it took me just about all day and I was listening to the radio, and it's one of those movements where you have to stop what you're doing and pay full attention to it. And I apologise to Dory that it will always be associated with bad curtain hanging in my mind.
(The Lady with the Braid by Dory Previn)
SL: Dory Previn and The Lady with the Braid. So how do you earn any money these days then if you're... I mean Pulp's kind of disbanded, isn't it?
SL: Or isn't it?
JC: Not Officially. I mean, like I say it's gone through so many dormant periods. It's like Vesuvius, you can say it's dead, but you never know. Like recently I've done these songs for Harry Potter and stuff like that, and I've written songs for other people: I did some songs for Nancy Sinatra last year and a song for Marianne Faithful a bit before that. I mean the wolf is always circling the house, but I've consciously took a couple of years off. Like you say I've got married - something I thought I would never do - I had a kid and maybe because of me dad disappearing and stuff like that I've got more of a bee in my bonnet about being, you know, a hands on parent, a new man, or whatever. So I definitely decided... I had the resources to take a bit of time off and do that. I kind of had all these ideas, you know, once I hit 40 that was it; it wasn't appropriate to still be prancing around on a stage and stuff, and then you suddenly realise you enjoy it and also - big point - you can't actually do anything else, so you better stick with it.
SL: Number seven.
JC: Number seven, this is Johnny Cash, I See a Darkness, it's erm... I think it's a very powerful song: The first time I played it to a friend of mine he just burst into tears. Whether that's appropriate on a desert island, where, you know, some of the other choices I've kind of thought: 'Let's have something to jolly me along whilst I'm there.' Anyway, I think this song it's one of those that whenever you hear it, it kind of grips you, and so I think it would have to be there, but maybe I would only play it on special occasions, yeah.
(I See a Darkness by Johnny Cash)
SL: Johnny Cash and I See a Darkness to remind you, you say Jarvis, on your desert island of your wife Camille with whom you live in Paris with baby Albert. Now, Jarvis Cocker in Paris is quite an image: how does it work for you?
JC: In a way it's a bit like being on a desert island actually, because I don't know anybody there except for my wife.
SL: Speak French?
JC: You know, I can do the normal things like get a sandwich with the filling I asked for in it, but I'm desperately conscious of the fact that when I enter a conversation suddenly it grinds almost to a halt. It just embarrasses me, so I ended up kind of not saying anything in the end.
SL: So it's a bit of a desert island. What about the real desert island, our desert island, how do you see Jarvis Cocker as Robinson Crusoe?
JC: Well, I really wouldn't last. For a start I would become a vegetarian straight away, I'm sure, because the thought of me killing some beast - I might be able to do a fish - but you know, anything bigger than that: a chicken no way and a sheep forget it. So I think I would become mainly vegetarian. Building shelter and stuff like that, I'm sure it wouldn't withstand any sort of storm, maybe not even a mild breeze. But the main thing would be the lack of company: I'd like people to be around to distract me from myself. Stuck on a desert island I would probably have no choice but to think of myself and I would find that very boring.
SL: Last record.
JC: Well, my last record is to kind of try and help me with that. It's, well it's got a lot of connotations really, it's Sailing By, which is the music that gets played in the shipping forecast. I've for many years used this as an aid to restful sleep. I find something very comforting about listening to it when you're laid in bed. And also on a desert island it would be happy because it would remind you of the fact that there are boats out there listening to the shipping forecast and some of them might sail nearby so you could get rescued. This would help me. This would be like something that could help me deal with that isolation, I think.
(Sailing By composed by Ronald Binge)
SL: Sailing By written by Ronald Binge; Vernon Handley conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra there. Now Jarvis, if you could only take one of those eight records which one would you take?
JC: Well, that would be very difficult. Maybe I would take that, Sailing By, because it... the trouble is with your favourite songs if you hear them too much you'd end up hating it, and to end up hating something you loved would be awful, so maybe I would go with that because it's fairly, it drifts by, it's fairly ambient, so maybe it wouldn't drive you mad so much.
SL: And what about a book? We give you the Bible, as you know, and the complete works of Shakespeare.
JC: That's very kind of you. And that would be good actually because I've never read the Bible, so that would give me something to look at - see what all the fuss is about. The book I would take is Sombrero Fallout by Richard Brautigan, which isn't a very long book: I re-read it the other day, it only took me about three hours.
SL: What's it about? What is it?
JC: It's kind of funny; it's funny and sad at the same time and that's generally what I go for. It's probably in a lot of these songs that I chose as well, you know, there is something about that mixture that gets to me in some way. I think life's like that isn't it: it's kind of funny but it always turns out to be a tragedy because the main character dies in the end, you know.
SL: And what about a luxury?
JC: We've kind of brushed on my great indolence during the course of this interview and I think a bed would be the thing, with a mosquito net if possible, because I think if you've got a decent night's sleep you can kind of deal with things a lot better, I think. If anything was going to help me get through this experience I think that would be it.
SL: Jarvis Cocker thank you very much indeed for letting us hear your desert island discs.
JC: Well, thank you very much for inviting me.