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My Clash Story (Ear Candle Blog, 2009)

Here’s an old piece of writing on my first Clash experience. With me at this event were Annie Hesse and the late Maati Stojanovich.

The Berkeley Community Theatre wasn’t designed for this kind of show. A theater with assigned seating for the Clash? Ridiculous! But we were not going to miss the first-ever U.S. appearance by the band, no matter what. We had every intention of showing up for the not-so-secret underground show in San Francisco the next day, but we had to be there to witness the official event. And being a fan, I was very keen to see Bo Diddley as well. Well, if you know anything about Bo Diddley or Chuck Berry, they are the type of ‘50s rock and roll legends who simply show up in a town and the booker puts them together with a local band and little to no rehearsal. After all, everybody knows “Who Do You Love” or “Johnny B. Goode”, right? Just pay the gentlemen up front and the audience gets to bask in their glory.

So Bo Diddley came on, all dressed in black, and the band was a serviceable but hardly memorable boogie-rock unit with a touch of funk and a lead guitarist who liked to indulge in flashy solos, in other words, what we would nowadays refer to as a “jam band”. Despite this lackluster supporting cast I was thrilled to death because, come on, it’s Bo Diddley up there! Bo, to his credit, was trying out some new material as well as his old standards. I recall one song, another entry in the long list of Bo Diddley songs extolling the greatness of Bo Diddley, called “He’s A Hell Of A Man”. The audience seemed restless, but not too disrespectful. (The Clash always tried to pick rootsy opening acts. Two years on, they’d be touring with New Orleans rhythm and blues singer Lee Dorsey and reggae toaster Mikey Dread.) Unlike many punk bands, they seemed to be consciously working to place themselves in a thread of musical history, rather than simply declaring Year Zero. Year Zero was already passé for them, a relic of 1976.

When the headliners hit the stage, everyone stood up. I had my camera, but I couldn’t see much. Gradually I rose, first standing on the cushioned theater seat, which felt too unstable, then finally balancing with one foot on each armrest. Maati, beside me, was doing the same, and so were more and more of the audience, a rickety swarm of human beings swaying, shaking, and jostling one another. It wasn’t a floor where you could jump around, pogo, and play bumper cars with one another, but the energy crackled through the crowd all the same.

The Clash were all over the stage, racing around, jumping and throwing shapes like a sped-up film of an excited teenage boy practicing guitar in front of a mirror. They looked impeccably cool. Of course they opened the show with “I’m So Bored With The U.S.A.”; how could they resist? The audience of Americans sang along joyfully. The band played sloppier than on the records and Joe Strummer’s lyrics were even more garbled than usual, but hell, it sounded just like the Clash. The power of the music overcame our uncomfortable, even dangerous footing, and it felt as if gravity was suspended for a moment. If this was how they sounded in this inappropriate venue, the show at the temple was bound to be unbelievable.

Maati, Annie, and I headed up front afterwards. Using the press pass Maati had obtained (for the brilliant, seminal Santa Cruz-based fanzine City Of The Dead, which only existed in our own minds, but would have been absolutely fantastic if we had ever gotten off our asses and actually put one out), we talked our way backstage. The excitement trumped my shyness and I felt ready to exchange a few words with the great Joe Strummer.

I took a picture of a sleepy-eyed, possibly nodding, Topper Headon holding a carved wooden sign reading “The Clash” that someone had given the band. Pearl E. Gates, former member of Leila and the Snakes and frontwoman of Pearl Harbour and the Explosions, who had gone on tonight before Bo Diddley (and would later marry bassist Paul Simonon), was on the stairway with him. Topper was so small and skinny, it was amazing to think that such loud, forceful, precise drumming came from that little body.

Maati and I greeted Joe Strummer, congratulating him for the set, the new album, and for finally coming to play the States. Annie was snapping away with her Pentax, capturing our conversation. I was really into Give ‘Em Enough Rope at this time, finding more details in it the more I heard it. A recent magic mushroom fueled listening party had further convinced us that this was the band to replace the Beatles and the Rolling Stones forever. One of our favorite songs was “Last Gang In Town”, a doomy, apocalyptic-sounding portrait of warring youth cliques in London that switched from a Stones-like major key stomp to a subdued, haunting minor-key chorus with Joe blurting out words that no matter how hard I listened, I just could not decipher. And here we were with the visionary frontman of the band we had been obsessed with for the past year. This was my chance!

“Joe”, I said, “I really like that song ‘Last Gang In Town’, but I can’t understand the chorus. What are you singing there?”

Joe looked not only unsure of the answer, but puzzled and possibly annoyed that someone would ask such an unimportant question. “I can’t remember…we’ve never done that one live. I only ever sang it once in the studio…HEY JONESY!”

He shouted to Mick Jones, who was embroiled in a deep conversation with a shrill-voiced red-haired woman who clearly wanted him badly.

“Jonesy, what’s the words to the chorus of ‘Last Gang In Town’?”

Mick had to think for a moment. “The crops whipped the spiffs and the spikes whipped the quiffs?”

I didn’t understand that at all, and made them repeat it a couple of times.

“You know, they’re like all the different gangs that were fighting in the song.”

“Oh.” I felt a bit stupid at this point.

“Mick!” the red-haired woman asked suddenly. “What’s ‘Protex Blue’ mean?” I may have unleashed the floodgates of confused American fans looking for meaning in the very UK-specific lyrics of early Clash songs.

Mick looked very embarrassed and mumbled. “It’s a rubber Johnny.”

“A what?”

“A rubber Johnny.” By now Mick was beginning to turn red.

“What’s that mean?” She was not going to let this go.

Maati spoke up loudly. “It’s a PROPHYLACTIC, sweetie!”

Now everyone seemed a little sheepish. In these pre-AIDS days, condoms were largely considered an anachronistic and slightly grotesque form of birth control.

We hung out a little more, said our goodbyes and split. A few months later, I saw an interview with Joe Strummer in a magazine where he expressed his regrets about playing Berkeley. “We never should have played there,” he declared. “It’s a university town, and they’re all boring snobs.” Uh, thanks Joe.