Cast a cold eye

Paul Wong
Ari Paul

On life, on death.

Horseman, pass by.

– W.B. Yeats

Joe Strummer’s death came at a very inconvenient time. It was too late for The New York Times Magazine to add his story to this year’s “The Lives They Lived” special, and it totally would have ruined my Christmas had I celebrated it.

And I have been impressed at the mainstream news’ coverage of his death, from the BBC’s publication of musicians around the world praising his life to most papers setting up the same obituary, “Born in Ankara, Turkey … frontman of the Clash … died of a heart attack … he was 50.”

A piece of me died with Joe several weeks ago, as I have looked up to the man as some sort of guiding light for the past few years. As it started with both of our beginnings, during his first days on the punk circuit he wore a Brigade Rossi (Red Brigade, Italian communist insurgents) t-shirt for several weeks straight, and anyone from my high school will tell you that I was the kid with the Che Guevara shirt every day (however, they and I will agree that I was not as cool). And in the 1980 concert-footage movie, Rudy Boy, when Strummer was asked what the t-shirt meant, his cool reply was, “It’s a pizza place.”

“The Magnificent Seven” was the first Clash song I had ever heard. And it’s still probably my favorite because it’s so powerful in so many ways.

For one, while Mick Jones was copying Keith Richards’ guitar style and coke habit and Paul Simonon was still learning how to play the bass, Joe was preaching the confusing and insightful political developments of revolution to an economically ruined British youth (It’s no good for man to work in cages / hits the town he drinks his wages) and a culturally bankrupt American audience (Plato the Greek or Rin-Tin-Tin / Who’s more famous to the billion-millions?).

But such a song about the plight of the working class doesn’t just make you dance; it makes you think. Thousands of pages of prose and eons of intellectual study to one political ideal is blasting out of my stereo in lyrical language that idiots like me can understand (You’re frettin’, you’re sweatin’ / But did you notice you ain’t gettin’ anywhere?).

And in my college years, I hear Joe’s voice ringing in my head more than ever. I hear it when I walk into a party on Packard, passing through cloth stamped with Northface, Abercrombie and American Eagle while a girl sipping yet another beer looks for her boyfriend for the night (I get my advice from the advertising world / ‘Treat me nice’, says the party girl).

Or when I look around at my fellow activists, it becomes so clear that it’s so popular to people because it gives them a social standing.

Or for some (and you know who you are), it is something which they can exploit for themselves, whether it be an artificial sense of self-confidence or something they can use to impress the girls (You think its funny / Turning rebellion into money).

Or when I see my countrymen fooled by the rhetoric of our current administration, forgetting about the tragedy of the quagmire of Vietnam or the pointlessness of all the lost life fighting brown people all over the world (When that new party army came marching right up the stairs / Nobody understands it can happen again).

I’ve only seen him in the flesh once. It was Philadelphia, 2001, with his new group. Front row, close enough to feel tiny drops of his spit on my forehead (or at least I’d like to think so).

Us Clash fans, though we appreciated his new world music style, waited patiently for him to finish his first set and get straight to “London’s Burning” and “Police and Thieves.”

Little did we know that this was close to the end, but in retrospect, the pain in his eyes and his obvious weakness, not to mention his less than healthy lifestyle, may have been an indicator that he was not long for this world.

Maybe the good that can come from Joe’s tragic death is that all the punks, activists and assorted social outcasts can go back to his message of challenging authority – not in the nihilistic, self-indulgent way that doesn’t get anyone anywhere, but in a way that understands the problems and the hypocrisy – in our inept and corrupt leaders and in ourselves.

This is something that I’ve wished for ever since I bought that used copy of Sandinista: Preaching the gospel of rebellion while rocking out and feeling like a badass doing it.

And perhaps it has never been more appropriate to rediscover this than now, since we’re about to face yet another war, and another overseas conflict has converted two nations and religions into embattled moronic minions. Hopefully. Rock the Casbah, Joe.

– Ari Paul can be reached at aspaul@umich.edu.

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