I first began listening to The Clash in high school. The internet was far past its infancy, but one could say it was an awkward teenager. It was the days before Youtube and Wikipedia and no one else I knew listened to old punk. If you even said “old punk,” kids thought you meant Green Day. It was a badge of pride if you even owned Dookie. These were the days of Blink 182 and Sum 41 and other quantified nouns. Sad times, indeed.
I had a boyband phase in kindergarten, younger than most. New Kids on the Block it was for me then. But most of the kids I grew up with continued to listen to pop music (cited as the culture), while others took to the post-grunge spectrum (cited as the counter to this culture… the alternative, if you will).
As the nineties waxed and waned, I fell into the alternative. I became obsessed with understanding the gritty side of rock and roll. I can’t explain how, but early in life, I began to empathize with the outsider (as a cultural trope). I’m sure everyone does at some point; it’s the go-to cliche of adolescence.
I think the first moment the pendulum started to shift was when my mum played Bill Haley. Having never properly heard rock and roll before, it blew my mind. This was definitely something far more profound than anything contemporary pop music. From there, I listened to a lot of early rock and roll courtesy of my mother: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, The Supremes, the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Wonderful.
And then I remember my dad introducing me to Bruce Springsteen. It was Springsteen that made me realize that people could sing about something other than love, dancing, or variations thereon…. And then I remember seeing Smashing Pumpkins playing the Grammy’s. At first I could not comprehend this strange music lacking in melodies. I could not fathom why someone would want to scream rather than sing. But that wasn’t the point. Combined with what I learned from the Boss, music took on a whole new dimension.
In the same way we create history in our head into order to provide context for our own lives, I wanted to know the story of rock and roll. If you grow up in North America, you grow up with a culture screaming at you that music is important. Music means something. Music tells us who we are. I’m not necessarily going to dispute that, but I think it’s important to question how we think music tells us who we are.
Why did every kid in high school feel the need to identify with a social group? And why was a key identifying characteristic of a social group what music you listened to? Why was it impossible for you to like, say, both Goldfinger and Spice Girls? Especially if the former were made famous by covering a song that was in the same genre as the latter? Is that the essence of society: cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy? Perhaps.
But I needed answers to these questions. I needed to know why certain music was counter-culture. Because I never felt like alternative properly identified who I am. Whatever I was, it was not pop music. And the whiny caddishness of most post-grunge was not it either. Nothing was substantial enough. The closest I got in the nineties was Hole.
I wish I had easier access to riot grrl. It would have been exactly what I was looking for. I can only blame a male-bias, but I remember reading nothing but hatred for Courtney Love. I still don’t get it. It’s hard to imagine spending your formative years listening to solely the perspective of the opposite gender and not being fucked up by or pissed off with the whole experience. There
was remains to be something empowering and cathartic about hearing Courtney Love scream with frustration at being used and objectified so blatantly.
But, as I said, Youtube and Wikipedia did not exist then. It was hard to discover music outside one’s social circle. If people you knew weren’t into it, it might as well not exist. The radio failed me. There was no zine culture at my school and my funds – and record-store selections – were limited. The best I could do was scour through magazines and library books and try to parse out what seemed interesting, influential, and important. I might not have been able to hear a lot the music I read about, but at least I could use it to build a historical framework and narrative structure.
When Napster finally appeared, it was a god-send. Now, I spent night after night downloading songs I had read about. A whole new world broke open. Music finally began to make sense. I could fill in all the bare bones of my framework, all this tiny elements of influence that had fused together to lead from one major musical trend to another. Amazing it is how so many musicians and songwriters whose work bleeds through the prevailing zeitgeist of each generation can remain so relatively unknown themselves.
This how I really got into The Clash. (Talk about burying the lede, I know. A thousand words in. Apologies.) I had heard The Clash before, but the stuff that made it to the radio lacked the bite of the stuff that didn’t.
To say that The Clash changed my life is to miss the point. The Clash didn’t change my life so much as they showed me who I already knew I was. It’s so rare that something truly clicks with you, but I believe it’s one of the things we live for. Think about it. How often do you truly meet a person that just gets you? How often do you read a book or watch a film or appreciate a work of art that you just get? You know what I mean. It happens. But so, so rarely.
The Clash I just got. Every artistic choice, I wanted to say to Joe Strummer, “I getcha. I’m with you.” Even with the missteps, I wanted to console, “I see what you were going for and you tried. You failed, but you learned. It’s a process. A discovery. I can’t wait to see what you do with the lesson learned.”
It’s fascinating when you find an artist you can grow with. And even though most of their catalogue was before my time, that’s how The Clash felt to me. I don’t mean that I aged with their work, like “an album a year in progressing maturity, like fucking Harry Potter,” but more that as I aged, I could appreciate the work in different and deeper ways.
When I first got into The Clash, my favourite song was Lost in the Supermarket. So typical, I know. I wasn’t capable of detecting the sarcasm of the lyrics. Like most reviewers at the time, I, too, took it as a sentimental Mick Jones ditty. But I liked it. Because I was a melodramatic teenage girl, I thought it spoke to me and my lower middle class upbringing.
But then I grew up, gained some fucking perspective, realized Joe Strummer wrote the lyrics not Mick Jones, and I realized again why first generation punk was the best and why punk has never quite been the same since. Post-punk lost its sense of self-awareness.* Lost in the Supermarket is conscious of its backstory. Lost in the Supermarket makes fun of its self while also turning that self-awareness on its head. Lost in the Supermarket is a great example of how punk is at its best when the personal is political.
The disconnect seemed to grow as punk splintered off into hardcore (just political), emo (just personal) and so on. To me, that is what music is at its best: the personal as political. Navel-gazing has its place. Politics have their place. But like any good art, the artist hands out an extension of themselves and says: This is who I am in the world and this is why it matters.
And that is what I had always been looking for in music. It’s what I still look for.
*I am well aware of the cognitive dissonance and hypocrisy inherent in first generation punk, especially with the sad realities of facts like The Sex Pistols being just as manufactured as a boy band. I could go on at length, but I think the core importance of first generation punk is that it was so desperately needed. Just as rock and roll was needed, just as the explosion of genre in the sixties was needed, just as grunge was needed, and just as I feel something new is needed now.
In an attempt to block out the chatter of the workplace, I popped in my earbuds and opened Youtube. Something made me play London Calling, the full album.
After cringing at the oil pipeline ad that preceded it*, it was proven yet again that I can’t get through a bout of Spanish Bombs without remembering this one time back in my bookstore days. A guy came in carrying a vague familiarity. He might have either gone to my high school or showed up at a lot of the same parties. He asked for a book of some type I can’t remember. It was likely music-related, as I can’t imagine what else could have provided a more reasonable segueway into a discussion of The Clash.
We discovered we were both over-the-top fans. His favourite song was Spanish Bombs, mine was Lost in the Supermarket. (This is when I was nineteen years old; my favourite now is probably White Man in Hammersmith Palais. I’m sure you care.)
Regardless, it was little more than the polite small talk one engages in with a customer. It was not ingenuine by any means; I didn’t lie and I wasn’t just trying to sell him something. But it is also not as if this conversation took place in a bar or coffee shop.
My point: the power dynamic was inherently skewed. We were not speaking as equals, even if the casual nature of the conversation may have made it feel like that. He was a customer and I was a customer service representative. I was there to serve him.
So, naturally, when he came back about ten minutes later (presumably after summoning courage) and asked me out, I totally faltered.
Had we met as equals, perhaps I might have given it a chance.
But the fact of the matter is, he asked me out in a situation where there was an explicit power imbalance.
Before I even had chance to process this, I said No – by way of I have a boyfriend. While the whole I have a boyfriend excuse is problematic for so many reasons that I am well aware of and totally agree with, it was simply the knee-jerk reaction that occurred to me at the time. In the spur of the moment, it seemed the most polite way to rebuff advances. Much more gentle than I’m not interested.
And when I’m standing there in a vest with a nametag and a manufactured smile, how could I possibly be allowed to be bluntly honest?
I’m sure he was entirely oblivious of this power inequality; of course he would be! Pop culture is bloated with examples of this meet cute. I’m sure this is how many perfectly balanced couples met, I’ve just never met any of them.
It wasn’t the only time that happened, nor was it the most memorable. But there it is: the Proustian journey my mind took this morning.
*Fuck those bastards! At the very least, this is punk rock. Know your target market, assholes.
I love (almost) everything about The Clash, and this is one of my favourites:
I was listening to it, and being the English lit student I have been, I took a closer look at the lyrics.
Which happen to be:
And I was gripped by that deadly phantom
I followed him through hard jungles
As he stalked through the back lots
Strangling through the night shades
The thief of life
Moved onwards and outwards to love
In a one stop only motel
A storm bangs on the cheapest room
The phantom slips in to spill blood
Even on the sweetest honeymoon
The killer of love
Caught the last late Niagara bus
By chance or escaping from misery
By suddeness or in answer to pain
Smoking in the dark cinema
You could see the bad go down again
And the clouds are high in Spanish mountains
A ford roars through the night full of rain.
The killer’s blood flows
But he loads his gun again
Make a grown man cry like a girl
To see the guns dying at sunset
In vain lovers claim
that they never have met.
The hauntingly beautiful poetry, coupled with fantastic atmosphere of the music make me think of this:
Which really is its own kind of cinematic poetry.
I don’t really know where I’m going with all of this, but there’s something exquisite and abstract connecting this all in my brain. Perhaps later I will attempt to explain it and extrapolate out my thoughts into some kind of essay connecting Cinema, the American West, and (Post-)Punk Rock. There seems some kind of a loose potential; underneath each of those points is a strange undercurrent of the ideologies of masculine identity, violence, and Frontierism, and both The Clash and the Coens seems to be making some kind of deconstructive/self-reflexive statement on that.
Hmm…. indeed. Do I smell a potential thesis regarding punk rock and auteur cinema? Perhaps somehow related to the auteurs / punks having reached maturity? Oh well… so much abstract that now I need to read a bunch of web comics to bring my brain back to some semblance of normalcy.
Okay, so I guess I’m narcissistic enough to fall for the latest Facebook meme, the “My Life According to [insert favourite band here].” I am convinced that Narcissistic Personality Disorder is the only reason at least 75% of internet content exists (this blog included, no matter how I try to rationalize it). Needless to say, I decided to use the Clash. (No other option really crossed my mind, although I bet it would be fun to do with Smiths songs. Maybe I will.) It only took me about five minutes:
ARTIST: The Clash
1. Are you a male or female: Janie Jones
2. Describe yourself: Lost in the Supermarket
3. How do you feel about yourself: Should I Stay or Should I Go
4. Describe your ex boyfriend/girlfriend: Ivan Meets G.I. Joe (pretty damn accurate, actually)
5. Describe your current boy/girl situation: Armagideon Times
6. Describe your current location: Safe European Home
7. Describe where you want to be: London Calling
8. Your best friend(s) is: Julie’s Been Working for the Drug Squad
9. Your favorite color is: White Riot
10. You know that: I Fought the Law (and the Law Won)
11. If your life was a television show what would it be called: Straight to Hell
12. What is life to you: Rock the Casbah
13. What is the best advice you have to give: Stay Free (or, Know Your Rights)
1. Are you a male or female: Girl Afraid
2. Describe yourself: These Things Take Time
3. How do you feel about yourself: I Started Something that I Couldn’t Finish
4. Describe your ex boyfriend/girlfriend: That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore
5. Describe your current boy/girl situation: Girlfriend in a Coma
6. Describe your current location: Back to the Old House
7. Describe where you want to be: London
8. Your best friend(s) is: Sweet and Tender Hooligan
9. Your favorite color is: Golden Lights
10. You know that: There is a Light that Never Goes Out
11. If your life was a television show what would it be called: Bigmouth Strikes Again
12. What is life to you: You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet Baby
13. What is the best advice you have to give: Accept Yourself
Yeah, The Smiths was better. Oh, Morrissey, you silly bitch.