In the late 90s, I used to have this recurring dream about seeing the reunited Clash again. At the time, I was living in Seattle, so in the dream I was always in the back of Mercer Arena and I was always standing near some Seattle rock luminary: one time Mark Arm, another time Kim Thayil, one time Eddie Vedder and his wife Beth. (Their presence in the dream was actually not the fantastic part; had there been a Clash show in Seattle, I can pretty much guarantee all of those people would have been there somewhere.) I remember the red and orange of the lights and I could hear Joe’s voice clear as a bell. The dream always came in on the middle of songs, never the beginning, and I never heard an end. But the feeling was always the same, every time, that sense of awe and waves of rolling thunder emanating from the stage.
The dreams usually came in the winter, when I missed New York and my old punk stomping grounds the most, so I always attributed their presence to some form of homesickness. For all their Britishness, there was so much of the Clash that was influenced by New York City, so this didn’t feel wrong, exactly. I also felt that they were admonishment for never being able to see Joe with the Mescaleros in Seattle–there was always some kind of unavoidable conflict, and I just kept thinking that I’d see him next time.
The dreams stopped for good in December of 2002. I can remember standing in the hallway of my parents’ house on the morning of December 24th, just having come in on the red eye from the West Coast. Text messages were coming in with such frequency I thought my phone was broken. The phone wasn’t broken; but Joe Strummer had left us and the world spun off its axis briefly. And suddenly, there was no more time.
It seems like every other week these days I am losing heroes and idols and friends. I am very much in a place where I feel the need to settle old debts with myself, close loops, tie knots tighter, check in with old members of the brotherhood just in case the clock is ticking closer than we know. I listen to the music of my youth (for lack of a better word) not because I want to relive it, but because I want to make sure I remember, make sure I enjoy it as much as I can. Mostly I still listen to much of it because I still LIKE it, because the notes vibrate at a cellular level, still. Because the only possible answer to “This is a public service announcement…” is “With guitar!”
This is how I come to find myself on a Thursday in September, sitting in an art gallery on the Lower East Side, waiting for the Clash. I observe that it is telling that I freely let myself call them by their former name, even though only Paul and Mick were going to appear, while I gave Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey endless amounts of shit for referring to themselves as the Who; maybe it’s because they doggedly went on, days after John made his unfortunate exit, while the Clash never did. For all of the dreams and the subconscious longing, I am in some ways glad that they did not come back–even though I absolutely know I would have been the very first person waiting on line for a reunion show.
I expected there to be more butterflies in my stomach as I sat in the tiny, airless room, shoulder to shoulder with media and friends of, waiting for Mick Jones and Paul Simonon to make their entrance. When they do arrive, Mick looking every bit as dapper as he did back in the day, gangster suit, black shirt, white tie and all, there is a momentary flash of teenage angst before I just feel happy and content and grateful that we are all still here. I am happy to sit three feet from them. I am happy to listen. I observe that I still know their voices, even their speaking voices, so well. There were so many hours, days, weeks, months, years, devoted to pouring their sounds into my ears that it should not be any wonder, but it is a thing I marvel at, still.
I am walking that tightrope between media and fan and am glad my emotions are willing to keep themselves in check. Unlike the events in London or in Paris around the box set (including a dedicated storefront exhibit called Black Market Clash in London), this is a small, press-only affair, with only the downstairs photo gallery open to the public. Although Mick would turn up later at the unveiling of the restored Joe Strummer mural on the wall of Niagra in the East Village, this lack of public access seemed unfortunate.
Former (and by some accounts, still) manager Kosmo Vinyl tagged along and pontificated exactly the way Kosmo has always held forth. In some ways, his obsessive, loquacious behavior was the most predictable of the evening. Mick just seemed relaxed and happy to be there, and less engaged in the process than I would have hoped, while Paul seemed the most on and ready to talk about the box set and the body of work. Given Paul’s historic detachment to the Clash in the previous years, while Mick had been digging in the archives and making more things public, it is an interesting turn of events.
Tonight, from all appearances, Mick just wanted to sit back and laugh with his mates, and none of them were particularly in a mood to engage in Serious Questions from David Fricke, who was called on to moderate the event. (This is not a dig at David Fricke; I was beyond impressed at the end when he pulled out a few typewritten pages and referenced them as his notes from interviewing Joe Strummer at the Palladium in 1979, after the London Calling show.) I have enjoyed the recent bout of interviews because there is no more pretense to uphold, there are no revolutionary mores to stand by. In short, there has been a marked lack of bullshit. I appreciate that. So I was hoping to get more of this live and in person.
Paul revealed that the boombox which is the container of the elaborate, sprawling, complete-except-for-Cut The Crap box set was his radio. The boombox as symbol of the Clash might seem strange unless you accept it as a very urban, very American token that spoke very directly to them. In another interview in this press series, Paul very specifically related how that it was how they shared ideas, that that wouldn’t have happened if they’d all had headphones. Which is probably more important than any other meaning it might have.
Paul and Mick told a few stories about meeting with Sony on the project; there was, apparently, a Spinal Tap/Stonehenge moment with Paul’s first prototype, when he drastically under-estimated the size needed, and Mick talked about getting the weight right. They seem proud of it and they should be. The box set is enormous and sprawling, and I opened mine with a sense of both apprehension and wonder. But it is truly fantastic and worth every penny; the sound is gorgeous, the details precise. But my Christmas morning feelings about the package were immediately followed by a wave of wistful sadness at the finality of its completeness. This band that almost took over the world–it certainly took over my world, and maybe yours–is now condensed into tiny silver saucers inside a cardboard box. (The only negative is figuring out storage of such an enormous thing inside a New York City apartment.)
Fricke tried to draw them out on the early days, and Mick and Paul just kept insisting that they created so much so quickly because they didn’t know any better. Kosmo said that he actually used to get on Joe’s case that they weren’t creating quickly enough, invoking the early output of Creedence Clearwater Revival (of all things) as the productivity milestone they should be striving for: “We’re dragging here!” Paul said, simply: “Well, we weren’t doing anything else.” Mick: “We just did it instinctively.”
Fricke: “There were records to be made.”
Paul: “Clothes to be painted.”
Mick: “Rivets to be applied.”
Did it ever feel like stardom?
Paul: “It meant nothing to us because we were too busy doing.”
Mick: “Stardom was what we tried to bunk the train to.”
Fricke tried to draw them out on New York. As New Yorkers we always feel that everyone has a special relationship to our city and that they love us more than anyone else, but there are many points in evidence with the Clash which would seem to provide validity to that claim. However, neither Mick nor Paul seemed to have any interest or willingness to declare allegiance, Paul tossing it off as “Well, New York was closer,” when questioned more pointedly. But I cannot think of a three-record set that sounds more like New York than Sandinista, even if, as Fricke noted, “You were getting played on WBLS before WNEW,” an old familiar story.
But slowly, the NYC-centric memories came out. They had no specific memories to offer about the shows at Bonds in 1981, except their universal disappointment at the audience’s reaction to the opening acts. Paul and Mick shrugged off any questions about the tensions around the fire marshalls and no one mentioned the mini-riot the next day when the show was called off by the fire marshals. I can remember that afternoon in specific clear detail, which is probably not surprising given I was running for dear life to get away from the NYPD on horseback. (For those not around back then, the venue was massively oversold, and the legend goes that the clubs that didn’t get the booking called the fire marshall out of spite. The band then agreed to extend their booking by double the number of shows in order to accommodate all of the ticket holders, keeping the band in town for three weeks total.)
That was 32 years ago. (I had to take out the calculator while writing this to be certain I had the numbers right.) It is one of those moments where I am not sure how I got this far and completely dumbfounded that that much time has passed.
As the questioning continued, the band’s relationship with their New York counterparts was brought up. Suicide were lauded for their professionalism when opening for the Clash, despite absolutely unsympathetic audiences. Patti Smith was mentioned with respect and reverence by Paul: “[She] gave the other option.” And Mick charmingly smiled at the mention of the Ramones before remarking, “They had a lovely way with a two-and-a-half minute tune.”
Mick began a reminiscence of when the New York punk bands first came over with, “Those who had seen Rock Scene magazine and CREEM magazine–” only for Paul to interrupt him with an abrupt, “You mean you.” Mick cackled in response, and it felt like you were sitting in a bar listening to your friends talk about the old days.
The last successfully retrieved New York story was the tale of opening for the Who at Shea Stadium. When those shows were announced, I walked around proclaiming to the world that this was the best concert lineup ever, and after these shows I could die happily. It was my own personal nirvana, even if most of the audience not only didn’t give a fuck about the Clash, but in fact actively despised them and everything they stood for. Mick perked up and wanted to talk about Townshend. “Pete was always on the case, even in the early days,” he began. After they had played their first show as support, Mick said he ran up to Pete and said, “‘Pete! I understand what Quadrophenia is about now!’ I felt I connected to something.” And the tale of Pete saying, “Come on, boys, come and meet the rest of my band,” only to take the Clash into the Who’s dressing room and get zero response. Pete then went to their dressing room at Shea Stadium and played soccer with them, using a tin can.
When Fricke broached a question about whether or not the outing opening for the Who on their First Farewell Tour (my words, not his), Mick looked surprised and said, “If they’d handed us a baton, we would’ve dropped it.” But still showing where his fandom lay, Mick then told a story about a recent interview with Townshend in Brighton, where he pointed out a venue and said, “See that place? I played there with the Clash.”
Not long after that, Sony pulled the plug, the boys left the room, and I turned back into a pumpkin. The open bar (sponsored by Sailor Jerry, with Clash-themed drinks like “Death or Glory,” all of which I avoided) was set to continue for another hour downstairs in the gallery which featured all those iconic photos you know from Kate Simon and Bob Gruen and Adrian Boot. But I had already spent enough time staring at them longingly, and wanted to hold on to the tiny bubble of memories for a little while longer. So I slipped out a side door, put “The Maginificent Seven” on in my headphones, and made my way uptown.
At 14th Street I stop and think, “I saw the Clash play there,” while giving the New York State salute to what was once the Palladium and is now NYU’s Palladium Dormitories, before getting on the subway and heading for home. I could feel old and ancient or I could instead opt for feeling lucky to have been there.
I choose the latter, and turn up the volume.