Say that in some circles, and you better duck fast. Depending on how wide this goes, I’m already preparing even though, really, I’m just quoting.
The Clash. Quoting The Clash, and Joe Strummer, of course, is dead, and Mick Jones hasn’t done a B.A.D. record in way over a decade. So what’cha gonna do?
Well, maybe buy a copy of the re-mastered London Calling, for one. Did the 80’s really sound like this?
I remember the 80’s well. I used to sport an “El Salvador Libre” t-shirt, hoping like hell to piss all Reagan supporters off, if they understood what I was saying. I wore it once to a wedding weekend, the occasion celebrating the brother of one of my best friends. It was an elaborate, hoity-toity affair in a Tennessee mountain resort. The guests wondered at me. And maybe I wondered at me too. By then, The Clash had also released Sandinista!, and Reagan was supporting the Contras and we hadn’t yet heard about Iran-Contra, but it was coming. I kept looking for an argument and finally found it back in Knoxville, sitting at the bar in The Best Italian Restaurant next to a Libertarian named George who also didn’t like Reagan but didn’t want to see his tax dollars going to support freedom fighters in obscure Central American countries. So “Hateful.”
What was The Clash doing in our cultural landscape? I remember when I thought buying a Police album was radical. Mainly, I gravitated toward the polar opposites of Pink Floyd and Neil Young, not wanting to settle for in-between. The Police became too accepted too quickly: people camped out for tickets in 1983 when they appeared at UT’s Thompson-Boling arena. Frat guys and sisters. Everyone loved Zenyatta Mondatta. But Black Market Clash? Give ‘Em Enough Rope? Nope, The Clash weren’t for the masses even though as I began listening to them, what they were writing and singing really was for a mass movement.
It was my friend Les who made me listen. He hung out at the best used record store on our strip, that is when he wasn’t working on his dissertation about Browning’s poetry or cooking gourmet meals with his then-wife Martha Jane, or walking his basset hound, Gus.
“Barr, you need to get London Calling.” I remember his voice that day, urgent but steady. He was brooking no protest from me, and I wouldn’t have protested except that it was a double record and might cost me 10 or 12 dollars, and my grad school stipend was only $484 a month.
“Ok, I’ll head down.” He met me at The Last Record Store, I got my copy, and then we listened back at my place. The title cut alone was worth that cash. When you’re 24, you shouldn’t be sitting sedately, listening to The Clash. I know I stood up and I wasn’t sure if I could ever sit again. I know it sounds strange now. It does to me, as I sit on my bed, laptop propped, listening again, reclining. My energy back then was an angry guy’s, though, and The Clash fueled it.
Most of my grad school friends listened too, and though not all were as angry as I was, we did debate the intricacies of Mao and Trotsky and Lenin. We wondered very aloud if we could ever trust a government that allowed the CIA to run amuck in “banana republics.” We listened to “Washington Bullets” and “Lost in the Supermarket” and wrote scathing Marxist critiques of Jeanne Kirkpatrick and The New York Review of Books. I wrote a 90-page independent study, inspired by my friend Carolyn, on Herman Melville’s short fiction which, I argued, was an attack/lament on American high finance capitalism, and if you don’t believe it’s there, try rereading “Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.” Quite a story.
All this from The Clash? And more.
When you weren’t listening to or actually “Working for the Clampdown,” you might have been obsessing over “The Magnificent 7.” Or reading a student’s essay referencing “Death or Glory”: “He who —-s nuns will later join the church.” Did I really give that paper an “A?” Quote The Clash and you had me.
At our annual Grad Department socials, we’d set up speakers and dance. I remember our Victorian novel professor shaking it to The B-52’s “Rock Lobster,” and I remember when Les put on The Clash’s new record, Combat Rock, and no one sat still, especially when “Rock the Casbah” hit the air. There was a girl out there dancing too: a creole girl straight out of New Orleans. Lutricia, maybe? I’d never seen anyone like her, so when I hear “Rock the Casbah,” there she is. Ah, memory.
A married woman once tried to seduce me while “The Magnificent 7” was playing on her cassette deck. What was she doing in my place? She liked Television, too, and gave me Marquee Moon and Sandinista!, as well as my first falafels. I didn’t succumb though. I couldn’t. I drew my own radical lines.
Everything really is subject to change. The year after Sandinista! was released, I found a copy in the budget bin of a Camelot records in Jackson, Tennessee. Since all I had was a bootleg cassette, I bought it for $3.99. I showed it to Les, later, and he went ape shit.
“That’s the British import! I gotta have it. What do you want, Barr. How bout I give you my copy plus, U2’s Boy?”
“2 for 1?”
I couldn’t pass them up, but as I think of it now, what would the self-proclaimed “Only Band That Matters” have thought of that deal? Of me and Les, two of their biggest fans, trading in the parking lot of my battered old apartment house on Laurel Avenue?
We were so cool, right?
Les moved on to New Orleans and a job teaching our region’s finest. He took that Clash record and so many others. But he left a year too soon. The Clash formally broke up in 1985, and Mick Jones formed B.A.D., while Strummer kept the name. His Clash came to Knoxville and played the Alumni Gym, the old basketball auditorium, an ancient brick mentholated hall where Les and I had also seen U2, The B-52’s, and where my wife and I later sat on the topmost row, listening to the power-punk trio, Husker Du. My wife fell asleep. I couldn’t understand how anyone could fall asleep with that level of sound, but she claims that when you get to a certain point of numbness, you just have to go dormant. Even at this moment, as “Train In Vain” plays, she’s sitting beside me. Asleep. And it’s only 11 am. We’ve been up for hours.
But back to the Clash at Alumni Gym. They played for over two hours, and it was truly the loudest show I’d ever heard. I never got to see The Beatles, and I know they weren’t especially loud, but at Shea Stadium in 1965, maybe many would have disagreed. In any case, I stood for The Clash as they screamed through their many anthems. And when they finished with “London Calling” I felt my ears in a way I never had before. The next day I had to drive to DC, and my ears rang for the entire trip and even for another day after.
I missed Les then. It wasn’t right to experience this without him. I remember the night The Clash appeared on Saturday Night Live, playing “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Then they played “Straight to Hell,” with the Amerasian kids wondering where their GI “papa-sans” had gone. Without them. Les called the next day to tell me that while the now Mohawk-wearing Strummer lamented the fate of all those kids, one of his childhood friends called and said, in reference to Strummer’s look:
“Les, what the hell was that?”
What indeed. I could have told him a lot, though. I could have told him about the day I met my wife. I was wearing a Clash-inspired t-shirt that proclaimed “No War.” And I’d shaved the sides of my head, in semi-Mohawk style. My wife didn’t exactly fall in love then, but what can I say?
She remembered that moment. And it was all due to Joe Strummer.
Love to you. And Max. Death and Glory.