Serious about songs

profile Jarvis Cocker Andy Beckett on the wry idol who was more than ready for overnight success
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CHILDREN love Jarvis Cocker. To see him, they pack the cold cavern of the Cardiff Arena in their giddy thousands: first girlfriends and first boyfriends, teachers' pets in tiny skinny Jarvis tops, rings of girls five years too young to be asking for cigarettes. And Cocker does not disappoint them. Snake-hipped and six foot four, he yells, croons, tells jokes, throws sweets, slides and twists through his songs like a pop star possessed. He is part of a band called Pulp but the girls shriek only his name.

Halfway through, Cocker calms his limbs, stops the music, and takes the mike like a talkshow host. His voice is flat Yorkshire, curling at the edges with wit: "About my friend Michael Jackson ..." A shrill cheer cuts him off. "There's two people involved in our argument. One has been accused of tampering with children and one hasn't." The bouncers block their ears.

This particular reason to scream "Jarvis!" was three nights old. On Monday, at the annual awards ceremony of the British music industry, or the Brits, Cocker had made another, less official public appearance. During the ceremony's syrupy finale, supplied by Jackson and a choreographed crowd of child actors, Cocker had slipped on stage too, essayed a few mocking dance steps of his own and, once he had the hall's attention, shown the seat of his leather trousers to the assembled record executives.

At first, it seemed a drunken, stupid prank. Jackson's PR army condemned Cocker and alleged assault against the children; stage parents, threatening writs, spoke of their offspring's ruined dreams; newspaper moralisers settled over their keyboards. But then an unexpected thing happened: everyone else took Cocker's side. Other musicians who had been at the Brits, newspaper and television pundits, letters to the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mirror - all spoke up for "citizen Cocker".

Some of this stemmed from the American's perceived hubris. Having settled allegations of child abuse out of court two years ago, at the Brits Jackson struck crucifixion poses and "healed" the stage children by having them hug his glowing white body. There was a sense, too, that all this imported showbiz had no place at a ceremony billed as celebrating Britpop - the current national upwelling of caustic, literate bands such as Blur, Oasis, Supergrass and, perhaps most Britpop of all, Pulp, with their succession of recent hits about going to the supermarket ("Common People") and people with woodchip on their walls ("Disco 2000").

Shrill young girls may love Cocker's delicate cheeks and spangly melodies, but their elder siblings, even their parents, hear Alan Bennett, Joe Orton, and Kenneth Williams in his finely plotted songs. The 12 tales of sex in suburban Sheffield and revenge in West London ("Take your Year In Provence and shove it up your arse") that made up Pulp's last album, Different Class, sold a million copies and went straight to Number One. Cocker has made it on to Spitting Image and into the Rock Circus waxwork hall of fame (Blur and Oasis have not). Tabloids compete to publish every saucy Jarvis quote; meanwhile Cocker makes the broadsheet fine arts pages by writing the music for Damien Hirst's first film, Hanging Around. At 32, with an 18-year career behind him, and now the heroic farce of the Brits, the label "national institution" cannot be far away.

Yet none of this explains why Cocker ran on to the stage last Monday. He was not the only pop star there with free drinks to drink and Jackson's spectacle to sit through. The statement he made after three hours and a strip search at Kensington police station spoke predictably of "protest" against "Christ-like" fantasies. It did, however, contain one revealing assertion: at the time, Cocker said, he felt he "just couldn't go along with it any more".

Jarvis Cocker treats pop music with immense seriousness. Despite his fame he still carries with him a fan's grudges, infatuations and fantasies; his fame gives him the means to act them out. When Pulp first appeared on Top Of The Pops in 1994, Cocker chose the moment to open his jacket and reveal a handwritten poster proclaiming "I hate Wet Wet Wet". On BBC2's Pop Quiz that year, he sat near-mute through the opening stages, then, in the final first-to-answer round, got every single question right and gave his team victory.

"I felt I'd struck a blow," he said afterwards. "I was sick of people letting you down, being crap and boring on shows like that."

COCKER'S rise has a romance almost lost to modern, manufactured pop. He was born in Sheffield in September 1963. His mother was an art student who emptied fruit machines for a living; his father was a local musician who ran away to Australia when Jarvis was seven. By then Cocker had suffered a near-fatal bout of meningitis, which left him big-eared and pinned behind milk-bottle glasses. "On the school bus all the kids would be chanting his name because he was so instantly recognisable," says John Quinn, a friend from Sheffield. Years later, Cocker would have his revenge with a Number Two single called "Mis-Shapes".

At school, he had to use his wits for status. He won the top reading prize and was entered for an Oxbridge interview. And, during an economics lesson in 1978, he formed a band, Arabica Pulp. His mother encouraged him. Pop stardom quickly replaced academic success as his favoured way out: in his Oxbridge interview Cocker let his charm run away with him, pretending to have read a Hardy novel he hadn't and being found out. Instead of taking up a place at Liverpool University, he wrote songs and composed future critical notices in his head.

Very quickly, he got some real ones: in 1981 the renamed Pulp were booked for a recording session broadcast on John Peel's Radio 1 programme. Soon they had a record deal and, in 1983, a wistful first album, It. Quinn watched them play Sheffield pubs: "They were schoolkids basically. They all had outfits made of curtain material. Jarvis was really amusing, taking the piss out of himself. Someone threw a wet towel from the back of the pub, and it hit him in the face. He just laughed." His name was carved into local schooldesks.

But that was as far as Pulp got. For the next 10 years - Cocker's entire twenties - the band played pubs, recorded occasionally, lost and gained members, and settled into a role as third on the bill to whoever was the Next Big Thing in the New Musical Express. "Their name would come up from time to time," says John Peel, "and I'd think, 'Oh, they're still going'."

Cocker himself played the professional loser. In 1985, he fell off a window ledge trying to imitate Spiderman to impress a girl. He took to singing from his wheelchair on stage . At one concert in a Sheffield theatre, his glasses flew off during one of his trademark head-tosses, and the band had to stop for 10 minutes to help him find them. In 1988 he abandoned the city and the dole for a course at St Martin's School of Art in London.

Yet all this time he was honing his music. Gradually, the derivative jangle of early Pulp gave way to a darker, more theatrical sound, swooning and clanging with strings copied from Serge Gainsbourg rather than the Beatles. And Cocker began using details from his indoor years in Yorkshire: "sunlight through net curtains", an "abandoned glasshouse stuffed full of dying palms". He wrote unpatronising songs about lonely teenagers and plangent ballads with titles like "They Suffocate at Night", then, in the late Eighties, discovered raves, and quickened Pulp's songs into melodramatic disco. Wearing contact lenses now, he began to dance on stage himself; his blur of limbs, his yelps and monologues were captivating, honed and stylised by years of study. But at the end of 1993 Pulp were still "promising".

Then it all happened with the speed he dreamt of: a first hit in 1994, runner-up for best album in the Mercury Prize by one vote, dazzlingly Day-glo videos on television, Cocker's pinched librarian's face on the cover of glossy magazines. A song he wrote about a spoilt Greek girl he had met at St Martin's poured out of radios. Improvised replacements for the headliners at the Glastonbury festival last summer, Pulp arrived to find 100,000 people singing every vengeful verse of "Common People".

Cocker has taken his chances with the zeal of the suddenly fulfilled. He has presented Top Of The Pops, guest-edited the NME, written a song for the soundtrack of the much-hyped "Britfilm" Trainspotting. Even his Brits foray has helped his profile, especially in the USA, where Different Class is about to be released.

Eccentricity could make him vulnerable, of course. Cocker still drives his Hillman, stands in the kitchen at parties, and writes candidly about sex and drugs. Last autumn, the Daily Mirror branded as "sick" a sceptical song of his about going to a rave ("Is this the way they say the future's meant to feel?/Or just 20,000 people standing in a field?") There is the warning example of Boy George, loved then persecuted for his strangeness in the Eighties. Cocker worries out loud about having too comfortable a life to write - the distant spectre of the cloistered Michael Jackson himself.

But for now Cocker lives his teenage dream. After Pulp's Cardiff concert, flushed youngsters spill onto the chilled streets, repeating his lines, rolling up their Pulp posters, forgetting to put on their coats. In the nearest Chinese takeaway, two girls, about fifth-form age, stand by the heater. They are discussing how sexy he is.

Critics, Real Life