Strummer und Drang: A Love Story

Posted on September 6, 2010

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Joe Strummer, King of New York in the summer of '81: gorgeous, wasn't he?

Many people can isolate the exact moment when the spark took flight and, voila, they were in love, attached to another being unconditionally. A similar dynamic played out when I listened to The Clash after Lester Bangs educated me on the relationship between music and feeling (see my inaugural post, “A Big Bang(s) Theory”). Joe Strummer, though he’d always been front and center as lead singer, started staking larger and larger plots in my imagination. It didn’t hurt that he was a brown-eyed handsome man in his prime, a part Dylan, part Guthrie, part noir antihero, but my attraction to him was much more political and philosophical.

This documentary marked Phase II of my fandom and pushed me closer to sussing out my novel's subject

Having studied The Clash’s official discography like a scientist, I was eager to graduate to film footage because of the band’s epic live reputation. Luckily for me, the official Clash documentary, Westway to the World, was released in 1999, just a year after my arrival in New York, and featured footage of the foursome from their maniacal 1976 rehearsals, with Strummer resembling a seizure patient, through their seething final American performance at the US Festival in 1983 (see video below).

Nearing 50 at the time of the interviews, Strummer had clearly mellowed, yet he still conjured loose electricity. The world, just a heartbeat from 9/11, wasn’t any better on the eve of the new millennium than it had been when he’d withdrawn from public view in 1986. His conviction that people need other people to remind them of their humanity held true. Tragically, by his own admission, he’d forgotten this guiding principle when the band became buried under sixteen tons of interpersonal bullshit. Rather than forge a dialogue as he did with his audience, Strummer gave his songwriting partner Mick Jones the sack. The Clash imploded not long after.

My ticket stub for the only Strummer show I attended, which led to Chapter 1 a few years later

I was knocked out by this dramatic arc and completely incapable of expressing it. Seeing Strummer live with his post-Clash group, The Mescaleroes, on November 23, 1999, at the Roseland Ballroom did not uncloud my heart and head, though I distinctly remember the moment when the group broke into “White Riot,” a favorite of mine from The Clash back catalogue: I made eye contact with one of the dozens of middle-aged men who made up the audience.

So a generation or two separated us; so what? We had a Moment. We were on the Level. This was beautiful music made by a beautiful man, so we danced, pogoed, really, until maybe a dozen other people joined us. Beer and nachos went flying. I sweated through every molecule of my being at least twice and couldn’t fall asleep for hours after staggering into the streets of midtown when the show had ended, eyes tripping on neon.

I didn’t know much at 24 in New York, but I knew that what I’d experienced was important. I credit myself with at least having the good sense not to pretend I could honor it, to just let the feelings shrink and expand. The result, four and a half years later, was the skeleton of Chapter One (a bloated prologue, actually). A brief excerpt as it stands now before we continue to a deeper exploration of idol worship (you might want to reference the Cast of Characters):

Near the front of the stage, I stood simmering in a cross-section of lunatic fanbase, trying my best to give the music a good listen. Live, the rock, reggae, and African strains sounded as if they had been born one music. I wanted to dance in celebration of this triumph, but my fellow Strummer fanatics pressed too close and kept crushing my feet. Tipsy or full-on blasted, they could not physically hold their liquor and often spilled it on me.

I was going to get in a few good shoulder checks, gather the boys, then bolt when Strummer dipped into the Clash back catalogue. With the opening chords of “White Riot,” one of my longtime favorites, I stomped and screamed at my good luck. The guy to my immediate right, meanwhile, played it cool, bobbing his head and licking the foam top off his Budweiser. It irritated me to holy hell that he didn’t have the decency to at least scratch himself in this rarefied arena. I didn’t care if he was tired or stoned down the street —he was going to dance.

I got in the deformed beanpole’s face, bumping up against him so he spilled beer on his leg. I stole and stamped out his freshly lit cigarette. He was livid, on the verge of punching a girl.

Shake your ass!” I ordered, ready to whack.

Niles and Yardley swooped in like superheroes sworn to protect their fellow limp dicks. Pushing them away, I fired off another round of insults.

Poseur! Loser! Yellow-bellied baby boomer!

These epithets made all the difference. Chinos hiked up to man tits, he charged like a castrated Pamplona bull, prepared to gore me at my punk coming-out party, but instead hooking my right arm so we went whirling toward the back of the club in a high-speed square dance and knocking us into other stationary fans. From two dancers sprang ten; from ten, twenty, until we formed a fifty-strong stampede. A space grew up around us so that Strummer could’ve seen this phenomenon from the stage (I hoped, I hoped!).

And before I go, a choice Strummer rant from the US Festival that shows the angry young man of steel at his best. Was anyone better at heckling an audience into the present moment?:

Blogging soundtrack:

  • Brain buzzing
  • Cat purring
  • Fall’s entrance
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