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Remember Them...

A Tribute To Carol Clerk
The Quietus , April 23rd, 2010 06:26

Remembering our friend and colleague Carol Clerk

“Tiny, tireless, straight-up, no-bullshit, no-backstabbing Carol; flaming hair, permanent fag and loud, laughing Northern Irish rattle and rasp. You speak as you find; she was never anything but kind and just the right amount of motherly to me – and, near as I can tell, pretty much everyone, bar the bullies she was resolutely uncowed by. In a place where monosyllabic protracted adolescence and self-regarding hauteur could be the order of the day, she was one of the few people flying the flag for social skills and the virtues of the cheery "Hello J Nine!". Almost inevitably she’d be the lone person on the 26th floor to acknowledge one's presence - a small but significant gesture for those of us far, far down the ladder. And she never failed to acknowledge – or recall, years later - the smallest favour, briskly doling out kindnesses herself without a second thought. As I look back I realise I never heard her moan about being dealt a less-than-favourable hand in the health stakes.

She was the kind of music fan and music writer I’d’ve liked to be. Hard-working, unshowily organised and efficient (and shorthand-wielding!) and unjadedly voracious in her love of music. Having been around long enough to know that critical orthodoxy wasn't worth the groupthink it was printed on, she seemed blithely unconcerned about prevailing trends (and looked on those who worried about it with wry amusement). She was never worthy, but never mean; rock & roll to the hilt without being an arsehole.

Carol gave the impression of being at least as least as interested in people as she was in music – not as common a gift as you’d think. That's surely why she got the best out of her interviewees of all stripes. And why whenever you run into an ex-musician who once featured in the Maker, if it was Carol they talked to, they’ll tell you that with a laugh. And some story about a massive hangover.

Funny, frank and fearless. I’m glad I knew her.”

Karen Shook

“Carol clerk RIP

The tragic news of music journalist Carol Clerk’s death is bouncing around the net and is another sad death in the recent roll call. She will not be forgotten.

Few writers capture the demented spirit of rock & roll but Carol had the knack of translating the quicksilver ether of the music and turning it into the printed word. She also dared to tread into music scenes that are too rock for most writers and was one of the few champions of the severely underrated second wave of punk as well as being one of the few genuine characters on the music scene.

I last saw her last autumn when she came down to my spoken word and reading night in London where she read out an extract from her brilliant Hawkwind book. I hadn’t seen her for a long time and it was great to see her again. I had no idea she was ill at the time but she was, as ever, great company and her reading was inspiring.

The book, The Saga Of Hawkwind for me, is easily up there with the classics of its kind - thoroughly researched, brilliantly written, an enormous undertaking that captures the brilliant band with a insight that you just don’t often get. She painted a colourful picture which makes the reader feel like they are there at the centre of the madness. The same can be said of her book on The Damned and the many articles she wrote for the music press like at the Melody Maker. She was one of the few people that were genuinely cool to work with providing a rare warmth and humanity in a strange and icy office, when I washed up there after the demise of Sounds.

And this was not only at the Melody Maker but in the journo world in general. She was one of the people you felt an affinity with, you felt like you were on the same side.”

John Robb

“Anyone who worked on Melody Maker in the 80s and 90s will tell you they were the best years of their lives and Carol Clerk was a massive part of why they were.

Clerkie was a one-woman Seventies Rolling Stones – to hang around with her was to take your life in your hands but how much more enriched your life would be for it.

Carol was the best teacher any aspiring journalist – music or otherwise – could have had. To watch her batter away at a typewriter, a ciggie in her mouth and another primed and ready to go, a half-drunk Chernobyl well of coffee beside her was to watch a real pro in action. Clerkie could write a cover story in half-an-hour – back when they were the length of a good novella.

Her shorthand caused smoke detectors to go off. She used to love to tell the story of how Dave Lee Roth refused to be interviewed by her because she didn’t have a tape recorder then watched amazed as she got down the thoughts of Diamond Dave while nonchalently chugging a lager and torching a forest of Bensons.

Wherever she went Carol would always make the story. Not make it up - but make one happen. Then she’d report on it in forensic and often side-splittingly funny detail.

I remember the first interview I did with her as a cub reporter on journalism placement from the London College of Printing. We went to meet David Johansen, the former New York Dolls singer. When we got to the hotel he was lying in the lobby, wearing a three piece tweed suit, though he’d neglected to add the other sartorial elements normally associated with such an ensemble. There was no shirt, no shoes, no socks, certainly no tie and from where we were sitting no underpants either. More worrying than this though, was the apparent absence of a pulse. Nevertheless, the interview was a masterclass in how to get a cracking story out of what appeared to be a disaster and an experience upon which I still draw today.

I’d read the music press every week since the age of 11 and always knew I wanted to be a journalist but Carol taught me how to be one.

There are so many things I remember - not least the 11 am start times and how the enquiry: ‘Where did the wind blow you last night?’ would always elicit a spectacular fit of giggles as she regaled me with the utter lunacy that had occurred the previous evening.

I remember the way she went everywhere in a cab. If there wasn’t one within milliseconds of her stepping out of the office or the Oporto she would jump in any passing car, wave a tenner in front of the driver’s startled face, and tell them to take her wherever she wanted to go. They never refused - it was Carol.

I still smile when I think how, on a slow news day, she’d ring the phone in the IPC lift and ask whoever was stupid enough to pick it up whether Rick Wakeman was in there. She’d raise her eyebrows and nod conspiratorially at me as she heard the question repeated round the lift while waiting for the inevitable reply, “No, sorry, he doesn’t seem to be here.”

I remember the contest to see who could get the most ‘scuppered’s onto the news pages. We loved the word and had an entire wall next to us papered in scuppered headlines we’d torn out of tabloids.

I loved the way she would swan in at Christmas, a little later than usual, heavily made up, with her feather boa trailing like a poundsave Joan Collins to turn the office lights on and declare the record company party season underway.

I remember the way Sweety, the owner of the St Moritz Club in Wardour St, would usher her post after-show-party coterie to the big round table in the basement, his eyes literally flashing pound signs and the terrible thing Max Splodge did under it one night.

I remember the Friday lunchtime pizzas we used to enjoy in Museum Street - a quiet moment together after the deafening roar of the working week where she’d gently chide me for my attempts to cop off with the work experience girl.

The last email I received from her she was waiting for Siouxsie Banshee to call for a phone interview though she said she’d much rather be planting Hollyhocks in the garden. I wouldn’t have dreamt that she was dying of cancer when she wrote. Cancer was something that other people got. Carol was too full of life to be hit with something as cruel as that. No, when Carol went to meet her maker it was meant to be at the age of 99 in a pink, fur-lined Hanoi Rocks tour bus, sailing off a cliff - a true rock & roll end for a true rock & roller.

There’s a particular smell that results from the mix of lager, ciggies, leather and Chanel No 5 - very occasionally I catch a whiff of it around town and I’m instantly transported back half a life to those ridiculously happy days - the best youth someone could ever have had. Whenever we raise a glass to that youth we’ll always follow it with one more - for Carol. Cheers Clerkie. And thank you.”

Mat Smith

“Carol was a great character who will be sadly missed in the world of rock and roll.

A writer of great renown, there are only a few left… It was a privilege for us to call Carol our friend, she was a beautiful, intelligent woman, a great friend and a talented journalist. Carol loved Hawkwind and after writing the book, we stayed in touch, we met socially and she attended the last Hawkfest with her family, having a great time.

Carol, we will all miss you. Our thoughts are with her husband Nigel and her daughter Eve.

Rest in peace our friend... With love from the Hawkwind family xxx”

Dave Brock and Hawkwind

“Some of us wrote for Melody Maker. Some of us wrote for the Maker for many years. But we were really just transients, passing through. Carol Clerk was the Maker. She more than anybody represented its flinty essence. Vivacious, hilarious, leader of countless bibulous, wrecking crusades through Soho, scourge of the pompous, the stuffy and the grand, hugely loyal, kind hearted but fearsome when the occasion required, a heroic drinker, rock & roll to her last fibre, a brilliant writer and professional as fuck. In the work-place-cum sitcom that was the Melody Maker office in its heyday, she was not only one of the lead characters but the finest colleague you could hope for. I'm forever glad I was on her side – I'd hate to have been on any other.

I arrived at Melody Maker in 1986, as part of a new wave of writers during a time of transition, a group that included Simon Reynolds, whom I had known at University. We and Carol should never have got on. She was always fiercely protective of the paper, more apres garde than avant garde in her music tastes, a no-bullshit veteran whose tours of duty had taken her from Live Aid (for which she won an award for her coverage) to Israel and all points beyond. What was she to make of a pair of wet-behind-the ears, chin-rubbing, subversive and verbose Varsity types like us, whose idea of a rock & roll title for their college fanzine had been Monitor, who poured cerebral scorn and Derrida on rock conservatism? The fact that we did get along so well is pretty much entirely down to Carol. She never made us feel anything but welcome at the paper, never took issue with our upstart attitudes, however contrary they may have been towards her own. That taught me lessons I very much took to heart - about friendship, fellowship and good-humoured tolerance, all of which trumped musical and aesthetic differences. I suspect that Carol cast on me that wry, penetrative gaze of hers and thought to herself, beneath that cerebral, precious, silly trousered, mannered, twerpish exterior lurks the heart of an uptight dullard. But she suffered me gladly in any case.

The stories about Carol are legion, many of them have been recounted in loving detail elsewhere. She was perhaps most in her element in Melody Maker's Soho years, rampaging through the West End like a latterday Boudicca, with a trail of stripy trousered, shock haired acolytes in her wake. She was in the magnificent habit, if late for an engagement, of flagging down a car, any car that happened to stop at the lights, climbing in the back, handing the driver a fiver and telling them where in Soho to drop her. We did come to bond on the issue of taxis and their non-availability. We spent one lengthy, liquid evening drawing up a plan similar to the Frequent Flyer scheme. This would be called the Frequent Drinker scheme and it would entitle those who had racked up the requisite number of beer miles to specially minted badges which would give them precedence when it came to hailing cabs – especially in the rain.

She held court, of course, at the Rock & roll table at The Oporto, now a somewhat chintzy little wine bar, back in the day a proper old West End boozer with garish, beer and fag stained floral carpeting. She later acquired the table which sat in pride of place at her home in Rochester, like a relic from Camelot. Woe betide any passing tourist who strayed in from the matinee at the Shaftesbury Theatre and committed the egregious gaffe of settling themselves at the Table. Carol, on venturing into the pub and finding her place thus occupied, would simply stand and scowl at the perpetrators until it dawned upon them that they were guilty of the most terrible of trespasses, and duly slunk away.

The rock & roll table became a vortex which gathered in not just some of rock & roll's merriest rogues, from The Damned to Dogs D'Amour, from Joe Strummer to Max Splodge but, quite surreally, the likes of Kenneth Williams and Rolf Harris, who found themselves drawn by chance into the rock & roll circle, honorary members. Legendary days.

It's fair to say that Carol liked to smoke. Indeed, from the first to the last time I met her, she never failed to offer me a cigarette, regarding as she did my non-smoking as a bizarre, Amish quirk on my part. She never quite did manage to bring me to my senses on that one. However, with the introduction of smoking rooms at IPC, I recall joining her in there for a chat a number of times. The smoking room was the fun room. Any room Carol was in was the fun room.

For all her adventures and rampages, Carol was a true professional, an editorial force of nature, who put the rest of us to shame not just with her shorthand skills but her dogged way of tracking down and checking up on news stories. News was necessarily the last deadline in the weekly production cycle and for the rest of the staff it was a marvel, come Fridays, to draw up a chair and watch Carol at work, charging at her deadlines like an express train, a cigarette perched miraculously on the edge of her lip as she clacked away at her typewriter like Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday, fielding calls from bothersome PRs with saintly patience, letting off the odd burst of vituperative steam. Carol clacked on longer than the rest of us – in 1988, when computers were introduced at the office, she refused to plug hers on for months, preferring her old Imperial boneshaker, a symbol, perhaps, of better times than those to come.

If it's fair to say that Carol smoked, it's even fairer to say that she was known to swear. This she did with frequency and innovation. She added to the language, especially in the matter of collective nouns. To the pantheon that includes a pride of lions, a parliament of owls, a murder of crows, Carol added the following – a pack of cunts. But Carol swore not with mean-spiritedness or nastiness or for want of a good vocabulary but with the joyful gusto that characterised her approach to life as a whole.

Carol was full of zest, full of surprises. Among the last times I saw her was when I was privileged to be a guest at the lovely home in Rochester she shared with husband Nigel and daughter Eve. She took particular pride in her garden. Now, one has preconceptions about what a rock & roll garden might look like. One might envisage a giant ashtray with a few empty vodka bottles strewn about and garnished with a couple of rusty fenders. None of that with Carol. My not very green typing fingers simply can't do justice to just how beautiful and well tended this garden is, testimony to a dedicated, if seemingly unlikely horticulturist, Ms Capability Clerk herself. But then, it shouldn't really have come as a surprise. Whatever Carol decided to turn her hand to she did with a will, and did extremely well.

The increasingly sterilised, corporate and cautious rock & roll world is a great deal poorer without Carol around to put a rocket up its rectum. Like a great many of those who knew her, I was shocked at the news of her passing, remorseful that I hadn't been in touch more during what turned out to be her final months. It is of some comfort to know that to the last, Carol faced down her illness with characteristic optimism, good humour and determination and with the support of a wonderful family and a handful of wisely chosen friends. Clerkie was always Clerkie, through and through. She is no longer with us. Yet the memory of her bright and blazing expressive eyes, as well as that cheery, raucous chuckle of hers is sweet and searing. She will be vividly remembered, sorely missed and forever loved by those of us lucky enough to know her. What a gal.”

David Stubbs

“The Melody Maker office in the mid-late 90s was a strange place to be, an odd cocktail of clashing egos and colliding eras. The old school versus the new school versus the 'which school did you go to? One voice cut through all the bullshit though, and that was Carol Clerk over in the corner, scribbling in shorthand while chuckling at Liam Gallagher or Ol Dirty Bastard's latest escapades safe in the knowledge that at least one news page would be filled that week. In which case: anyone fancy a quick drink down the Stamford?

When I did work experience there as a 20 year old Northern nerk adrift in the big city Carol treated me like she treated everyone: with a degree of respect (which tended to increase once you had proven yourself not to be one of Them - the money men / publishers / establishment) and a genuine interest in what you had to say. She listened as much as she talked; a rare thing in music journalism. Her encouragement meant a lot - but not as much as when she once told me she liked my trousers. That made my week.

A year later I was staff writer at Melody Maker and dispatched on many a caper in the name of News. Trying to break into Wormwood Scrubs to give Mark Morrison a cake and being ejected by arse-faced screws, haranguing Bob Geldof at a press conference, following up bizarre leads about sightings of Richey Edwards, buttonholing Dr Fox, playing football with Blur, attempting to corner Noel Gallgher at parties (he never showed, but the parties were fun). All of that came from Carol, who happily took a chance on an unproven 21-year-old non-entity whose only qualification was that he too loved Hanoi Rocks. For Carol, that was enough of a starting point.

When Goldie took umbrage at a review I had written and rang up to say he was coming round within the hour to murder me, Carol jumped to my defence. Then wrote a story about it. I knew she could have had him in a fight if it had come down to it too. Carol Clerk was cool, basically. She wrote in shorthand, she didn't suffer fools but she nurtured anyone with even the tiniest shard of potential. She knew rock stars and gangsters but appeared totally unaffected by any of it. And whether she was mining her deep store of drinking stories or talking about the wood her and Nigel owned in Kent - a rare glimpse of a rural bliss that seemed so at odds with the hustle of the Maker's offices - she always had the floor. She owned it. Carol Clerk was a small lady with a massive presence.”

Ben Myers

“I liked Carol enormously. I can't imagine there were many people that didn't unless they were one of those rock stars that took themselves too seriously.

Carol didn't suffer fools gladly. She once told me after I'd written 'Love Me To Death' (a love song on the 1st Mission album) that if anyone called her 'precious' or 'sweetness' or 'flower' she'd give 'em a clip around the ear! So much for my view of romance.

And despite our differences in musical tastes we got along great. I think we shared a similar appetite for life and all its pleasures, or rather I aspired to share her appetite! Keeping up with Carol was hard work and beyond most of us but it was fun trying and being in her company.

I don't have much to do with the new breed of music hacks but I can't imagine there are any with the same force of character and personality as Carol had. And like every generation needs its role models and heroes the new breed could do a whole lot worse than to look to Carol Clerk.”

Wayne Hussey

“Carol Clerk is a vivid and indelible presence in my memories of my time at Melody Maker. The same surely goes for anybody who passed through the portals of that paper (and the public houses adjacent to it). I remember the impish twinkle in her eye, the cadence of her voice, the tininess of her frame (often brought into relief by the size of the pint glass in her hand). She was one of the most approachable people in the Melody Maker office but also probably the most formidable. I think I escaped getting a tongue-lashing from her at any point during my time at the Maker (even after "helping" out on the news desk one week with typing in information about new releases and inserting some made-up stuff about a couple of bands I detested).
No doubt I would remember such a well-deserved telling-off if it had happened.

Actually I'm surprised I was let off, because in mind's eye I picture Carol as this newspaperwoman of the old school, a real professional, still chasing stories hard on a Friday afternoon, when most everybody else was slacking off. The British music press was unique in that you could prosper there and get right to the top, without any journalistic training or being the slightest bit versed in traditional reporting or editing skills. Carol was an anomaly in that respect, in that she actually did have that training. If I remember correctly, she had worked at a newspaper or two on her way to ending up at the Maker. One thing that really amazed me was when I learned that she did her interviews without a tape recorder, just using a notepad, scribbling down the conversation in short hand.
Carol was an anomaly in another sense, a woman in what was (especially when she started out) a male-dominated field. ("Dominated" always strikes me as a bit of an overstatement: I think most people in the music press really wanted more women to be involved… but at the same time it's true there could be a laddish aura about the Maker). Carol thrived despite this in part because she could out-drink, out-smoke and out-joke any of the men, but at the same time she managed to retain through it all an aspect that was…. motherly.

Another admirable thing about Carol was the way she stuck with the music she was into, which was basically hard rock. There was no keeping up with what was au courant (she must have found so much of what got covered in the Maker--and the way it was covered-- to be ridiculous). Carol liked what she liked and with characteristic tenacity and loyalty she stayed with it.”

Simon Reynolds

Carol was not just a valued colleague but was a very dear friend. Since becoming a music journalist she has been an important presence in my life and will remain so. When I started going out with my girlfriend Maria, I wasn’t told but I sensed that out of all her many friends and family members, the person I had to impress the most, the person I needed approval from above everyone else was Carol.

That said, in the fifteen years I’ve lived in London, she was the most welcoming and friendly person I have met. Along with husband Nigel and daughter Eve, I was immediately invited into their family circle, which led to many great days out – some in the sublime permanent beautiful sunset that seems to hang over Filthy McNasty’s in North London, some in Rochester and two great trips to Istanbul and Venice.

Her enthusiasm for life in general was infectious and even if (shamefully) I was in a quiet or sombre mood, Carol would quite sensibly ignore this, steamrollering everyone into having a good time. Within minutes in her presence cans would be cracked and stories about rock & roll craziness would be passed back and forth. Feeling down when Carol was around simply wasn’t an option. (Only time, space and politeness prevent me from telling the astounding story of Carol, Uriah Heap, Splodginess Abounds, a wheelchair, an inflatable guitar and tens of thousands of Reading Rock punters.)

In the same way I’ve often thought that young bands shouldn’t worry too much about paying respect to the canon from the 60s and 70s, I generally believe that newer music journalists shouldn’t pay too much attention to the writers from back in the day… Clerkie however would be the exception rather than the rule for me. Her hard news sense and clear sighted ability to find and distil any musical event into a story is a gift that is all but missing in today’s field and all younger writers would do well to look to her for inspiration. I talked about music journalism into the small hours with her on many a night and if I could explain one of my more ‘fevered’ ideas to her without breaking into a sweat under her gaze, I knew I was probably on the right side of pretentiousness. And on top of this, to get her approval signaled that an idea was solid and worth pursuing.

Also while we disagreed over some aspects of the current state of music writing and where it is headed, it was through long afternoons sat with her as she dissected the music press with clinical precision that many concepts that would inform The Quietus, became crystallized. And ultimately, once it launched it was an honour to have her as a writer.

Music hacks are often seen as either journalists who write about rock & roll or rock & roll writers. Carol Clerk was the epitome of the latter. She had a gift for seeking out and accentuating the positive aspects of the lifestyle while robustly rejecting the negative such as drugs, nihilism and self-pity that others sadly succumb to. But this positivity was ultimately reflected in all the aspects of her life. This was especially so as regards to her sense of humour, which, even at its most extreme, could only be labeled mischievous.

After confiding in her one November that my nerves were jangling because of late nights, early mornings, not enough paying work, too much lager and even more coffee, it was surely coincidence that on Xmas morning I unwrapped a present from her that was a quiz game that inflicted upon the participant an electric shock while emitting an ear piercing klaxon and a retina frying blast of strobe light when a wrong answer was given.

Even when the unlikely sounding event of a volcanic eruption in Iceland prevented a memorial service from going ahead on the appointed day in Belfast, as much as this obviously caused upset to family and friends, at the back of my head I could still hear a familiar voice, suffused with laughter, lilting: “How about that Eve, eh? A volcano! Brilliant!”

Here’s to you, Carol. Chin chin."

John Doran

Money raised today will go to Wisdom Hospice, Rochester