Jarvis Cocker: Je suis un rock star...

Jarvis Cocker started Pulp to avoid having a family. Now, as he heads for a new life in Paris with his wife and a baby on the way, he's happier to embrace normality - apart from the clothes, of course

In the BBC canteen, where passing celebrity chefs must recoil before a menu that has stubbornly resisted the onward march of culinary ponciness, Jarvis Cocker is tucking with relish into meat pie and chips with a side order of overcooked cabbage. This is hardcore stodge. 'Proper food,' as Jarvis puts it, only half-jokingly, holding a gravy soaked chip up to the light. It is at moments like this that you begin to fear for his chances of survival when he departs these shores next month to relocate in Paris, home of concepts like 'nouvelle', not to mention 'cuisine'.

'I reckon I'll be all right,' he says, slicing into a soggy cabbage stalk, 'I mean, I'll not be conversing with cabbies for a while, which may be no bad thing, come to think of it, but it's not like I'm going to the other side of the universe. It's only Paris, for God's sake; I think I'll fit in there quite nicely.' You wonder. Sartorially, for instance, Jarvis occupies a place that could never ever be described as coiffured or très chic. Today, beneath his lank fringe and large horn-rims, he is decked out in a surprisingly tasteful brown shirt that, as is the case now among the stylishly alert, could be either thrift shop or catwalk, light blue jeans, slightly flared, and matching blue round-toed shoes. His pièce de résistance, though, is a big fluffy coat that all but envelops his elongated, stick-thin frame, giving him almost cartoonish aspect. He nevertheless manages to look cool, albeit in an emphatically thrown-together English way. 'Jarvis received some clothes from Marc Jacobs after he did their campaign,' Camille, his new wife who is French and effortlessly en vogue, will tell me later. 'And he has not sent any of them back yet. It is,' she says, with the air of someone not yet resigned to defeat, 'a beginning.'

Over a post-prandial fag, before an appearance on BBC2's Later...with Jools Holland, Cocker, who recently appeared alongside Beau Brummell on the cover of George Walden's book Who's A Dandy? is musing on his often unhappy relationship with all things stylish. 'You can chart the state of my mental health by the clothes I'm wearing. When I were a kid, my mam once sent me out in lederhosen.' An expression of real pain crosses his face, 'I looked awful. And everybody fuckin' laughing at me. That were a bad moment. A few years back, when I lost it back in the Britpop era, I started wearing free designer gear. I think I even opened a Diesel shop, sad twat that I was. That were another bad moment.' He stares at another wilting chip, deep in thought. I realise how long and thin his fingers are. 'It's all gone a bit weird with clothes now, hasn't it? When you used to find a jacket or whatever in Oxfam, part of the thing was wondering who wore it before you, what the history was. It's all gone, that. Now, everyone's paying a fortune for jeans that look like a tramp slept in them for four weeks.'

A few hours later, Jarvis, sans specs, joins the rest of Pulp to play three songs on Later..., which has been mocked up to resemble a Hogmanay party. Everyone present, the usual cast of old troupers (Tom Jones, Jeff Beck, Solomon Burke), new contenders (the Doves, Ms Dynamite) and the celebrity rent-a-crowd (Jo Brand, Vic Reeves, Ben bloody Elton) has to pretend it is New Year's Eve. This is not a resounding success. There is something tried and tested and a little tired about the whole evening, something faintly showbiz and not very rock'n'roll at all. If you were searching for a metaphor, the second hand falling off the big cardboard clock during the pretend countdown to midnight sort of said it all. In the midst of all this enforced bonhomie and consummate professionalism, Pulp look, well, like Pulp always look - slightly odd, slightly out of place, utterly un-showbiz. They play 'Babies', 'Do You Remember The First Time?' and 'Sorted for Es & Wizz', oddball anthems for an already vanished time, songs that still sounded off-kilter, dark, as strange and emphatically English as the pale, thin, slightly geeky guy who wrote their lyrics.

A few days later, on Saturday 11 December, Cocker led his band onstage again, this time in a disused steelworks outside his home town, Sheffield, to play what may turn out to be their last gig. Next week, he begins the flit from Hackney to the 9th arondissement. In pop cultural terms, it feels ominously like the end of something. The band that began life in Sheffield 22 years ago, before New Labour, long before Cool Britannia, when the other lot were still in power and seemingly immovable, may well be no more. Or not. When I ask, no one seems to know. 'I honestly can't say what is going to happen to Pulp,' Jarvis shrugs. 'We're going to have this gap, at least a year, and if Pulp continues to exist after that, I imagine it will be quite different.' He is not, he says, into the notion that just because you are in a band you have to keep putting out records 'in some dutiful way'. He thinks that Pulp will continue after the break if 'we still have something valid to say'.

For fans of literate pop songs about modern English manners, about car parks and public parks and discos, about drugs and porn and comedowns, about class and sex, and all the edgy fun that undercuts the average weekend on these islands, Pulp's possible demise is cause for a moment's sad reflection. For 22 years, they have done it their way, struggling as indie darlings for at least half that time, splitting up and reforming along the way, then, finally, gloriously, capturing the tenor of the times in that brief moment of ecstasy-fuelled mid-Nineties' optimism when 'Common People' and 'Sorted for Es and Wiz' sat atop the pop charts.

Along the way, Cocker has supplanted Morrissey as the quintessential English lyricist; a kind of Alan Bennett of the Britpop charts, his wry, northern songs managing to be both funny and darkly revealing, often in the same line. With 'Common People', he wrote one of those songs, now part of the collective consciousness, that managed to say something trenchant about the way we live and make us laugh at the same time. 'I'm proud of that,' he says. 'And I'm proud of getting unpalatable stuff in the charts. I'm glad we did our own thing and stayed a bit outside it all. We've not been tailored or studied. We've been haphazard and fucked-up and we've sorted it out... that's human, ain't it?'

The past year has been a life-changing one for the 38-year-old singer. In April, he married fashion stylist Camille Bidault-Waddington, 32, in France and, soon after, learnt he was going to be a father for the first time - the baby is due on 13 April, nine months exactly from the wedding day. The wedding was magical, albeit in a low-key way. I know this because I was there. My friend Susanne is Camille's best friend and was maid of honour, so they invited me along too. It was that kind of do: there were fashion people and pop people and bourgeois French people and all Jarvis's old mates from Sheffield. Loads of them. That, alone, seemed to say much more about him than you could ever learn from the pop press or tabloids. He seems to have pulled off the rare trick of getting what you want without losing what you had. It has not been easy.

'The two things I swore I would never do have just happened,' he tells me later, as if he cannot quite believe it. 'The marriage were a big deal. I never saw any examples of happy marriages when I were growing up. So I thought, I'm not doing that. And, when you think something like that at seven or eight, it tends to lodge in your head, immovable.'

He was seven when his dad disappeared out of his life, leaving him and his sister, Saskia, to be brought up by their mum. He has made contact with him again only in the past few years. 'It's all right, I guess. We don't talk about it much. Just snippets. You get over it, don't you?'

How did if affect him at the time, though? There is a long pause. 'I remember my mother saying he'd gone to look for a job in London. After about a fortnight, I said, "When's he coming back then?" and she said, "He ain't". I didn't burst into floods of tears or anything. I just stared at this alarm clock for a long while.'

In retrospect, Jarvis now thinks his decision to pursue a career in pop might have had something to do with deciding, at a very early age, to have nothing to do with the 'normal' world. 'Not getting married, not having kids, not getting a proper job - that's what being in a group is all about. For me, it was anyway. I thought, I'm not gonna have anything to do with normal life... it only ends up causing shit. I guess the realisation I got to only recently is that, like it or not, I am part of the human race. It took me to get well fucked-up to realise that.'

The 'getting well fucked-up' phase followed closely on the heels of the belated brush with fame phase in Jarvis's effortlessly askew pop trajectory. As he succinctly puts it, in the middle of the Britpop phenomenon he 'lost the plot majorly'. There was a moment when you could not have opened a style mag without seeing him, pissed up and dishevelled, at some art opening or celeb party. Suddenly, too, the songs he was writing were darker, colder, more inward-looking. He had what his contemporary Bobby Gillespie once called the 'superstar blues'. You can hear them on an album called This is Hardcore. Some of it is darkly powerful, as good as anything to come out of the confused and confusing pop Nineties. It cost Pulp a sizeable proportion of their post-'Common People' fan base. 'I weren't surprised in the slightest,' he says now, 'Songs about panic attacks, pornography, fear of death and getting old are never gonna be top of the hit parade, are they? I wrote about my own life. Before that, it was me pottering about, picking up bits of information from wherever. Then it became very interior. Introspective. I don't think introspection is ever that healthy. In my experience, the more angst-ridden I've been, the worse the music is.'

Then, to compound his already fractured sense of self, there was the Brit Awards incident, when he jumped on to a stage full of youngsters during a hideously ill-conceived Michael Jackson-as-Jesus performance and wiggled his bum at the camera. As protests go, it was both bold and to the point, but it landed Jarvis in tabloid land where, to this day, he remains the Britpop star who insulted Wacko Jacko. 'It's the Jason Donovan syndrome, ain't it? He's still recognised even though he hasn't been in Neighbours for 10 years. In tabloid world, you tend to stay famous forever in quite a sad way.'

This realisation, you feel, was the start of an epiphany about the neutered nature of pop as a social force. 'Maybe I'm naive,' he says, 'But it took me a while to realise that nothing was going to change. I thought I was part of something that was going to be like punk, but then it suddenly became just showbiz. That was a bit traumatic at first.'

Did he try to do the showbiz thing for a while? 'Not really. I just turned into a bit of a tool, basically. I thought, "I'm going have to do this as a social life now, but I don't really like it so, in order to get over not liking it, I'll just get completely hammered". And if you get hammered a lot in public, you just end up looking quite foolish, and I became quite foolish, as has been well documented. Soft-headed really.'

What brought him to his senses? 'I got a glimpse of myself. The Evening Standard, a newspaper, for the record, that I detest. They printed an article about how I was the new Christopher Biggins. I just thought, "You're right actually". I hate to admit that something published in the Standard would be of any use to anyone, but it pulled me up. I decided to stop being a knobhead. Looking back, I can't imagine ever having as bad a time again in my life.'

Jarvis now thinks that what he calls his 'complete personality disintegration' had to happen in order for him to 'weed out all that deep-bedded childhood stuff and move on.' He does seem remarkably calm, considering he is just about to uproot himself for the second time in his life and become a father for the first time.

'It's horrible when people say they're happy. It make you want to spew up, but yeah... I am. I'm not as famous as I was, am I? It's not at a bad level now. Tube travel is possible now. Bus travel is quite possible. If you sit on the front seat upstairs. I could get used to this and not pop up again until they do Britpop, The Golden Years.' He ponders this possibility for a moment. 'If that happens,' he says, 'just shoot me, right?' Showbiz, it seems, will have to do without Jarvis Cocker for the foreseeable future.

· A Pulp retrospective, Hits, is available on Island Records, £13.99.


Sean O'Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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