East of NORMAL
An ode to The Clash (by a punk from Skynyrdville)
When I was 16, in July or August 1979, I bought the only Clash album in the Sound Shack, which was the only record store where I grew up in Kentucky. That same copy of Give ’Em Enough Rope lingered in the racks forever until I finally bought it. Creem magazine had indoctrinated me into the notion that these guys were the best thing since beans on toast. So, I was curious, and apparently the only record buyer in Skynyrdville who was.
It was their first album released in America, although it was actually their second record overall — the first was England-only. I’ll never forget when I brought it home, closed my bedroom door, put it on the stereo, turned it up, and suddenly there was a crack of a snare drum and a massive wall of guitar. It assaulted me like an exploding brick wall.
I fell in love instantly. I was 16, very much a square peg at school, starting to have an internalized anger problem, depressed as hell a lot of the time, and I listened to a lot of in-your-face, aggressive rock ’n’ roll — AC/DC, Aerosmith, Kiss, Cheap Trick, Ted Nugent, the usual loud redneck diet. No bands I’d ever heard had projected anger as a singular vibe. The Clash were the first angry rock act I’d ever heard and they came into my life at the perfect time. All of a sudden, I wasn’t alone. Somebody out there understood.
Joe Strummer roared invective, and lyrics came out of his mouth like a machine gun. They were sometimes indecipherable, and a lot of it was London slang I didn’t get. But I could tell one thing clearly and unmistakably: I’d found someone as pissed off as I was. I remember feeling that even though I had no idea what he was singing about (if you could call it singing), it would behoove me to learn. I had the feeling that he was raving about something real.
Not too long after that, the band’s actual first album was released in America, entitled simply The Clash. The American version was different from the English original, with some songs taken out and others added, but that made no nevermind to me. Lo and behold I found one copy in town and snagged it.
I got home, got a glass of sweet tea, shut myself in the bedroom, sat my glass on a stereo speaker, put on the record and BAM! Mick Jones’ guitar attack on “Clash City Rockers” put a bullet through my head. I turned it up louder, then louder, and then my sweet tea shook off the side of the speaker and fell down onto the turntable, spilling spidery webs over all the grooves. I wiped it out best as I could, and it turns out that record not only played, but you couldn’t make Side One of The Clash skip after that. It won’t skip to this day.
The first lead guitar break I ever learned to play was the one in “Police & Thieves” on that record. And this time — the earlier record in their career — Joe Strummer was more than just angry, he was crazed. Shit was really fucked up and he was the only one saying anything about it, in a gravel-throated, intensively rhythmic howitzer of a voice. And it’s enough to say the rest of the band was as good as he was. Simply put, they all rocked. Hard. And fast! The fastest music I’d ever heard.
Not long after that, ABC’s “20/20” program did a piece on the punk scene in England and America, and it was the first time I ever saw The Clash play, however briefly, but long enough to notice what maniacs they were, dashing all over the stage, with Strummer rolling on the floor and swinging his mike stand around, then jumping up to spit lyrics like it was the last thing he’d ever do. And then there was an edit, and the television showed him attacking his guitar like a man who’d been shot up with a toxic level of stimulants. I understood then and there that if Elvis Presley had contracted rabies, he would have been Joe Strummer. I’d never seen that much human energy expelled in three minutes on television, ever. I had a hero on my hands.
A few months later, London Calling came into my life, with the same effect the others had and a bit more on top. It’s the springtime soundtrack to my senior year in 1980. It’s the soundtrack to my entire adult life too.
I could go on. And many people have. There are plenty of books you can read, a great documentary called Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, reams of stuff on the web. (And I lead a Clash tribute band called Tommy Gun.) Joe Strummer was not just a pissed-off lunatic. He was lucid; he was well read. He loved to talk to everyone about heady topics. He showed more and more development as a musician and bona fide singer as the music gained more breadth, depth, and technical expertise, and the band issued one great song after another.
Strummer died at the age of 50, from an undiagnosed congenital heart defect, and the world was robbed of a man who didn’t stop when The Clash broke up and was making vital music to the day he died, shaking hands with fans and always talking, always listening, always learning, and committed to making the world a better place. He was one of the coolest people ever to live.
Due to constrictions in my column length, I have to stop here. But if you’re not familiar with Joe Strummer, you’ll need to check him out before you die.