The Clash See America Second

“Here at last was art with access to a contemporary, white, English-speaking proletarian culture. It pos­ited kids whose very determination to survive took guts and whose unwillingness to give up the idea of victory was positively heroic”


N’I like to be in Africa
A beatin on the final drum
N’I like to be in USSR
Making sure these things will come
N’I like to be in USA
Pretending that the wars are done
N’I like to be in Europa
Saying goodbye to everyone

— “Guns on the Roof”

‘Course we got a manager
And though he ain’t the Mafia
A contract is a contract
When they got em out on yer

— “All the Young Punks”

At 5 p.m. February 16, as I knocked on Caroline Coon’s door at the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge in Cambridge, the first Chinese troops were advancing across the Vietnamese border, but of course we didn’t know it yet. What we did know — me because I’d reached her by phone earlier — was that snow and cold had delayed the Clash’s equipment truck on its overnight Washington-Boston run. Coon quickly informed me that at showtime minus two hours it still hadn’t arrived. She was ob­viously overextended, and obviously worried that I expected her to entertain me in some way, but I just wanted to make contact with the band and split, which is what I did.

By around 7:30 I was inside the Harvard Square Theatre, an 1800-seat venue that astonished promoter Don Law by selling out in an hour for an English band that was on only one commercial Boston radio station. I’m told every new wave band in the city was on hand, which is over a hundred tickets right there, but even more numerous than punk types were short-haired, unstoned­-looking (I said looking) versions of the kind of high-IQ fan Bonnie Raitt gets. This was a crowd that liked to read music — I had my own moment of astonishment when someone asked for my autograph. But it was also a crowd that liked to listen — kids who hadn’t been born when Bo Diddley first recorded clearly knew his beat as well as his name. In the row behind me sat Boston’s pioneering new wave disc jockey, a mild young man with pink hair named Oedipus. A few hours before, he and several others had been fired from the only commercial Boston station­ — one of three major FM outlets in the U.S.A. — that was playing the Clash, but few in the audience knew it yet. There was that feeling in the air that we used to call good vibes, only the anticipation was sharper, the kilowatt potential more focused.

Coon had made clear that the concert was doomed to start late — the P.A. finally got in at 6:30 — and the sound check was just end­ing as I arrived. Recorded music, all titles an­nounced, began with the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.,” the Monkees’ “Steppin’ Stone,” and reggae by Dillinger. At around 8 the local opener, two girls and two boys called the Rentals, kicked off hard, dragged into some arty slow stuff, and came back up to a climax entitled “Gertrude Stein”: “Coca-Cola Coca-Cola/Pepsi-Cola Pepsi-Cola/Orange soda orange soda.” Their set was not enhanced when eight Cambridge cops and a platoon of Don Law’s beefy red­shirts ejected two punky nuisances — who’d been hitting on people as if they’d read how in an old N.M.E. — with the kind of en­thusiasm we used to call brutality. After what was literally a brief intermission, Bo Diddley and an all-black trio surprised me pleasantly by rolling the audience down some funky grooves, easy blues lopes as well as variations on Bo’s signature shuffle.

Less than half an hour later, the Coasters’ “Riot in Cell Block Number Nine” blared out of the P.A. as the crew lowered a back­drop of stitched-together flags and the band advanced from the wings. Joe Strummer came on denimy, still bezippered and fati­gued, but Paul Simonon’s slash-necked red uniform was even more glamour-boy than the fishnet item I’d seen him wear in Leeds 16 months before, while Mick Jones, whose turquoise shirt was not only unbuttoned most of the way down but also turned up at the collar, seemed to have achieved most of the evolution from ’70s to ’50s punk — all of the Clash had slicked-back hair, but Mick’s was almost long enough for a d.a. with sly teddy-boy overtones. Glaring riot lights searched out these details as the musicians paced the stage. Then Strummer and Jones sheared into the chords of “I’m So Bored with the U.S.A.” and we were off.

No one has ever made rock and roll as in­tense as the Clash is making right now — not Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, not the early Beatles or the middle Stones or the in­spired James Brown or the pre-operatic Who, not Hendrix or Led Zep, not the MC-5 or the Stooges, not the Dolls or the Pistols or the Ramones. On a brute physical level, their combination of volume and tempo is unrivaled. Anybody with capital can turn up the amps, of course — the hard part, as an im­pressed Stanley Crouch theorized after the band’s Palladium appearance, is for the mu­sicians to turn themselves up even higher, something not even Robert Plant and Jimmy Page ever try for more than a minute or two, despite the cushion of heavy metal’s rhinoce­-beat. And fast heroes from Little Richard to the Dolls and beyond have known when to slow down, resorting to the change-of-pace much more readily than the Clash, whose dip into “Stay Free” and a speedy “Police an Thieves” induced no one in the orchestra at either concert I attended to sit, although by then simple fatigue had dropped a few. Even the Ramones do ballads and medium-tempo rockers, and the Ramones’ formalistic poses enable them to generate exhilarating music with almost no expenditure of interpretive emotion, while the Clash’s dense and expan­sive song structures, freer stagecraft, and ur­gent verbal messages demand interpretation. For the Clash, every concert is an athletic challenge far out on the shoals of expressionism, whence few new wavers return without a mouthful of brine.

And as usual, Joe Strummer seemed to be spitting something out. But his muttered im­precations about orchestra pits and Harvard City Rockers were part of the fun, and if his largely incomprehensible intro to the ob­scure “Capital Radio” — only the first few words, “Complaint time, complaint time,” emerged loud and clear from between his stumpy teeth — in fact referred to Oedipus, nobody (including Oedipus) let it get him or her down. Words, wonderful as they may have been, weren’t the point. Clearly, these first-hour ticket-buyers were among the 50,000-plus purchasers of the U.S. pressing of Give ‘Em Enough Rope, on CBS’s Epic la­bel, and the almost 50,000 who have made The Clash, on English CBS, the largest-sell­ing import album ever in this country. They were familiar with the five singles too; they probably knew half the words by heart, which is all you can expect without crib sheets. But what gave the event its drama wasn’t just the singalong cheers and out­cries — “Guns Guns shaking in terror/Guns guns killing in error”; “This is the city of the dead”; “Need a little jolt of electrical shock­er”; “Clang clang go the jail guitar doors” — ­or the clamorous, life-giving onrush of the music. It was the natural theatrical force of Strummer himself, not so much exhorting the audience directly as alerting it to the sym­bolic world it shared with him. In his most characteristic move — which he can ease with a modified buck-and-wing or heighten by collapsing toward the floor — his shoulders hunch, his eyes narrow and peer upward, and his finger points as if bombs have just darkened the ceiling. His concentration is awesome. Even during instrumental breaks or the songs Jones sings, he is a fierce pres­ence, scowling while he thrashes out his rhythm part or communing with drummer Topper Headon as if to get closer to the god of beats-per-minute.

On our side of the P.A., this was an ecstat­ic experience. But behind the fucked-up mo­nitors, trying to make sense of the guitar Mick had borrowed after finally demolishing his decrepit ’52 Les Paul, the band felt they were putting out a lousy show, and they brooded together as press and friends abided first in the auditorium and then backstage. Eventually Mick sauntered out and took me aside for a spliff. The last time we’d seen each other, in Max’s last fall, we’d discussed fas­cism. This time Mick regaled me with a tale of love, hate, and Les Paul. “It was older than I am,” he kept saying, and it had sur­vived a broken neck at the hands of a stoned-hippie Dutch theatre manager, but the night before, in Washington, after going out of tune throughout the tour — a friend who’d caught the band’s disappointing U.S. debut in Berkeley complained about just that — it had started giving him shocks, one or two per song. So Mick, figuring one of them had to go, smashed the thing to bits; his first stop in Manhattan would be 48th Street. Telling me about it cheered him up. I asked after his mum, and learned she was flying in from Ironwood, Michigan, to see her boy play for the first time the next night. He’d be (1)  breaking in a new guitar (2) at the Palladium (3) for his mother. Pressure.

There was a lull during which I wished Oedipus luck in what he regarded as a union­-busting dispute. Then, suddenly, the whole Clash entourage was trooping off to the tour bus, so quickly that the seven minutes it took me to get my stuff from a nearby parking lot almost weren’t enough. I was last aboard, with three of the Clash already behind closed doors in the bunk section. Only Topper Hea­don remained in the bow. I later learned that he’d suggested shoving off without me if I was going to be fucking late.

“Hello, I’m Bob Christgau,” I said, stick­ing out my hand.

“Hello, I’m rude,” said Topper Headon.

In England, the Clash are now much more than the great punk inheritors — they’re a ma­jor pop group, complete with an album that entered the charts at number two and a bit of backlash in the only trade press in the world that regularly accuses artists of undue com­mercialism. Not that that’s the Clash’s crime, exactly — it’s more their failure to resolve contradictions that only they were brazen enough to confront forcefully in the first place. Like everyone else, they watched in frustration as punk disintegrated into faddish sectarianism. Despite their commitment to Rock Against Racism, their pilgrimage to Ja­maica was summed up in a song about “a place where every white face/Is an invitation to robbery.” And worst, in a time of rampant nationalism in British music they softened on America. The producer of their second al­bum turned out to be Sandy Pearlman, American ex-rock critic of Blue Oyster Cult fame (and Pavlov’s Dog infamy), apparently nominated by the band’s U.S. label. While recording they split with manager Bernard Rhodes, a former used-car salesman whose hostile, obscurantist style — like that of his mentor, Malcolm McLaren — made it seem that he’d just as soon tour Patagonia as Penn­sylvania. Then Jones and Strummer spent weeks mixing down with Pearlman in San Francisco, and dallied in New York as well.

No one misses Rhodes, now etching himself on musical memory the way Mike Appel did with Bruce Springsteen — in court. New manager Caroline Coon has been close to the band personally as Paul Simonon’s (somewhat) regular companion, but her credentials are far more substantial than that: She was both head of a hippie-era legal services program for drug arrestees and one of the first rock journalists to lay out the standard class analysis of punk. In short, her radicalism would seem to have deeper roots in a lived life than that of Rhodes, who has attacked the band’s American overtures bitterly. Yet she clearly agrees with her group that American rock and roll is barely breathing and that no one is better qualified to resuscitate it than the best rock and roll band in the world. Not surprisingly, it was Coon the administrator, rather than Coon the ideologue, who was I running what they called the Pearl Harbour Tour.

Sitting across from me in Waylon Jen­nings’s plush outlaw bus, rented out of Nash­ville for the duration, Coon began to com­plain —for the first time in public, she insist­ed — about Epic Records. This was no shock. The parent corporation has always seemed quite unimpressed with English CBS’s plum. After rejecting the band’s magnificent debut album, first on the product-think grounds of sound quality and then because it had already sold so much as an import, Epic shilly-shal­lied for a long time on tour support for Give ‘Em Enough Rope. The predominant feeling in the company is simply that it will cost too much to break the band here. The same money — between $50,000 and $70,000 for this abbreviated swing through presold loca­tions (every venue was full), with $30,000 or so covering actual travel debits and the rest going into auxiliary promotion — could have been invested in a more established band, say a pretty good one like Cheap Trick, with a far more certain payback in additional units sold. Or it could be used to hype more pre­dictable new hard rock product like Trillion or the Fabulous Poodles.

Not that Coon was running down this kind of bottom-line reductionism to me. Her beefs were more in the area of day-to-day cash flow, and they were completely credible. If she hasn’t convinced Epic by now that these aren’t musicians whose great dream in life is to puke on their grandmothers, she’d do well to take her wares elsewhere. Coast-to-coast by bus with one plane hop from Oklahoma City to Cleveland, eight appearances in seven cities in 15 days, is a cruel grind. But the band stayed up, the Clash stage crew works faster than any I’ve waited for in years, and even the snow-delayed Cambridge show went smoothly. I’ve heard a few reports of blown interviews, and the press doesn’t seem to have made press conferences in California very interesting, but the group definitely made a sweeter impression than it used to when Rhodes was in there pitching. These were decent lads who knew what they were about. I’ve never encountered a more efficient tour.

I say this as someone who proceeded to spend over 13 hours getting from Cambridge to Manhattan. The first delay came when the driver spent an unaccountable stretch of time out of the bus. Eventually it developed that his bags had been stolen, a disclosure that stopped all conversation and so alarmed Hea­don — who’ d suffered a similar loss on the fall tour — that he was soon whispering to Coon that maybe the few dollars he’s won from tour manager Ace Penna could go to the driv­er. Still feeling Jones’s spliff, I offered (over Coon’s protestations) to put up 10 bucks my­self before discovering that I had only a five, four ones, and some 20s. Headon bid valiant­ly for 20, got nine, and disappeared into the back, returning 15 minutes later with a col­lection of about $80 for somebody who prob­ably made more in a week — after expenses, of course — than any of them.

At around two, Jones and Strummer came forward for take-out food, and shortly after the fried egg and American cheese sandwiches, Headon set off a firecracker that scared the shit out of Jones. Both Headon and Strummer seemed genuinely concerned about this, and spent some time comforting their mate, patting his thigh and apologizing with surprising fervor. Then Jones and Strummer returned to the bunks and Hea­don, who’d been poking fun at my note-tak­ing all night, told me how at 14 he’d earned five pounds a night in trad bands around Dover, unable to leave the stage for a piss be­cause he was underage. After years of tae kwan do, a Korean martial art, his slight body was all sinew. His great dream in life was to break 15 sticks, to skins, and a frame in one night without making a mistake. Only Billy Cobham, Headon told me, has ever bro­ken a frame. Cobham, of course, is built like a football player.

Soon the bus halted again, this time for real — the brake linings had frozen. A few of us sat around a restaurant until 6, when I suggested to Strummer that he’d better get some sleep. There was room in back for me — Bo Diddley finds bunks confining and spent the night in a big corner seat — and I sacked out till 11. When I got up, I found the following additions to the cursory jottings in my notebook:

Skiddley Daddeley
Hamster Fur
Webbed Feet
473 Miles — Texas
Long Hair — Bear
Sid Vicious over …
Manhattan skyline …

It was not until 4 o’clock, back in my apartment, that I learned — from a friend, by telephone — that China had invaded Vietnam. As it happened, my wife and I had just been getting ready to make love; instead, we tuned to WINS and sat on the bed, holding hands and talking about the end of the world. Apo­calyptic melodrama, I know — the world is never going to end. Of course not. But that was how it struck us at the time. And as the radio wound around to local news I was pos­sessed with the need to get up and put on Give ‘Em Enough Rope, the side that begins with “Guns on the Roof.” I put it on loud. It made me feel better.

Like almost all Clash fans except product-think symps, I was a little disappointed in the follow-up to The Clash, which (tinny sound be damned) may well be the greatest rock and roll album ever recorded. I mean, ordinarily I seek verbal wisdom in books — ­what rock “poetry” really involves is slogan and images and epigrams, or else settings that transfigure ideas and emotions sorely in need of some transfiguration. But on The Clash, the words did more than specify the tremendous force (and subtler cleverness and difficulty) of compelling music. They made you think all by themselves. “The truth is only known by gutter snipes,” Joe Strummer asserted in “Garageland,” and although the street roots of this rebellious diplomat’s son turned out to be hippie-squatter rather than dole-queue, his gutter truths were convinc­ing and gratifying. The working-class youths he and co-composer Jones imagined didn’t let their grim analysis get them down. Simul­taneously (even clashingly) truculent and cheerful, cynical and fraternal, they refused to become immobilized; their actions may have struck more experienced (and privileged) well-wishers as primitive — “If someone locks me out I kick my way back in”­ — but at least they were actions. Here at last was art with access to a contemporary, white, English-speaking proletarian culture. It pos­ited kids whose very determination to survive took guts and whose unwillingness to give up the idea of victory was positively heroic.

On Give ‘Em Enough Rope this generous vi­sion was stymied by perplexities all too famil­iar to experienced well-wishers. This major (and privileged) pop group sounded as wea­ried by the failure of solidarity, the persist­ence of racial conflict, the facelessness of vio­lence, and the ineluctability of capital as some bunch of tenured Marxists, and I wasn’t ready to settle — they’d amazed me by coming up with a new beginning, and just like my English colleagues I wanted them to amaze me again by carrying it through. But the familiar contradictions followed upon the invigorating gutter truths for excellent rea­son — they were truths as well. And at a time when two supposedly communist nations were girding up to ravage each other (not to mention me) I found that the way Give ‘Em Enough Rope transfigured its old ideas and emotions was useful in a way I hadn’t felt much need of before. The music channeled my fear into anger and lent me the spirit to do what I had to do. Which was go to another Clash concert, and if you weren’t there I’m sorry. As Alan Platt put it in The SoHo Week­ly News: ”It would be a pity if the impending nuclear holocaust prevented you from seeing this band.”

I found the vibes at the Palladium inauspi­cious, not because of potential H-bomb but because the edge of anticipation was dulled by curiosity-seekers — bizzers, celebs, plain old rock and rollers. Opening were the Cramps, who are finally achieving the contemptuous rigidity they have sought so faithfully for so long; I’m glad the Clash tried to hire local bands with women in them, and would suggest the Erasers, Nervus Rex, or even DNA next time. Bo Diddley was backed by an intriguing combo — four black men and a white woman guitarist — but (with no help from the show-mes in the audience) couldn’t make it jell. Yet from the moment the Clash came on the crowd was on its feet, and that this was only to be expected says a lot in itself. Perhaps heightened expectations were why the seen-it-all audience was still holding back a little at the encore of a perfor­mance the musicians themselves thought the best of the tour. That was when Strummer announced (quite undefensively, I thought) that New York was as tough as London. Shortly thereafter the Clash broke into a brief rave-up on “London’s Burning” that scorched New York good. I’ve run across those who were basically unmoved. But I’ve heard stuff like “swept away,” “almost-tran­scendent,” “left me slack-jawed” from doz­ens of others.

Those not too familiar with the band re­ported themselves transfixed by Strummer, but the more knowledgeable raved about Jones, who had some night. In Cambridge his spare leads had worked almost sublimi­nally, skimming the edges, but at the Palladium he cut through the tumult, intensifying both the concentration and the canny disarray of the music with his clangorous counter-statements. He also sang as if his mother might be listening, getting through the tricky “Stay Free” — a greeting to a mate out of jail that translates the band’s new political wari­ness into personal warmth — without a clinker. What impressed me about Strummer was how his strumming drove the band, freeing Simonon’s bass for the military embellish­ments he favors and allowing Headon to nudge the music toward an occasional Jama­ican accent. Not that there’s too much of that yet. These boys force the rhythm for sure.

I’d hoped the Clash would commemorate the onset of World War III with a well-chos­en propagandistic flourish, but it could almost have been any rock gig that happened to feature lines about wealth distribution and letter bombs. When Mick came center stage to sing “Hate and War” — “An if I close my eyes they will not go away/You have to deal with it/It is the currency” — he mentioned that the song had special meaning on the day China invaded Vietnam. And that was how he dealt with it. But after the concert, in a dressing room crammed with paparazzi bait, he flourished a paraphrase of the old Tempts’ song: ”If it’s war that you’re running from,” he sang without a clinker, “There’s no hiding place.” Then he cited Nostradamus, not my idea of a reliable source, and offered his own prediction: “I figure they’ll pick off two or three cities by the end of the year. Or do you think I’m doomsayer-mongering? Am I some kind of nihilist, Christgau?”

Obviously, people who go out and do what they have to do with as much determination as the Clash aren’t nihilists. A harder-line po­litico than me might even suspect they’re get­ting too goddamn constructive. Do they want to turn into the Who or something? Well, in 1979 terms, maybe they do. This band re­vives insurrectionary international conscious­ness as a rock dream. And puny as any rock dream may seem in the face of World War III, that one is a long way from where we are. Epic apologists talk about how the Clash start out from “below ground zero” as a result of all the punk stuff, but in fact the band has a deeper hole to deal with — the one in which the music biz, records and radio both, hoped to bury the kind of rock and roll that is an abrasive, and/or inspirational force in peo­ple’s lives.

I’m a skeptic, but I find it hard to believe that a band this good isn’t going to dig its way out. They’ve clearly impressed Epic, but if Epic doesn’t take the shot — the band wants additional support for “a proper tour” begin­ning in June — someone else will. And then maybe they can get to the place Strummer described a few months ago in the British magazine Time Out: “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.”

What else can a poor boy do? Lots of things. But these particular poor boys have their work cut out for them. ♦

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 16, 2020