Monday, December 17, 2007
Strummer, pt. 2
Dave and I went to see Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten on Saturday, and I know I said I would review it here, but I can't. Here's why:
In 1980, when the Clash landed big-time in the US, I was a bookish Southern hick who had exiled herself to the preppy cloister of Mount Holyoke College. I never went to clubs, there was not a hint of punk about me. I did listen to the Ramones and Dead Kennedys. Everybody did. I was vaguely sympathetic to the ethos of punk, but I was busy being an earnest liberal arts student at a very earnest school. I got excited about meeting C. Vann Woodward, or going to readings by Joseph Brodsky. There's no reason why I should have developed any particular attachment to the Clash, or to Joe Strummer's spiel, but I did. I can't deny that some of it was just the great beats and Joe's sex appeal. The Clash made first-class party music. "Sandinista!" is a particularly good sing-along record when you're high. But the band also made great political music, and the marriage of those two things is what got me and lots of other earnest children interested in the World According to Strummer.
Over and over again in the film, Strummer can be heard preaching that you've got to commit to live, to give it all you've got. He could snarl with the best of them, but there was nothing nihilistic about the guy. He thought the only way to survive was to embrace all the pleasure and pain life had to offer, and that included connecting to the joy and suffering of everybody in the world. He had a vision that was profoundly liberating and egalitarian, which came through loud and clear in the Clash's music. He hated the things that deserve to be hated.
Unless you were old enough to vote in 1980, I think it's hard to understand what that vision meant to some of us as we watched Ronald Reagan--a man who represented everything that was/is horrible about America--become president. So much shit that we take for granted now, from the ascendancy of Christian proto-fascism to mind-numbing 24/7 consumerism, took hold at that moment. It was as if, almost overnight, the whole country surrendered to its most crass, pathetic, hateful instincts. Not that any of it was actually new, mind you, but the shameless embrace of it was just horrifying to a lot of us who came of age in the post-Vietnam years. The Clash's music was a place of refuge from all that--and I suppose, a place where we could escape the guilt we felt, knowing that we were the ones who would reap the benefits of the new order.
I carried all that baggage into the theater on Saturday, expecting to spend a couple of hours sighing over Joe, and laughing at how naive we used to be about the way the world works. Instead, I left with tears in my eyes, partly because it's just a damn sad story, and partly because, as much as I hate to say so, it bums me out to be this old. But mostly I was crying because I realized Joe was right. All you'll ever have in this world is the struggle to live, and to let everybody else live. You've got to make that connection with life and other people, by any means available. Otherwise, you might as well cut your own throat--or just keep quiet and become what the evil fuckers in charge want you to be, which amounts to the same thing.
So now I'm sure you can understand why I can't review this movie. I don't know whether it's a good movie or not, I only know it completely messed me up. If all the Clash ever meant to you was dancing to "Rock the Casbah," then you might be bored to tears instead of moved to them. I will say that, even though it's an affectionate portrait of Strummer, it's not hagiography. The man himself comes off as smart, endearing, difficult and ruthlessly ambitious--in short, fully human. May he rest in peace.
Photo from Wikipedia