Being young is a tough call as I remember, really not easy at all. I don’t know where the “best days of your life” thing comes from, but that must have been someone else! Not that there weren’t good times and irreplaceable times. It’s a great thing to appreciate the particular qualities of your own youth. After all, you were there, and that should be a good thing.
I got a reminder of who I used to be, last October or November I think it was. I’d been looking through YouTube, and came across a tribute performance for Joe Strummer by Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl and few other guys, playing London Calling. The Clash were immensely important for me when I was in my late teens and early twenties, intimately and vitally important, like “give you a language to speak with” important. It was quite a while ago.
Reel back to 1976 and I’m a thin, geeky kid getting to see Patti Smith at the Hammersmith Odeon. A spacey, introverted, gentle kid who got routinely bullied or sneered at by other boys on the street, though I was good at avoiding trouble and going pretty much unseen. I was never the kind of cool kid that was in the right place at the right time for most things, and our bunch had grown up with our barely elders telling us “too bad you missed it, you weren’t there in 67 (68, 70, etc etc)”. I was the kid watching things on TV, and buying music papers. Glam had gone, along with the threatened ambisexual revolution of only a couple of years before, dissolved like it was just a stunt or a fashion, which it certainly hadn’t felt like at the time. I was the kid without a clue, drifting off into weirdsville. I think I kept sane at school and at home by listening to the first Velvets album over and over, loud. The mid 70s had a sticky feel to them, both the hippies and their funky children having apparently run aground. We were kinda out of everything.
Seeing Patti Smith changed things for me, it felt like she passed on a transmission of beat rock n roll, not just music but a whole cultural spiritual thing. I walked home on my own, and things were different. Punk was happening not just in the States though, but here in the UK too. The Pistols were getting big and infamous here, but it was The Clash that became my band. Put it simply, The Clash cared, that was the unavoidable experience of them. It’s a rock n roll cliché (but no less powerful for it), but a band comes along that gives you a voice, that has the same ache you inarticulately feel, that clasps hands with you in a grasp all the stronger for being shared with others. They threw themselves at their audience like it was a battle for us that we depended on. So the cooking pot of my teens produced a punk, and people stopped picking on me too.
There is one memory I have that really characterised Joe for me, and that was at a gig at the Music Machine in Camden Town in 1978. I remember this as a time when the Clash were still a “punk” band but were straining to hold together the contradictions and totally engage with their growing audience. They were like a train running on the wrong tracks, on the wrong fuel, for the right reasons. There was quite often trouble on that tour in terms of audience aggression, and they’d stop a song to intervene and calm things down or stop someone getting picked on. At that gig Joe would be right up near the front of the stage. He’d break strings and pull them out of the way and just carry on. He’d break string all the time. He had a way of playing that was part basic melodic sense, all rhythm, and part just an extraordinary chaotic noise that would emerge momentarily. He’d get a sound that hit without being assertive or attention getting. He didn’t play right, he’d play what it needed with broken rules and strings. I remember that night he would be crouched down the front on one knee singing or talking, and these kids up the front would be reaching out and hitting the guitar strings, and this noise would come out of the PA stacks. Another time that evening he was standing there performing a song and a kid up the front was just pulling the boot lace out of one of his boots. He knew the kid was doing it and he just did nothing. The kid wanted to take his shoe lace, he let him just take it. It was weirdly, understandingly tolerant. I was mesmerised by Joe that night.
After I saw the clip of Bruce Springsteen I watched “The Future is Unwritten”, the film about Joe’s life, and that was a poignant experience. I lost track of music for a long time after the mid 80s, and of Joe, The Clash and Punk with it. When I’d eventually looked back I just couldn’t connect, probably because of where my life went afterwards, but also because I wasn’t a particularly happy kid then, underneath it all. Seeing what happened to Joe was quite a story. This man had meant so much to me at one time, and seeing him kinda unravel and then refind himself was moving. It’s a story which has a lot of integrity to it, complication, insecurity and integrity. Joe seemed to mythologize himself (and The Clash at the time) often, but he was drawing on myths he believed in passionately which were real for him, and he earned his own enduring path.
Punk of course went on with its own life, with as much meaning for those who found it anew in new bands, especially across the Atlantic I reckon. It really started there in any case. Not only did Punk continue, but it developed in its own ways. The 1980s after a while was a lost decade for me. It’s heartening and enchanting to find such fire and life was found by other people during that very time.
Not long after this I found and fell in love with Fucked Up (see posting below). I came across this band thanks to a pic of their singer (who is a straight bear), then find that I dig their music. Then I get to see just how awesome they are as a live happening on You Tube. And here’s a manifestation of punk again. And this wasn’t about me or the past – it was something I loved as soon as I saw it, for its heart and for what it was. Not the first time I’ve looked at younger folks and felt glad that they were doing it better than we did, but one of the best.
Sometimes you sift from your personal experience, and sometimes you find the common man’s gold, and the gold of our commonality. For all the rebellion, creativity and opening up of something as profoundly democratized and anarchic as Punk, it is the common human embrace that takes you and holds you at its heart. At that moment our dreams have come true.
I read Pink Eyes in an interview say that he thought Punk was an attitude, and that the people who came out of it would have that attitude for the rest of their lives. I think that might be true. It might not be music, performance or “art” in the recognised sense, that was not what Punk was about in its spirit as such, the way I saw it. We wanted more and we wanted magic, and people and life, and we wanted it for everyone. Still do.
We’re all treading on gold dust till the day our gold is returned to this earth. Hug someone in that crazy bears embrace, while the gold is still there.
(This post was edited and part rewritten November 2010)