Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Punk Rock Saved My Life

'Punk rock changed our lives.' - D. Boone

A couple of years before I went to high school an ad played in heavy rotation on the local rock radio station.
'Hello America,' said a woman with a British accent. 'This is London calling.' A track played behind her as she kept repeating the catch phrase and then the track took over a few seconds before the spot ended. The track had an attack that sounded like very few of the stadium rock anthems that filled the AOR airwaves in 1979. I hadn't heard anyone like the vocalist, either. He had rasping delivery that made Bob Dylan sound like Perry Como and I couldn't understand a word he was saying. I wanted that record though but it was my friend Ray who had the money, so he bought it. It was London Calling by The Clash. Some A&R men had decided that punk rock would be the next big thing in music (boy, were they wrong) and The Clash were going be the ones to break it. Well London Calling didn't sell in America but me and Ray wore that record out. Even with the lyrics printed on the album sleeves every song was a cipher. Who was Jimmy Jazz? What were the guns of Brixton and the Clampdown? It didn't make sense to us but the music did. It was fresh, it opened a way.

My coming to a (semi) adult consciousness took place in the Reagan years when I was on the wrong side of everything. Reagan America turned the world upside down. A song about the sufferings of a Vietnam vet in his indifferent homeland became the anthem of America triumphant. A film about a Vietnam vet hounded by law enforcement became the story of American resilience defeating the foreign menace. My brother watched Rambo a thousand times and hung an American flag and a cross over his bed. He was an Eagle Scout, then a ROTC frat boy, and then a soldier. I didn’t understand. Didn’t they watch the movie, didn't they hear the lyrics to Born in the USA? The Official Preppy Handbook became a primer for dress and deportment to my high school peers. Irony had been chased out of the building. Money mattered again in America. The greatest athlete in the world, a man whose physical genius and ferocity on the basketball court left you gawking, was a bland simulacra off it, the perfect corporate shill. I was quick to sneer at this obsession with money but the preppies had connected to something deep in American culture, deeper than I could understand. Money made America's heart beat, had given the country its biggest sexual charge since Ben Franklin started hopping around his printing press. After a brief interlude of hippie indulgence - and maybe the the wealthiest generation in history anywhere - money had risen again. Yet money meant almost nothing to me (to the dismay of friends who would have appreciated me paying for more of the beer). I was lost in my own country. Yet The Clash gave me something to hold on to, and friends who felt the same way as I did.


dahlia said...

So often I feel the same way. In fact on my own site I have several pictures of the clash with nothing other than "ethos" written above a picture of joe strummer smashing his guitar. It was so real then, still felt authentic rage from them. I actually got to meet joe a few times before he passed, what a fucking prince. true shame. an old friend did a doc on him I'll try to find. incredibly poignant scene at the end where joe is walking around a jersey seashore giving away fliers to strangers in hopes of filling up a small room where he is playing that night. nobody knows him, he seems so lost and sad. the clash was one of the greats and as i sit this morning listening to my favorite song by them, straight to hell, I wish people knew how something so awesome stays awesome even when they ignore it, yet so much of the shit people focus on these days just gets worse and worse the more you look at it. i miss joe strummer.

BJG. said...

I've always felt like the best adjective to describe the Clash is "efficient." I know that sounds sterile and boring, but what I mean is that few bands could do so much with so little. London Calling seems so simple, and yet their formula wasn't transferable to anyone else. Anyway, great post.

Robot Boy said...

Dahlia, thanks for the post. I share your feelings obviously and that image of Strummer hawking fliers is heartbreaking (do you blog? Your profile is blocked).
BJG: 'Efficient' does make an odd word choice. 'Eclectic' sounds better to me, that eagerness to reach across genres and cultures (not to mention casting in their lot with the working poor). But I agree that no matter what they were doing - 50s rockers, dub stylings, weird pop experiments - you always knew it was the Clash. Check out 'Sandinista' for them at their most eclectic.

Jerry Wang said...

Nice post. I think I'd be at the bottom of the sea a-la-Hart Crane if it weren't for punk rock.

Robot Boy said...

Anything to keep us out of the Octopus' garden with Hart Crane!