“When I started, they told me I only needed three chords and the truth… It turned out I could manage with two and some vague ideas.” Joe Strummer
Those vague ideas included “the future is unwritten,” and thereby anything is possible. Other ideas informed the oeuvre of Strummer and Mick Jones, collectively and apart, and their actions as musicians and citizens. Still, for me, the variations on this theme guided their best representations of our world back to us, and the still-valid demand issued back in 1979:
“What are we gonna do now?”
It’s the opening line, of course, in “Clampdown,” the second single from London Calling, and I figure Strummer here is using the royal “we.” For my tastes, outside of Dylan’s oeuvre, it’s one of the two most haunting questions in rocknroll: the other comes courtesy of Jagger-Richards, in “Sympathy for the Devil”:
“I shouted out ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’ /
When after all, it was you and me.”
In other words: how are we complicit in this mess and, in turn, how can we clean it up?
The measures of responsibility for the clean-up—and, in the wake of Trump’s triumph, the formation of a resistance against what horrors lie ahead—remain a hot topic in left-liberal circles.
In a phone conversation with a recent college graduate, I listened to a compelling tale of her struggle with her post-election despair. The despair, she noted, was sustained by her inability to find a group among her friends able to articulate the complexity of her fears, for her friends and herself, as a queer woman of color. We talked through this a bit—and she’s a good reader of cultural theory stuff, and is well-versed in building political alliances via strategic essentialism and strategic anti-essentialism—and then I told her about my bike ride home from work, 10 days after the election.
It was 530pm, and I waited at the light to turn left onto one of the main roads in town. (Since it’s apparently germane: couture-wise, I’m doing a fine impression of George Will: striped shirt, bow tie, and blazer, along with my neo-Easy Rider Nutcase helmet.) A guy in his van does a lazy right turn, overcorrects, and offers but three feet of grace between his side mirror and my shoulder. I turn to my left and say, “Jesus, chief,” and he slows to a stop 200 feet behind me, sticks his head out the window, and shouts, “F*ck you, liberal!” And drives off.
Now I’ve been slandered for my couture and my mouth almighty over the years, as some of you know (from p. 5, of *Stealing*).
I always imagined that this use of “faggot” carried traces of ambivalence, or at least vulnerability. Were select varsity footballers so insecure in their own masculinity that a lavender shirt or glacier-blue Top Siders could get their Jockeys in a bunch? I liked to believe so.
But “liberal!”? Not possible were “Whitey!” or “Male!,” I suppose, since we had that in common—and, bow ties aside, plenty more, I figure. Yet here we are. At the close of the Obama era, “liberal,” in-and-of-itself, free of any descriptor (e.g., “tax-and-spend,” “kale-loving”) serves a term for defamation.
My friend laughed at me, and in solidarity. Like Tom Waits notes,
“We’re chained to the world /
and we all gotta pull.”
And hey: like another one of my favorite scruffy-faced white guys said, “each according to his abilities, each according to his needs.” As a straight white guy, I understand if expected today to pull above my weight class. But there’s lots of room along this chain. Grab hold.
40 years ago, at the end of a red-hot English summer, a highly significant Festival took place at the 100 Club in Oxford Street. Although only several hundred people were in attendance, it was nevertheless a watershed moment in popular music and culture. The 100 Club Punk Festival was the moment when everything changed in Britain and a new era in popular culture was born. As my own small contribution to the 40th anniversary of 1976 (Year Zero), I have put together a few scraps and glimpses from memory of that momentous gig. Endlessly chronicled and dissected by writers and journalists over the years, this is my own personal view of the show and what was happening then. Being entirely subjective, I’m sure many of you who were around at that time may disagree entirely with the facts I present from memory.
Happy father’s day — to all the fathers, and to all of who have been fathered.
I’m thinking about Prince still, especially after reading anew “Life in the Arts,” from Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy, by Dave Hickey:
“When Terry Allen called me in San Diego with the news that Chet Baker was dead, I just said, ‘Aw, shit!’ and hung up … I sat there for a long time in that cool, shadowy room, looking out at the California morning. I stared at the blazing white stucco wall of the bungalow across the street … I sat shivah for Chet Baker in that quiet room, acutely aware of my own breathing–aware, as well, that I had been listening to Baker breathe through his trumpet and through the language for more than thirty years.”
Did you receive a call about Prince? Who receives a call about anything anymore? The pixels on our devices beat our friends to the punch every time. Did any of us have the chance to sit quietly, to sit shivah for Prince? I took a break from work, combed the news media online, checked Facebook–but my response, and perhaps your response, too, contradicted Hickey’s response to the news about Baker. He simply hung up the phone. He knew no words would make the news not true–the loss of the artist “whose work I was forced to divine by the pure logic of sense.”
To divine the logic of Prince, I had the help of solid interpreters. It was 1984, our summer of lust, and Purple Rain was the soundtrack. My friends and I turned 16 that year and, in the suburbs of northern California, we drove, and parked, and drove some more. That July, I was still two months from my own sweet 16, but I had a copy of Purple Rain on cassette, courtesy of my friend Brian. Brian had tried to turn me onto Prince in 1983 via MtV, but on the first pass, Prince’s virtues (and virility) escaped me.
While watching the video for “Little Red Corvette,” I ventured, “That guy? He’s sexy?”
“Check out Dez, his guitarist,” Brian suggested, “and the kamikaze icon on his headband. That’s cool.”
That summer, Brian had his license, and Peggy did, too, and we finally had control of the tape decks. We no longer needed to bum rides off older siblings and, in turn, seized control of the soundtrack of our youth. I remember weekend drives with Peggy in her VW Rabbit, with Julia* in the front seat, and Brian, first, and then Noel, and me in the back. Brian had a thing for Julia, and Noel and had a thing for Julia, and I watched with bemusement, a trace of envy, and what I now regard as gratitude—for watching Julia respond to Prince reminded me of pulpit-inspired power of the best of rock‘n’roll.
In spring 1984, my cassette collection looked awfully WASP-y—as in, white Anglo synth pop: Human League, New Order, and Depeche Mode. The closest things I had in my collection to an R&B album were the debut LPs by Culture Club and Gang of Four. So yeah: not very close at all. Sure, The Thompson Twins and Heaven 17 drew upon the musical tropes of disco and funk, but the tunes of Heaven 17 were more likely to draw the ire of your parents or teachers if they recognized the Marxist sympathies of Martin Ware and co., rather than their tempered representation of longing and desire.
Nearly 20 years after Mick Jagger had professed the syncopated terms of his dissatisfaction, Prince arrived to profess with absolute clarity the terms of his ecstasy. By Purple Rain, Prince stood alone in his ability to represent our urges and gratification, lyrically and sonically. He offered sounds and words designed to get us “through this thing called life,” apropos for headphones, the dance floor, and the car stereo. Initially, though, I recognized none of it—and instantly, with a bit of help, all of it.
Julia had jet-black hair, cut above the shoulder and feathered back, which covered her forehead and ended just above her thick, well-tended eyebrows. Her haircut seemed designed for brooding, which she did often, and honestly, and sometimes outrageously—to impressive dramatic effect, if the tales of her maternal spats were even half-true. Still, when Julia met your gaze and her eyebrows jumped, and she flashed that Doublemint smile bookended by a pair of deep and perfect dimples, she reminded you of the pleasures and the dangers of beauty, for the beholder and the beholding.
Through the dry nights of summer and into autumn, we spent our nights behind the wheel, windows down, stereo on. After dark, in the suburbs of California, life was always elsewhere, so we drove. If any tape provided a respite from the heavy rotation of Purple Rain, that memory and that tape are long lost.
Prince’s sense of the end of days, and the carnal delights that preceded it, contrasted sharply with the string of judgment days, real and imagined, that constituted our adolescence. In “Let’s Go Crazy,” Prince imagined Judgment Day as the gateway to “a world of never ending happiness.” Until then, “in this life, you’re on your own.” We were young, stood within a stone’s throw of dumb, and certainly had no better than a fuzzy vision of the long game. For me, what set Prince apart, above all else, at age 26, was his freedom from shame.
Immodest couture? Nearly guaranteed. Scatalogical lyrics? Absolutely. The idea, though, that Prince could experience the emotional pain associated with the ridiculous or the indecorous was baffling. Prince offered no apologies for being Prince. Armed with unrepentant confidence, Prince reached out to touch us, to bless us, to inoculate us from fear, sacrificing his own flesh in bars of falsetto ecstasy and demi-god-like guitar solos for our salvation. The notion that someone but 10 years our senior could wrest that from this world, and that maybe we could, too, seduced Julia immediately.
The content of this memory remains fuzzy, but the affect still rings true. Peggy drove, Julia occupied the passenger seat, and Brian and I sat in the back. “Let’s Go Crazy,” or “Darling Nikki” thumped from the speakers, and Julia sat up, turned around, and gripped the headrests and said something daring, something earnest, even defiant. In that moment, Prince’s beats reflected off her torso and back upon ours. Before I could nod or smile in agreement, she whipped back around and turned up the stereo, extended her right arm out the window, palm up against the wind.
At school, alas, Julia could not sustain such defiance, especially when it came to the perils of her own beauty. In the field of adolescent desire, power is a practice, not a given. In Julia’s case, the power of beauty resided not only in her capacity to attract and hold the attention of young men, but in the power to look away, to cast aside the desire of others, as if she herself lacked such hunger. But she didn’t. She held in ravenous regard the regard of others.
As autumn turned to winter that junior year, Julia and I lost track of each other, caught up in mutually exclusive circles of friends. The following fall, we shared a class, maybe two–until she stopped missed a day or two of English, and then a few more. I saw her a week later. “You all right? What’s going on?,” I asked. “Well,” Julia said slowly, “I skipped class last week, and then I couldn’t get an excused absence, and I didn’t want to show Ms. Wattel an unexcused absence, so I just stopped coming.” A few weeks later, I saw her sitting in the quad ahead of 4th period, ahead of 6th period, and after 7th. She sat in her long coat, a coat too warm for that balmy afternoon. “Hey. Is everything okay?” I asked. “I’m fine,” she replied. “Senior portraits came out today, and I have on the same sweater I had on for the picture.”
I don’t know that we ever spoke again. Months later, Kerry, a friend of a friend, reported that she had been to Santa Cruz with friends over the weekend and, at the end of the day, they stopped for dinner at a Taco Bell. “The cashier, it was Julia!,” she said. “She had bleached her hair, dyed it strawberry blonde, and I said, ‘Hey, Julia! What are you doing here?’ I apparently said it too loudly, though, as the manager came over and said, ‘What’s going on? There’s some mistake here. Her name is Kelly.’ We got our food and left. It was Julia, Randy, I’m telling you.”
In successive years, I became a much better listener of Prince. I hope Julia did, too.
*–One or more names have been changed to protect the misunderstood.
After last week’s massacre in Paris, I went searching for a song with the spirit of ’77 to capture–and tame, really, the anger and frustration that we shared. From “Chant de Partisans” to most anything by The Clash, the tracks I found celebrated rebel culture writ large, and the narratives and often the sound (let’s not forget the sound) articulated “the good” and aggression, and thereby failed.
Hamell on Trial, though, with the opening track from his *Tough Love* LP (2003), offers the best balm in this regard. He takes the standpoint of God (who else?), and weighs in on the recklessness of our species.
I dig so much of his catalog, and you can find a host of LPs on bandcamp, including this one: https://hamellontrial.bandcamp.com/album/tough-love . Go ahead: spend some money on music today.
And here’s a fun mini-documentary with folks like Henry Rollins, Ani DiFranco, and Robert Christgau chiming in on the virtues of Hamell. Check it out! It’s roughly 12 minutes, but a fine meditation on resilience, decency, and the power of music. The connections, too, to Richard Pryor et. al. are not overstated.
This past week, I returned to Boston for my longest visit since the summer of ’89, when I rented a flat in Cambridge with some friends from high school. By the time of my mid-June arrival (UCSB wrapped up just days before), most of the decent summer work had disappeared. I didn’t have the freedom not to work, so I parsed the classifieds daily, made plenty of phone calls, and landed a gig as a valet, working evenings on the North End and north of the city on Route 1. Most restaurants hired out for valets, contracting with a company.
Davide occupied a lower level space on Commercial Street, seated 70 maybe (I was only inside once), and for years was a favorite ristorante for well-respected Italian families (read: mafia). Like any valet job, the cars pulled up, you tagged their keys, provided the driver with a receipt, and parked the car alongside a loading dock, just shy of a 1/2 mile away. I was a runner of sorts, so on the weekends, when we had two valets, the work was easy enough.
During the week, though, I was on my own, and I remember well the birthday celebration of the mother of a local don, to which no one apparently dared arrive late. Just as I was greeting the first guest, eight more cars arrived: the drill was to tag the keys, toss them under the driver’s seat, greet the next guest, and repeat. Then, once all the cars were tagged, I drove the first one down to the dock, parked it, locked it, pocketed the keys, and sprinted back for the next car. The cars up-for-grabs included three BMWs, a Jeep Cherokee, two Lincoln Towncars, and three Mercedes sedans. At the dock, during those few seconds I had no sight lines back to Davide. In one of the BMWs hung a prayer card for St. Christopher, the patron saint of drivers. As I locked the driver door, I made my own offering to St. Christopher and, with five pounds of car keys bouncing in my pockets, ran.
When David, my boss (and no relation to Davide), arrived later, he asked about the party. “Did you park the Cherokee?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Did you look under the seat?”
“Oh, there’s typically a shotgun there, and a revolver in the glove box.” David smiled. I was 20, he was maybe 24. I liked Marty, the company owner, and admired his moxy and grit. David was simple by comparison, though he never struck me as dishonest. He savored my suburban naivety, and his own self-satisfaction, especially when he could bestow life lessons to his new Californian charge. “I could never live in California,” he told me. “I could never leave the culture.”
This past Friday, I wanted to see what was left of the North End I knew, and biked into town from Jamaica Plain along the southwest corridor. I improvised my way to the North End, to see what was left of Davide, which had served its last meal late last year: the awning remained, and little else. Down the street, the loading dock had given way to townhouses. Oh, capitalism: I stand in awe of your capacity for creative destruction.
Oy, it’s been awhile, and I’ve been keeping busy at the typewriter, and hope to have something substantial to share with you soon. In the meantime, I’m giving a talk in Boston on Th., 10/22, 5pm at Emerson (details in the poster here), and it’d be great to see you there. I’ll pack some books, too, in case you’re looking to get a head-start on your holiday shopping.
Now, since I’m heading to Boston, I have the Modern Lovers on my mind, and the first album in particular, which did more for punk than perhaps every other LP ever pressed. (Yes, more than any Velvet Underground or Iggy disc, I figure. The Ramones’ debut might be a worthy rival.) So, while the MA government takes up arms again in the culture war, in defense of the genius of Jonathan Richman, here’s one of the key gems from that album.
That’s some epic clapping on the bridge. Nicely done, gents. Cheers!