Interviews

A Final Interview With the Late Jock Scot, Your Favourite Musician's Favourite Poet

The charismatic Scottish poet came to London in the 70s, charmed every star in the city, and became a shining light for his generation. We met him just weeks before he passed away, and discussed life, poetry, and myths.

by Robert Greer
19 April 2016, 12:16pm

If there's one thing I've learned over the past few months, it's that Jock Scot was one of the finest and most acclaimed poets of his generation. A friend of Joe Strummer; "a hero" to Billy Bragg; never one to be concerned with finding regular employment or a home when he arrived in London – Scot was a genuine bohemian. A sort of shining light in his generation. Yet most people don't even know his name.

My personal discovery of Scot's work came late at night. I'd been drawing, drinking, and flicking aimlessly through YouTube clips when I stumbled across a recording of him from 1997, performing two poems "Farewell To Ferodo" and "Speaking In Tongues". I was struck immediately by his words, which are both hilarious and confrontational. "I can't believe you said it – your place or mine – and you had your tongue down my throat at the time," he says, delivering his lines with an almost melodic, slurring Scottish intonation. Even within the confines of that three minute clip, it's clear that the man emanated a kind of easy, sardonic charm. As the poet and friend of Scot, Murray Lachan Young observed, "his satirical writing cut effortlessly through superficial social barriers."

Scot was a travelling poet of very few published works, who instead made two sprawling, experimental, spoken word albums. Imbued with a sense of natural charisma, during the 70s and 80s Scot was hired by bands like The Clash, The B52s, Blondie, and Talking Heads on the basis of his personality alone, with no clear duties to fulfil other than being around to dispense good vibes and occasionally perform. In later years, he performed with the likes of The Libertines, Subway Sect and British Sea Power, cementing himself as an enduring cult figure amongst musicians over the space of five decades.

I soon found myself desperate to see him perform, which led me to organise a show in which he would be the headliner. I also wished to speak to him face-to-face, perhaps to hear more about his life in a way that wasn't awash with myth or hearsay, and to understand his character first hand. I'd heard that he was a lifelong fan of horse-racing. I'd heard that one time he'd travelled to Worcestershire by helicopter with Shane McGowan, yet when the pair arrived, they were so intoxicated they had to be stretchered into an ambulance, all of which happened in full view of a local school who had turned out to greet them. I'd heard that he dated Neneh Cherry. I'd heard that he used to sleep rough on a building site. Fortunately, Scot agreed to meet with me.

When I arrive on his doorstep four months later, there are two bottles of milk on the step outside, and when he opens the door he doesn't look well. As we head to the living room, I notice the blinds are down. Within its dark walls are dusty stacks of boxes filled with records alongside an overflowing assortment of books. "I'm really sorry, but I think we're going to have to cancel the show," he tells me, apologising. "My condition was fine for a long time, but in the last few weeks my energy levels have gone down a bit, and I don't feel like I can promise I'll perform. I hope tickets can be refunded."

I tell Scot not to worry, and ask if he still wants to go ahead with the interview. He says he's happy to do so, although I am informed that a doctor had been called out, and will be arriving shortly.

Photo by Joshua Eiffel

Over two years ago, Scot was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given three months to live. He flat-out refused chemotherapy at the time, instead opting for palliative care, defying his prognosis by surviving week upon week. Yet despite facing his mortality, he retains a wry sense of humour. In one of his more recent poems "You're Depressed?", he addressed his death with typical irony: ""Let Leonard give the reading / Let Shane prepare the feast / Let the girls line the harbour / Let this tortured soul rest in peace". That lachrymose humour is apparent when we meet, as he peppers his sentences with darkly funny jokes and razor sharp charm.

Before long, he is showing me a collection of old photos from the 70s and 80s. "That's me with Lemmy there on a plane to a festival in Finland," he points, flicking through quickly. "Ah and look, there's me on stage with Ian [Dury]. What am I doing? I've got no trousers on, just a pair of toilet shorts, I must have just been pissed and got up for a sing-a-long." In the pictures, Scot has huge fierce sideburns, flamboyant clothing, and is often captured making people laugh, or with someone's arm slung around his shoulder. Yet when I ask him about this particular period of time, he's evasive. On working with The Clash, he says, "I was not really doing much, just hanging around. They shared the same management as Ian [Dury], so I ended up working with them a bit."

He's more open when I ask about how he got into touring with musicians in the first place. "I met Ian Dury in Edinburgh," he tells me. "He was playing there with the Blockheads during the World Cup in 1978, and I just went back and said hello to him. I remember I still had my football kit on after a game. Then we hung out, and he invited me to go and see him in Glasgow the next day."

"I was working on a building site and Ian asked me how much I was earning," he continues. "I said thirty six quid or whatever it was, and he sent a roadie off to get the money. When the roadie came back with the money, Ian burned it in the ashtray, and said 'Listen, it doesn't matter about the money, you've got to join the firm.' So I started working for him, and he got me a job at Stiff Records after that."

Born John Graham Manson Leslie in Leith, Scotland, in 1957, Jock Scot was one of seven siblings. His father: a decorated Burma veteran who played the piano and accordion. His mother: a Protestant, who opposed the views Scot would come to hold as he grew up a Catholic Hibernian. Raised on a council estate, he spent his childhood selling lemonade. The change in his name came after Ian Dury brought him to London, when he started to perform. Scot lived rent-free in a house in Bow with the manager of The Clash, Kosmo Vinyl. It was here that he befriended the luminaries of London's music scene at the time.

Photo by Joshua Eiffel

Speaking with his good friend and editor of The Idler Tom Hodgkinson a few days later, it becomes clearer that above all, Jock's influence has been as a human being. "Bands like the Clash, the Pogues and the Libertines have welcomed him on stage as a poet and vibes merchant," he tells me. "He actually is a legend because he has never sought fame or fortune. Truly he has lived free."

"I met Jock at a party in the 90s, and we quickly became great friends. He would perform at Idler parties and contribute to the magazine," he adds. "One regular column on bird watching in particular was quite hilarious. He is one of those rare people who has no need for a job or career for his self-esteem. Somehow, he has done very little except be entertaining and be good company."

Despite a widespread appreciation of his work, Jock's artistic output is relatively slim. Aside from the two albums mentioned, there is only one book – 1993's Where is My Heroine? – which has long been out of print, and is now almost impossible to find. "I don't know where the book went, there's no copies of it," he tells me. "I had one once, but they're hard to get now. People are talking about bringing it out again, but I can't be bothered. I'm sure it'll come out once I snuff it."

Scot's transformation from a travelling character – the sort who once played a teacup live on stage at Manchester's Hacienda club – into a tangible poet came fully into fruition in the late 80s, following his recovery from a sustained heroin addiction. At the time, he was a regular performer throughout London's West End, particularly in Notting Hill boozer: The Warwick Castle. Word of his talents spread swiftly, and he soon began making video specials for MTV, grainy videos of which can be found on YouTube.

"We just did a series of video things because I knew a guy who said 'Let's do some shots for the telly'," Scot shrugs. "I wasn't aware at the time of the reach of MTV, that everybody was watching it, I just did them, they paid me, and I stayed in the house. On the weekend when I went out people were saying to me, 'You're the guy from MTV aren't you?' And I said, 'Well, I did some videos, then I went back to my house'."

At this point, Scot pauses to let me know that a doctor is on the way, and that he's going for a quick fag in the garden. I ask if we can take a picture of him in his living room beforehand. "Not at all. This is not a very good top," he says pulling at his jumper, "but I cannae be bothered. It's a terrible hat as well, let me get this one." From under a nearby table, Jock pulls out a green and white Hibernian bobble hat with the words 'Thrill Jockey' emblazoned across the front. "It's good hey? I found it on the floor after a Vic Goddard gig."

While he smokes, Jock's wife Helen arrives through the door, having returned from work. She is kind and gracious as we chat over a cup of tea in the kitchen before Jock comes back in. "I've got a bit more energy now, Helen! I've got the adrenaline going!" He shouts. Helen laughs and reminds him that the doctor is arriving soon, and that he is meant to be sick. "Ah yes," Jock says, sitting down to eat some hot porridge at the table.

As I go to leave, Jock gives me a copy of his recently reissued debut album My Personal Culloden. I was a bit overwhelmed, and probably thanked him too much. "We've got them now, so somebody should have them," he responds.

Two weeks after our meeting, Jock passed away, at the age of 63. I learned the news from a Facebook post written by Fat While Family's manager Robert Rubbish. I knew it had been coming of course, but it still felt like being punched in the gut.

I poured myself some wine, and put on My Personal Culloden. Hidden in a collage in the liner notes is a re-printed early interview from an unknown magazine: "Everybody writes poetry, when they've fallen out with their girlfriend, or their hamster dies, but they stop, because people laugh at you… but I kept with it," it reads.

Scot's way with words was undeniable, but his true appeal seemed to lay in the way he approached life, and how he seemed utterly unafraid of his own freedom. In a world where we are encouraged to shape our futures around rigid career paths, rarely allowing ourselves the room to breathe, Scot threw out the rule-book to forge his own way, creating unique work and provoking love and affection from everyone who crossed his path. He lived life purely on his own terms, and for that, he will never be forgotten.

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