Joe Strummer, in memoriam, 10 years on

To honor the tenth anniversary of Joe Strummer’s untimely death, NPR offered a short and respectable segment on the continued relevance of The Clash, and two tracks in particular:  “London Calling” and “Rock the Casbah.”
The key themes of these tracks, technology vs. nature, and tradition vs. modernity, respectively, maintain “Joe Strummer’s Life After Death,” according to Tom Vitale, who also interviews biographer Chris Salewicz and members of The Hold Steady, who hold forth on the influence and ethics of Joe Strummer. (In the responses, of course, Clash fans take issue with offering such esteem to The Hold Steady.)
I note “ethics,” here, as I was reminded repeatedly during the assembly of Stealing All Transmissions of the impact of Joe Strummer on so many friends and new acquaintances. When I mentioned the project over brunch, a new acquaintance pulled out his iPhone, where an image of Strummer graced his screen. Another friend might as well have added an “s” to a WWJD bracelet, as he noted, “Whenever I’m at work on a new project, I ask myself, ‘What would Joe Strummer do?'”
And for good reason: from the origins of The Clash to his last emphatic strum (with rare exception), Strummer forged anger into power, demanded that we recognized the currency of our age, and exalted us to deal with it. He modeled democratic human agency in aesthetically and politically effective ways, and–with much help from his bandmates–set it to a danceable beat.
So, dear reader, if you were to share my preference for either “White Man in Hamersmith Palais” or “Magnificent Seven” over the songs selected by NPR, I still agree with their selection of “Rock the Casbah” as one of The Clash’s most important tracks. Neither of the previously mentioned tunes invite musical homage of the order of Rachid Taha’s spirited cover. (Let us do no more than mention 311’s cover of “White Man,” as a matter of convenience and decency.)
As Clash devotees know, Topper Headon brought the musical track to Strummer’s attention and, inspired by recent crackdowns on rocknroll in Iran, I believe, Strummer dashed off the lyrics. The narrative takes on especial meaning for my most recent spins of this track, as I’m reading Christopher Hitchens’ *God is not Great,* which elaborates four key points, with poignant (and terrifying) examples from the west and the east: religion, misrepresents the origins of humanity and the cosmos and, in turn, these origin myths produce in their adherents maximum servility and maximum solipsism, and dangerous levels of repression of sexuality. (I have no evidence that Strummer and Hitchens shared a smoke or a spliff, but their takes on these ideas seem sympatico.)
In “Rock the Casbah,” Strummer uses the opening verse to take the piss out of manager-provocateur Bernie Rhodes, and then subjects traditional society, Muslim-style, to the first principle of Strummer ethics: it could be otherwise. Strummer imagined the possibility of liberation through funk bombs (“that crazy Casbah jive”), and imagines that even the jet fighters might be vulnerable to conversion to the faith of rocknroll.
Coda:  In Chuck Pahalniuk’s Diary, his 2003 novel, the anti-hero suggests that an artist can only paint her own face and, once she realizes as much, she’s free to paint anything she wants. “Rock the Casbah,” in turn, may also be read as a celebration of non-sanctioned music in general, and an elegy for the struggles faced from 1977-79 by The Clash themselves, who–by the time “Casbah” was released–were within shouting distance of the mountaintop of rocknroll.

it’s no secret — notes on the book’s title

This project originally started out as a long-form non-fiction piece, for which I found a suitor, but not one of “marriage material” (or, I suppose, that was their judgment of the project). Once the project assumed book-sized proportions, and I started sending out proposals, I only ever had this title in mind.

It’s from the opening stanza of “Radio Clash,” the b-side to “This is Radio Clash”:

This is Radio Clash / Stealing all transmissions/
Beaming from the mountaintop / Using aural ammunition.

Radio and aural ammunition are key themes in Clash history, for they imagined their variety of rocknroll could–and should–break down walls of prejudice, in the west and the Middle East.

As Strummer noted in advance of The Clash’s first trip to the US, “All we want to achieve is an atmosphere where things can happen. We want to keep the spirit of the free world. We want to keep out that safe, soapy slush that comes out of the radio … All we’ve got is a few guitars, amps, and drums. That’s our weaponry.” (R. Christgau, Grown Up All Wrong, pp. 220-1)

Strummer’s faith that things could be otherwise was well-founded. Deejays such as Meg Griffin and Pam Merly, on WNEW and WLIR respectively, in 1977, ensured–if not outright stole–transmission time for tracks from the import pressing of The Clash. (CBS, of course, in 1977, deemed the LP too noisy for an American release.)

Likewise, with “Capital Radio” and “This is Radio Clash”/“Radio Clash,” which nearly coincided with The Ramones’ “We Want the Airwaves,” the problem of radio was of keen interest to bands in the punk and post-punk vein. Toward the end, with “Rock the Casbah,” Strummer imagined “that crazy Casbah jive” capable of drowning  “the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor [and] philistine sentimentalism,” as K. Marx noted a few years prior.

For my comrades, the subtitle recalls Greil Marcus’s excellent Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century (1990), which I was assigned in an art theory course back in the day, and thoroughly enjoyed. I, however, had in mind another book, given to me by Dale Sherrard, another visual artist (in a previous life): The Secret History, a novel by Donna Tartt. Tartt’s novel is thoroughly un-Clash like (yet still full of merit), but the secret nature of the history I found, for a band not lacking in biographical documentation, was a pleasant surprise. I hope you, dear reader, come to share that sentiment.

punk curiosity to 2-Tone fandom

In my first year as a teenager, punk arrived at our middle school in the form of Scott F., a new classmate, whose sartorial choices–black Chuck Taylors and Black Flag t-shirts–and close-cropped hair stood out starkly among the mop-tops and bi-levels sported by most of my album-oriented-radio-listening classmates. Terry and Steve followed suit, and I hung out with them, and I eventually bought the Magnets LP by The Vapors (of “Turning Japanese” fame). (Magnets is melodic, dark, and brilliant, a true gem among the neglected ruins of early post-punk.)

The subsequent summer, in 1982, on a trip my parents figured would expand my budding middlebrow horizons, as noted in the Prelude of Stealing, I toured the UK and continental Europe with the Boy Scouts of America, and returned to the states a devotee of post-punk and new wave.

The categories of punk and new wave were largely lost on me then, but not completely. I had a growing faith that things could be otherwise, that the rubric of muscle cars/bangs-to-the-eyebrows-proto-mullets/Led Zeppelin/Van Halen had a half-life, and that the expiration date was quickly approaching. Other music, as well as other masculinities, were out there, even in California. In spring 1983, on a family trip to Carmel, I visited the local record shop and, much to my surprise, found More Specials, The Specials’ second LP, on cassette. Like The Specials, my host family in England lived in Coventry, and I was astonished that this tape could make its way across the Atlantic, across the US, to a record shop barely the size of a walk-in closet. Much to my subsequent embarrassment, I asked the cashier, “This Specials? It’s the same Specials from the UK, yes?,” which elicited a nod and a well-deserved eye roll. I didn’t care. I tapped my Dad for an advance on my allowance and bought the tape. Upon tearing free the cellophane, I was disheartened by the absence of any liner notes–a sentiment often reprised when I opted for cassettes over LPs. Still, this serendipitous find represented the cornerstone of my new music collection. Long after that tape became a hazard to any tape deck, I held onto it, packing it for moves between northern and southern California, and then off to New York. It’s still in my basement, in a box underneath other boxes, and I hope the cover image finds its way into one of many of my daughter’s collages I have properly filed for safekeeping.