They were rock stars mightily resisting stardom’s power to dehumanize. It’s a strange business, and the internal contradiction is built in. The dividing line between succeeding and selling out isn’t very well marked, and ambition can be a propellant or a corrosive, sometimes both. When it comes down to it, to perform is to make a claim for other people’s time and attention. As the audience gets bigger, so does the artist’s extraordinariness. For a band like the Clash, particularly someone with Joe Strummer’s jumble of ambition and ambivalence, the tension between accessibility and privacy must have been quite a strain.
By the time Joe Strummer emerged from his wilderness years of near-invisibility—having formed a new band, the Mescaleros—the frenzy had died down. It was once again easy to see the (post-)Clash up close and personal. Joe was back in small venues, and I planted myself right in front of the stage for a show. His performances could only be described maniacally forceful. Projecting himself out to the audience, even in small venues, was an act of will that seemed to summon every fibre of his being. That’s the imperative as he saw it; that’s what it took to keep faith with the assembled congregation, with the passion and subjects of the songs (and of rock’n'roll itself), indeed with the miracle of human consciousness. Even a rock icon had to leave blood on the stage.
With the Clash’s place in history so well established, in hindsight it might look like success was assured. The reality was that punk rock’s DIY principle applied not just to the music itself, but also the struggle to build an audience. Essayist and Clash fan Sarah Vowell cited them as one of those special instances of guys banding together to accomplish something big. There’s a moment in the video for the song “London Calling” (made by the band’s good friend Don Letts) that captures this idea for me. Snazzy 1940s-style suits, rainy night on a Thames-side dock—“I live by the river.” After the song’s clarion opening chords, Joe, Mick, and Paul simultaneously snap around to the mics. The image conveys a great deal of purpose and unity.
Lamenting the band’s break-up, and his own part in it, Joe vehemently stressed that when you find a combination of musicians who can make great rock ‘n’ roll together, don’t mess with the magic. It can’t be replaced or replicated. For many fans, we end up invested in the relationships among the bandmates. Even after the messy 1983 divorce of the Clash, the members were able to patch things up personally. Given that Mick Jones soon sought Joe’s production help with Jones’ group Big Audio Dynamite, the two of them mended relations fairly quickly. And with incredible eeriness, Mick and Joe’s only post-Clash performance came just weeks before Joe’s death—impromptu at a benefit for a firefighters union involved in a wage dispute.
Joe and Paul Simonon were thick as thieves until the end. After Joe’s death, I read in one remembrance about a recent all-nighter of theirs. Hanging out in the basement of Paul’s London home, they listened to an extreme variety of music—from Afropop to Anthony Newley, a silver-throated tenor who’d had hits on the 1960s pop charts and Broadway stage. That reference to Tony Newley gave me an idea and an opportunity. Getting ready to lurk around the Waldorf Astoria Hotel the night the Clash were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I liberated my dad’s original Broadway cast album of The Roar of the Greasepaint and the Smell of the Crowd to give to Paul. Tickets to the ceremony were priced way beyond my means, but I could see from pictures inside the hall that Paul propped up the album in the middle of his banquet table. Later that night, I asked him what Newley meant to him, and he said Newley was one of the few English pop singers of the time who sang in his native accent, rather than putting on an American one.
I see another resemblance between Newley and the Clash: Both wrote songs alternating between trenchant and smart-alecky. Or, as one memorable lyric put it, “All the young punks / Laugh your lives / Cos there ain’t much to cry for / All you young cunts / Live it now / Cos there ain’t much to die for.”
Lester Bangs used the adjective righteous, and that—in the best sense of the word—was most crucially what the Clash were about. It was also what struck the deepest resonance for me. To paraphrase what Joe Strummer famously said about trousers and brains: Like band, like music. This makes me think of Michael Stipe telling about REM’s early days, and that group’s decision to be the “not-assholes band”. I think the Clash wanted to be the people-shouldn’t-be-assholes band. That’s what the songs said. “The Clampdown” warns that the factory bosses (“old and cunning”) want to steal the best years of your life. There was an exhortation against letting the bastards get you down called “I’m Not Down”. “Hateful” is about the predations of drug pushers. And the London Calling album actually has not one, but two fables about deadly conflict at the gambling table—“The Card Cheat” as well as the retelling of “Stagger Lee”, both emphasizing that the stakes couldn’t be higher. In other words, they tackle issues of human relations, like man’s exploitation of fellow man, that are more profound than politics, yet underlie them.
Basically, they were existentialists. Life is what you make of it. What are you going to make of it?
Their moralism was not only unpretentious, as Bangs wrote, and conscientious, but it was also artful. For as preachy as the Clash were in its message, they had a deft touch in crafting music and lyrics, the latter thanks mainly to Strummer. The words had plenty of indirection, misdirection, mischief, and mania. One of the conceits of pop music mythology is to designate some of its heroes as poets. I’m not sure what criteria set the poets apart from the other songwriters, but I do know that Allen Ginsberg collaborated with the Clash, which must’ve meant a great deal to Joe.
Above my desk, I keep a Joe Strummer quotation saying we should always appreciate what a great thing it is to be alive. Don’t get wrapped up in self-absorption; you never know what amazing thing might happen in the next instant. A recent biography by another of his friends, Chris Salewicz’s Redemption Song tells of Strummer’s own struggle with depression and how he was haunted by the suicide of his only brother when they were young.
The band was waging an even more fundamental struggle than the clashes Paul saw in the newspaper when he came up with the name for the band. As the Lester Bangs quotation reminds us, the real clash was the affirmation of life, this life, your life, the intersection of peoples’ lives—righteous living, not exploitation or waste.
Over the years, I’ve occasionally been caught off guard and found relative strangers or mild acquaintances treating me as a kind of accidental confessor—I guess I have one of those faces. My very limited encounters with Strummer included such a disclosure. It was outside the venue before the launch of his first American tour in many years, and Joe was troubled by a recent violent run-in with a cameraman at the Glastonbury festival. By his own violence, that is. For all of Strummer’s guardedness, it seemed like a glimpse of the demons with which he wrestled.
Being a rock star means a lifetime of strangers telling you what big fans they are. For decades, people have been thanking the members of the Clash for changing their lives—How else do you say it? I tried once to express to Joe the impact he’d had on me. Having read somewhere about “Strummer’s law” of creativity and inspiration—“To get output, you must have input”—I gave Joe a book of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s essays on Africa. In an inscription, I said that the Clash had encouraged me to approach life with open eyes, mind, and conscience.
This may be David Shorr’s first published article that is not about foreign policy. He blogs at TPMCafé and Democracy Arsenal. In another tribute to the Clash, he recently compiled a misheard lyrics video of “Safe European Home”.