<%@ Language=VBScript %> <%response.buffer = TRUE%> Come Out of the Cupboards, You Boys and Girls: Remembering Joe Strummer
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Come Out of the Cupboards, You Boys and Girls: Remembering Joe Strummer

The Clash was a constant contradiction. They were anti-establishment but they signed to a major recording label. The band kept the price of their records low but insisted on lavish tour accommodations. They were a rock band but it was a disco dance beat that brought them their greatest fame. They were punk but they were so much more than a four letter scene. And at the heart of this contradiction, undeniably, was Joe Strummer.

by George B. Sanchez


There was another one last night. It was simply entitled "A Tribute to Joe Strummer & the Clash." Three months since the news broke of Joe Strummer's passing on December 22, 2002, tonight was the third for San Francisco. The first tribute was on January 18, 2003.

January 18 was the same day more than 125,000 protesters flooded downtown San Francisco in demonstration against war with Iraq. More important than the crowd size, however, was the crowd itself.

The morning of January 18 was a turning point for the anti-war movement in San Francisco, if not the entire United States of America. That morning, the streets weren't cluttered with the typical union activists, social justice students, Mumia Abu Jamal disciples, protest junkies, and anarchists. While these usual suspects were in attendance, it was the appearance of some "new" comrades that was startling.

San Francisco's municipal bus lines and Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) trains were overflowing with high school teenagers, soccer moms, new dads, parents, and drooling, stroller-bound grandchildren. Smiling faces and stonewash jeans were the colors of the day.

The International Socialist Organization made their presence known by their thousands of red outlined poster boards waving beneath the clear blue San Franciscan sky, but so did the sprinkling of Republicans who had come to protest the Bush Administration's war drive.

No one expected this.

These weren't the activists and radicals that the mainstream press finds so easy to dismiss or vilify. These are the people who still believe in the two party political system. These protesters are part of a giant awakening -- "average, everyday" North Americans from all across the political spectrum, who could no longer sit idly by in good conscience while their government bullies the world into war.

By the early evening, the plaza, which hours before was bursting with anti-war activists, was lonely. The last protester had trudged home, the last voice screamed out "Not in Our Name" hours ago, and the last drum circle dispersed. But the memory and meaning of the demonstration was fresh in the air even after the night hung its shroud. One-hundred thousand beating hearts don't leave a space like this without a trace.

A few blocks away, a few of those hearts found temporary shelter and camaraderie at a bar called the Edinburgh Castle.

It was a simple night, really. Advertised as "Joe Strummer Tribute: A Night of Clash Consciousness," the Tenderloin bar had intended nothing more than a simple tribute of acoustic renditions of Clash tunes, stories read, songs sung, and a viewing of the BBC documentary Westway to the World.

Entering, you pass a doorman with a half-drunk pint of beer, hand him five dollars and get lost in the crowd. The dim yellow lights and low ceiling hinder visibility, but the bar is packed. This becomes obvious not only by the black mass of shadows creeping beneath the lights, but the heat.

Through the crummy PA system comes the muffled voice of a Scotsman playing an acoustic cover of "I Fought the Law." A Sonny Curtis song, made famous by the Bobby Fuller Four, again by Buddy Holly, then the Clash, and just recently included on Mike Ness' Under the Influences record, "I Fought the Law" isn't an original Clash song.

But the arrangement tonight's crowd is most familiar with is the one penned by The Clash many years ago. And as far as anyone here is concerned, "I Fought the Law" is a Clash tune.

On the other side of the bar, a light projection reading "THE CLASH" cuts into the pub wall. There's a weathered pool table beneath the projection, but tonight it's unused. Most of the patrons are devoting their attention to the small corner illuminated by the glow of an amateur lighting rig. Through the PA someone announces the next player.

It's Rick James, the lead singer from the '80s New Wave band Fashion. But no one seems to care much for his former fame as much as the fact that he's going to strum some Clash covers on a borrowed acoustic guitar.

"I think I'll start with a little control," says James as he rushes into the first chords of "Complete Control."

A few bodies to the right of James, stands a woman in leather pants, a Union Jack T-shirt, creepers, and dyed hair, who nods her head to the beat. She seems expected at an event like this.

But it's the young, innocent couple at the edge of the lights, standing directly in front of the microphone that's surprising. They couldn't possibly be anymore than 26 years old. Follow their outfits, from the feet up, and they're nearly identical. Chuck Taylors high tops, faded blue jeans, and blue, thrift store Eisenhower jackets. White skin, brown hair, and indistinguishable eyes in the dim, they nod their heads to the beat and know every line. Sometimes she throws her head back, closes her eyes, and smiles as James calls out "OHHHHH OHH OOHHHH," and her partner stares ahead, keeping the line with each beat.

The evening isn't a gathering of liberty spikes, leather jackets, and creepers, though they're there. Like the demonstration earlier, the assembled heads look like "normal" folks. Here and there you see an old Clash T-shirt dug up from the bottom of some dresser, but otherwise, it looks like just another Saturday night at any other bar in San Francisco.

Maybe it is, but tonight is the first. It's a night that most of the crowd will remember for whatever memory dragged up or the pure, simple joy of singing along to The Clash with a crowd again.

"TOTAL," screams James. "C-O-N CONTROL!"
"THAT MEANS YOU," counters the crowd.

Some of the tribute was predictably clichéd -- the shocked fan in disbelief reading: "I felt like I'd lost the hot water or electricity in my apartment ... like something really important to my life was gone that I'd been taking for granted."

But the tribute isn't in the performance on stage, but the obvious presence of Strummer in the lives of those gathering at the Edinburgh. A junkman's choir, a mexcla of a thousand sorts of people, coming together for one night to recognize the importance Joe Strummer and The Clash in their lives.

The tribute is in the voices chiming in on "Complete Control," singing along to "Garageland," and the nodding of heads as the records spun.

On January 18th, a thousand Adornos emerged from the bedroom closets of memories to spend the night in an even bigger closet with folks who also sang along to The Clash behind a locked door once. These were some of the many who sung Joe's carefree lyrics to "Trash City" behind the wheel of a speeding convertible or took in his new world order observations of "Straight to Hell" between the headphones of a walkman. At some point before tonight, we'd all filled our lungs with gasps of air in between choruses of "London Calling" and "Rudie Can't Fail," grinning mad dreams of rock 'n' revolution, spitting into the eyes of the fuck heads who noxiously dismissed our hopes of a better world, those of us who learned this thing called punk isn't about the clothes you wear but the thoughts you have.

The Clash was a constant contradiction. They were anti-establishment but they signed to a major recording label. The band kept the price of their records low but insisted on lavish tour accommodations. They were a rock band but it was a disco dance beat that brought them their greatest fame. They were punk but they were so much more than a four letter scene. And at the heart of this contradiction, undeniably, was Joe Strummer.

And maybe that's why he was so human. Unlike Johnny Rotten, Strummer was just as open in his vulnerabilities and prone to mistakes as you and I. But bullshit post-modern scholar Greil Marcus-ites feel the necessity to introduce the issue of "authenticity" to criticize him. To point out that Joe came from a comfortable middle class background, that he was taught his street accent, and that The Clash never defined their politics.

In hindsight, their points make Joe Strummer's case all the more powerful.

If someone from a comfortable middle class background, who, like his disenfranchised peers, was so pissed off -- incensed enough to call for a white riot -- then maybe we should all begin to worry. Along with Joe, screaming out "YES I WAS THERE TOO," we learned that anger is not the privilege of a single class or social group, but the right of history's witnesses, not just its victims -- a notion even more dangerous and radically important today in the US than ever before. If someone can come from the middle class, like Strummer had, and be so filled with disillusionment and a radical desire to right wrongs, then maybe the elected officials ought to be worried. Because to rile up the one group that has been thoroughly convinced not to get angry and not to worry about the state of things, the one group that has accepted the illusion of stability and keeps its heads down and mouths shut, is to unravel the false sense of purpose that governs societies close and near.

Maybe those scholars who question Strummer's "authenticity" ought to be hung for treason against the revolution, a riot of our own.

In a time of reinvention, why should have The Clash, and Strummer in his later years, be obligated to identify with a political movement? All the movements of his time, and since, have failed their constituencies by allowing their ideals to be institutionalized.

Wasn't the point to be yourself, to consciously create your own identity, and not allow anyone else to define you, to break free of social constructions and act with your consciousness.

If that wasn't one of the most important lessons from this thing called punk, then those four letter words revert to its original meaning as a youth specific insult thrown by elders.

But for all the complaints that The Clash weren't political, their legendary appearance at the Victoria Park Anti-Nazi League show in 1978, with Joe himself sporting the bright red Rossi Brigade T-shirt, was far more concretely political than the selfish rants of Johnny Rotten, the Marcus-ites heir apparent to political music.

But on the night of January 18, 2003, "authenticity" wasn't much of a concern. It was a night for song and reflection -- personal or public -- and was all the authenticity we needed.

We'll have many more tribute nights to discuss Mr. Strummer, the Mescaleros, the wonderfully romantic score to Alex Cox's Walker, The Clash, and the impact four skinny English punks had on the history of popular music. The 18th, after all, was only the first.

"And after all this, won't you give me a smile."

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