No one ever called my high school punk rock band “the only band that matters.” It was shock. We were the ones playing songs like “She Eats Razors” and “Beat Me, Whip Me, Make Me Feel Cheap”.
Dave Vogel introduced me to the Clashes when he brought a copy of “London Calling” into the newspaper office at the high school where I worked. I was struck by the cover art – Paul Simonon of the band crushing his bass on stage. Badass. I borrowed the album and recorded it on a tape. This substandard tape suffering from Dolby burned itself into my head, heart and soul. The Sex Pistols pointed out punk rock to me. The Clash, does streetwise but political punk rock, raw but musically sophisticated, with a personal spirit but global reach. It quickly became my favorite band.
A week after listening to London Calling, I wrote my first political song – “Salvador Death Squad Blues”, a rock commentary on the Reagan administration’s atrocities in Central America.
The Clash concert at the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago in 1982 began to change my life, even before they played the first note. I bought a t-shirt in the lobby, but rather than the usual wizards and dragons on the heavy metal shirts that I was used to, the Clash shirt had a single phrase engraved on the heart – “the future is not written “.
When I saw them play, I knew exactly what it meant. The Clash performed with passion, determination and unflinching political fire. They identified themselves as a band of the people, as humanist socialists. You can hear their unwavering intention in “Know your rights, ” “English Civil War, “ “Straight to hell” and “Career opportunities. “There was such a sense of community in the theater that it seemed like anything was possible. I was energized, politicized, changed by that night. Yes, the future was not written, and we the fans and this group, we could write it together.
At the center of Hurricane Clash stood one of the greatest hearts and deepest souls in 20th century music, the band’s rhythm guitarist and vocalist Joe Strummer. In Aragon, Joe was playing with the same little amp I had in high school. It proved to me that you don’t need Marshall battery walls to make great music. All you had to do was speak the truth, and really, really mean it.
When I first went on tour, the Clash tapes and bootlegs were the most important part of my music collection on the road. They were an inspiration and a consolation on those long and icy European bus journeys.
Listening to even crappy bootleg tapes, you could hear Topper Headon’s unrivaled drums effortlessly guiding the band into fluid realms that no other punk band could handle. You could feel the fresh, rumbling reggae beats of Simonon’s bass calling for justice from Kingston to Brixton. Mick Jones, from McCartney to Strummer’s Lennon, shone as a brilliant arranger and mechanic, always looking to the future musically and pushing the limits of what was possible for a punk band, or any band. And you could still hear in Joe Strummer’s ragged, passionate voice that he truly believed the world could be changed with a three minute song. He wasn’t there for ego or rock star glory. He was playing with the determination to change this damn world.
The group would have countless meetings where they would discuss their lives, their opinions, their political opinions, what they represented to each other and what was important for them to say in their songs. You could feel that commitment in every note of their music. And as Joe says near the end of the great Clash documentary “Westway to the World”, a group’s chemistry is everything. He delivers a tearful speech lamenting the eventual dismissal of Headon, then Jones. There’s a power in this classic Clash lineup that reminds us that there are bands people love, bands people love, and then there’s bands people * really believe * in. The Clash was most definitely one of those.
When I was with Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, and as Nightwatchman, reporters would ask me sarcastically, “What is someone doing politics on a big label like Epic Records?” While I usually answered with flowery sermons on spreading an important message around the world, I could have answered with two words: The Clash. I wasn’t a cool kid rummaging through record cases in hip independent Chicago stores. The reason I heard them was because Dave Vogel bought the Epic Records release “London call”At Musicland at Hawthorn Mall in the small suburb of Vernon Hills, Illinois. I didn’t find The Clash, The Clash found me. The Clashes chose a path that was not elitist, a path that was crucial in getting their message out, a path that was crucial for it to reach me.
The influence of The Clash, and its ability to turn personal into politics, and vice versa, carries over into songs throughout my own career, from the “Nightwatchman”Black Spartacus Heart Attack Machine,” To “Marie Celeste, “from my EP The Catastrophists to”Save our souls“from my last album. If any of the songs I was involved in could energize or politicize a person the same way the Clashes affected me, the decision to sign with Epic was worth it.
I had the opportunity to play with Strummer on his collaboration with Johnny Cash ”,Song of redemption, “and on his song”It’s a rock world. “I have never been more nervous in my life than when I was introduced to him. Very few recordings were made, but a lot of accounts of bottles of red wine quickly ingested did. occasion when Joe was standing in court to pick up and strum his famous Telecaster with the “Ignore Alien Orders” sticker on it. This guitar kicked off a thousand bands and that’s why I play a Telecaster on songs like this. than “Night vigilante. “Holding this historic guitar, on which Joe had written and performed my favorite songs over the years, was sublime.
The last time I saw Joe was when he and his band the Mescaleros played Troubadour about a year before he died. He played with all the passion and intensity he had at the height of The Clash. He was a vital artist until the end.
His idealism and conviction instilled in me the courage to try and make a difference with a guitar.
In the great hymn of the Clash “White riotJoe sang:
Do you take the upper hand
Where do you take orders?
Or are you going ahead?
I have answered these four questions for myself every day since I first heard them.
They embody the raison d’être of The Clashes, a group that combined revolutionary sounds with revolutionary ideas.
For me, they are still “the only band that matters”.
Previous essays in this series can be found here.