It was back at the end of march and, as weeks go, a big one in the world outside. Bill Clinton, not nursing his lame leg but out there throttling history, tried to broker a tentative cease-bully between India and Pakistan, who were beginning to like the idea of hating each other’s guts on the world’s dime. A future, hopefully. The pope, not a guy given to empty gestures and impulsive weekend trips, went to Israel and reversed a thousand years of Christian policy by saying, in effect, “It’s not okay to hate Jews anymore.” A past, owned. New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, not a guy given to humanity, very publicly gave not one shit in the wake of another innocent black man’s death at the hands of police. A present, smelling up the joint. And then my second son was born — don’t worry, I know the ceiling on those stories for nonparents. But you’ll see why records didn’t seem particularly important all of a sudden.
After putting my first son to bed and learning (over the phone) that my wife had dropped a blood clot the size of a duck in the hospital shower (harmless, it turned out, but I’m trying to hold the Merzbow fans), I put on the CD reissues of the Clash albums, reflexively, as I readied for bed. And I just lost it. Was it sleep deprivation? Maybe. Did I find them moving when I bought them first as a teen? Hardly. I remember loving particular songs, even singing “Police & Thieves” to a chorus of ridicule from my “friends.” The epiphany here is cumulative. It’s not the arty stuff in both the records and their CV: furious punk recordists (I reckon Crass reads more to the people who were there, but not us tourists), collabos with Mikey Dread and Lee Perry, first on the block to fuck publicly with reggae (please, don’t send me letters about your brother’s band’s 1978 B-side dub), early and serious adopters of hip-hop, even invited Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to open for them at Bond’s when it was the exact opposite of safe. (Flash and Five were booed off in a rockist uprising. As for the Clash, I was so thirsty after three opening bands, I sacrificed my cherry spot to swim to the bar. I remember that big-money Koka Kola better than the Clash, who felt only good, not great.) Yes, “Shepherds Delight” and “Armagideon Time” were brave chunks of noise and roots at a point when the world just wanted more rawk anthems. But this moment is a moment I’m having now; I’m not remembering a moment my life changed way back when. My love for the Clash was strong and constant, but I had no knock-down, dumbstruck, hand-of-god experiences with them as I did with Gang of Four or the Jazzy Five or the Beatles. What got me completely wet in the 21st century was the obvious bit, the elephant in the living room: They were so generous, and they gave a very public shit.
When they recorded London Calling, they knew more than their friends and locals were listening. (Listen again and check your memories: It’s an anthem, but hardly rawk. What is it? Very loud, careful reggae? It’s classic but hardly normative.) They wanted to build something up — “Let fury have the hour/anger can be power/don’t you know that you can use it?” — and wanted to tear something down — “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust” — and wanted to make it clear they weren’t letting themselves off the hook — “Every gimmick hungry yob digging gold from rock & roll/grabs the mike to tell us he’ll die before he’s sold.” “The Guns of Brixton” had all the dread of their beloved Black Uhuru records, and I don’t think it was just their early adopter status as white funkateers that got Sandinista’s “The Magnificent Seven” onto the radio on KISS-FM back in 1981 between D Train and Jocelyn Brown (as weird then as it sounds now). I think people knew the Clash were releasing public service announcements before they stated the obvious themselves in “Know Your Rights.”
Sandinista! is my favorite, because it’s so, so much. It manifests a social optimism that must have evaporated the day after they released it. They’re so in the zone, they believe they can play anything, any kind of protest song they dream up, because they can. They keep going long past when anyone’s listening, but they’re wide-awake. It hardly feels indulgent; the self-critique of big-bux Marxist punk rock infuses every improbable minute, and if it seems long it’s because you can’t keep up. You won’t catch them singing “We Are the World”; they already believe it at this point and feel guilty for not doing a better job getting back to everybody. Not again until N.W.A or maybe even Biggie would a concept like “Police on My Back” seem like anything but role-playing. I’ll be clear — their rawk is every bit as moving to me as their funk, their rocksteady, their skiffle, their tape damage. Think they were po-faced? Listen to the live radio intro of “Lightning Strikes” — they took the piss out of Jah and beat the Beasties to Paul’s Boutique by 10 years. It’s also one of the best-programmed albums ever made. You think it’s been on half an hour and it’s been an hour-plus. They didn’t dream up a world and wait, wetly, for it to come true. It is true for as long as their records are on. There’s no plan here for a new world; it’s just as close as anyone can get. You can’t help but get a little depressed when the music ends.
If you want to stick to music, try the first minute of “Rebel Waltz” — Funkstorung are currently rewriting that, sans blood, in a bedroom near you. And now a meritocratic outburst: It means something to me, more now, that they had to play all this fancy nonrock music they were interested in. There’s none of the distance afforded by samples here; if you think they sound stupid playing reggae (I don’t for a minute), try to imagine anyone risking that kind of embarrassment now in this world of anonymous downloads. It also, simply, is more demanding to give people music when you have to play every note yourself, build every sound from scratch. Not better, but certainly more generous of them to go to all that trouble. Can you imagine anyone doing that now, in a time where every third album is a “classic” and every fourth laptopper a “genius”?
I’m getting my classic rock on now, but I’ll go on, despite my fears of what I’ve become. Music seems now like something people make and listen to sitting down, usually doing something else at the same time, on both ends. I’m not going to apologize and file away these feelings as nostalgia eruption. I still get big kicks from music circa now, fingered, DSP’d and otherwise. But, big but: When the power goes down, the big outside is still there, absolutely real no matter how dot-com its representations. Will anyone make my sons wait in line for 15 hours, stand for four hours in a firetrap, and wait, wait, wait for some evidence that it isn’t all just software, that there are connections between people much deeper and longer-lasting than wires?