For two weeks now I’ve been listening to the Clash, the English punk band from the seventies. My friend Tyler sent me a box of fifty-three cassette tapes as a New Year’s gift, and I chose the first Clash album to put on. As soon as I heard the opening of “Clash City Rockers,” I began to bob my head: “An’ I wanna move the town to the Clash City Rockers, / You need a little jump of electrical shockers.” (Actually I looked those words up on the Internet. The song sounds like: “Ana rara marba ow burbah Clash City Rockers, / Oo meena dadda gump duh secktical shockas.”)
I listen to the tape at very low volume. It’s not the anger and noise I enjoy but the newness of the music the Clash are inventing. The full force of their innovation in 1977 is hitting me just now. Their abrasive singing and revolutionary politics warm my blood. At the age of fifty-six I am going punk! (I’m not, however, cutting off my white beard or my long, thinning hair. I am punk inside.)
The Clash’s music was a reaction to classic rock in the same way Christianity was a reaction to Judaism. Jesus said: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” The Clash sang: “White riot, I wanna riot, / White riot, a riot of my own!”
By 1977 classic rock had become a showcase for long, egotistical guitar solos, long, egotistical drum solos, long, egotistical keyboard solos. Rock musicians had carefully tended hair and ruffled clothes. Punks were pale guys with rough-shorn hair snarling into microphones. Everyone knew they would die young.
This morning I listened to the Clash, then walked outside into the nature preserve. Is there such a thing as punk nature? Certainly. A thunderstorm, an earthquake, a puma mercilessly pouncing on an antelope. Nature has a punk side.
Today it’s raining hard, but not quite at the furious level of punk. It’s more like Elvis Costello, this rain.
I just watched the Clash on YouTube, performing at an outdoor concert for eighty thousand punks at London’s Victoria Park in 1978. The band seemed to be moving at hyperspeed, like the people in silent movies. J. Krishnamurti said that when your habitual thinking becomes as unbearable as a burning house, you will immediately escape.
The Clash moved with the intensity of men fleeing a burning house.
Researching the Clash’s lyrics online, I was startled to discover that they rhyme — though the words are impossible to understand! How touching, like putting on your best shirt to visit your blind aunt.
When punk first hit the airwaves in the seventies, it sounded to me like chaos. Listening to the Clash today, I’m struck by their discipline. The melodies are catchy, the singing warm and ironic, the drummer highly talented, the four-second guitar solos brilliant. Punk can’t have ballads, but the Clash hit on the idea of covering reggae tunes to vary their tempos. They even wrote their own reggae songs. Here’s one:
My daddy was a bank robber But he never hurt nobody. He just loved to live that way, And he loved to steal your money!
Yes, their songs are minimalist, but so are the “serious” compositions of Philip Glass. Until now I never realized that punk was a form of music.
How can I be more punk in my life? I live in a Victorian house next to a small forest, and much of my day is taken up by spiritual practices and physical exercises for my aging body. For me, being punk doesn’t mean dyeing my hair purple; it means courting intensity. When I sit on my meditation cushion, I must close my eyes with flaming conviction and be ready to meditate unto death.
A nun in my meditation group told this story yesterday: Some people went to meditate on a beach in Africa. The mosquitoes were unbearable, and everyone left the beach except one monk, who was determined to continue meditating despite the aerial attack. After half an hour the monk opened his eyes. He had been bitten everywhere his skin was exposed, but after that no mosquito ever bit him for the rest of his life. He had “exhausted his karma” of mosquitoes.
That monk was punk.
I’m reading Plato’s Apology. In his speech at his trial for corrupting the morals of the young, Socrates says that God set him upon the city as if he were a gadfly “upon a great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred up. . . . I never cease to rouse each and every one of you, to persuade and reproach you all day long and everywhere I find myself in your company.”
Socrates was punk!
Fifty-six is hardly the wrong age to be a punk. In fact, it’s the age of the original punks. The Clash’s Joe Strummer, if he were alive, would be fifty-seven. I’m beginning to recall my Buried Personal History of Punk.
When I was seventeen, I knew Dee Dee Ramone of the seminal American punk band the Ramones. In fact, Dee Dee was the original Ramone. At the age of twelve he had invented the name “Dee Dee Ramone” for himself, inspired by the pseudonym Paul McCartney would sign in hotel registers: “Paul Ramone.” When I met Dee Dee in 1971, however, he was still going by his original name, Doug Colvin. We worked together in the mailroom of an insurance company in downtown Manhattan. Doug’s style then was glam rock: tight velour pants and showy shirts. A Jamaican guy in the mailroom relentlessly teased him with the nickname “Doug the Scrub.” According to Dee Dee’s memoir, Lobotomy: Surviving the Ramones, he was just beginning to use heroin at that time. (Dee Dee would eventually die of an overdose in 2002.)
Doug struck me as utterly talentless, humming to himself as he folded envelopes at his counter. Who knew he would transform the history of music?
In the summer of 1978 I was hitchhiking from Denver, Colorado, to my home in Gainesville, Florida. In Texas I propped my backpack against a gas-station wall while I used the bathroom. When I came back, my pack was gone, and with it my sleeping bag, all my money, and three copies of the Bible. That night I slept beneath a pickup truck in a used-car lot while a light rain fell.
The next day I stuck out my thumb, and a car stopped with loud music pouring out. I’d never heard rock music played so fast. It was the Ramones album Rocket to Russia. The driver was Dave, an engineering student from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He’d played bass in a regular rock band, he told me, but the rehearsals had taken up too much of his time, so he’d quit and joined a punk band called the “Frayed Cords.” I told Dave my troubles, and he lent me five dollars. With that money I bought enough salted peanuts and Fritos to sustain me until I reached Gainesville. I wrote a thank-you note to Dave — who’d given me his address — and mailed him five bucks.
Punk saved my life.
In the woods behind my house I hear a crow call. Crows are the punks of the forest: dressed in black, delivering coarse, mocking shouts. Yet to me they’re more beautiful than birds of paradise.
At the Golden Notebook, a bookstore in Woodstock, New York, I page through a photo book on the Clash. The band members probably had the worst teeth in the history of popular music.
In the midseventies, at the exact moment the Clash were first tuning up their guitars, I was sitting cross-legged in a meditation room in Florida singing:
Love is the ocean, Love is the ocean, I am one with thee. Once a tiny ship, And now a mighty sea, O love, I am one with thee.
Now I see the immense love in the Clash, and the subtle aggression in “Love Is the Ocean.”
Jesus and the punks were both antifashion iconoclasts who became fashion icons. Artists have celebrated Jesus’s long hair and robe for centuries. Punk avoided ostentation and paradoxically survives only as a cool, leather-clad “look.”
Jesus emphasized the inner life, and the Clash addressed politics, but the two are interconnected. No revolution can come without a reinvention of the human heart.
I just recalled: I was briefly in a punk band. One evening in 1989, while walking down lower Broadway in Manhattan, I saw a sign in front of a bar: “Altar Boys, 9 P.M.” I went inside and was directed to the basement, where a band was setting up. Punk was already old news, so only four or five nostalgic guys in their early thirties stood around, waiting to see a once-promising group.
The Altar Boys played; their music was loud and generic. Toward the end of the show the singer announced: “My voice is starting to go. Does anyone want to sing?”
I raised my hand and walked up to the makeshift stage. The singer asked: “Do you know the lyrics to ‘I Can’t Explain’?”
“Sure,” I replied, but I was lying. I knew only about three lines of the Who’s sixties hit. After a moment a roar began behind me, and I shouted into the microphone: “Can’t explain, / I think it’s love, / Try saying it true / When I feel blue.” I could feel the music pushing into my back. It was like standing in front of a helicopter. After a while I grew bored with singing the same lyrics over and over, so I began to chant, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare.” Into the metallic microphone I poured my devotion to the Munificent Divinity.
After what felt like half an hour, the song ended. The singer slapped me on the back: “You were great! You saved my throat, man!”
“Thank you,” I told the maturing punks, then walked into the silent Manhattan night.